June 20, 2013 Updated: June 20, 2013 at 8:40 am
JEFFERSON COUNTY - Some hunters follow animal tracks. Others use hounds.
Scrambling through the brush along Bear Creek west of Denver, all we had was a meat thermometer.
That's all you need when hunting wild mushrooms - along with the knowledge of where to find the right tasty morsels without poisoning yourself.
It's a pastime that's catching on in Colorado, which boasts a surprising bounty of edible mushrooms, second only to the Pacific Northwest, according to the experts from Mycotours, our guides on this Saturday morning.
"Everyone considers Colorado a really dry place to live, and it is. It's a fairly arid climate," amateur mycologist Graham Steinruck said. "But mushrooms don't care about that. There's just a season for them.
"It's not very well-known, but it should be. It's got some of the most choice edible mushrooms that you can find in the world."
Certain circles have long known about Colorado's mycological munificence. The Telluride Mushroom Festival in August has been bringing a mix of vegans, scientists and hippies to the San Juan Mountains for 32 years. But Steinruck and his fellow mushroom lovers are out to show you can find edible fungi all over, even on the dry Front Range.
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"You're really going to eat that?"
That was my first thought when we came across a lone blonde morel mushroom next to a dead cottonwood tree.
In Colorado, mushrooms grow in isolated pockets, requiring very specific moisture levels and air and ground temperature to grow; hence the meat thermometer our guides frequently popped into the dirt. The ground was 55 degrees, which signified the morel season was warm enough nearly to be over.
"You've got to chase spring up the mountain," Steinruck said.
For the morels to be on our plates, the guides chose an area in a river bottom, with abundant fallen cottonwoods. While mushrooms can be found as high as 11,000 feet, they're almost always near a live tree or under a dead one and near a creek.
Like the water witches who say they sense the location of an aquifer, Steinruck claims to "just know" a good mushroom spot.
"Sometimes it's a little esoteric as to why it's a good mushroom spot," he said. "Every blonde morel spot where I've ever found them looks exactly like this spot in little ways. There's an art to this that you can't teach someone. You just have to go out and do it for yourself."
A chef by profession, Steinruck got into wild mushroom hunting to find ways to spice up his meals with rare mushrooms few other chefs use. He became certified by the state as a wild mushroom identification expert, and he and his partners launched Mycotours three years ago.
Regulations on picking mushrooms on public land vary. In Pike and San Isabel national forests, you need a permit if gathering them for more than a single personal use.
Mycotours leads a dozen commercial tours a year for the public, as well as private tours, showing groups where to find mushrooms, how to identify them and then cooking what they find. The tours are usually on the Front Range between Colorado Springs and Boulder.
"What I love about it is the connection to the food," Steinruck said. "Beyond the fact I'm in one of my favorite places ... There's something I can actively be doing that's interesting and sustains me at the end of the day. It's a natural process that I think we've kind of removed ourselves from.
"Hunter/gatherers and foragers, this is what we came from ... We just walked around in small groups and picked things to eat. It's kind of like going back in time, but in the future when you have all these cooking techniques and fun things you can do with them."
Steinruck said wild mushrooms always should be cooked. He's eaten 60 types of wild mushrooms in this state. It's a good track record, because in the world of mushroom hunting, things can go very wrong.
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Steinruck cut the morel with his pocketknife. He knew it was a morel because of the hollow stem and hollow cap.
Plenty of other mushrooms look just like morels, known as "false morels."
"And there are poisonous false morels, so you want to be careful with them," he said.
Among the thousands of wild mushrooms here, hundreds are poisonous. Some will make you hallucinate. Some will make you sick with diarrhea and stomach pains. Some can kill you.
Accurately identifying a mushroom requires smelling and dissecting it and doing a spore print, putting it on a white piece of paper covered with a glass. It can take years to perfect, which is why Steinruck recommends only eating mushrooms identified by an expert.
"It's not something to be afraid of, but it's something to respect. A lot of people get turned off by the idea of wild mushroom hunting because they are afraid of poisonous mushrooms," he said. "The people who poison themselves, almost every time, are people who are taking risks or didn't know anything about it."
In general, deadly poisonous varieties will be tiny and brown, and they are rare.
"I rarely see poisonous mushrooms," Mycotours co-founder James Wieser said. "If you wanted to go out and find something that you could eat to kill yourself, it might take you a couple years to find one you could utilize for that particular purpose. In general, if you're mistaken in the identity, you're only going to wish you were dead. It's not going to kill you. It's only three days of misery."
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We found some other edibles on the trip, including oyster mushrooms and wild asparagus.
The aspiring amateur mycologists on the tour came for the food and the education.
"In Texas growing up we'd go pick pecans. Here you pick raspberries and mushrooms," Stephanie Thomas said. "I'm scared to pick the wrong ones. I want an education first."
"I go on hikes a lot and get around in this area, so it's just another thing to pay attention to," said Zac Desch, who said he likely wouldn't eat a mushroom he found on his own.
Two weeks earlier, when the guides scouted the area, the morels were only tiny shoots. A couple of days after our visit, they would have withered and died, leaving mushroom hunters to head to higher elevations, searching for white porcinis among the ponderosa pines or chanterelles in the lodgepole pines.
On the hike back to the trailhead, we stumbled across a morel we missed on the walk in, though everyone stepped within a foot of it.
There are so many mushrooms out there, often hidden in plain sight, that Steinruck said he develops "mushroom vision" - not what happens when you accidentally eat a rare hallucinogenic one, but seeing mushrooms everywhere.
And often, despite the beauty of the mountains, that's all he's looking for.
"Suddenly you're distracted and you're not looking at the scenery," he said. "You're looking at the ground and the next thing you know, you've missed the entire gorgeous view that everyone's looking at because you're down in the leaves trying to figure out, 'Is that stick a morel?'"