The fun of mushroom hunting is far more than finding the edible fungi.
"The greatest thing about mushroom hunting is the vast diversity of mushrooms you start to see," said Dave Gregovich, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Gregovich last week led a walk to introduce mushrooms to novices.
David Aurora, the author of the classic "Mushrooms Demystified," considers mushroom hunting "an art, a skill, a meditation and a process."
Mushrooms are indeed wonders. American poet Emily Dickinson called the mushroom "the Elf of Plants."
Mushrooms are basically the fleshy fruit of fungi. The fungus retrieves nutrition from decayed plants or animals. By breaking down material, the fungus returns the nutrient to the soil.
There is the creampuff-like Lycoperdaceae, which releases spores from an opening at the top. Its family name translates as "wolf fart." Native Americans used the mushrooms to stop bleeding and treat tumors, and as dusting powders for babies.
There is the beautiful but poisonous Russula emetica, whose red cap and white stalk make it look like a candy cane. Eating it can cause vomiting.
And there is the Pleurocybella porrigens, which grows scattered or densely in overlapping clusters on decayed spruce stumps. Its white and delicate cap looks like an angel wing.
Mushrooms prefer moist and cool climates.
According to "Alaska's Mushrooms: A Practical Guide," by Harriette Parker, mushrooms grow as far north as a bit beyond the Arctic Circle. The fruiting season over most of the state ranges from spring thaw (April through June) until fall freeze (September through November).
Gregovich, who has hunted mushrooms for 10 years, said he normally doesn't bother until mid-July.
"I hunt mushrooms from mid-July to September. August is the peak," Gregovich said. "This year is exceptional. They showed up in June. This spring was so warm that it caused the berries and mushrooms to come out early."
In Juneau, people can find big, white Coprinus comatus (shaggy manes) on Egan Drive. Although it is edible, experienced mushroom hunters don't recommend people to try it.
"You don't want all the car pollution and it's illegal to walk out to the middle of the road," said Larry Buzzell, who has hunted mushrooms for 30 years.
Gregovich said the best place to find mushrooms is in the forest next to a beach or stream.
"In other places around the world, you might look at the wettest places for mushrooms," Gregovich said. "In our rain-forest climate, you look for mushrooms in places where water can drain through the soil."
That was why Gregovich led the mushroom walk along Peterson Creek on Douglas Island.
"It is a great place to hunt mushrooms," Gregovich said. "It's next to a steam. The stream has deposited gravel underneath the forest, which allows the soil to drain well."
The first suggestion Gregovich gave to the 23 participants was to be absolutely sure of a mushroom's identify before popping it into the mouth.
"The very best thing that a beginner mushroom picker can do is to get a good field guide and find someone who knows mushrooms to go hunting with," Gregovich said.
"Some poisonous mushrooms can harm your liver and the damage will not occur right away," Gregovich said. "You don't know you are poisoned until weeks afterwards."
During the trip, every participant collected at least 15 different kinds of mushrooms and put them together for identification. The variety ranged from the large brown Boletus edulis (King Bolete) to the tiny stalk Clavariadelphus ligula (strap coral).
"When the King Boletes are fresh, they look like brown biscuits in the woods," said Gregovich said.
"Look behind the bushes. You will open your eyes to an array of mushrooms," Gregovich said.
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.