Cordova’s funky fungus festival is always an autumn favorite

2016 Fungus Fest weekend was a hit with all ages — venues included the Chugach National Forest, The Net Loft and the Cordova Center with funky movies, mushroom pigment dying classes and crafts for kids and adults

There’s fungus among us – several varieties of fungi, that is, in the forests and through the trees all around Cordova.

Last weekend was full of all things related to mushrooms during Cordova’s tenth annual Fungus Festival, thanks to the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, The Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association, the U.S. Forest Service Cordova Ranger District, the Copper River Watershed Project and the Net Loft, and volunteers too numerous to count.

From fungus forays to weird mushroom-themed movies, natural dying of fabrics and yarn with mushrooms and lichen, to kid-friendly events and stations at the Cordova Center, mushroom-related activities were on tap throughout the town September 2-4.

A wild harvest feast capped off Saturday’s events, during a fundraising dinner sponsored by the Copper River Watershed Project. Land and Sea Wild Standard’s Executive Chef Derek Baril, from Boulder, Colorado, acted as guest chef for the night. Baril was brought to Cordova thanks to efforts by the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

Foraging for fungi in the Chugach National Forest

Retired U.S. Forest Service Biologist Ken Hodges, of the Cordova Ranger District, has been leading mushroom forays into the Chugach National Forest for a decade. Hodges is a fisheries biologist and took his first mycology classes at Humboldt State in northern California 35 years ago.

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Even during retirement, Hodges is happy to help guide people on hikes and walks during the festival.

“Saturday there were 30 people on the morning walk,” Hodges said, “It must have been a combination of the sunshine and it being the first day of the festival. There were 32 people out on the afternoon hike.”

The foragers’ morning hike was on Pipeline Lakes Trail and in the afternoon people went to Black Hole Creek, Hodges said.

Cordova provides wild-harvesters with a plethora of natural edibles grown in our Alaskan surroundings. In fact, there is one mushroom indigenous to Cordova and found nowhere else, called Lactarius Cordovaensis (Lactarius cordovaensis Hesler & A.H. Sm., North American species of Lactarius: 330, 1979).

“The mushroom is NOT edible,” Hodges said. “It’s been found in Cordova and only in two places. It might be overlooked unless people know what they’re looking for. I expect it would take an expert to differentiate it from others.”

Hodges said mushrooms have symbiotic relationships with trees; thus different areas of Alaska will have different types of mushrooms, based on the climate and the trees which grow there. What might grow in Cordova’s forests won’t necessarily grow in Girdwood’s forests, he said.

“My job at the U.S. Forest Service was about educating people about their public lands. There’s a lot of interest as far as people wanting to go mushroom hunting,” Hodges said. “If people are able to learn which ones are edible and which ones are poisonous, they’re thankful, happy and appreciative, learning about the different species and identifying them. It’s a nice outdoor activity that almost anyone can enjoy.”

Hodges loves seeing people appreciate the Chugach National Forest, whether it be hiking, foraging, berry picking or however folks might choose to get out and connect with nature and enjoy a subsistence lifestyle.

Cordovans love their mushrooms, if the number of wild harvesters out this weekend counts.

“It would be easier for me, though,” Hodges said, with a touch of humor in his voice, “If I didn’t tell people where all of the mushrooms are and kept them all for myself.”

Mushrooms, lichen and craft workshops, oh my!

Other weekend highlights included felting, creating shadow box projects, natural dying classes and other fiber related events at The Net Loft.

Cordovan Amber Wasson attended the mushroom dying workshops at Cordova’s well-loved fiber, traditional handicrafts and treasure shop, with guest instructor Alissa Allen, of Mycopigments.

Allen lives in Massachusetts.

“I look forward to it every year,” Wasson said. “I’ve been taking the classes for three years consecutively and still have so much to learn. I’m thankful that Alissa Allen is so forth coming with her knowledge and supports our learning year-round through her face book pages.”

Allen has two Facebook pages, one for mushroom and lichen dying and a mushroom dyers trading post, Wasson said.

Allen is also writing a book that will include a section on Alaska mushroom dying.

“Right now there is such limited information available,” Wasson said, “It’s still being discovered. It’s kind of cool to be a part of history in the making! We’re so thankful to the Forest Service and the Net Loft for sponsoring Alissa to come back and teach every year.”

Wasson said she loves being outside in nature and harvesting in the woods with her family.

“Dying, for me, is still very new,” Wasson said. “I have so much I want to do and try. I can’t wait until things slow down this winter so I can work on dying more. I’m passionate about it!”

Per her website, Allen has been experimenting with mushroom derived pigments and sharing her enthusiasm and experience with others for over 15 years.

A three-course meal by a guest chef

The Wild Harvest Feast on Saturday night, sponsored by the Copper River Watershed Project, is an annual fundraiser that draws a fairly large crowd.

Dinner tickets sold for $65 each and 120 people were served a delightful array of dishes, including mushrooms foraged locally by volunteers. The menu consisted of Alaskan chanterelle and blueberry salads, with pickled pink shallots, arugula, baby spinach, quinoa granola and toasted cumin honey vinaigrette; pistachio encrusted Coho salmon with bacon, mushroom barley risotto, roasted carrots and an orange-cranberry relish; and homemade desserts by Cordova’s finest home-kitchen bakers.

“We became involved four years ago, when we proposed to take over the dinner part of the festival,” said Kristin Carpenter, Executive Director of the Copper River Watershed Project.

“The Copper River/PWS Marketing Association offered to get involved by hosting a guest chef as part of its fall Coho media tour,” Carpenter said. “One of the marketing association’s big education messages is that Copper River salmon are available all summer long and showing people the Coho salmon fishery is part of that message.”

Funds raised from the silent auction taking place during the dinner are used to give a $1,000 scholarship to a graduating senior from Cordova High School, Carpenter said.

“We seated a mix of Cordovans, visitors who came for the Fungus Festival and visiting sport fishermen at the dinner,” she said.

The five-way Fungus Festival partnership between the Cordova Chamber, Forest Service, CRPWS Marketing Association, The Net Loft and CRWP works. Carpenter said Chef Baril, who created the evening’s feast, was amazing.

“He was very chill and completely relaxed about cooking for so many people,” Carpenter said. “He developed the menu, sent me a grocery list and I ordered the produce through Nichols’ grocery store. Copper River Seafoods and Northern Fish Alaska donated the fish. Local mushroom pickers Curly Herschleb, Monika Reghetti, Kim Menster, Britt Pedicord and John Stack supplied the mushrooms. Penny Oswald donated cranberries and Liz Senear and her friend Jeannie picked blueberries for the salad. It was a true team-effort.”

It takes a village

Cathy Long, executive director of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, along with Melissa Gabrielson, lead wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and Kate Mohatt, lead ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, headed up the festival planning committee.

“The chamber and the Forest Service provided the speakers, the Cordova Center venue, marketing materials and outreach, and the majority of the funds to put on the festival,” Long said.

It was a community-wide effort, with many helping hands making the weekend’s hard work worth it.

This was Long’s first year as a festival organizer, but she said she’s volunteered and participated in the Fungus Festival for many years.

“I think this year’s festival was fantastic,” she said. “Holding it at the Cordova Center added a new level of legitimacy. The kids’ corner, the funky fungus films, a recipe swap and the wine and cheese mixer, all new this year, were well-attended and folks seemed to really enjoy them.”

Long loves seeing folks get excited about the multitude of subsistence resources available in Cordova.

“It’s great to see people learning to identify and harvest their own mushrooms,” Long said, “And, get excited about the hunt! To see their pride when they harvest their first patch of hedgehogs or a king bolete is exciting.”

Long sees the festival as a quality of life event for the town.

“It’s something for Cordovans to look forward to in the fall,” Long said.

Nearly all the fall festival’s events are free.

“Going into this year, we didn’t have any sustainable funding sources,” Long said, “We had some new expenses, such as renting the Cordova Center and for film rights. We added the wine and cheese mixer as our main fundraising event, and provided folks with opportunities to donate throughout the festival with donate what you can, cans.”

The cans are available at the Cordova Chamber of Commerce for the remainder of September, should anyone wish to donate. Gabrielson is in her third year pitching in as festival organizer.

“This event provides information on proper mushroom identification,” Gabrielson said, “Ecosystem services supplied by fungi and sustainable harvest techniques. This ongoing event continues to draw a large audience with fresh faces every year. Feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive to continue on an annual basis.”

The U.S. Forest Service promotes conservation education to increase environmental literacy through partnerships with groups that benefit and educate urban populations, supports and assists in the year-round economic and social well-being of local communities, she said.

“We also have a lot of help from local volunteers,” Gabrielson said, “Including annual festival goers who make this event that much better with their support.”

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson
Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.