Fantastic forage: Recent rains in Garfield County enhance edible mushroom hunting
Kristen Blizzard navigated through the dank, high-country brush adorning Thompson Divide and spotted a keeper.
One great big chanterelle — a delicious, edible mushroom commonly found 10,000 feet above sea level in the White River National Forest.
Using a curved Opinel mushroom pocket knife, she bent beside her find and detached the fungal fruit deep at the stem. She brushed it clean of loose earth using bristles attached to the end of the knife.
“This year it’s fantastic,” she said of mushroom foraging, an activity that’s recently been enhanced by consistent rain showers. “It’s probably the best year I’ve seen since 2014 in Colorado.”
July 2021 was an unusual month weatherwise for Garfield County. Rarely does average rainfall exceed 2 inches the entire month in this area. But unexpected downpours on wildland burn scars — sometimes more than 1 inch within 15 consecutive minutes — have created a more fertile, thriving environment for mushrooms this season.
That attracts mushroom connoisseurs like Kristen and her husband, Trent Blizzard. The two Glenwood Springs web designers and self-proclaimed mushroom geeks have not only spent almost the past decade touring the U.S. hunting for unique caps and stems, they’ve published a book called “Wild Mushrooms: How to find, store, and prepare Foraged Mushrooms.”
One could argue their entire forte is what “fungophiles” call “the mushroom foray,” and The Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys are just as good as any for anyone interested in organizing a group of friends and family to embark upon the great mushroom hunt.
“There’s probably hundreds of thousands of fungus species that we don’t even know about yet, and we know about thousands of them,” Trent Blizzard said. “You can arrange a weekend of picking in an area in Colorado or Telluride, and you’ve got 400 identifiable species.”
Trent Blizzard said some mushrooms are simply tasty and good for you. Some aren’t as tasty but won’t hurt you. Meanwhile, others are tasty but can make you sick, like perhaps the most dramatized, “Alice in Wonderland”-esque mushroom around: the red bulb, white-dotted amanita.
“An amanita will make you deliriously sick and potentially cause some organ damage,” Trent Blizzard said. “Then there’s deadly mushrooms which, you know, absolutely kill you.”
A mushroom’s journey toward successful fruition is highly predicated on how its symbiotic relationship works with the trees found throughout Western Slope high country. Without the abundance of mixed conifer, the “yummy mushrooms” — as Trent Blizzard playfully calls them — would be deprived of the vast labyrinths of root systems from which they grow.
Luckily, spruce and fir forests exist throughout Garfield County, and it’s best to journey above 10,000 feet to reach what you’re looking for.
It all begins in May. The morels, a vitamin-rich fungal fruit, commonly sprout a year after a wildland fire and can be harvested into June.
Then comes summer mushroom season, which typically runs from July through September. This is when porcini and saffron milk caps, scientifically known as Lactarius deliciosus, become commonly available.
The apricot-scented chanterelle typically blossoms more toward fall, Trent said.
But this year’s been more of an anomaly.
“This has been a really weird year,” Kristen Blizzard said. “We had kind of dryness and extreme heat, and then the rains finally started coming and the mushrooms are out probably three weeks early.”
WORTH THE CLIMB
Like an in-the-know angler talking about her favorite fishing hole, don’t usually expect an avid mushroom forager to reveal their top prospects on where to go to pick bulbs.
In fact, Kristen Blizzard said secret mushroom hunting spots stretch as far back as one’s grandparents.
“It’s totally generational, and they’re very serious,” she said. “Some people get really protective, even of these areas that technically are not their land but they’ve been hunting there for generations.”
To add to the mix, immigrant communities are also “serious mushroom hunters,” Trent Blizzard said.
“Here in Glenwood, there’s a large community of Polish people, and they all are mushroom hunters; they all know where to go,” Kristen Blizzard said. “It’s very culture-oriented for Europeans.”
So how does one tap into the world of mushroom hunting in Garfield County without ruffling too many feathers?
White River National Forest Rifle District Recreation Manager Todd Parker said it all starts with obtaining a permit from your local U.S. Forest Service Ranger District Office. Rules apply to personal and commercial uses related to mushroom hunting.
“You can collect five gallons of mushrooms per day,” Parker said, reading from the rules. “The mushrooms you collect have to be cut in half lengthwise at the time of picking.”
The Blizzards, certified mushroom foragers, provide maps, classes, foraging tips and kits through their website at Modern-Forager.com.
They aren’t keen on revealing their best spots to go, either. Instead, most of the time you’re going to get the general answer: “Go to higher elevations.” It’s also best to look for spots with higher levels of dew, moisture and mud.
“It’s a good sign that there’s mud,” Trent Blizzard said. “(Mushrooms) like the moisture.”
A REWARDING MEAL
Some two hours have passed deep within the White River National Forest. Trent and Kristen Blizzard have practically filled to the brim specialized mesh carry bags separated into quadrants.
The mesh helps the dirt slough off the picked mushrooms. The quadrants help differentiate the mushrooms by type.
At the back of their pickup truck parked on the side of the dirt road, Trent pulls out a portable gas-stove oven. He butters it while Kristen cracks open a beer.
He begins to cook, sautéing the day’s catch amid the tall trees of Colorado’s high country.
“I really enjoy the culinary aspects of it, and we enjoy the science,” he said. “But the most rewarding part is, there’s a whole community that mushroom hunts.”
Though technically certified, the Blizzards in fact cannot legally take any interested folks on guided tours unless they obtain correct permitting, which are usually already claimed by outfitters.
“Interest in mushroom hunting is growing,” Kristen Blizzard said. “You ask if we take people out on forays? We tell people ‘no’ all the time.”
But if anyone does in fact forage on their own, mushroom hunting becomes more important as time goes on, Kristen Blizzard said. People presumably appreciate nature more — they appreciate the relationship the trees have with their surroundings.
“There are different rewarding parts of it, but there’s also the part of it that feels like it’s sort of genetic, like it flips a switch, and there’s this weird kind of hunter-gatherer thing,” Kristen Blizzard said. “You start to see it in a different way, and you appreciate it for so many other reasons other than just the thrill of the hunt.”
For personal use, mushroom hunting permits are free. They can be obtained online at Apps.FS.USDA.gov/gp. Free permits are issued at the White River National Forest District Office in Rifle. For more information, contact White River National Forest at 970-945-2521; go to FS.USDA.gov/whiteriver; or stop by 900 Grand Ave. in Glenwood Springs.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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