A happy mycologist shows of a couple of “parrot toadstools,” a type of mushroom she’d never seen until visiting the Cable Area for the NAMA Northwoods Foray! Photo by Emily Stone.

Lois Nestel, the Cable Natural History Museum’s founding naturalist and director, loved mushrooms. She ate them, sculpted them, painted them, and taught the community about them. We still proudly display her work as part of our collections. 

This past weekend, September 7-10, the Museum once again found ourselves immersed in mushrooms, and I think Lois would have loved it! The North American Mycological Association (NAMA) holds an annual foray every year in a different place. This year it came to Lakewoods Resort, east of Cable, WI, on Lake Namakagon. Last year it was held in Front Royal, VA, near Shenandoah National Park. Next year it will be near Crater Lake, OR. Keep track at namyco.org.

Usually a local mycology club hosts the annual foray, but since the Cable Area doesn’t have a club, the Museum stood in. I coordinated the field trips (among a zillion other things), and recruited a swarm of volunteers to help with everything from driving vans to running the information desk. We all had a blast.

Thursday began slowly, with out-of-towners just beginning to arrive. One of the early birds, Jay Justice, a free-range, free-lance field mycologist from Arkansas, kindly agreed to give a short lecture and field walk for the public at the Museum Thursday morning. Thirty-five people hung on every southern-accented word, and gathered round as we walked less than a block but still found plenty of mushrooms to look at. 

In the afternoon, I led a field trip to Paine’s Island on Lake Namekagon. It’s privately held, but the owners are Museum members who are interested in mushrooms. In exchange for welcoming strange mycologists into their haven, they were able to join the foray. Our pontoon driver was also Museum member and amateur mycologist. Together, we scoured the forest for mushrooms.

Well, more like we started walking and then had trouble not squashing mushrooms wherever we stepped! One fallen log—a mossy old basswood trunk—was a mycological gold mine. The longer we looked, the more we found. The most visible fungi were artist’s conks—the firm shelf fungi with white undersides you can draw on. Looking closer we discovered a Lilliputian world of slime molds, jelly fungi, cup fungi, and more. 

Glowing orange clusters of mushrooms drew us farther into the forest. Shimmering lilac caps brought us to our knees. I stayed with a group moving slow, distracted at every turn by new fungi. 

Part of the group took off at a brisk pace, and circumnavigated the island. One of them came crashing out of the forest after an hour of so, glowing both from sweat and excitement. In her hand was a bouquet of tiny parrot toadstools. The ¾ inch diameter caps were a glossy pea green, while the stems were melon orange. Her smile was jack-o-lantern bright. This was a “lifer” for her, a mushroom that had been on her bucket list for years. 

Friday and Saturday brought more of the same, as the foray jumped into full swing. Four field trips with two 15-passenger vans each rolled out of the parking lot at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. sharp. Other attendees could choose from any of three simultaneous lectures each hour. When the field trips returned home, their mushroom baskets were piled high with specimens tucked neatly into waxed paper bags, each with their own voucher slip containing information about where the fungus was found. The drop-off tables quickly became buried as the scientists and grad students worked to identify, sort, and organize the hundreds of fungal specimens. 

Even the experts I talked to at the foray—mycologists who have been traveling the world for years—told me that they saw fungi in person here that they’d previously seen only in books. Even people just foraging for the pot had their day to shine. Many pounds of choice edibles like black trumpets, chanterelles, and chicken-of-the-woods went home with happy mycophagists. 

Our evenings were spent in the giant convention room, with 350 people eagerly awaiting the announcement of “finds of the day.” Drab, obscure fungi won the prizes. These fungi are rarely found because they are easy to overlook.

It seems as though almost no fungi was overlooked by this group, though. While the total number of species collected won’t be final until after Patrick Leacock, the foray’s lead mycologist (www.mycoguide.com), checks them over at the Field Museum in Chicago, the experts are guessing that we’ll get names on at least 550 species of fungi, collected over just a few days, in an area reaching from Madeline Island to Shell Lake. This breaks the previous record for the number of species collected at a NAMA Foray: 523.

The best sample of each species was carefully documented, photographed, and dehydrated, and will be housed in the herbarium at the Field Museum alongside more than 50 years’ worth of fungal distribution data gathered at NAMA Forays.

The NAMA Northwoods Foray was a resounding success. “The best ever!” according to some long-time NAMA members. You can see photos of the event by searching for #NorthwoodsForay17 on Facebook or Instagram.

That success was no accident, though. The organizers chose Bayfield County because we knew the fungal diversity was incredible. We chose Lakewoods Resort because their incredible staff is accustomed to big events, and also because they are smack-dab in the middle the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and an incredible network of trails. The Museum chose to help because we knew that our volunteers would step-up, keep things running smoothly, be thrilled to welcome people to our woods, and hungry to learn more about fungi. With this event, we fulfilled our mission by connecting 350 people to Northwoods Nature!

I think Lois Nestel would be proud, don’t you?

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at http://cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/. Listen to the podcast at www.cablemusum.org!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

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