Magic at Sauvie Island

So in an impeccable act of anti-climax, our eagerly awaited expedition to Sauvie Island with the Oregon Mycological Society was cancelled at the last minute, owing to another expedition taking place the day before. In fact, when we called the Office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to secure our REMOVAL OF VEGETATION permits, the woman on the phone kept asking if we meant “Saturday” instead of “Sunday”.

Alas, Sunday it was. There were rumors that the overall secrecy of the morel-picking spots have been betrayed, and promises were made that “new spots” would be found in the future.

As we had all requisite permits so we decided to go anyway and try and see what we could find — no easy feat when you have no frame of reference. A good part of the first few hours was spent tramping through undergrowth. Not nettles, as on Kelley Point, but blackberries. Which have thorns.  Delightful.

We eventually gave up and drove to a few other sites, building theories on where the lucky morels might be hidden. And finally, maybe out of luck more than anything else, we did in fact strike gold.

We came away with two by the end of the day, and in comparing stories with other mushroomers it seems is a fairly typical morel score at Sauvie Island. Better luck up in the hills, which we’ll have to go attempt because now that we have tasted the meaty goodness that is a morel (a first for both of us) we are hooked. There is a reason people tramp through nettles and blackberries to look for these things, and it is because they are delicious.

In which we consider Kelley Point

During our third mushroom class we were given vague tips on spring mushrooms sites. I say “vague” because mushroom hunters are extremely reticent to disclose information that could lead to the pillaging of cherished hot spots, particularly those containing morels.

Kelley Point Park was among the places mentioned, so as I had some time on my hands yesterday I went out there to see what I could see.

To me, Kelley Point is interesting for its incredible geographic significance. It is at this point, beyond a riot of dandelions and daisies, that the Willamette River feeds into the Columbia River before heading out to sea. The very end of Portland’s river, right here at the viewpoint. (Where is the beginning? I will find out.) 

Kelley Point is named in for Hall Jackson Kelley, a New England school teacher who had a something like an obsession for settling the western territories, and the Pacific Northwest in particular. Reading of Lewis and Clark’s journeys must have sparked something in him. Long before laying eyes on the place he wrote articles encouraging settlement along the Columbia river. He also attempted to secure funds for several expeditions, one of these an attempt to colonize the area around Puget Sound via “expedition by sea”. None of these attempts succeeded.

Finally, in 1833, Kelley set out with a smaller band than his intended group of several hundred, which two years earlier had attracted private investment and left without him. During this expedition, (funded presumably with his own money,) his company simply abandoned the project and stayed on in New Orleans, “at a great personal loss to himself.” From then on the venture looks as though it was a perilous, doom-laden thing — either due to Kelley’s fanatical, God-fearing Manifest Destiny imperialism, or by simple bad luck, it’s unclear to me as yet which.

In the end he was only in the area for about five months before being shipped off home by the fur traders who had claim to the area. The sign at the viewpoint is pretty direct about its feelings towards the man. It ends: “A bit deranged, Kelley visited briefly in 1834. He spent the rest of his life bitterly trying to win notice and payment for having sparked American interest in the Pacific Northwest.”

It seems an odd choice of patrons, but then maybe it just goes with Portland’s sort of scrappy reputation. Reading through his background was like reading a tome of tragic art.

Kelley endears me particularly for the exhaustive nature of his book titles, the last called tellingly, “A History of the Settlement of Oregon and of the Interior of Upper California, and of Persecutions and Afflictions of Forty Years’ Continuance endured by the Author.”

If Kelley had had his way, the city center would have been right here at the confluence of the rivers, where nowadays pilot boats dart about nervously and guide enormous ships into their various ports. Alas, it is about eleven miles southeast of here, and this place is merely a gem at the tip of the far Northern warehouse district. And apparently an excellent place to find mushrooms, if the furtive people walking around with buckets, baskets and brown grocery bags are any indication.

As usual, I was much more interested in the bird situation than the mushrooms, and after sitting and watching ships for a long time I managed to see a pair of red-breasted sap suckers, a white crowned sparrow (among a mess of chickadees, bushtits and song sparrows,) and an osprey eating a fish. The first osprey of the season, for me. Added to this were what appeared to be ominous walls of nettles spread beneath the gnarls of cottonwoods.

No, really. After you.  No, really. After you.

I found interesting specimens, but didn’t collect anything for spore prints, nor did I see any of the elusive morels. Though I did see an old verpa — in the family of false morels. So doubtless they’re out there.

Next Sunday there is an OMS sponsored field trip out to Sauvie Island to pick morels, so there was no need to go overboard here. Hopefully the nettles aren’t as bad out there as they are at Kelley Point.

In which we have the “wrong” guidebook, and decide not to mind

It seems I’ve made a bit of a tactical error. I did not reserve our copy of “All That The Rain Promises And More…” by David Arora, from the library the week we signed up for the class, but instead waited until yesterday. Which means we have have now attended two sessions of our little mushroom class without the Preferred Guidebook.

Furthermore, the guidebook we do have — Audubon’s — is looked down on a little bit in this circle, as it apparently invents laymen’s names for mushrooms that do not have official laymen’s names. So the non-Latinate names Anthony and I are getting used to are not universal, and may, (at least in the Oregon Mycological Society,) out us as goofy non-scientific phonies.

Guidebook preference really isn’t anything new to me. In the bird world, Sibley’s is the book that seems to be gaining a lot of popularity right now, but I will always be a Peterson’s girl myself. I started on Peterson, I am used to Peterson, and I appreciate the approach he takes to breaking down key differences — particularly the use of illustrations:

Although I frequently refer to my 35-millimeter transparencies as a memory jog, I enjoy wildlife photography for its own sake; it is action. Drawing, by contrast, is cerebral. Whereas a photograph is a record of a fleeting instant, a drawing is a composite of the artist’s experience and selectivity…Whereas a photograph can have a living immediacy, a good drawing is really more instructive.

– Robert Tory Peterson, originally published in Bird Watcher’s Digest, Sept/Oct 1996 

Back to mushrooms: I’m not especially worried about being a goofy non-scientific phoney, but I am a little bummed out that the class is reliant on any particular book, rather than the general “any book works” approach. There were a few flow charts we went over that were so specific to Arora’s book that we had to look over someone’s shoulder to follow along. 

Next week we’re going to talk more generally about toxicity, and that should lighten things up a little in the guidebook department. Every book out there talks about symptoms of poisoning. And no one else has a hold on Arora’s book at the moment, so we’ll be able to pick that up from the library in a day or two. Crisis: averted. 

In which we learn about fungus

I come from a family of naturalists. The birds were basically instilled in me at birth, (as I’ve previously mentioned,) and the animals came all on my own when I discovered “Mammals of the Central Rockies,” by Jan L. Wassink. In the third grade I obsessed over that thing like other kids obsessed over comics. It was why I insisted on being a pine martin in all my play. 

Anthony and I try and get out to the woods at least once a week, and these walks often feature my stopping to listen to a bird song, or peer hopefully into undergrowth hoping to identify whatever it was that rustled the leaves and caught my attention. 

As he grew accustom to this style of walking — the stopping, the listening, the watching, the appreciating — Anthony began to develop a naturalist instinct all his own. Right away he showed a particular talent for spotting frogs, and more recently he has begun photographing mushrooms. 

(Confession: I actually took these photos. These were found on our apple picking trip last year.)
(Confession: I actually took these photos. These were found on our apple picking trip last year.)

He sends these photos to his brother, our resident mycologist, to see what he thinks they might be. (And also, we must add, to further entice him to move out here.) Tentative identification emboldens the spirit, and it wasn’t long before we would see clumps of what Anthony thought “might be food.” 

When you mistake, say, a ruby-crowned kinglet for a hutton’s vireo, there are no lingering side effects, no risk of renal failure. With mushrooms, however, I need more than just a hunch. And so on his brother’s advice we joined the Oregon Mycological Society which offers, among other things, classes for beginners. 

So it is that we’ve found ourselves, once a week, heading to the Multnomah Arts Center to look at slides with a handful of beginners such as ourselves.

The class is a nice range of about twenty people — people who know nothing (like me), people who know a little but not enough (like Anthony), people who hunt regularly for one or two varieties but want to grasp a more general picture, people who want to eat mushrooms, people who don’t want to eat mushrooms, retirees, young people. Any Hobbit that wants to learn more about mushrooms is welcome to take the class.  

Most of the class seems like it will be “how to use your guidebooks,” which could seem redundant but for the fact that fungus is alarmingly complex. Positive identification seems to rely on something like eight characteristics, and diagnostic features can be subtle, or prone to natural variation that I don’t yet have an eye for. So it’s nice to get help from a man who’s been hunting mushrooms for over thirty years in this area. If anyone knows anything, I think he will.