Reminder: Unless you are an expert or in a group led by an expert, DO NOT consume any mushrooms you may find while foraging.
Salt Point State Park, located in the rugged northern part of Sonoma County, has the distinction of being the only state park where the general public is allowed to forage for mushrooms. Naturally, this draws Californians from all walks of life in search of treasured fungi. On a wet February morning, I linked up with a group of foragers to find the perfect specimen.
I arrived to the coastal town of Jenner just before 9:30 a.m. and were joined by Patrick Hamilton, a 50-year veteran of mushroom foraging and a foray leader at the Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA). Patrick has been active in the mushroom community for many years. He has spent time as a chef (Patrick’s nickname is Mycochef), educator, and now a foray leader and the owner of his own company, Patrick’s Wild Mushroom Adventures.
After the rest of the group arrived, Patrick instructed us to form a convoy following his vehicle into the park. The drive was beautiful, and avid commercial watchers would probably recognize the scenes from many a car ad.
I arrived in the park about 30 minutes later and reconvened in a small patch of grass, where a few mushrooms could already be seen poking out of the damp earth. It had rained the night before, so the conditions were perfect. Many of the mushrooms were russula, a common variety in Salt Point. Often thought to be inedible, Patrick shared with us a story of a Russian group he took out on a foray who informed him that they use russula in stew. “That’s one of the things I really like, learning something new about a hobby I’ve had for so long” he told us.
Our group ventured into several sections of the park, picking mushrooms and bringing them to Patrick for identification and other information about the species. Along the way, we found candy caps, more russula, witch’s butter, boletes, chanterelles, and many others.
The most impressive, however, was the quintessential Amanita Muscaria. As I was walking nearby, I heard Patrick call my name. As I rounded a corner, I saw it — almost too perfect in the sunlight on the side of the trail. Perhaps the most famous mushroom of them all, of Alice in Wonderland fame, there stood a mighty Amanita Muscaria. Its position just off the trail nearly made it seem that someone purposely placed it there for us to find. Patrick explained to me that the fly agaric, as it’s also known, is an important mushroom in several cultures. Initially poisonous, there are techniques used which lower the potency of its toxins and allow it to be eaten.
At this point, we had reached the end of the trail and started our walk back to the parking lot. I had just finished my first ever successful mushroom foray, and I could see why so many people find joy in the experience. There’s something about walking through the damp woods searching for a fungus that brings you back to simpler times. You never know what’s behind the next tree or under that pile of dead leaves, and more often than not, you are rewarded for your curiosity.
If you’re interested in venturing out on a foray with Patrick, check out his website at https://www.mycochef.com/home/. All forays are compliant with COVID-19 restrictions, and participants are masked and socially-distant.