Mushroom hunters of Utah forage for a wild, natural thrill

Outdoor explorers, organic food devotees among Utah's fungi finders.
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A group of hunters will gather for three days later this month at the Francis Town Hall.

They won't carry guns or hunting knives, and they don't need a permit or camouflage to stalk their prey. An extensive knowledge of the forest and mountains is essential. What they hunt will not fight back, but it can be lethal.

They will set out in search of … mushrooms.

Mushroom hunts, or mushroom forays as they also are called, are extremely popular among those with an interest in mycology — the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Forays are popular among outdoor enthusiasts or those looking to add organic food to their diet.

"It gives me a great excuse to be outdoors," said Don Johnston, the secretary of the Mushroom Society of Utah. "For other people, the biggest draw is to have something to eat that is wild and natural."

The Mushroom Society of Utah will hold its annual fall foray in the Uinta Mountains from Aug. 23 to 25. Johnston and others will be on hand to both document the mushrooms they find and help others learn to identify species and differentiate between edibles and non-edibles.

The Society's annual fall foray has been the biggest gathering of mushroom enthusiasts in Utah for most of the last two decades. Johnston has been participating in mushroom hunts since before Utah's official mushroom society was founded.

"The Utah Native Plant Society would once a year have a mushroom foray," Johnston said. "We would gather whatever mushrooms we could find and bring someone in to identify them."

While the UNPS's annual foray in the late 1980s was a nice start, it didn't do nearly enough to satisfy those members whose true interest was in mycology.

So Ardean Watts, the former associate conductor of the Utah Symphony, founded the Mushroom Society of Utah, which is part of the North American Mycological Association, in 1994. Johnston and others helped him start the group, which drew about 15 members to its first meeting.

Stephanie Robertson-Cannon, the society's president, said her husband, Mark Cannon, piqued her interest in mushroom hunting.

"One Sunday when Mark was just a young teenager, he was coming home from church, and he saw Ardean Watts, dressed in a suit, on his hands and knees digging through a neighbor's yard," Robertson-Cannon said. "Mark went to find out what Ardean was doing, and he told Mark he was studying a mushroom. Mark thought this was great, a bond was formed and they've been studying mushrooms ever since."

Johnston became interested in mushrooms while participating in outdoor activities in Pennsylvania and Utah in the late 1980s.

"While hunting and hiking, I became curious about whether these mushrooms I was finding were edible," Johnston said.

"I dug more into it and was finding out what was edible and what was delicious, and it triggered a spark in me to expand."

Johnston made some phone calls to see what else he could find out about the subject, and he soon came across others who shared his interest. One was Watts, and another turned out to be Johnston's sister, who was president of the mushroom society in Rochester, N.Y., at the time. She sent him a book about studying mushrooms, and his interest took off.

He said that during a typical fall foray they find between 75 and 100 types of mushrooms.

"We have places we like to take people, but the primary object is not to show people where to find mushrooms, but show them typical places where you might find mushrooms," Johnston said. "We encourage people to try to find them and identify them on their own, and then ask us if they're correct."

The reason Johnston suggests such caution is that many mushrooms can be poisonous. It takes a seasoned, experienced mushroom hunter to know the difference.

Johnston and many of his fellow senior members of the Mushroom Society of Utah are considered expert enough on mushrooms that they are listed on various call lists for poison control centers to help identify poisonous mushrooms that people might consume. —

Mushroom Society of Utah fall foray

Francis Town Hall

Aug. 23 • Potluck dinner and socializing in the evening.

Aug. 24 • Split into groups to hunt in the morning. Reconvene at 3 p.m. to see what mushrooms have been found. Saturday evening will feature Dutch-oven dinner and a guest speaker, Steve Trudell, a doctor of mycology.

Aug. 25 • Review mushrooms that have been found during the foray. A great time for new and old members to learn how to identify different species.

Cost • While there is no cost to attend the foray and all are welcome, the Society asks that all who participate be members. Annual dues are $15.