2015 Midwest Morel Festival Guide

Original Artwork - Claudia McGhee http://goo.gl/tKUYhC

Original Artwork – Claudia McGehee
http://goo.gl/tKUYhC

Morel Festivals of Midwest

It’s spring in the Midwest and with spring comes urgent need to get to the woods and beat out the crowds for the coveted morel mushroom. With hundreds of thousands of morel enthusiasts competing for diminishing hunting grounds and urgently checking morel maps and forums to see if morels are fruiting locally, communities with prime hunting grounds are planning entertaining and educational festivals. Most festivals are replete with carnivals, parades, grand forays with prizes for the largest haul, and morel auctions there’s fun for the entire family. Simply put, Morels have an incredible, meaty flavor and are the most sought after mushroom in the US. Many folks begin hunting morels and then move on to other mushrooms, but most continue to only hunt this special fungi. If you’ve never hunted them, this is your opportunity to get out there and learn, while meeting professional foragers and learning from some of the best.

Some festivals, like Indiana’s Brown County Simply Music Simply Morel Festival have main stages and professional musicians playing late into the night, others like Wisconsin’s Musconda Morel Festival offer free rides back to your hotel for those that over indulge. All festivals stress the educational and recreational experience that a good day in the woods brings. Each festival is put together by dedicated folks who enjoy the outdoors and are committed to others having good experiences. Whether you’re a beginning morel hunter or a seasoned pro, there’s always something to learn and great folks to meet at these fantastic events. There have been countless books written on Morel Hunting, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find a few at each festival, but the real deep seated knowledge comes from doing and learning from some of the best is not only possible, but highly achievable by attending one of these fests. Please click the title of each festival to go directly to that festivals website.

browncounty2015

Brown County, Indiana – April 23rd – 27th   – “Simply Music, Simply Morel Fest”

Beautiful Brown County is about an hour from Indianapolis and about four and a half hours from Chicago. Rolling hills and beautiful scenery of this driftless region, along with the abundance of recreational forest land make this a truly special part of the Midwest. The people in Brown County will welcome you and make you feel like you belong. Brown County is home to Brown County State Park, Yellow Wood State Forest as well as parts of the Hossier National Forest.

I met one of the lead organizers, Stephen Russel, in passing last year. I had been plugging logs with Shiitake and Oyster sawdust, pasteurizing wood chips for a Wine Cap Stropharia path through the woods and was exhausted by the time I got to the festival. Much of the afternoon and night was a blur, meetings, lectures, new people from all over the midwest, the amount of information I consumed was truly astounding. Since last year’s fest I have had the good fortune of many late night chats with Russel, from cultivation techniques to ensuring the safety of wild mushrooms sold to stores and restaurants.

“Mushroom hunting is more than just a hobby for many of the people who come to the festival. It is a passion, really a lifestyle,” Stephen Russel told me recently. “Folks are a part of a unique social gathering that brings about all of the best aspects of mushroom hunting – nature, friendship, and family – into a weekend of full of outings and music.” His voice became excited as he told me, “It is a truly unique experience that is now one of my favorite weekends to look forward to each year.”

With the emphasis on education the fest has booked great mushroom hunters to lead forays, Folks like Leon Shernoff of Mushroom, the Journal, Eric Osborne of Magnificent Mushrooms,  Andy Methven co-author of 100 Cool Mushrooms and UI Mycologist, and Thomas “The Mushroom King” Weipert from Lewiston, Montana will be coming to lead forays, cooking demonstrations and giving lectures on tree identification. Rob Poe (me) will be speaking, with Dave Golde of Odd Produce in Chicago about how to make a living foraging ethically full time.

For Russel it’s really all about sharing knowledge and teaching others, “I really enjoy teaching people about wild mushroom identification. It’s a skill that not many people have, and once they get a taste of it, most people get a thirst for knowledge that is tough to quench.”

“I learned young, it is a tradition in this part of Indiana that goes back over 100 years, when there wasn’t enough for the pot we had to forage and hunt,” he told me voice cracking slightly, “that was life on an Indiana farm, even with the best black dirt in the world, it was hard to make sure everyone was well fed and the mortgage got paid. I like to teach about identification because it was important enough generations of Hoosiers to teach their children, it’s still important enough to teach to children today.

The Championship Foray was won last year by an outsider, which brings hope to us out of towners this year, Cameron Humfleep from Kentucky went home with first prize. Word is that Humfleep will be prowling the woods of Brown County again this year, so the challenge is on.

Kids 12 and under get in free, as usual.

Irvine

Irvine, Kentucky – April 25th – 26th –  Mountain Mushroom Festival

Nestled on a peninsula of land surrounded by the Natural Bridge Resort State Park, Irvine is about 30 miles South/Southwest of Lexington, Kentucky. The Mountain Mushroom Festival features about 100 booths of arts and crafts and vendors. A parade, and carnival will also be ongoing, a 5k fun run, mushroom auction, tractor show, antique car show and cake decoration demonstration and contest are in the works.

Setting itself apart from other festivals an agate and mineral hunt is scheduled for the Mountain Mushroom Festival has and a mushroom photography show. Sam Kiser won last years 5k race, and …

Ottawa Banner

Ottawa, Illinois – May 2nd – 3rd –  Midwest Morel Fest

On the banks of the Illinois River about an hour and a half from Chicago  and about a fifteen minute drive from Starved Rock State Park and it’s famous lodge, the Midwest Morel Fest will be a large draw, featuring a “Learn to Hunt” Guided Foray by Morel University on Friday, and the Championship Foray on Saturday. The Fest also features a morel museum, a home made craft fair and tours of the local and beautiful Reddick Mansion.

The Ottawa, Illinois Midwest Morel Fest has been around since 1996, and Ottawa is it’s third home, originally begun in Magnolia, Illinois for ten years it had a great run. The Henry, Illinois Chamber of Commerce organized it for several years until the economic downturn, and now the fine folks in Ottawa do the hard work of organizing it.

Sure to delight will be the home brew beer tasting and home brew seminar during their Morel Mash Up a silent auction and of course, the Morel Auction.

The Midwest Morel Fest Championship Foray has a $500.00 grand prize, sure to get those heavy hunters out, but anyone can come across a honey hole and walk away with a weeks pay. Last year the Largest Morel Prize of $500.00 went to James Lippold, and the Grand Champion with the most weight was Randy Dedecker.

Stark

Original Artwork – L. Sulpureus – Prints Available here: http://goo.gl/cy5E4T

Wyoming, Illinois – May 2nd – Stark County Morel Fest

This one day Morel Festival is actually set for the first Saturday in May every year, by county decree. This festival is is halfway between Moline and Davenport, Illinois and features a morel auction and the usual round up of excellent middle American festival fare such as pork chops and sausage sandwiches as well as a round up of kids activities like ring toss and hay rides.

In previous years the Lions Club hosted a Biscuits and Gravy Breakfast, as of press time we were unable to find confirmation on the biscuits.

Richmond Banner

Richmond, Missouri – May  1st – 3rd –  “The Mushroom Capital of the World” Morel Festival 

“The Mushroom Capital of the World” Morel Festival kicks off May 1st through the 3rd. Attracting upwards of 5,000 people it features a kids hay ride, grand parade, carnival and a 5k run, the festival is in it’s 24th year. Organizer Natalie Lamar, a fourth generation morel hunter says, “The morel season kicks off next week, I find it a little odd that there have been morels found to the north, usually they’re fruiting here first, but with a few cool nights and warms days we’ll see a fantastic crop.”

Last year the festival was nearly canceled due to a surprise six inch snow storm, but the grand foray went on and was won by a local. Lamar says “Locals usually win every year, they know all the good spots.”  This year will also feature a pig roast as part of the annual golf tournament, known as the Deuce Classic, a largest morel contest and Mister and Miss Competition for kids under 10.

Iowa Fest Banner

McGregor, Iowa – Cancelled –  Iowa Morel Mushroom Fest

The Iowa Morel Fest was located on the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. This is one of my favorite spots in the Upper Midwest. Across the Mississippi in Wisconsin is the Wyalusing State Park, with camp sites that overlook a 400 foot bluff, and as astronomy club with stargazing on Saturday nights. At the State Park you can rent canoes to explore the channel islands, or in McGregor you can rent motorized boats for the day. Just north of McGregor is the Effigy Mounds National Monument, a sacred place to many Native Americans.

After two years of hard work organizing the festival Nick Treondle doesn’t have the capacity to continue spending months setting it up.

“I’ll be starting in Southern Illinois and Indiana this year, harvesting morels, and working my way up to Minnesota, supplying buyers and restaurants all the way,” says Treondle. “This spring I’ll be sleeping under the stars, with a crew of four. But when I get to Central Wisconsin I’ll be headed to Door County for a four day, private morel camp.”

“I’ll be updating folks on my travels on facebook, and shipping morels all over the country.”

Mesick

Mesick, Michigan – May 8th – 10th –  Mesick Annual Mushroom Festival

The Mesick Morel Festival lies just outside the Manistee National Forest and Mesick is located about 15 miles south of Traverse City, Michigan . The Fest features a flea market, an antique car show and three days of carnivals – moms ride free with kids on Mother’s Day. This fest also features a magic show, beer tent and horse pull. Sponsored by the local Lions Club the Mesick Fest also features a Softball Tournament, a 5k run, Grand Parade and a carnival. After Saturday’s Parade there will be a “Mud Bog Competition” in which 4 WD racers will compete in a mud track race.

Lewiston Banner

Lewiston, Michigan – May 9th  –  Lewiston Morel Mushroom Festival

The Lewiston Morel Mushroom Festival is a one day event with morning guided forays, mushrooms tastings, an arts and craft show as well as an outdoor equipment show featuring archery, hunting and equipment. Lewiston is in Eastern Michigan in the Center of Grayling State Forest, about 30 miles north of Huron National Forest. The Grayling State Forest is home to some of the largest morels found.

National Banner
Boyne City, Michigan – May 14th – 17th  –  “National Morel Mushroom Festival

Up the glove in Michigan, spot on Lake Charlevoix the Boyne City Morel Fest is in the heart of Michigan’s Morel Country. A Carnival Midway is set up for the fest, with Music Friday and Saturday Night. The Grand Championship Foray is on Saturday, on private grounds, with participants bussed over to the undisclosed location.

“I’ve been going since I was a youngster,” says Ashleigh Harris of Michigan Mushroom Marketplace, “And this is the fifth year as the sole mushroom vendor.” This fest has not only cooking demonstrations but a tasting and cooking competition, says Harris, who also sells prepared foods such as mushroom soups and compound butters made in a commercial kitchen and sold at Farmer’s Markets with her co-owner husband Ken, and soon at their wild mushroom specialty store in Petoskey, Michigan, which opens this summer.

Musconda

Muscoda, Wisconsin – May 16th – 17th –  Morel Mushroom Festival

The Musconda, Wisconsin morel festival, in it’s 32nd year, the festival is sponsored by the local American Legion. The Town of Musconda is nestled in state forests on the Wisconsin river halfway between Madison and Prairie du Chien, and attracts folks as far away as Chicago and the Quad Cities attracting about 3,000 people. The prime morel spots east of Lake Michigan happen to be right around Musconda.

Cinda Johnson is one of the folks that help organize the fest, Cinda says shes been coming to the festival for over 20 years, “I love being outdoors in the woods, I love the possibility of finding that honey spot.” As usual she says, “the mainstage music will be at the firehouse, but this year they’re having a DJ at Mushroom Head Quarters.”

The festival funds the local American Legion Hall’s activities, including local little league teams. Last year poor weather put the entire festival in doubt, but at the last minute local hunters came in from the woods with enough morels that the Hall was able to sell hundreds of one pound baskets fresh from the hunt. r_wildMorel-21web

Now with almost every weekend over the next month and a half booked, all I can say is, have fun! And save some for me!

Feel free to contact me to add your festival to the list

It’s morel time, so let’s play “Morel Fact or Fiction Game – 2015 edition”

Wisconsin Driftless Region Fall Foraging and Relaxation

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.

Spring Lake Inn II
Spring Lake Inn You’ll never see the parking lot that isn’t completely full

 

 

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.

The Overlook at Wyalusing State Park
The Overlook at Wyalusing State Park

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.

This log had four identified species fruiting from it!
This log had four identified species fruiting from it!

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.

IMGP1069

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.

He loved the human touch and to have his one antler tugged on.
He loved the human touch and to have his one antler tugged on.

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. 

IMGP1080

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. 

IMGP1084

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.

IMGP1083

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 Treondle

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.