[Ed. Note 9/6/2014: Welcome to visitors from Fantastic Fungi’s competition! Glad to have you here at the Arizona Mushroom Forum. Paul Stamets and Dr. Andrew Weil are two of the biggest names in mushrooms, so it’s an honor to be picked as a resource for this new web site that they are involved with. Stick around here, or check out our Facebook group. There’s lots of information that will be of interest even to people who have never set foot in Arizona.]
In an earlier post last autumn, I shared my opinions and advice about the collecting basket or other containers used while mushroom foraging. To my surprise, week in and week out for all the months since, that post has turned out to be the most popular page on the entire Arizona Mushroom Forum, often drawing more readers in a day than all the others combined. We aim to please our readers, so let’s complete the checklist of other supplies and equipment that one may want to think about bringing on a foray:
- Collection Basket/Bucket/Bag – (Refer to the lengthy discussion in our prior post on this topic.)
- Knife – There are a couple of well-known mushroom experts who routinely show up on forays with plastic knives from the fast-food place where they had breakfast that morning. That’s a bit of reverse snobbery, of course, though perhaps a good idea for a backup. And in fact, you really won’t want to bring anything too fancy or treasured. If you manage not to leave it out in the woods by mistake, it will get dirty, dull and scratched– especially when you are digging in the ground in a nice patch of lobster mushrooms or torqs. A Boy Scout or Swiss Army type will do, as will a hunting knife, pruning knife, or a small to medium-sized kitchen knife. If your knife does not fold, bring a sheath for it too. You may consider buying a special-purpose mushroom knife, which typically will have a forward-curving “hawksbill” blade designed especially for lopping off and cleaning the mushroom at the base of the stem. These often are made with a short stiff brush at the opposite end for cleaning dirt and duff from your specimens. They may also include a built-in compass or tweezers. A lanyard ring or hole is useful, to help you keep from leaving your equipment behind in your excitement at finding a big patch of mushrooms. The best knives are produced by such European makers as Opinel and Linder. Probably the largest selection of mushroom knives is to be found at WorldKnives.com. These can run into the hundreds of dollars, but a basic beechwood-handled Opinel is equally capable, and a quarter of the price of a fancy Italian model if you happen to leave it behind in the field.
- Brush – You’ll want to make sure you clean your specimens off in the field as they are picked, as carrying dirty mushrooms around in your basket will allow filth to fall into the gills and pores, and stick to the caps of viscid species. You may have a knife with a built-in brush, as noted above, or you can buy a mushroom brush at a kitchen or grocery store. Amazon has a good selection. However, a brush specifically designed for store-bought button mushrooms may potentially be too stiff or too soft for your wild mushrooms, depending on what species you find and the condition it is in. A very good alternative, if you don’t mind the price, is a badger-hair shaving brush. These have a combination of stiff and soft bristles that work for a variety of cleaning jobs. You’ll want to put a lanyard or retractable “Gear-Keeper” tether on it to keep from losing it.
A couple of years ago, AMC foray leader Terry Beckman showed me an excellent trick that will give you a durable and versatile brush that will handle almost any cleaning job. He modifies a 2″ to 3″ house-painter’s trim brush by cutting its bristles at a steep diagonal. This gives you long, soft bristles at one end, for cleaning the gills of more delicate species. At the other end, you’ll have short, stiff bristles for taking care of the crevices in those filthy but firm lobster mushrooms. These brushes also typically have a hole in the handle ready for attaching a lanyard between the brush and basket or belt. The higher-quality brushes with wood handles, metal ferrules, and natural boar bristles work best, such as those made by Purdy or Wooster. They should not cost more than $15 or so.
- Whistle – You can blow a whistle a lot longer and a lot louder than you can scream, if you happen to get separated from your foraging companions. (Although, if you organize your foray so that people keep in touch with something like the Cornell Hoot, this is a lot less likely to happen.) The best whistles are the ultra-loud metal or hard plastic referee’s type, with a small mobile ball or “pea” inside, such as the venerable Acme Thunderer. These can be had in long-lasting brass, or in bright orange plastic that may be easier to keep in sight in the woods. Typically, you’ll carry it on a lanyard around your neck or in an accessible pocket.
- Compass – In the deep woods, or in overcast weather, you cannot rely on your inner sense of direction to guide you back to your trailhead. In Arizona, this is especially true when hunting in the flat terrain of the Mogollon Rim and the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon, where prominent landmarks are few. A GPS-equipped smartphone or a dedicated GPS unit (see below) is very useful, but worthless if the battery runs out, or if it gets smashed or soaked. Get a decent quality compass and learn to use it. The best are made in Finland by Suunto, and in Sweden by Silva, but you can find much cheaper versions at a Wal-Mart or military surplus outlet that are still quite serviceable and far better than nothing at all. You’ll probably want to have maps too (see below), but even the compass by itself is useful for guiding you out and back on a foray.
- Water – No experienced Arizona outdoorsman needs to be reminded of the importance of water. It’s true that there is often plenty of surface water around at the times and places we go mushroom foraging, but keep in mind that it may be contaminated by animal or human waste, or that you may find yourself injured in a place where you cannot easily reach accessible water. A liter or two of water carried in a Camelbak, a Nalgene bottle, or even a used plastic water bottle from the grocery store may save your life. If you are going out for more than a brief foray in the company of others, take even more. Hiking in Arizona in the summer requires a gallon a day.
- Guidebook – You simply cannot safely pick mushrooms for the table without a good guidebook, or preferably two or three, to confirm your finds. The first name in guidebooks for the Western US is David Arora. His mammoth magnum opus Mushrooms Demystified is suitable for every fungal fan’s bookshelf or car trunk, but probably not their knapsacks. Instead, get a copy of his abridged pocket guide, All that the Rain Promises… And More. Other good books are Gary Lincoff’s National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, Kent McKnight’s A Field Guide to Mushrooms: North America from the Peterson Field Guides series, and the Field Guide to Mushrooms of Western North America by Davis et al. Special note should be made of the definitive local guidebook, Mushrooms and Truffles of the Southwest by Jack States. Finally, real enthusiasts may also want a guide to tree identification such as the pocket-sized Trees of Arizona Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.
- A broad-brimmed hat is a good idea to protect you from the hot Arizona sun.
- Long sleeves and pants rather than shorts and T-shirts can save your skin from the locust bushes and other thorny, scratchy shrubbery you occasionally run into, not to mention the poison ivy that one occasionally finds (the myth of no poison ivy in Arizona notwithstanding!) Double-fronted field trousers made with heavyweight Cordura or canvas are my preferred choice. These are resistant to thorns, broken branches, and rocks, and are especially helpful when kneeling. They may give some protection against snakebite as well.
- Sturdy, broken-in walking shoes or boots are a must. Flip-flops and cheap sneakers will be cut to ribbons on the sharp points and edges of Northern Arizona’s volcanic rocks. Look for a shoe with a rugged sole and a stiff, strong instep to protect your arch.
- Sunglasses should also be considered. Make sure they have a label promising UV protection.
- Finally, a parka or rain poncho and a sweater or polar-fleece should be mandatory. The weather in the higher elevations of Arizona can change dramatically in just a few hours. Snow can fall in every month of the year in Arizona’s higher reaches, and even ordinary summer thunderstorms can drench you to the bone with cold rain and hail.
- Insect repellent – Arizona’s high country is blessed by having far fewer ticks and other nasty bugs than most other places in the country. Our worst creepy-crawlies, like scorpions and black widow spiders, want absolutely nothing to do with you and will only sting if provoked. That said, mosquitos and gnats can still be a pestilence in the dampness of late summer, especially the twilight hours. West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases have occasionally been transmitted in Arizona by their bites. An insect repellent containing 30 percent or more of DEET will go a long way to keeping you bug-free.
- Sunscreen – The Arizona sun is relentless, and at the higher altitudes where we hunt, the thin atmosphere provides even less protection from skin-burning ultraviolet rays than at the hotter low elevations. Don’t take chances. Use a sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater on all exposed skin. You’ll be sweating as you hike up and down the hills, so choose one that is water-resistant. Keep in mind that you can get a sunburn even on a cloudy day.
- Watch – Group forays run on a schedule, and their organizers keep track to ensure that all participants make it back out of the woods. You will cause your companions much inconvenience if you do not return to the mustering point at the agreed-upon time.
- Trowel – A gardening trowel is very useful for when you want to remove an entire specimen, base and all. Identification of some species, especially in the Amanita genus, depends greatly on accurate characterization of the underground base and volva. It will also spare your knife blade while going after lobster mushrooms, torqs, truffles, and other dirt-loving varieties of fungus. Again, look for one with a hole in the handle so you can attach a lanyard or gear-keeper to prevent loss.
- Snacks/lunch – Granola bars, trail mix, jerky, dried fruit, and other such foods that need no refrigeration or delicate handling are usually best.
- Knapsack – The previous article on mushroom baskets described some knapsacks designed for mushroom hunters. But assuming you will be carrying a basket in your hand for collecting your quarry, you’ll probably want to carry some of the extra equipment mentioned here separately in an ordinary knapsack or fanny pack. REI carries the highest-quality gear of this type, while Amazon has a larger selection of every cost and level of quality. As mentioned above, you may want to consider a Camelbak that combines accessible water storage with cargo-carrying capacity.
- You can get paper or electronic topographical maps for the area where you are foraging from the United States Geological Survey. 7.5-minute maps are the most detailed, but you’d have to carry several to show all the ground you might cover on a weekend foray. The 15-minute map series are more suitable for foragers that may be moving around a fairly large area in search of their treasures. 30-minute and greater scales are too imprecise for navigation on foot but may be useful for planning purposes. Note that the latest computer-drawn topo maps from the 21st century actually have less information about man-made structures such as trails, power lines, etc., than the hand-drawn versions from the 1990’s and before, so you may prefer the older ones that are still available for purchase from the USGS. On the other hand, the 21st-century versions are integrated with the Forest Service road database, so even small roads and Jeep trails are marked with their FR-number designation for easy correlation with road signs and the USFS maps (below). The choice may come down to whether you plan to do more trail hiking or road-hunting on your foray.
- You will also want US Forest Service maps for each National Forest where you hunt. These will have more comprehensive and up-to-date information about road numbers, entry fees, campground amenities, closed or non-motorized areas, and other details that are pertinent to the Forest Service but not the USGS. The Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves forest maps will cover all the places the Arizona Mushroom Club normally visits for its forays, and cost only $10 each.
- You might also think of getting a recreational road atlas book for the state to give you an overview of where you’re going. The two gold standards in this category are the Arizona Atlas and Gazetteer from DeLorme and the Arizona Road & Recreation Atlas from Benchmark. I have both, as the information in them is different and complementary to each other.
- One more resource in this category for you to keep in mind is the Arizona Land Department’s on-line Geographical Information System. It provides the most detailed and current description of land ownership, and also allows you to overlay property boundaries on photographic and topo maps. So if you take a notion to do some off-season foraging for oyster mushrooms in the lowland river bottoms after a late-autumn rainstorm, this tool will show you very detailed aerial photographs to see where big cottonwood trees are growing, and then allow you to overlay the property boundaries so you can identify the places where you are or are not permitted to gather mushrooms. Other states commonly have similar systems available from their land management agencies or county recorders. [Ed. note: Also see our subsequent post from 5/26/2014, with details of new GPS-enabled maps provided for free from the Forest Service.]
- Potato peeler – An ordinary kitchen potato-peeler is a very useful device for cleaning mushrooms of tough dirt. It allows you to shave off a very thin peel of tissue at the surface, preserving more of the clean flesh beneath for your dinner table than if you tried to do the same job less precisely with a knife. This is particularly useful for porcini and other boletes that have a significant edible portion of the stipe partially buried in the ground. I also use it for the typically dirty, soft inner surface of lobster mushrooms, which can be impossible to clean with a brush. It’s also very fast, and safer to use than a knife.
- GPS/smartphone – The iPhone, Android, and other modern smartphones come with GPS capabilities built-in. Combine them with a GPS mapping program such as MotionX-GPS, and you can really find your way around the forest accurately. (But as we said above, it is strongly recommended to keep a backup paper map and compass in case of equipment failure or a dead battery.) One especially nice feature of MotionX-GPS, and presumably all other such programs, is the ability to save GPS coordinates in named waypoints such as “Sparassis stump” or “Reishi Wonderland” to lead you back to your special finds in future seasons. MotionX lets you save a GPS-linked photograph to help jog your memory, and also allows you to download maps for storage on your phone in case you’re out of cell-phone reception range. I even have MotionX set up to send my wife an email every hour with my location coordinates whenever I’m in range of a cell tower, especially if I’m hunting alone. Most Arizonans’ experience is that Verizon’s coverage is superior to their competitors in the areas of interest to local foragers, but even they have large gaps in coverage, especially in rough terrain. You can use a dedicated GPS receiver such as the ones from Garmin or Tom-Tom if your phone has no GPS capability, but I have not been persuaded of any other advantage that such an expensive and specialized piece of equipment has for mushroom collecting.
- Camera– Mushrooms come in an astounding array of colors, shapes, and sizes, and make a highly engaging subject for nature photographers. Your smartphone may provide all the camera capabilities you want or need, particularly if you use an OlloClip snap-on macro lens, but some enthusiasts will bring a dedicated pocket camera or even a well-equipped SLR for especially high-quality pictures. Choose a camera or lens with macro capability, preferably down to 1 centimeter, and as large a sensor and as low an f-stop as you can afford. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is a best-selling pocket camera that really hits the sweet spot for macro capability, fast lens (f/1.4), high-resolution sensor, modest price, and small size. However, it has no GPS capability. Canon makes a somewhat larger and more expensive enthusiast’s compact camera, the Canon PowerShot G16, that has an f/1.8 lens, 1 cm macro capability, and GPS geotagging. Another worthy competitor is the Sony RX-100 II, with similar capability to the Canon. It has a good reputation for macro, video, and low-light performance. It is slightly smaller and even more expensive, but may be the best point-and-shoot pocket camera in existence.
- Binoculars – For the elderly, disabled, or just plain lazy, road-hunting for mushrooms in Arizona can be quite productive. You won’t find many morels that way, but large conspicuous fruiting bodies such as the white Barrows’ bolete and giant puffball, orange lobster mushroom and Chicken-of-the-Woods, and yellow chanterelles and Caesar’s amanita, can be seen quite a distance from the road. This works best if you have a spotter riding shotgun and glassing the hillsides with binoculars as you drive. 6 to 8-power binoculars are more suitable for this purpose than higher-power models like 10x or 15x, which will be too shaky in even a slowly moving car. Waterproof models are a good idea for hunting mushrooms in the monsoon dampness. There is not much difference between German or Swiss binoculars costing $1500 and high-quality Japanese models costing $300. It’s best to avoid the shoddy under-$100 sort that carry defunct American nameplates like Tasco, but are made elsewhere. Nikon is a medium-priced Japanese brand you can count on.
- Walking stick – You can carve your own, or use a manufactured wooden staff or metal or composite hiking pole. If you use pairs of trekking poles like a cross-country skier, you’ll want to leave one of them behind to keep a hand free for your basket or bag, unless you collect your mushrooms in a backpack or creel. A stick or pole will steady you on your feet on rough terrain or steep hillsides, help you cross streams without falling in, deflect branches as you pass through dense brush, lift up concealing shrubbery and leaf litter to find hidden mushrooms, and help you deal with unfriendly wildlife of the four-legged, two-legged, or no-legged variety. (Please do not go around killing snakes willy-nilly, however. They are part of nature and should be left alone, as they will leave you alone unless you bother them.)
- Paper bags – Waxed paper sandwich bags or brown paper lunch sacks are used to keep your finds separated by species until they can be identified. You don’t need them if you are only hunting familiar species for the table and throwing them all in the basket together. However, if you want to key out a new type at home before eating, or show it to knowledgeable experts on a club foray or fair, they are very useful. They also help keep your various mushrooms from contaminating each other if you don’t clean the dirt off them in the field. Do not use plastic bags for this purpose; they will turn your mushrooms to mush.
- Pen or pencil – To write details of the collection on the bags. Typically you’ll note when and where found, tentative genus or species ID, whether on wood or ground, and nearby types of trees. A Sharpie works well for this purpose. You can also use a notebook or logbook, and just number the collection bags accordingly.
- Spore print paper and rubber bands – If you want to make spore prints to help identify your finds, carry some slips of black and white scratch paper. Place your mushroom caps on them, secure them with rubber bands, put them in a paper bag, and then place them gills-downward at the bottom of your basket to collect the print while you continue foraging.
- Shears – A pair of medium-duty kitchen, poultry or utility shears can be used for trimming off the tender portions at the edges of a Chicken of the Woods, or quickly lopping off a large collection of morels or chanterelles at ground level.
- Loupe/Lens – Especially for us older folks, you may need some help to see the fine details of the mushrooms you discover. A simple hand lens or jeweler’s loupe works for this purpose. You can also use a medium-power digital pocket microscope, but be advised that these show only gross morphology and are not a substitute for a proper high-power oil-immersion laboratory microscope if you plan to do scientific studies of the spores.
- Flashlight – You never know when an unexpected contingency may keep you out after dark. Even a keychain LED light weighing almost nothing would be good to have with you.
- First-aid kit – REI has a good selection of pocket-sized kits that weigh very little and can be left unnoticed in the bottom of your bag until needed.
- Survival kit – This deserves a checklist all its own, but you can buy emergency kits smaller and lighter than a bar of bath soap from places like REI. These contain things like waterproof matches, space blankets, and signaling mirrors that will help keep you alive in case of an unexpected overnight camping excursion. Sometimes they will be combined with a first-aid kit.
- Dehydrator – The sad fact of hunting mushrooms in Arizona is that they are often infested with fungus gnat larvae. Even pristine young buttons may already have eggs laid within. Especially on a multi-day foray, the bugs are continually munching away. I have been disappointed more than a few times to get home and slice up a mushroom that I thought was firm and fresh and clean when I picked it, only to discover that it had been hollowed out so much that it wasn’t even possible to trim away the bug tunnels to make it presentable for the dining table. You can slow the process by keeping your mushrooms in a refrigerator while you continue to forage, but you can’t arrest it entirely. So the best thing to do when you will be spending more than a day in the field is to trim away all visible larval infestation at the time of harvest, and reserve only the finest and cleanest young specimens in your hotel-room or RV refrigerator if you have one, or in an ice chest if not. The rest should go right into your dehydrator, which will surely kill any remaining bugs and cause them to drop out of their holes and fall to the bottom of the racks.
Oh, and since this is Arizona we’re talking about, one last thing that some of my pals will notice if I don’t include it:
- Pistol – Arizona is home to potentially dangerous fauna such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions. Thankfully, it is rare for humans to have trouble with them. The kind of vermin that walk on two legs, and illicitly cook methamphetamine or prey on unwary backcountry travelers, are of much more appropriate concern. The police are often an hour or more away from our remote foraging grounds in an emergency, if you can even get cell reception to call them. I’ve hunted mushrooms with several people who therefore like to bring along a pistol. This not only provides a measure of protection, but can be used as an effective signaling device in case of getting lost.
In Arizona, any sane adult with no felony criminal record may carry a handgun openly or concealed as he or she pleases, with no need for a permit. If you can’t abide this aspect of our state’s Wild West culture, exploring the Arizona backcountry may cause you some psychological distress, as it is probably the case that a quarter or more of the people you meet out here are armed (although less so among the mushroom foraging crowd, most probably.) But to an extent that may surprise big-city dwellers from places where the law is not so lenient, they almost always manage to do so in an atmosphere of safety, law-abiding tranquillity, and mutual respect. If you’re packing while hunting with me, please be well-trained and sober, and show good manners by keeping it safely and unobtrusively tucked away in its holster with the hammer on an empty chamber.