MENDOCINO – We are tramping through the moist, mossy woods, Brandi, Morgan and I, hot on the hunt for mushrooms. None of us is a hard-core mycophile, couldn't pronounce the polysyllabic Latinate names if our lives depended on it. And, considering the toxicity of some of the fungi fruiting in the forest, it just might.
But Brandi's brandishing a handy pocket guide along with her jaunty wooden basket. And, skulking somewhere in the dense bishop pines is our expert foraging guide, Emily Scott, along with other mushroom tour members. So, all in all, we are feeling pretty secure, if not smug, in our scavenging.
"This feels like hunting for Easter eggs," Morgan White says.
He and partner Brandi Carter, 40-somethings who run a restaurant in Sonoma County, have come from Santa Rosa on holiday for the full Mendocino experience – the wine tasting, the ocean-shore strolling, the kayak-and-canoe paddling, the decompression chamber that is a cozy bed-and-breakfast.
And, yes, they also want to pick some mushrooms, since they've heard so much about the array of fungi that flourishes in Mendocino County's damp and shrouded forests. They want to maybe pluck a few choice specimens, the kind that cost $40 a pound at gourmet food shops and find their way onto the menu at the French Laundry in Yountville and Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
November is prime 'shroom season, but so far we are not having any luck.
I first find a lone specimen just off the main path in a bishop pine grove: off-white, flimsy and nearly translucent, about the size of a quarter. Its cap droops like the head of a shamed school boy. It looks bereft there in the basket, but Carter soon finds a trio of orange-hued, cup-shaped offerings and snags one to show our leader. And then I stumble upon a pert, white-and-gray bulb that's so quintessentially mushroom-looking it could be pictured in the dictionary.
Out of the late-morning stillness comes a shout.
It's White, calling us over to what he promises is quite a find. The three of us stare silently for a spell, then Carter utters what I (and, no doubt White) are thinking: "There's no way I'm going to eat that. Nasty."
There before us, amid decomposing needles and cones, along the root system of another bishop pine, is a forbidding mushroom we just know will lead to our demise if we ingest it. Its 3-inch cap is a sickly yellowish brown, like a bruise three days into healing. Peppered rashlike across the cap are pale-green warts and, draped over its stem, a peeling, membranous skirt.
Carter unearths it and lays it in the basket for Scott's later perusal. The three of us muse about what type of hideous death would claim us if we took a nibble. Toxic shock and kidney failure, perhaps. Gastrointestinal distress, surely. (Each year, about 1,700 cases of mushroom poisoning are reported, according to the state Department of Public Health, which has issued a statement warning that eating wild mushrooms can cause serious illness or death. Earlier this month, three people at a Loomis senior-care facility died after consuming soup made with wild mushrooms harvested by a caregiver.)
Speaking strictly for me, I'm a tad spooked, the hypochondriac in me wondering if I might have breathed in deadly spores from this bad boy. And, as we trudge back to the trail to reconvene with the rest of our group, we get an additional shock – a foraging deer startles White, whose quick yelp and hasty retreat spawns the same from Carter and me.
Back safely with our teeming basket, we hold out the ominous mushroom to Scott, like students proffering an apple to the teacher. She is a teaching assistant in the environmental science department at the College of the Redwoods up in Eureka, has studied under noted mycologist and author David Arora, and gives two-hour tours offered through the Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino.
She takes the offending mushroom firmly by the stem, smiles.
"This," she says, "is an Amanita franchetii. They grow in a bolete habitat around pine trees."
She casually scrapes off the teenage-acne warts, rubs her fingers to clear the residue.
"There's a myth that the warts contain strychnine – not true," she says.
So, is it edible?
"It's toxic," she says. "Actually, I advise against eating any Amanita unless you're an expert and know the difference. Besides, there are so many other better, choice mushrooms."
As if to calm us, Scott next picks a small, white mushroom out of Carter's basket. She passes it around, asks us to smell the underside of the cap – the gills – and identify its scent.
"Kind of yeasty," says a woman who was part of Scott's foraging group and later joined White, Carter and me.
"Can't really smell anything," White says.
"It smells like my teenage son's bedroom," I say, "dank and on the cusp of moldy."
Scott takes a long whiff herself, then informs us it is called a Sweetbread mushroom (Latin name: Clitopilus prunulus.)
"Isn't it like flour, and it looks like raw bread dough waiting to rise?" she asks. "It's very good to eat. I have them all the time."
She rattles off the distinguishing characteristics of a Sweetbread, as if picking out a perp from a police lineup: pink-tinged gills, broad convex cap, light gray and viscid when damp. Turns out, there's a reason she is so exact in her dissection.
"It has a toxic look-alike," Scott says. "A couple, in fact. Use caution. But if you have a good nose, you can tell a real (Sweetbread) by its smell. The look-alike doesn't smell like rising bread."
As the morning wears on, we collect a diverse bounty, though none of the coveted boletes (from which porcinis derive) that star on haute cuisine menus.
Scott deftly shows us the difference between chanterelles (edible) and false and wooly chanterelles (toxic). She regales us with information about the hallucinatory properties of the Amanita muscaria, which, so Scott claims, "shamans in Scandinavia used around the winter solstice to have visions. That's where flying reindeer came from."
And, by the end of the hike, she has us all well versed in spotting mycorrhizal hosts and all the organic circuitry required for mushrooms to fruit so, well, fruitfully.
Mendocino County by water
So thorough was Scott's mushroom tutelage, so elemental the act of burrowing in the loamy spoil to search for sustenance, that it could be easy to overlook Mendocino's non-fungal splendors.
These attractions, too, are connected with nature.
It is perfectly acceptable to vacation in Mendocino and not leave the coziness of the B&B or explore farther than the tastefully upscale shops on historically preserved Main Street.
But you'd be missing much.
The full Mendo experience – from Albion on the south to Fort Bragg on the north – must be done out of doors.
At the south harbor in Fort Bragg, where the meandering Noyo River dumps into the Pacific Ocean, Liquid Fusion Kayaks offers guided paddles of varying degrees of difficulty and sightseeing splendor.
Cate Hawthorne, the encyclopedically knowledgable instructor, says that even novices can learn to handle the area's "rock-gardening" spots (it involves extreme sea paddling, through waves and around rocky outcroppings) without getting tossed. Others prefer negotiating the area's numerous sea caves.
"This is one of the best places in the world for kayaking," Hawthorne says. "It's not one of the friendliest places, but the best. By 'not friendly,' it's that the Mendocino coast is a destination for people who really know how to kayak and really want to explore and stretch their limits.
"Summer and fall are the best times, since it's calmer," she continues. "The Bay Area Sea Kayakers (group) comes here every September for what they call 'Mendo Madness.' You'll get over 100 kayakers. Winter, it can get a little choppy, but we still get a lot of people challenging themselves."
I, however, seek a more cerebral – OK, wimpy – "adventure," thus choosing a two-hour paddle to the mouth of the ocean that highlights the diverse flora and fauna of the riverbank and shoreline.
From the back of our two-person kayak, Hawthorne gives a running commentary of the habitats we pass – when she's not gently correcting my horrible paddling technique, my arms swinging wildly, as if trying to become airborne.
She gives me two choices. We could go upriver, away from the ocean, where it narrows and "it's more intimate, with the alders like a canopy over you, and people say it's almost like being in a rainforest."
Or we could head to where there was more action, through the harbor, under the Highway 1 bridge and to the edge of the Pacific, which locals call "Jaws."
We head seaward. I am not disappointed. We are joined throughout by frolicking harbor seals, rising and flipping on their backs to sun themselves and check out the humans in their strange vessel.
We see a bevy of birds, common varieties such as belted kingfishers, acorn woodpeckers and red-shouldered hawks and, of course, circling gulls, but also a few rare breeds.
"Look in that alder tree over there," Hawthorne tells me as she helps steer the kayak near the riverbank.
Perched stoically on a branch, its thick, white-feathered chest puffed out and pointy beak held slightly aloft, is a black-crowned night heron. It's trying to blend into the foliage, Hawthorne says, because these herons do most of their fishing at night. A daytime spotting is unusual.
We move on, but not 10 feet away, in a bishop pine, are two more night herons. Hawthorne's voice raises an octave, registering surprise. We paddle within 10 feet of one, close enough to see one of its blood-red eyes bulging.
As we drift ever closer to "Jaws," crab fishermen line the banks, casting pots, rings and hoop nets into the water. This is prime Dungeness crabbing season in Mendocino, and Hawthorne says she and her partner, Jeff, often crab fish out of their kayaks.
I'm tempted, momentarily, to ask Hawthorne to take us into the surf. But it is way too heavy that morning, so I think better of it.
"We can take people out their first day and teach them rock gardening," she says. "But today is definitely not that day. Mendocino Bay is beautiful and a lot of people are lured into paddling there, but it's one of the most dangerous on the coastline if you're not careful. Every year, fire and rescue has to rescue people out of that area."
The closest I get to the waves all day, it turns out, is an obligatory stop later at Glass Beach, in Fort Bragg. It is both a manmade and natural phenomenon. Manmade, because it was spawned by years of people dumping their garbage, plastic and glass particularly, over the cliffs back when Fort Bragg was a lumber town. Natural, because decades of pounding waves transformed the discarded bottles and refuse into smooth, multicolored, partially translucent pebbles.
State regulations prohibit tourists from taking glass specimens, but nearly everyone does it, anyway. Even on a Sunday morning, the beach is teeming with hunched-over scavengers, looking for gems.
"It's so odd and unique," says Arlene Dickson, a 59-year-old kayak enthusiast from Saratoga, placing a few pebbles into an empty water bottle. "I had to have some."
Hiking into the forest
Back on terra firma, I head back into the forest – for fitness this time, not foraging.
Mendocino County boasts a plethora of trails in state parks, some old mill and logging routes, but most of them winding, single-track trails bordering rivers and streams in Jackson State Forest.
The seven-mile Russian Gulch Double Loop, at Russian Gulch State Park halfway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, provides a bit of everything on the path. There are second-growth redwoods, lush ferns, alders and berry-sprouting bushes, plus a 35-foot waterfall nearing the halfway point.
One of the starkest sights, a heartening example of nature's regenerative adaptation, is the natural phenomena of a cluster of trees growing around old-growth redwood stumps.
The first example of this comes 0.8 of a mile into the trek on the North Trail – the first of several trails covered on the Double Loop – just after finishing a series of switchbacks. At 2.6 miles, after making a left turn onto the Falls Loop Trail, you see an even starker example of a circle of trees joining hands around a degenerative stump.
After crossing a bridge at the waterfall, which gives off a dull roar after a heavy rain, the trail turns even more lush as it descends back into a valley and turns back toward the ocean. The trailhead is about a quarter-mile east of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, but it's worth hoofing it a little farther to catch a glimpse of Devil's Punch Bowl, a large, churning sea cave that's a monument to the ocean's erosive power.
Even more ecologically instructive and just plain pretty is the five-mile, out-and-back jaunt at Jughandle State Reserve off Highway 1. The trail is called the "Ecological Staircase," and even though the route is nearly flat, it travels along five terraces tilted over time by geologic forces.
As you proceed, the landscape changes from the grassy bluff scrub to the coastal prairie to the bishop pine forest to, at the turnaround point, the fascinating forest of pygmy cypress trees (Cupressus goveniana ssp. pigmeea, if you must know).
Iron-rich, acidic hardpan long, long ago made conditions right for a forest of stunted, gnarled cypresses to grow together. Taking in their eye-level grandeur, I couldn't help but thinking of what Mitt Romney said about Michigan's arbor delights while on the campaign trail: "The trees are the right height."
Another popular hiking spot is the Mendocino Headlands, right across from the quaint downtown featured in the erstwhile TV show "Murder She Wrote." It's a two-mile stretch on bluffs affording gorgeous views of the ocean and rocky outcroppings below, assuming the omnipresent marine layer has burned off.
But if the fog is heavy, there's always downtown Mendocino to explore.
Even the retail here is environmentally inspired, from the "eco groovy" boutique Mendocino Twist, which features all manner of bamboo and hemp products, to One Weave, a clothing store featuring recycled and "up-cycled" (vintage items with added artistic flourishes) sweaters, blouses and jeans.
And perched above the Big River sits the Stanford Inn by the Sea, an upscale "eco-retreat" featuring the Ravens, a critically acclaimed vegan restaurant. In addition to offering many mushroom foraging tours, including our hunt for edible fungi, the Stanford Inn also hosts cooking classes.
The morning after our 'shroom search, I tuck into my vegan breakfast burrito at the Ravens and, fork full of spongy mushroom, I hope with all my heart that the mycologist who gathered this specimen knew the difference between toxic and edible.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 5 to Highway 20 (at Williams). Take Highway 20 west for 79 miles to Highway 101, then north. Travel 15 miles and exit at Highway 20 and head west for 32 miles. At Fort Bragg, turn left (south) on Highway 1 for 11 miles to Mendocino.
Mushroom exploration tours: Sponsored by the Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino. Call (707) 937-5615 to arrange a tour. $30 per person. www.stanfordinn.com
Liquid Fusion Kayaking: 32399 Basin St., Fort Bragg. Tours range from a "Noyo River Meander" and "Sunset Bird Paddle" to extreme "Rock Gardening." Kayak classes and rentals also are available. Prices vary. (707) 962-1623. www.liquidfusionkayak.com.
Catch a Canoe and Bicycle, Too: At the foot of the Stanford Inn, Catch a Canoe and Bicycle, Too offers guided and self-guided tours of the Big River Estuary and rents mountain bikes to ride the bluffs and trail. Highway 1 at Comptche Ukiah Road. (800) 331-8884.
Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens: Rhododendrons highlight this perennial garden along the coast. 18220 North Highway 1, Fort Bragg. Hours: November to February: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Contact: (707) 964-4352 or www.gardenbythesea.org. Cost: $14 general (18 and older), $10 seniors (65 and older), $5 juniors (5 to 17).
Ford House Museum: Local civic and natural history of Mendocino, featuring a mushroom photography exhibit through November. 735 Main St., Mendocino. (707) 937-5397. www.mendoparks.org. Hours: 11 a.m., 4 p.m. daily. Free.
Historic Walking Tour (self-guided) of Mendocino: Downtown is designated a state historic district, and the walking tour covers 29 of the town's 86 historical buildings, including the Packard House and the Kelley House. For a guided tour of the Kelley House, call (707) 937-5791. For a map of the tour, go to the Ford House Museum.
Russian Gulch Double Loop (7 miles): Where: Highway 1, five miles north of Mendocino and six miles south of Fort Bragg. (707) 937-5804. www.parks.ca.gov. To trailhead: It is at the first gate just before the campground. Route: 0.2 miles of paved road, turn left onto the single-track North Trail. Continue straight on main trail. At junction, turn left at the Falls Loop Trail and make an immediate left again uphill. At 3.5 miles, at the waterfall, cross a bridge and head up switchbacks over the falls. At 4.7 miles, turn right on a double-track dirt road. Continue on the trail as it turns into a paved road back to the trailhead. Difficulty: moderate. Water: no. Toilets: yes.
Jughandle State Reserve (5 miles): Where: Highway 1, 3.5 miles south of Fort Bragg.
To trailhead: Turn west at park sign. Trailhead is at a kiosk in the parking lot. Follow well-marked signs (with numbered posts to denote plant species) around the bluffs overlooking the ocean, back under Highway 1 and two miles into the forest, ending at the Pgymy Forest, the turnaround point. Difficulty: easy. Water: no. Toilets: yes.
Mendocino Headlands State Park (2 to 5 miles): To trailhead: From downtown Mendocino, go on Main Street to Heeser Street. Park along street and join the trail on the bluffs. This is an unsigned trail that skirts the bluffs. There is an offshoot route that goes down to Big River Beach. Difficulty: easy. Water: yes. Toilets: yes.
– Sam McManis