The Cowichan Lake district is famous among outdoor enthusiasts for its mountain trails, winding river and, of course, the lake itself with calm blue waters and forested hills on all sides. However, in those same hills and forests is another, lesser-known natural feature of this region: an abundance of mushrooms.
This weekend, Ingeborg Woodsworth, a mycology expert and educator who lives near Skutz Falls, is hosting the 17th annual Salmon and Mushroom Festival in Lake Cowichan, and this year’s event is shaping up to be one of the busiest ever.
“We have more community organizations involved than I ever have had — over half a dozen — all the political parties, dignitaries are coming. It’s incredible what’s happening this year,” she said. For the first time ever, there will also be a presentation from the Truffle Dog Company, which hosts classes that teach dogs to find truffles in the wild.
The festival is held at Centennial Hall in Lake Cowichan, running from Sept. 24 to 25, and includes mushroom displays, vendors, artwork, educational presentations and food at its Mushroom Cafe, which sells chanterelle soup, mushroom quiche and salmon prepared by Woodsworth. Another important component to the festival is the field trip on Saturday, in which Woodsworth brings participants into the forest behind her five-acre property and sends them out to collect as many mushrooms as they can find. Everyone brings these mushrooms back to Centennial Hall afterwards to be identified.
“It’s conservation through education,” said Woodsworth. “That is my philosophy.”
Originally from Berlin, Germany, Woodsworth first came to the Cowichan Valley as a young woman studying botany and mycology.
“What I found was not only the vegetation was three times as much as what I had studied in central Europe as well as the British Isles. And needless to say with mushrooms: same story,” said Woodsworth. “So my dream was somehow to come back to this Cowichan Valley for those fungi. So 26 years ago I managed to do that.”
Woodsworth found a piece of property just off Mayo Road that had not been logged since 1910. This land bordered a provincial forest — Block 33 — and with the help of her late husband, Woodsworth petitioned the provincial government and the logging industry to leave that section of forest intact. This is where Woodsworth brings her mushroom-picking field trip during the Salmon and Mushroom Festival each year.
According to Woodsworth, she received a verbal agreement from government and industry stakeholders to preserve that land on one condition.
“Forestry is telling me they would not log as long as I put the festival on, from my property to the [Valley Fish and Game Club] on Mayo Road, that would always be there for me to take people in and introduce them,” she said.
This is how through education, Woodsworth has managed to preserve some of the forested land in our area.
When it comes to fungi, she has a wealth of knowledge — something that was not lost on medical professionals in the Valley. Woodsworth is frequently consulted on cases in which patients are poisoned by mushrooms. No sooner had she moved here than she was receiving phone calls from doctors.
“I hadn’t even moved into my house 26 years ago when a doctor in Duncan called and said, ‘I was told by the emergency [department] in St. Paul’s hospital in Vancouver that you live here, so I shouldn’t bother them,’” she said. “So that was the beginning!”
Examining stomach contents is all in a day’s work for her, and not just human stomachs. Dogs, too, especially ones that spend a lot of time in penned-in spaces, occasionally eat harmful mushrooms.
“I managed to save a few of them,” she said.
Woodsworth has several pieces of advice for humans when it comes to mushroom hunting and consumption. For starters, you should not go out picking alone, or at the very least, make sure to let others know where you’re going, she said. Even if you identify a mushroom you are 100 per cent certain is safe to harvest and eat, don’t overdo it. Mushrooms left in a car, even in the shade with the windows down, will begin to age.
“Don’t eat aged mushrooms. They should be good and firm,” she said, adding that a person’s body weight and any medications they’re taking affects their appropriate portion size of even edible varieties. “Every season if we want to eat a wild fungi or plant, we have to make certain for 24 hours after just a sampling of it that everything’s fine. No side effects, go ahead and enjoy. The rest will still be waiting in 24 hours in the refrigerator, they’ll be fine.”
She recalled one situation in which a petite woman wound up in the emergency room after eating mushrooms for dinner with her family. Although her husband and children all ate the same amount as her, it was the fumes she inhaled while sautéing the mushrooms that caused her problem.
“She had overdosed, meaning she should not have eaten [so much]. She ate by nose!”
Chanterelles are among the most common varieties of mushrooms around the Cowichan Lake district, however, there are three different types of chanterelles in this area alone.
“You see this is my thrill, why I love being here and actually never regretted that I didn’t go back to [Germany]. We have always new arrivals,” she said, referring to airborne fungal spores that travel to Vancouver Island from places further down the Pacific Northwest coast. “The last three years have been very interesting. These dry months have brought us new varieties.”
The Salmon and Mushroom Festival begins Saturday at 10 a.m. at Centennial Hall and runs until Sunday at 3:30 p.m.