A marvelous mushroom season

There should be no shortage of the golden forest treasure for eager mushroom pickers in the Vancouver Island woods this season

Alexander Horner shows off his early haul of chanterelle mushrooms. The mushroom season is starting early this year.

The recent misty, rainy, wet weather may be a curse for those looking for a sunny day at the beach, but there is at least one group of central Island residents who are rubbing their hands with glee at every thunder clap.

That group is the wildcrafters, otherwise known as chanterelle mushroom pickers, who have already begun to stream into the local forests in search of their gourmet prey.

That comes as good news for the many people who either pick the mushrooms for their own personal use or for those who do so to earn a little extra spending money.

As First Nations Wildcrafters spokesperson Keith Hunter recalls, last year’s mushroom harvest on the central Island was virtually non-existent, due to a prolonged drought that left mushroom pickers with empty bags and wallets.

This year, he said, it looks like things will be different. Although he has seen earlier mushroom seasons, the late August start this year comes as a welcome relief.

“We didn’t do any mushrooms at all last year,” Hunter said from his office in Port Alberni. “The mushrooms were late and there weren’t that many of them, so we didn’t want to create a commercial market that had an impact on people picking for their personal use. In some years though, we’ve started buying them as early as the first week of August. It’s not all that unusual.”

Hunter said he has heard two theories about what gets the mushrooms to pop.

“Some think it’s the moisture that gets them to flush, while others think it’s all about the ground cooling off,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of the two. This year, with the cooler temperatures and the rain further inland, that’s why we are seeing them where they weren’t last year.”

Hunter stressed that while the commercial aspect of chanterelle season is important, it is also primarily a crucial local food resource.

“It’s an important part of the local food economy,” he said. “It’s good food, healthy food and picking them is good exercise.”

Chanterelles are considered one of the most choice mushrooms growing in coastal B.C., along with the morel and the pine mushrooms.

When people head out to the bush to pick their chanterelles however, it’s important for pickers to keep their wits about them.

That’s because anyone who has ever picked mushrooms knows the urge to always look at the ground while searching for their mycological prey, but Gordon Yelland is hoping they’ll look up a little more often this fall.

Yelland, a volunteer with Arrowsmith Search and Rescue, said mushroom pickers need to be careful in the woods. Mushroom pickers have historically been one of the groups most likely to require rescuing and while they’ve been doing better lately, improvement is needed.

“In the last few years they’ve pared down that statistic,” Yelland said. “But they are one of the recognized groups of outdoor activities and enough of them get lost in the season that they have their own statistical group.”

Yelland said the urge to always look down can lead to problems for pickers.

“For keeping yourself from getting lost, don’t look down all the time and try to be more aware of your surroundings,” he said. “Take a map of the area you’re going into and if you have a GPS, learn how to use it — but don’t rely on it. Don’t just count on that. Learn how to read a map and have a compass.”

He said pickers should be prepared to spend more time in the woods than they expect.

“Make sure you are dressed for the weather,” he said. “Take some water, snacks, a flashlight — a few things just in case you get into trouble.”

While the wide availability of cell phones has proved a blessing for search and rescue technicians, Yelland noted they are useless if their battery is dead.

“If you have a cell phone, by all means take it with you, but don’t use it unless you have to,” he said. “If you find yourself stuck you’ll want to use that battery to make a call for help.”

As well, he urged pickers to tell people when and where they are going and when they can be expected to be home.

“Try to stick to that schedule,” he added.