This summer, my friend Chris Withers and I were able to find two mushrooms we hadn’t located in Yukon or in Alaska: chanterelles and the yummy (smelly) shrimp rusulla.

We were in Colorado, fulfilling a promise we made to ourselves years ago.

Chris and I have been collecting mushrooms at a hobbyist and “lovers of good food” level for years now. David Arora’s book All That the Rain Promises and More first brought our attention to Telluride, Colorado’s, Mushroom Festival and we promised ourselves we would attend this famous event one day.

When we first talked about it, we pictured ourselves in a VW van (preferably painted with mushrooms and flowers) in future retirement years.

This past winter I was housesitting for Chris and her husband Stu, looking after their dogs and chickens. When they returned, Stu asked, “Why wait until retirement to go?”

Hmmm, good question.

So Chris and I decided to go this year and we sat down to arrange that on travel points. Well the points tickets involved an old-fashioned milk run. Whitehorse to Vancouver, Vancouver to Winnipeg, Winnipeg to Denver, Denver to Montrose, finishing with a shuttle by road to Telluride which took us past Ralph Lauren’s impressive 22,000-acre ranch.

The weather was hot and sunny and the scenery beautiful as we drove into the San Juan Mountains.

The festival began Thursday, August 18 with a talk on basic cultivation. In the three and a half days there were over 20 presenters and a number of venues all within walking distance.

Telluride is an old gold mining town (the first bank robbed by Butch Cassidy was in Telluride) with the San Miguel River running through it. It reminded me of a cross between Camrose, AB with condos and Nelson, BC – old quaint homes but with more obscene real estate prices.

It’s a skiing, biking, hiking and a dog-friendly town said to have more licensed dogs than registered voters. The free transit system offers buses and dog-friendly gondolas that offer wonderful views both day and night, through to midnight.

There were too many lectures and workshops to list. They covered mushroom identification; culinary, cultural and medical uses; remediation, entheogens and cultivation.

There were fun lectures like one by Gary Lincoff (of Ron Mann’s film Know Your Mushrooms fame) – “The Philosopher’s Stone or How Mushrooms Can Save You Thousands of Dollars in Therapy and Free You From the Prison of Time and Space.”

Workshops included fun things such as how to grow mushrooms on toilet paper, straw, coffee grounds – well, just about on anything.

Danny Newman and Larry Evans (also of Know Your Mushrooms fame) spoke of research in the Upper Amazon that included both identifying new mushrooms and using mushrooms as a source of protein to prevent malnutrition.

Their presentation included beautiful photos of new and complex fungi. Including what appears to be a symbiotic relationships between insects and fungi in which the fungus has the insect climb upward to an advantageous point for the fungus, which then attacks the insect, killing and growing on the carcass.

Newman is involved in the Amazon Mycorenewal Project which has a goal of preventing pollution.

Valerie Mojeiko, deputy director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) presented some ongoing results of clinical trials being conducted using MDMA (a euphoria-inducing drug commonly called ecstasy) for treating post-traumatic stress disorders and autism.

Mojeiko noted that a lack of spiritual experiences is not yet recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the major US psychiatric manual), but felt perhaps it should be. One finding was a prolonged, years-long, continued sense of happiness, which might explain the constant smile on Gary Lincoff’s face.

By far my favourite speaker was Paul Stamets who has written six books, the most recent Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.

Stamets, who was named one of the Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World”, gave a lecture on Myco-Restoration and Using Mycelium for Human and Habitat Health that was absolutely inspiring. (You can see a lecture by Stamets on the website www.TED.com.)

Did you know that oyster mushrooms can clean up oil spills, and fungus can be used to banish termites and carpenter ants permanently from your home? Stamets is researching the use of fungi to clean up nuclear waste.

He also developed an eco-teaching tool called Life Boxes. These boxes are made of cardboard that, when soaked and germinated, becomes a designed ecosystem. What a fabulous gift and learning tool for kids.

One hundred of us received these as gifts, along with shiitake mushroom plugs. Mine are in my pantry hopefully, beginning to develop mycelia on alder chips (purchased at Canadian Tire for smoking fish).

On Friday and Saturday there were guided forays at 6, 8 and 11:30 am with local experts and rock stars in the ‘shroom world, followed by mushroom identification.

Foraging for mushrooms is not like gathering or berry picking. It really is like hunting; you don’t know what you’re going to find, or where you might find it.

This is when Chris and I went to Lizard Head, Ophir and Alta Lakes and found our chanterelles and rusulla. And Chris found her first large puffball. I have found these before in Telegraph Creek.

Then there was the parade! What fun! We dressed as, what else? Mushrooms. Chris was a shaggy mane and I was a rusulla.

If there had of been an award for Kids’ Favourite, Chris would have won hands down. Her costume was made over an umbrella, as was mine; she had covered hers in shaggy strips of cotton and then made a window to see out of.

By the end of the parade it was pretty hot under there, so when the kids came to peek in the window she took it off for the kids to use.

The kids loved to play under her costume. Up to six feet trying at times to go in different directions kept us entertained. Chris gave her costume to the kids to keep.

The Telluride Mushroom Festival is a wonderful mix of advanced mycology and just plain fun for all ages. Chris and I are already planning our costumes (which are top secret right now) as we plan to return and win for best costume in 2012!