Hen of the Woods were late this year, I found my first on the 18th of August, and nothing edible until last Saturday under a young Maple in Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin – a long way to go for a Hen, I know – allow me to explain.
It was the middle of the week, I’d been down for a few days the week before with worst case of chigger bites I hope to ever have. Twenty bites per square inch gotten harvesting sassafras root several days previous, and missed the weekend before’s foraging as a result. Someone said Wisconsin and my sweetheart, and I decided immediately to take a weekend off and head to Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin.
I’ve been enamored with the Driftless Region for the last 18 years, initially getting a taste on a camping trip to Wyalusing State Park with my then wife’s parents. After that my young family headed out every weekend from our home in Madison. We’d center our trip at the Bluff Camping Sites in Wyalusing at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and run to McGregor, Iowa to rent a small boat to explore the channel islands. I remember meeting what had to be a 400 year old Maple tree on one of the islands. When I stretched my arms around I couldn’t even feel the curve of the tree it was so massive.
Since I’d been distracted by pain and icthing for a week, it was a poor early Hen of the Wood/Maitake season for me. My friend Nick Treondle, founder and organizer of the Iowa Morel Festival, suggested we come up his way. He was hitting them heavy up there we decided that’s where we needed to be. Still recovering from “the Great Chiggering of ’14,” camping was not an option. A traditional Wisconsin Tavern Hotel was just what we needed for a few days.
Just north of Prairie du Chien is the Spring Lake Inn. They don’t take credit cards, so when you reserve a room it’s an over- the- phone handshake. Founded in the early 1960s it still has real style. The currnet owners, John and Dena Schneeberger, were regular customers as in love with place as they were with the morel hunting and fishing of the channel islands. They traveled two and a half hours from Clinton, Iowa a couple times a year to the Inn.
When it went up for sale from the previous owners who had the place for 19 years, they snapped it up. They had little choice to move away family and friends; they were buying a place they loved and a piece of Wisconsin history.
We left Chicago at 3:00 pm, and hightailed it north through the city with surprisingly good traffic. Within two hours we were passing south of Madison, Wisconsin. We got up to the Spring Lake Inn just after 7:00 PM driving one of the most scenic drives in Wisconsin, barring the Kickapoo River Valley (more on the drive home later). The place was packed, we were lucky to get the bar manager Ashley’s attention. The bar takes a wonderfully modest amount of your cashand gives you the key for the room.
There was a scene right out of a Monty Python skit when we first ordered our cocktails, I ordered a Highball, a cocktail that is traditionally a shot of bourbon and a dash of bitter on the rocks with ginger ale. Ashley looked at me and said, “What do you want in it?” The problem is that a highball is also a glass size. I said a Highball, and she looked at me and said, “I heard you, what would you like in it.” I turned to her again and said a Highball, and frustratedly she insisted that I actually have something in my Highball glass. My sweety interjected and saved the day by ordering us two Brandy Old Fashioned, the traditional 1960s Wisconsin fishing cocktail.
After one sip I realized why Wisconsin consumes the most Angostura Aromatic Bitters per capita of any US state. We were served this generous and truly amazing cocktail. I’ll try to get their recipe, because after one or two you’ll wish for a bass boat, the Scripto clear plastic lighter from 1965 replete with fishing fly, and of course a “fly” hat.
After one cocktail, and paying for the room for two days, we retired to Room #1 for an hour to let the crowd thin out and get a table in the dining room. When we got back we got seated within 10 minutes, a couple complimentary cocktails in our hands, and both ordered the Fish Fry, which is so regionally known that we saw license plates from Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. The dining room is replete with taxidermy deer, dried mushrooms, paintings of local landscapes, and crowded with everyone from hunters to golfers.
The relish tray that comes with every order came with a little smoked whitefish dipper that was amazing. The fried cod was absolutely perfect, even the seconds that I managed to get down. Each piece was flaky and perfectly cooked, the tartar sauce could have used a little oomph, but the slaw more than made up for it.
I peeked into the kitchen, essentially a 10 by 15 foot addition to the original tavern, and it was crowded with harried cooks diligently working to serve 200+ plates a night. I’m not sure where they get such dedicated and attractive youth . Maybe that is just how they grow them up there in Wisconsin, but they’ve figured out a system that’s near perfection.
In true Wisconsin Tavern Tradition the bar cleared out at about 10:30 pm, almost in a flash, and we were the last two still dining. The next morning we woke excitedly in our clean, paneled room, ready to get out and hit the trails. The one thing about Wisconsin Tavern Motels is they don’t serve breakfast, and I wouldn’t want them to.
We drove south to Prairie (the locals lost the du Chein ending years ago) to the local pancake restaurant for a large breakfast and a 19 year year old waitress training to be surly. As soon as breakfast was over we hightailed it out of there to pay our $10.00 out-of-state plate WI State Park badge. Any Hen of the Woods hunter wants older Oak trees, and we drove the Homestead Campground Loop to see if there were trees of the right age, as it’s been about eight years since I’d camped there so I didn’t recall. There aren’t.
We went up to the Overlook, just to the south of the Wisconsin Ridge campsites. It is on a bluff about 400 feet above the Mississippi. You see Prairie du Chien and the Wisconsin River, the almost 2 mile wide Mississippi River, and the bluffs at Pike’s Peak State Park in Iowa. At dusk Bald Eagles perform aerobatics for you, diving in and out of the tree line, swooping and soaring for the audience directly in front of the outlook. One of my fondest memories of that bluff camping site is sitting in the dark, late at night, watching the train run alongside the single track on the Iowa side. The single light on the engine spinning, lighting the trees, with no other lights to be seen but the occasional barge. Sound carries well on across water on a humid summer night, and you can hear each wheel slightly as it clicks and clacks.
We walked the Oaks near the Point outlook, walking the 3/4 mile to another view point called the Knob. Dropping down to the Old Wagon Road Trail; I am in disbelief that someone could or would drag a wagon up the steep trails, within 200 yards of the trailhead we found our first Hens, three four pounders around a 30 year old Maple Tree. Certainly odd, but not the oddest flora or fauna that we’d find that weekend.
After scouring the surrounding hillsides for more mushrooms (there hadn’t been significant rain for five days) and only finding a few small puffballs, and suffering from trail fatigue we decided to move up to the ridgeline and work the trees there. We went into the campground ring and moved off the road, we saw many Coprinus comatus we couldn’t harvest because we couldn’t cool or cook, and saw much black staining polypore, and a few older Hen of the Woods. On the way out of Wyalusing we stopped at the old park office, now a WPA Memorial. This State Park, like so many others had its first trails and campgrounds built by unemployed workers during the great depression by WPA Workers, and in those old Oaks we found a few ten pound Hen of the Woods that had fruited several weeks before and one large Black- Staining Polypore also well beyond it’s prime. The few wild grapes I found had either fruited long before or had not fruited at all that year.
On the way out of the park we decided to drive to the canoe launch in the channel islands, and stopped at a long closed road running through the park. After a few minutes walking we found resinous polypore, ringed honey mushroom, and a Hericium of about a quarter pound, all within 10 feet of each other. We harvested what we could and suffered the stings of the last of the year’s nettles.
We drove on, knowing that the Hens were clucking, headed to Iowa and better rain reports. We drove to the Yellow River State Forest, only the Mississippi side, and saw that it was all third or fourth growth trees, too young to bother having a serious foray in. We drove back down past Marquette to McGregor and had a quick lunch at the Old Man River Brewery. Unfortunately either they don’t actually brew beer, or are constantly out, I had to suffer an import from Indiana. The sandwiches were fine Sysco fare and we joked whether they had bought Sysco Brewpub Package #3 or Package #4.
McGregor is an artsy community that reminds me of Nashville, Indiana; lots of middle aged motorcyclists with their “Old Ladies” antiquing. The one thing that stuck out is that the table of two families, about 10 people all together gasped and stopped speaking. We turned to the window to see a black biker dude and his woman stopping and getting off their Harley to come in. They were sat at a table by us, they were in their late fifties or early sixties. When the man went to the bathroom and soon came out all conversation in the restaurant went silent for a full 30 seconds, and when he walked to the TV by the bar to watch a few plays of the football game showing a few fine gentlemen stood up next to him. His wife sat stoically and looked at no one and nothing. This dude came up here because he was part of a middle class biker people, and they denied him to his face.
It was telling, even in this Northern Iowa River Town the haunts of The State of Mississippi aren’t far removed.
After lunch we decided to travel a few miles south to Pikes Peak State Park to see that biome. We parked and walked to the ranger station, directly behind the station was a stand of Oaks, one of which had the prettiest 2 pound Maitake growing from the root ball. On the other side of the Ranger Station was a wedding, the wedding my buddy Nick was working the sound system for, and the reason I wasn’t hunting the Hens with him that day. I’d forgotten my phone in the car and headed back, only to hear two folks with mushroom sticks speaking about how many mushrooms they’d find. I unsnapped my mushroom knife and signaled to my partner that I’d be cutting that Maitake in a crowd, and smiled.
We headed to Bridal Veil Falls and walked off the trail, just to the East of the ranger station quickly finding a few small Hens and several L. ochrepurpurea, and three or four Lepista nuda. We headed back to the trail and hit the stairs, only to go off again just after the falls and took the hard way up the hillside stopping to take a few pounds of Lycoperdon puffballs off of well dead Oak Trees. After losing my footing on the steep hillside I hopped rocks to the Hickory Ridge Trail, we then continued past the mowed ridge. We sat for a few minutes, gathering our wits and out location, finally zeroing in on the bluffs two miles away that, somewhere in the thick of the greenery, contained the Wyalusing Overlook we had been standing at hours before.
On our way back we met a young mother and daughter that were taking pictures of the bluffs across the river and pointed out to them where Wyalusing State Park was far across the Mississippi, the mother had spent much of the youthful summers there. We showed them our mushroom finds and discussed them, she was familiar with the medical benefits of Maitake, and was excited about the easy finds of the small puffballs. As we were leaving her daughter, of 7 or 8 years old excitedly told us about deer that insisted on coming up to passer-byes and were friendly. We rounded back to head off the other side of Hickory Ridge Trail, and went into the tree line and found a few Hens, some Blewits, a few more puffballs, and some Russula emetica, and some unidentified mushrooms we didn’t harvest.
After recrossing a trail and finding a few more small Maitake I heard my sweety calling my name softly, it took me a few seconds to twig onto my own name deep into the woods. I looked and zeroed in on her, and there, not ten foot away was a two year old buck. He was slowly coming toward her. Heroically I briskly strode over, confident and armed with my seven-inch blade mushroom knife that I would save my sweetie . He came closer. she was worried that he was rabid, his brain addled. I then did what any good man would do and pulled out my Pentax Camera and focused for a close-in shot.
As I came closer, flash causing squinting eyes for my foraging friend, and the young buck not noticing, he slowly came toward me. When his antler was directly below my waist, aimed toward my most sensitive area, I grabbed his one antler. He shook his head back and forth, so I shook his one antler. This deer wasn’t deranged, he was tame! I swatted his face to kill the dozens of mosquitoes under each eye, and shook his antler again. We scratched his face and head, shook his antlers and rubbed his back. we eventually continued on, I harvested a 10 pound Hen of the Woods, pure white and super clean. We walked up the ridge and found a large tree that was covered with Resinous Polypore and we scored a great Hericium.
If you don’t know the amazing and misunderstood resinous polypore you’re missing out on a serious delicious beef flavored polypore that makes its own gravy. When I first tried the young Brown with white margin shelf fungus and trimmed the soft white edges last year I was amazed how nice this underrated polypore was. I would put this as one of first choice edibles, when I can harvest it in quantity. We managed several pounds of both margins and young brackets, Along the way we noticed a different Hericium, H. Calloides, the goats beard mushroom. We were happy harvest about a quart of that.
We noticed the young buck shadowing us, following at about twenty foot, and every time we stopped to harvest a mushroom or investigate a tree it would walk right up to us. After a few hundred yards of ignoring it, and several forced petting sessions during which we noticed that its left front leg had an obvious but healed break, and it appeared that the right front antler had been surgically altered. We wondered if he had broken a leg and been patched up somewhere, and during that stay became tame and used to humans. In an effort to ensure that no deer hunter worth his salt would take the easy kill, it seemed someone may have altered the pedicel so only one antler would grow fully and therefore there would be no prize buck, hopefully saving this almost pet its life. All speculation—but it did explain this young buck’s desire for human companionship.
As we went along ignoring the beast it slowly drifted to other hikers, and when we were done with our foraging and headed back to the trail we noticed it playing with a large dog and its masters. More hikers came to watch and the dogs owners shipped off embarrassed that they had broken some rule of the forest. That damned buck came right up to a crowd of eight of us and demanded to be petted and rubbed. All of the males, probably avid hunters in-season, obliged.
We were pretty happy with our haul, as not many Hericium species fruit regularly in the Chicago area and we had two good for several meals, ten or fifteen pounds of Maitake, and a handful of other mushrooms to fill one very large 154 Quart cooler.
As we crossed the 1.6 mile long bridge over the Mississippi we noticed the sun setting at our back, and we knew we’d miss the great show at the lookout at Wyalusing State Park. But we were exhausted after our several state park mushroom run, and tomorrow would be another day. We hauled back to our motel room and when we got there the rest of the six rooms were obviously sold out to folks with Bass Boats for Sunday’s contest.
We hit the Spring Lake Inn restaurant as soon as the crowd died down, walking across the street. As soon as we ordered their Prime Rib Saturday Special the waitress apologized as we witnessed the last Prime Rib leave the kitchen. I ordered the strip steak, and obviously the kitchen was out, and they cut their own steaks, because a few minutes later a whole loin was carried through the dining room to cut my steak fresh. It was a fine meal, again. The cocktails just as tasty. We were again the last people in the restaurant, it was totally clear by 10 PM. Dena Schneebeger says they served 450 plates that weekend, and that doesn’t include the folks who only came for the cocktails.
We were in no hurry to get home Sunday, after a weekend of hard hiking we decided to let ourselves sleep in. I was amazed when I woke at 6:00 AM and peeked out the window that all of the pick-up trucks with bass boats behind, had left without waking us. Common consideration is not dead in Western Wisconsin. When we did wake finally we hustled out of the hotel, eager to meet Nick Treondle and his lady friend for an early lunch and a few hours of harvesting. After touring the old town and stopping at a farmers market for fresh cranberries, shelled hickory nuts, pickled beets and sorghum syrup we headed to a Irish Bar in a town founded by the Quebecois Voyagers, and lost to the British in the war of 1812.
Nick’s family is from the Sand Counties of Northern Wisconsin, once owning 4,000 acres a National Park took much of it over a generation ago. Nick now works as the Entertainment Director Josie’s River Queen. For years he’s been one of the premier morel hunter in the area, offering guided morel forays, and organizing the Iowa Morel Festival. His knowledge of the hills and ridges of one of the only places in the upper Midwest to not be ground down by glaciers is extensive. His easy smile belies his rough demeanor, his out- going attitude covers for someone who is sensitive to the land he forages on. His desire to get more people into the woods, not just for morels, but for summer and fall mushroom season shines through as he eagerly tells you where and how to hunt each fall mushroom you mention.
During the 2014 Iowa Morel Festival in McGregor, Iowa, Nick insisted that they have a “Children’s Foray” lead by a Professional Morel Hunter. Nick ensured that all of the dozens of kids got a hands- on education, and that each one walked away with knowledge that they may not have readily gotten as the tradition of family Morel Hunting slowly dies out, all while also booking heavy metal and rock and roll bands and closing streets in the town for the show and fest.
We were fortunate that Nick had been called into work to cover one of his charge’s shift. Frankly we were exhausted. As Chicago flatlanders, the steep ravines and challenging trails of the Driftless bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers are beautiful but tough. I wouldn’t want to be a professional forager there! After lunch we were free to head back the long way, and run the northern route back to Madison. We managed to score some re-wilded Asian Pears, and stop at Heck’s Farmstand on US 14 West of Madison.
The last time I stopped at Heck’s Farmstand on Route 14 was 1998, my parents were visiting my then- wife and daughter and I in Madison Wisconsin and we and bought 100 pound sack of mixed local squash for $17.50.That was 16 years ago and I don’t think my parents were able to eat their fifty pounds; we split a bag and for years my father talked about the amazing squash varieties he had bred in the compost pile! Heck’s doesn’t have a website, and that’s kind of the place I like to visit.
I loved finding the same man behind the register with the same bad jokes and giving attitude. I told him the story of my late father and how, almost to the day he died, he spoke about the squash that interbred for years in that compost pile of his, and while I’m sure he didn’t remember us from our previous visit I’m positive that he understood every word I said. This time I only bought Carnival and Celebration squash, all sold within a week to restaurants back here in Chicago. We loaded up our goods, making room in the Jeep, and I lied to my friend and told her I had to run to the bathroom. Really it was to check the price on the Apple Cider in the cooler, it was about half what the large farmstand with the ponies and goats down the road charged. On top of that he made me a deal on three gallons. We’ve still got one left, saved for hard cider making.
We made it back to Chicago by 7:30 PM, our car full of squash, re-wilded Asian Pears, a very large cooler of mushrooms, wild nuts and assorted canned goods picked up along the way. We were happy to see our dog Ella, and she was happy to see us but when we sat down to recount our travels the one thing we wish we had was more time. Time to explore, Time to take an even slower route. Time to spend with distant friends, and time to have that one more Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned and one more piece of Deep Fried Cod at Spring Lake Inn.
Now we didn’t pay for our trip in mushrooms, but that wasn’t really the point. We managed to get out of the city, basically after work on a Friday and get to one of the most beautiful spots in the upper Midwest, meet some really great people who care about their community, and work very hard to save the traditions. We were able to meet an old, but not so close friend, and see what really makes him tick, and on top of that I was able to show my sweetie why I am so enamored with this amazing part of the country.
No place is perfect, I know that, but this is as near as I’ve seen in a long time.
For fall colors, mushroom hunting and just plain getting out of the city, a four hour drive will bring you to one of the finest parts of the country, with some great people and scenery that just doesn’t quit.