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Boreal Community Media

The fungus among us: The good. The bad. And the creepy.

Oct 07, 2023 05:30AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Michael Karns shows North House Folk School students an Amanita muscaria mushroom found in Judge Magney State Park earlier this month. Karns, a certified mycological identification expert, teaches courses on mushrooming, as well as birding at the folk school in Grand Marais. Photo courtesy Michael Karns.

By Vicki Biggs-Anderson for Boreal Community Media - October 7, 2023

Question: how is a mushroom like marriage?

Answer: you don't know you have a bad one until it's too late.

To an expert mushroomer there are no “bad” mushrooms. There are only bad identifications. And the latter is no joke.

North House Folk School instructor Michael Karns spends most of his free time teaching the science of safe mushrooming. A certified expert edible mushroom identifier, Karns teaches as many as six classes a year at the folk school in Grand Marais, Minnesota. 

A professional photographer by trade, he came by mushrooming quite by accident.

When he was 12 years old, Karns’ family moved to a new home; far from all of his childhood friends, but with acres of forest outside his back door. One lucky day he picked some mushrooms and took them home, curious to know what they were.

Encouraged by his mother to take out library books to study the fungi, Karns began a 35-year-long love affair hunting, eating and eventually teaching about edible mushrooms.

In early September of this year, Karns took his students to Judge C.R. Magney State Park, near Hovland, MN. (These field trips are preceded by classroom work where students are admonished to use the utmost caution when identifying edible mushrooms.) Simply put, there is no easy way to know a good mushroom from a poisonous one.

But what about using a mushroom identification app?

Karns gives that idea a definite thumbs down.

“A mushroom changes as it grows,” he said. “Online pictures won't capture the subtleties.”

Instead, he favors extensive study and, if possible, foraging with an expert. Bottom line, he said, “If you are not a discerning person, don't take up mushrooming.”

He does have one easy identification tip for his students. “Stay away from LBM’s, or little brown mushrooms.” He explains that anything fitting that description is notoriously untrustworthy. It's simple.

Colvill resident Dennis Kreveschenko would agree. Being related by marriage to a discerning and expert forager was the key to knowing just where to look for good mushrooms in the woods surrounding the family’s Colvill home and cabin on the Gunflint Trail. 

Kreveschenko said that when his father-in-law visited from Ukraine, he passed along his mushrooming expertise from a lifetime of foraging in his native country.

The good. Seven-year-old, Dennis Kreveschenko Jr, Colvill, holds up a prize haul of Honey mushrooms. His parents, Dennis and Anna,  make foraging for these delectable treats a family tradition, both summer and fall, in the woods around their home and near their Gunflint Trail cabin.

Now Dennis and Anna, who is the pharmacist at Sawtooth Mountain Clinic pharmacy in Grand Marais, and seven-year-old Dennis Jr., forage as a family summer and fall.

“The little guy really knows his mushrooms. He's way ahead of us all the time,” Kreveschenko said. 

He agrees with Karns that online pictures can't be trusted when deciding whether or not to eat wild mushrooms. “If you are the least bit unsure - I mean the tiniest bit- that it’s not safe,” he said. “Let it go. Let it go.”

Dennis, who owns his own cleaning business, also has advice on the best season to forage in Cook County. He favors early fall, saying that summer mushrooms can be few and far between and worse, wormy. 

“They look great on the outside, then you cut into them and worms!” (At the thought of this, he grimaced and made a throwing-away gesture.) “It’s better to go in the fall when there are more good ones and no worms.”

The Kreveschenkod can usually count on finding a variety of species for their table or to dry for later use. Among them are Chanterelles, Honey mushrooms, and Chicken of the Woods.

 Chanterelles, a variety of mushrooms found in Cook County, are featured in one of the recipes in  “Untamed Mushrooms.”

These are just a few of the edible delights found in “Untamed Mushrooms, From Field to Table,”  the award-winning book, published by the Minnesota, Historical Society, and co-authored by Karns and collaborators, Dennis Becker, and Lisa Golden Schroeder. It's a sumptuous book, featuring essays and pictures of 13 edible mushroom varieties, plus gourmet recipes for their preparation. 

Not surprisingly, Karns has added mushroom cuisine to his folk school classes, all of which are already online and filling up.

A change in foraging?

Sadly, next year’s mushroom foragers could face roadblocks in harvesting what mushrooms (and the amount) they need for a dish. 

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is considering putting restrictions on the amount of mushrooms foragers are allowed to harvest on state land. According to an August 2023 news release, the 2024 limit would be “a single 1-gallon bag per person.” One rationale for this restriction was stated as being “potential impacts to wildlife food sources.”

Karns says he sees no scientifically based evidence underpinning this decision. He also decries the lack of public input or even comment.

The  Minnesota Mycological Society (MMS) has gone on record as opposing the proposed restriction. Peter Martignacco, president of the MMS, was interviewed, for a July 2023 story in the Wall Street Journal, headed: “Mushroom Foraging Is So Popular in Minnesota, the State Plans a Crackdown.”

Like Karns, Martignacco said he saw little or no sound reason for such a restriction.

Meanwhile, Karns and the Kreveschenkos and all who delight in foraging in Minnesotas forests, have something to dream about throughout our long, long winter. And so far, to the best of anyone's knowledge, there are no bag limits on dreams.

Anyone interested in commenting on the DNR proposed restrictions can call 651-296-6157 or email at
[email protected].

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