Mushrooms of the West Coast was an introductory identification and foraging class taught by Andy MacKinnon and Erin Feldman out of the Tofino Botanical Garden Ecolodge. These annual workshops are hosted by Raincoast Education Society and have now been offered on Thanksgiving weekend for several years in a row.
When people first began to arrive on Friday evening I was a little intimidated, mostly because they all seemed to know each other already (our group picture had 21 people). Everyone was friendly though, especially the Raincoast Society members who made sure we all felt welcome. Andy and Erin were both very personable and easy to like as well.
Respecting Nuu-chah-nulth territory and customs, Gisele Martin launched the course by welcoming us to the area using traditional protocol. Andy and Erin — who were supported throughout by Raincoast Society members — then began the lessons. These ended around 10:00 pm, with the agreement we would meet up again the next morning at 8:00 am.
The following morning we carpooled a short distance to a nearby forest path. The goal was to gather and identify as many different mushroom species as possible. One thing I found interesting was to learn that the mushroom is just the “fruit” of the organism so to speak, so picking it doesn’t harm it. Learning this I realized why I had never been able to transplant a mushroom to a plant pot successfully in my life. Awkward.
Most notably, I was able to identify and pick some Hedgehogs — though I later realized these were pretty small. Erin had said these were here favorite mushrooms to eat, and I’ve since discovered I really like them too. The Hedgehogs are very distinct and easy to identify because they have shark tooth-like undersides.
It was raining pretty steady, so we returned to the lodge for lunch. Sandwiches and desserts were provided for us both days from Redcan. Redcan’s food never fails to disappoint, so I was impressed to say the least.
In the afternoon, we divided into two groups. One group would identify mushrooms laid out on the table while the other would receive a mushroom cooking instructional by Chef Ian Riddick from Long Beach Lodge. The identification was really informative and helped me understand mushrooms a lot better. As for the cooking? All I can say is “damn.” I was really impressed. My biggest take away was that “mushrooms love fat: butter, cream, etc.” The Chanterelle Mushroom Pâté was my favorite, but everything was good.
We then broke for dinner. We reconvened for an evening lecture by Erin aptly called “That Mushroom Looks Delicious! Will It Kill Me?” I found this to be very useful, as foraging was the primary reason for me to take this course.
We met again Sunday morning at 8:00 am. Two of the women on the course were from Search-and-Rescue (Marcy and Toni I believe). They gave us a briefing on avoiding getting lost in the woods, as the forests can be very disorienting on the island. We then commuted for about half an hour to a spot that Dan Harrison, Executive Director for the Raincoast Society, had scouted.
We arrived and set out on our own. The weather had become pretty nice compared to Saturday, so it was a lot easier to move around. It was important not to stray too far from other people though, for safety reasons and to avoid getting lost.
I first came across the Winter Chanterelles (I’ve been enjoying these in my salads ever since). At first, I was ignoring the titanic gold ones because I thought they were too big — and probably gamey — until I crossed paths with one of the Search-and-Rescue ladies on the course who informed me that these were the actual Chanterelles. I felt a little embarrassed, but started to target these more exclusively. These are one of the mushrooms that pickers forage to sell on Vancouver Island. I understand why, and I’ve since learned they’re good to eat in just about everything.
I never came across any Oyster Mushrooms, which I felt confident enough to gather, but I did come across some poisonous Angel Wing, which is beautiful but can be misidentified as Oyster Mushrooms. Basically, the Angel Wing has a white top and is thinner, while the Oyster Mushroom has a more oyster-looking top.
As I’ve already mentioned, I ended up focusing on the Winter Chanterelles at first, then mostly targeting Chanterelles. I also picked Hedgehogs whenever the opportunity presented itself. I’ve since realized the importance of using a knife to cut the mushrooms off as I have been cleaning and preparing them this week. I would have saved myself a lot of work if I had used a knife. The bulb root-section might be important in identification, but when there isn’t any doubt there’s no point bringing that extra piece of soil and mushroom home.
We met back up for lunch on the road where we had left our vehicles. The food was from Redcan again, which was exciting. We then took a group picture, socialized for a bit, and finally went our separate directions.
I definitely felt as if I made a few friends by the end of the weekend. I had offered rides to other students, so got to know a few people this way, and others through conversations and identifying exercises. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed mushroom picking. There’s something magical about mushrooms in general, and a fun treasure hunt vibe to foraging them.
I also really like the Ecolodge where the classes were run out of. Darwin’s Cafe — which is on the grounds — is closed for the season, but this is one of my favorite hideouts when the Tofino world becomes too touristy for me. The whole energy of the place and everyone I’ve ever interacted with here is positive. As far as I know, this is where the Raincoast Education Society is run out of as well.
If I had any criticism it would be that the late, early, late, early schedule was difficult. Most people did not go to the Saturday evening lecture and I had a hard time staying focused as well. I would have preferred a longer Sunday personally, but I’m sure there were reasons for this schedule such as people needing to attend family dinners.
I hope to take more courses through the Raincoast Education Society, maybe even return next year to learn more about mushrooms. Coastal Animal Tracking looks especially appealing to me. I would definitely recommend this course to anyone interested in mushrooms, foraging, or nature. The cost was $240 for the weekend.