What makes Whistler a particularly great place to go looking for mushrooms?
It's a simple answer, according to mycologist Bryce Kendrick. "The fact that there's forests all around it," he said with a laugh. "The fungi live in the forest."
But if it weren't for those mushrooms—or more specifically, for the fungi that fill the forests and in some cases produce mushrooms—none of those forests would exist as we know them. Fungi play a vital role in our local ecosystem by decomposing dead plant matter, while also keeping trees healthy by providing them with access to essential nutrients.
That's just one of many important tidbits of information that participants learned during the 16th annual Fungus Among Us Mushroom Festival, held in Whistler on Friday, Oct. 12 and Saturday, Oct. 13.
Each year, the festival—organized by the Whistler Naturalists—draws about 20 fungus experts like Kendrick, dubbed "gurus," to Whistler, mostly from the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and here in the Sea to Sky. Throughout the weekend, they share their knowledge through classroom visits, talks, and guided walks through local forests. All events took place at (or started at) Myrtle Philip Community School. The two-day festival culminated with a multi-course gourmet tasting led by chef Bruce Worden on Saturday afternoon, followed by a mushroom display showcasing nearly 150 varieties of mushrooms harvested by gurus and participants during their walks.
During the walks, gurus and participants found 180 different species, with some still to be identified. According to organizers, at least 17 varieties were found for the first time, bringing the total number of mushrooms documented in Whistler to nearly 900.
On a sunny Sunday morning, after the participants had gone home, several gurus and organizers gathered in the Callaghan Valley for another annual tradition. Each year, once the festival is finished, they go on a walk with their fellow mushroom experts to see what they can find.
"They just love to go out together as a group, and they don't usually (get to) ... this is their time to all get together," explained Kristina Swerhun, president of the Whistler Naturalists, as a trio of gurus gathered around a cluster of mushrooms a few metres up the trail.
It's clear to see why Fungus Among Us has achieved lasting success: Each of the many times one of the gurus spotted a mushroom—whether it be tiny, sprouting spores, a humongous bolete the size of most people's faces, or a cluster of colourful, spotted toadstools—their excitement was infectious as they discussed the variety and properties of the fungus at hand.
That's the beauty in hunting for mushrooms in a region as fruitful as B.C., one guru explained. "Even if it's common, it's probably something you haven't seen for awhile."
While festival organizers have typically refrained from selling tickets online in an effort to keep the festival as local as possible, this year they decided to try something new.
Making tickets available online clearly proved worthwhile—the festival sold out for every event over the two days for the first time in its history, Swerhun said.
The Whistler Naturalists sold 80 tickets for the talks, 125 tickets for the walk, and 40 tickets for the five-course cooking demo.