Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chanterelles – The Last Post

It doesn’t often happen with such clock-like precision.

a) I read a friend’s blog about chanterelle mushrooms.

b) I say to myself, “I’ve been reading abut chanterelles for decades, but I don’t even know what they look like.”

c) I create a one-page instruction sheet for myself, lifting images of chanterelles (and false chanterelles) from on-line sources, drawing arrows to the significant details—the distinctive gills, the vase-shaped form, the orange-yellow coloring.

d) The next day, I see some chanterelles! Or something that looks a lot like chanterelles.

We were visiting St. Croix State Park, Minnesota’s biggest, though not its most dramatic or interesting. It sits on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border in an obscure part of the state south of Duluth (The Mille Lacs Uplands) that’s largely lacking in towns, lakes, or other points of recreational interest. Perhaps the park's most distinctive feature is the architecture. The buildings were constructed during the 1930s from rough-hewn blocks of local sandstone, which is a warm tawny brown. Other than the St. Croix River itself, which runs along the eastern edge of the park, the Kettle River, Minnesota’s premier whitewater river, may be the park’s prime feature—though a river is hard to appreciate unless you happen to be going down (or up) it.

We had brought our canoe along, and after a cursory driving tour of the huge three-part campground we set out paddling up the St. Croix, which was much wider than I’d expected, considering how far upstream we were. Twenty minutes later we left the big river to explore a more intimate tributary (the Clam River, I later read on a map) then returned to the St. Croix and soldiered on against the current, which was pronounced but manageable. We ducked behind a few islands, looking for a sandy place to swim, and passed a couple camping on some high ground near the bank at one point. We turned around when we heard a tangle of distant voices around a bend further upstream. A tubing party that had taken the shuttle to the next landing, no doubt.

The return trip took all of fifteen minutes. No need to paddle much. Familiar landmarks whizz by. Not nearly as fun as the slow slog upstream.

We then drove the park’s gravel roads past huge forests that someone is attempting to re-convert to jack pine barrens—or so it appears—and a few boggy trout streams, before reaching a more substantial grove of red pines. At the end of the road we took the short hike out through the woods to a ridge overlooking the Kettle River. Though I’ve never canoed it, I’ve crossed it on the freeway countless times, and I am always reminded that the elder brother of a classmate lost his life there at the age of 14 doing Hell’s Gate with his dad.

It was there, in the trees near the overlook, that I spotted the wavy orange-yellow mushrooms. I picked three or four and we packed them into a handkerchief.

Back at the visitor center, two park employees were chatting at the front desk. I inquired if the naturalist were anywhere about. They gave a holler and a third woman emerged from the office.

“What have you got?” she said.
When I held up the mushroom all three of the women’s faces lit up. “That’s a chanterelle,” the naturalist said with a smile. She didn’t look at it closely, examine the gills, or smell it.
“That’s what I thought,” I replied. “I found it up at the Kettle River overlook.”
“Oh, don’t give your spot away!” one of the other women said.

But I was not entirely convinced. The gills didn’t have that “melted” look the websites talked about … though they did seem to be attached firmly to the cap. I sent emails off to a few friends, along with a photo, and the replies came back uniformly positive.

So last night I chopped them up and sautéed them in butter. They were good.

And here I am, eighteen hours later, writing about it. I guess this won’t be the last post after all.

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