The mossy floor of old growth forest is soft and damp. I breathe the air; warm and thick. My exhalation of carbon dioxide draws mosquitoes to descend on me like a plague, biting through my jeans to my flesh.
“There!” my striped-touque, flannel-plaid-clad guide, Jeffery Mickelson, says from behind me.
I retrace my steps and peer at the forest floor to where he is pointing.
“Delicious milk caps.”
Mickelson sets down his mesh bag and rolls onto his knees next to an orange-capped mushroom with a greenish tinge in the centre (lactarius deliciosus) and pushes his knife against the earth, sliding the blade easily through the base of the stem.
“It turns florescent orange when it is cooked, and if you see here,” he presses his knife blade on the underside of the cap, splitting the soft gills, “it bleeds milk.”
I am on a mushroom hunt. It is a stealth business – our location is an entrusted secret. It took an hour to talk Mickelson, a wild food forager and a chef at Klondike Kate’s restaurant in Dawson City into letting me come along.
I promised his mushroom haunts were safe with me; a newcomer to the area, I wouldn’t have a clue where I was anyway. He hesitated, but met me two and a half hours later, after his shift at the restaurant was done, in a rusty-coloured pickup.
I wedged myself next to his Alaskan Husky, Chewy, and into the forest we rumbled.
Mushroom hunting lesson number one. Be equipped.
There are five essentials Mickelson brings on his hunts: a mesh bag, a knife, a mushroom encyclopaedia, a GPS and Chewy.
The mesh bag keeps the mushrooms clean, allowing the spores and dirt to drop through.
The mushroom knife looks like a pocket knife, with a small stainless steel blade that flips out of a wooden handle and a brush on one end.
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Lincoff Knopf is a maroon, leather-bound bible. Rather, Mickelson treats it like one, leafing through the laminated pages for fungal guidance.
The GPS Mickelson uses to mark a place he finds a new mushroom trail – a spot concentrated in mushroom growth.
Finally, Chewy provides companionship (Mickelson always hunts alone) and keeps him in mind of wildlife.
“We call it the Mush Rush,” says Mickelson. “You zone out in the mushroom patch. You are sweating, running around, picking mushrooms and completely unaware of your surroundings.”
Mushroom hunting lesson number two. Look up and down.
Underneath the moss is a network of mycelium, fingers spreading in every direction, interconnecting with the roots of the trees. (The mushroom is the flower part.)
The tree-mushroom relationship is symbiotic; the mycelium fingers wrap around the roots and feed the tree, and the tree feeds the mycelium. Therefore, Mickelson explains, certain mushrooms only grow around certain trees.
“Go low and slow,” Mickelson advises. “Find a big spruce like this – you might find a bolete.” King boletes (boletus edulis), or Porcinis, are one of the most sought after mushrooms.
We hunt the area for a few moments. My eyes adjust to the forest floor. The roots, stumps and moss vanish. Suddenly, I see mushrooms. All kinds. Everywhere.
Then I hear Mickelson’s voice, “Ah! A nice, choice specimen here!”
He’s found an aspen bolete (leccinum insigne), a cousin of the King. The cap is orange-brown with a butter-coloured sponge layer underneath.
Mickelson shows me the distinguishing characteristics: a white and black-scabbard stalk, a blue stain on the stalk where he has bruised it.
Mushroom hunting lesson number three. Don’t be a fungaphobe (mushroom-loather).
As children we are taught not to put anything that grows off the forest floor into our mouths. Especially ‘shrooms. Most mushrooms you can eat – many are too spicy or too bitter to be choice – however, there are mushrooms that will kill you.
The Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata) looks like an enticing white-capped mushroom.
“See the veil?” Mickelson points to a very fine, spider-like web that clings to the stem just beneath the gills. “The other thing is that it explodes.”
He bends the fragile stem and it blasts apart.
As we go along, Mickelson smells each mushroom he picks. He gets his nose right under the cap so that it brushes against the moustache of his black beard.
“If they reek like paint, you probably don’t want to eat them,” he tells me absently.
We come across a mushroom growing on a tree trunk. Mickelson thinks it might be good in medicinal tea, but he doesn’t know.
He smells it, turns it over and drops it in the mesh sack, perhaps to do a spore print at home. The mushroom finger print will indicate what species it is.
“Every time I go, I find something new,” Mickelson says. “There is a whole world going down in the moss.”
As I watch Mickelson and Chewy rumble away at the end of our hunt to a more secret place, my mind can’t avoid the pun.
Dog, knife, mesh bag, GPS and all: this mushroom hunter is a fun guy.