by Edgar J. Lavoie
On Saturday, October 23, after a long, meandering 15-kilometre drive north of Thunder Bay up Hazelwood Drive, we finally found a sign: Hazelwood Lake Conservation Area. We joined the event.
That’s when we learned we had joined the wrong event.
It was a tour publicized on the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists site as Forest Fungi Walk ̶ Efts Event. It turns out that efts means teenagers.
However, Courtney, one of the two leaders, graciously allowed me and my sister, Susanne, to join the group – a group comprised of a father and his two teenagers. Courtney had expected a larger party.
P.S. It’s been some fifty, sixty years since Sue and I were teenagers.
It also turns out that the two teenagers knew more about mushrooms and fungi than most adults.
First, a word about fungi. Fungi is the plural form of fungus. Fungi is often pronounced as “FUN-gih”, with a hard “g” and the “I” as in glide. It is also as often pronounced as “FUN – gee”, as in glee. But, wait, there’s more. It is frequently pronounced as “FUN – jih”, as in jive, or as “FUN – jee”, as in jeeves. It turns out there is no ONE universally accepted way in which to pronounce fungi.
We still don’t know.
So we joined the group led by Ben and Courtney. There are few things that Sue and I enjoy more than a walk in the woods. And Sue and I can honestly say that all our lives we have been missing a million and a half things in our walks.
A million and half things. That’s the number of fungal (pronounced with a hard “g”) species on planet Earth. There are so many fungal species that in the living world they are grouped as a kingdom. Fungi are the second largest realm in the living world.
There are a total of five kingdoms. We are all familiar with the plant and animal kingdoms. Who knew about the monera and protists kingdoms? I didn’t. I had to look it up. The largest kingdom is the animal kingdom. It has several million species. And that’s an exact number. You could look it up.
Ben is a graduate forester who is working on a master’s degree thesis. His subject: fungi. Courtney is a biologist. They tried to educate us about scientific terms in Latin and Greek and they failed, magnificently.
Sue and I began with a basic knowledge of fungi. We knew what a cap and gills and stem were. We learned that a fruiting body is . . . a mushroom. Yes, a mushroom is a fruit. Not a vegetable or mineral.
It was a dull day for a walk. Mostly cloudy, and 7 degrees above zero. I had underdressed for the occasion. I felt the onset of hypothermia.
We started walking just after 1:00 p.m. Just a few metres down the walking trail, Ben found his first specimen. It was an orange milkcap. Or a Lacterius aurantiacus.
“Older specimens are vase-shaped with sharpish rims, and they often develop faint pistachio-green irregular patches. The gills of this milkcap are shortly decurrent, crowded and bright orange, staining green when bruised. When cut, the gills release bright red-orange (carrot coloured) latex that eventually turns wine red.”
Okay. I looked that up. Ben might have said all that but he lost me after “milkcap”. I do remember Ben pointing out the greenish tinge to the gills. He said that was a sign the mushroom was almost dead. It was that time of year.
And here’s me thinking all mushrooms are dead. Wrong. Wrong. Mushrooms are very much alive, and derive their sustenance from dead and dying plants and animals.
Ben has an encyclopedic knowledge of fungi which he will quote without prompting. What endeared him to Sue and me was that he carried a book in his fisherman’s creel (his mushroom basket). It is a book about mushrooms. And he is not shy about consulting it.
And he knows without looking it up if it is edible. Orange milkcap is edible.
He instantly recognized witches’ butter (Exidia glandulosa) and lemon disco (Bisporella citrina) and wood hedgehog (Hydnum repandum). All these discoveries were accompanied with his oohs and ahs and sighs of pleasure. It was the fifth specimen that elicited a eureka. I have not ever before personally heard anyone ever utter the word eureka.
Ben had found a mushroom that baffled him. It was a cluster on a dead and rotting branch of birch. After consulting his mushroom book, he concluded it was a birch something. He found an alternative name: a something bracket. Maybe he said gilt bracket, but I couldn’t find it in my mushroom guide. Forget the Latin name – I couldn’t pronounce it anyway.
Ben was enraptured. I was so engrossed in his rapture that I neglected to snap a picture. Ben popped it into his mushroom basket.
Courtney gave a fascinating account of one of her hobbies – making spore prints. You could look it up.
The sixth stop was an occasion for a dissertation on a stump. It might have once served as a chopping block to make kindling. Now it was kind of rotten. No, not kind of. It was completely, absolutely, and thoroughly rotten. And he found a multitude of characteristics on which to comment. A multitude.
He expounded on mycelium, the network of hidden and underground or subsurface fibres that constitute a fungus and that eventually surface as a fruiting body. As a mushroom. He asked us to imagine the billions of mycelia within eyesight that operate out of sight 24-7-365.
Those woods in which we walked would not exist without fungi. Sue and I will never look at woods in the same way ever again.
The tour emerged in an open grassy area which housed a log picnic shelter and two outhouses. Courtney pulled a wedge of an elm trunk out of her pack. She told us about Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by bark beetles, that has decimated so many of Canada’s trees. Ben displayed conks from various sources. Some conks (aka bracket fungi) are edible. First they are ground up, and then cooked. Seriously.
I took the time to photograph an interesting specimen from the animal kingdom. It was named Charlie. Charlie lost the use of one of hind legs in an accident, but he had managed the 2.5-kilometre Orange Trail loop quite happily.
There being 15 minutes of the tour left, we started up the Orange Trail. We didn’t get far. The teenagers found some bracket fungi to marvel at. We had managed to walk less than a half kilometre in toto that afternoon.
When we returned to the parking lot at 3:00 p.m., the weather was unchanged. I was still shivering.
But I had thoroughly warmed up to the subject.