Although some people call me a fungi (or did they mean a fun guy?), I’m no expert in wild mushrooms. I know what I like to eat … but I’d be hesitant to go toadstool gathering without an expert to reassure me.
I found the perfect guide in Don Burnett.
“Uncle Don” has spent 17 fall-and-winter seasons at Siuslaw National Forest’s Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, just south of Yachats, Oregon. He and his wife divide their year between this state and Alaska. Burnett has volunteered three-quarters of a million hours to the Forest Service as a naturalist and interpreter.
On this Oregon coastal promontory, Don told me, he has identified 58 separate species of mushrooms … only eight of which he considers edible. We found four of them — chanterelles, boletes, honey mushrooms and oyster mushrooms — in about 90 minutes.
Burnett said his philosophy as a naturalist is to ignore “bad” mushrooms and focus on “good” ones. “I tell people where to find them, when to find them and how to prepare them,” he said.
“I could show them more species than I do, because there are others that are actually edible … but they taste like my wife’s cooking when we were first married. And that was 57 years ago.”
Don and I set out from the Cape Perpetua Interpretive Center with a plastic bucket, hiking a couple of miles along the Oregon Coast Trail. The path was flanked by a dense growth of salal bushes, with old-growth Sitka spruce and hemlock trees towering overhead.
A brilliant and bulbous mushroom, its red-orange cap flecked with candy-like white, caught my eye. “You don’t want to touch that one,” Burnett admonished me. “That’s a fly agaric, a type of amonita. It’s pretty but very poisonous.”
Tiny yellow sulfur mushrooms clustered in a decaying log. Aptly named coral mushrooms rose threadlike above tree roots. White oyster mushrooms (“past their prime,” said a disappointed Burnett) adhered shelf-like to a tree trunk.
“Those are honey mushrooms,” Don said, indicating some small fungi with concave caps. “They are sticky-sweet. Some chefs use them in desserts.”
“What’s that one?” I naively asked, pointing to a very large white mushroom with a thick stem, rising a full six inches above the forest floor just three feet off the trail.
“Oh, my gosh!” exclaimed Burnett. “That is a king bolete, and it is one of the largest ones I’ve seen here.”
Handing me a pen knife, he urged me to harvest the mushroom, cutting its stem as far into the earth as possible.
“These are great eating,” he said. “You can chop them up and sauté them with butter … and save the gills, on the underside of the cap, for gravy.”
The bolete, Don told me, is a close relative of the porcini, found today in most upscale grocery stores. This one, however, was larger than I’ve seen in any store or restaurant. I salivated as I thought of tasting it.
But we still hadn’t found the autumn delicacy that we really sought: the woody orange chanterelle mushroom.
When my guide finally spotted a single chanterelle trumpet on a bank just to the side of the trail, he stopped and gazed up a steep hillside. “You’ll often find them gathered near the roots of old spruce trees,” he said. “I think I see where we need to go.”
With that, Don was off like a mountain goat. I huffed and puffed but couldn’t keep up with my septuagenarian friend.
I watched as he leapt across a small stream and clambered away, out of my sight, until I heard a cry of exultation. “Found some!” he shouted. Five minutes later he returned down the hill with several handsome chanterelles in hand.
“You ought to come back in the spring when the morels are in season,” he told me as we hiked back to the interpretive center. “They like areas where there have been recent burns or logging operations.
“And they’re almost as good as chanterelles.”