Thunder Bay·Audio

Mushroom foraging on the rise in northwestern Ontario as COVID-19 boosts interest in the activity

It's that time of year again where mushrooms of all kinds have been sprouting up across northwestern Ontario.

The late summer weather in northwestern Ontario has mushrooms sprouting all over the place

Bill Skrepichuk, a long-time mushroom forager gives guidance to a group of first-timers as they collect mushrooms in Centennial Park in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Logan Turner / CBC News)

With his wooden basket in one hand and walking stick in the other, Bill Skrepichuk struts through the fields of Centennial Park in Thunder Bay, his eyes scanning the ground. Abruptly, he stops. 

"Aha!" Skrepichuk declares as he folds over and brushes the long grasses aside to reveal what he prefers to call "a boletus edulis."

"The other names are porcini, cèpes if you were in France, penny buns if you're in England, steinpilz in Germany and herkkutatti in Finn. These are the number ones, these are the kings."

Skrepichuk is hunting for mushrooms.

It's an activity that he's been doing since he was a young child, and one that he returns to every season. 

"As long as I'm breathing, I'll pick mushrooms. Why? Because it's a kind of a fall harvest and I'm a forager. The mushrooms ... learning them, harvesting them, consuming them, telling stories about them ... there's a magic to it."

Increased interest in mushroom foraging this year

It seems that more people in northwestern Ontario are trying to get a taste of that magic this year.

"Just like the interest in baking and gardening that overtook social media this year, mushroom foraging, and forest food foraging in general, is increasing," said Julee Boan, the boreal program manager for Ontario Nature.

Boan added, "There has been a significant amount of research lately which has shown that spending time in nature is good for our mental health. I think people are feeling that pull and the sense of relief that time in nature provides us ... and I expect foraging for mushrooms is likely also part of that larger trend."

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The weather in recent weeks has also been quite good for mushroom pickers in northwestern Ontario.

"When it rains, it spores, as we like to say," said Boan. "You can think of mushrooms as tight, tiny sponges hiding under leaves or logs. When exposed to enough water, they can expand rapidly and then they become visible to us. Depending on the species, that can happen right after a rainfall or it may take a few days."

Safety a major concern when it comes to 'mushrooming'

Organizations like Ontario Nature and the Confederation College in Thunder Bay have previously held mushroom walks as well as formal and informal courses and workshops to help educate people about safe foraging practices, but many of those have been cancelled in 2020 because of concerns about gathering size restrictions related to COVID-19.

But it's crucial for mushroom foragers to educate themselves about safe and best practices, because of the dangers that are posed by poisonous mushrooms.

The Ontario Poison Centre — which serves Ontario, Manitoba and Nunavut — lists mushrooms as a common poison on its website.

A group of first-time mushroom foragers collected a small bag of mushrooms in Centennial Park in Thunder Bay, Ont. as they were guided by life-time mushroomer Bill Skrepichuk. (Logan Turner / CBC News)

Recent numbers from the centre show that mushroom poisoning continues to be a concern this year, as the centre has already received 215 calls related to mushroom poisonings in 2020, which is similar to the numbers seen in prior years.

Mushroom poisoning is a serious concern, but shouldn't prevent newcomers to the activity from trying, said Skrepichuk.

"Start picking mushrooms with somebody who knows the mushrooms and learn slowly. Don't necessarily try to pick every mushroom ... learn about certain ones and get them down. Then learn how to cook them properly and that will be the draw that will allow you to enhance your knowledge."

Ontario Nature also has online resources for people who are interested in foraging for common edible species in northwestern Ontario, including plants and mushrooms.

Access Ontario Nature's "Northern Forest Foraging Guide" or "Harvesting and Processing Edible Wild Plants: Best Practices Guide" by clicking on the linked titles.