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Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club puts the 'fun' in fungi

Club membership, which follows the calendar year, costs $10 for an individual, while a household membership is $15. Besides learning about the abundant fungi that thrive in northern Minnesota, joining the club is a good way to experience and learn about nature with like-minded people.

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Paula Peters, president of the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club, with a giant puffball mushroom she picked in 2017. Contributed/ Paula Peters

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Foraging season is winding down for fall mushroom hunters across the Northland, but a club based in Bemidji brings together like-minded fungus finders throughout the year.

Members of the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club come from across northern Minnesota.

“I guess our thrust has always been to provide education,” said Paula Peters of Nary, president of the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club and a co-founder of the group. “We’re not necessarily all about just, ‘What mushrooms can I eat?’ But we try to educate people on mushrooms that are poisonous, as well, and hope that people just get an interest in them and (enjoy) being in a group of other people who know a lot.

“You can learn from each other.”

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The origin of the club dates back more than 30 years, said Peters, who moved to north-central Minnesota in 1980 and began learning about mushrooms through programs at Deep Portage Learning Center near Hackensack.

About that same time, members of the Minnesota Mycological Society in the Twin Cities began holding fall mushroom forays at Deep Portage. It was during those forays, Peters recalls, that she and forager John Mikesh, whom she’d met at Deep Portage, decided to form a mushroom club of their own that was closer to home.

“It was like, ‘We don’t need to go to Minneapolis to find mushrooms,’” said Peters, a retired behavioral analyst at Community Behavioral Health Hospital in Bemidji. “We live up here in the North Country. There’s forests and lakes everywhere so let’s just start something up here.”

Once they decided to organize, club members held forays near Walker, Hackensack and Akeley, Peters says. The new club’s first foray was at the Shingobee Ski Hill area south of Walker

Then as now, they’d have club outings – known as forays – during the warmer months and bring in various mushroom experts during the winter to speak about mushrooms at club meetings. The club also has hosted mushroom cooking events, although virtual events have outnumbered in-person gatherings since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve done a lot of different things over the years, based on what people are interested in,” Peters said. “And then we usually have a potluck, and people in our club are great cooks.

“We get some awesome food.”

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Like any club, membership in the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club has ebbed and flowed over the years.

“We’ve at times gotten to the point where I thought we weren’t going to survive, and then we get an infusion of new people or new ideas and it’s really done pretty well over the years,” Peters said.

The Minnesota Mycological Society was supportive of the club’s efforts, Peters says, which led to them meeting Anna Gerenday, who was active in the Minneapolis club.

A retired entomology scientist at the University of Minnesota, Gerenday spent a number of years coming up from the Twin Cities to teach members of the Paul Bunyan club about mushrooms.

“I really credit her with our success as a club,” Peters said. “She taught us a lot, and I still to this day hear her voice pronouncing the scientific names of mushrooms when I see them because she taught me so much.”

Morels, a spring mushroom, often are the first fungi that come to mind for newbies to foraging. But fall time is prime time when it comes to mushrooms, Peters says. The club in early October hosted a mushroom foray at Lake Bemidji State Park attended by upwards of 20 people.

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Members of the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club compare findings Oct. 2, 2021, during a mushroom foray at Lake Bemidji State Park. Contributed/ Wayne Goeken

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Fungus forays typically begin in May, she says, but the club usually avoids June because ticks and mosquitoes are at their worst, and there’s not much to be found in terms of mushroom variety.

Chanterelles begin showing up in July, Peters says, and the variety continues to build as summer progresses. This year has been a bit of a dud for mushrooms because of widespread drought conditions that persisted throughout the summer into early fall.

That was reflected in the club’s recent Bemidji outing, although foragers did find a “good variety,” Peters says.

“There were a few there that, for me, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool – I haven’t seen that yet this year,’” she said. “But of course, this year was different because it was not a typical year. We would have normally found a lot more than what we found this time. Drought really affected the harvest of mushrooms.”

Besides drawing fungi foragers from a wide geographic area, the club’s membership includes people of all ages.

“A lot of people do join and come for a couple of years and then they kind of get a base list of mushrooms that they're interested in, and then they kind of fade away and other people come along,” Peters said. “We have a few people that have stayed for many years.

“It depends on what you're looking for, too. If all you’re looking for is edibles, after a number of times, you’re going to learn those on your own.”

Club membership, which follows the calendar year, costs $10 for an individual, while a household membership is $15. Besides learning about the abundant fungi that thrive in northern Minnesota, joining the club is a good way to experience and learn about nature with like-minded people, Peters says.

“We’re all people who really enjoy nature and getting together, and it's always really nice when we see each other again after a while,” she said. “We’re just a really nice, laid-back group of people that are always welcoming.”

For more information on the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club, check out the website at pbmushroom.org.

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