First Mushroom Hunt of the Year
By Shane Patrick
Special to Glacier City Gazette
“We’re meeting at the Merc at nine o’clock,” said my friend Willie. “You’ll need skis and a backpack. And a hatchet.” So began my foray into the world of chaga hunters.
Cross country boots that didn’t fit the bindings of borrowed skis, forgotten ski poles, and general Girdwood casualness stymied our early morning departure, but once on the road, sunshine and a windless day greeted us.
Birch trees don’t thrive in the Girdwood Valley, so our group decided to turn left at the Seward Highway and drive to Hope. As we drove we kept our eyes peeled for the red tinge of birch branches on the hillsides.
We found a stand of birch trees and while we put on our skis and backpacks, our veteran chaga hunter gave us the basics for proper identification.
The chaga mushroom grows almost exclusively on mature birch trees. It looks like charcoal slightly embedded in the tree and has a roughened, irregular surface. Chaga releases with the first whack of the hatchet or gentle prod of a chisel. The inside consists of shades of yellow or sometimes white and has a crumbly, corklike texture.
Chaga has been harvested for thousands of years because of its medicinal properties. Claims run the gamut from lowering blood pressure and cholesterol to fighting inflammation and supporting the immune system. The possible health benefits of chaga have not been reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn introduced chaga to the mainstream in 1968 when he wrote about its possible cancer curing abilities in his book Cancer Ward. Chaga continues to grow in popularity as people scour the Internet for the next super food or antioxidant to fight cancer, expand libidos or otherwise improve one’s life. Kate Mohat, mycologist with the United States Forest Service Glacier Ranger District in Girdwood, referred to chaga as, “the kale of the mushroom world,” referencing a once little known cabbage now on menus around the country with descriptions that include, “lemon-garlic massaged” and numerous purported health benefits.
If you are lucky enough to find chaga, it must be dried before use. Many people prefer to put a chunk of chaga in water and slowly boil it to extract its nutrients. Some use alcohol to draw out the mushroom’s benefits into tinctures. Still others simply use a coffee grinder to create a powder. The resultant is most often ingested like a cup of tea. To this writer, it tastes like dirty watered down diner coffee with a hint of vanilla.
Chaga’s growth in popularity has raised concerns about the sustainability of commercial harvesting. Opinions vary as to whether chaga regenerates after harvest. Some say it’s one and done while others claim chaga can be harvested from the same tree every three to five years.
Harvesters must know whether they are on public or private land. Public lands have different regulations and the burden is on you to know whose laws and jurisdiction you fall under. Private landowners can press trespassing and vandalism charges if you don’t have permission.
Alaska State Parks Ranger Thomas Crockett referred to Title 11 Alaska Administration Code Chapter 12 Section 170 Disturbance of Natural Objects, which says in part, that you can not disturb or deface but may gather edibles for personal use. Via email, Mr. Crockett said, “So by my read, chaga harvest is okay if you do not damage the tree.”
If you find yourself on Forest Service land, there is no limit to what you can harvest for personal use, but a permit is required for commercial harvest. Public Affairs and Partnership Staff Officer Alicia Frances King told me via email that one permit to harvest chaga has been issued for the Chugach National Forest.
A quick Internet search revealed a handful of Alaskan businesses selling chaga. Craig’s list currently lists nine places to buy chaga in Southcentral Alaska. Emails sent to sellers inquiring as to whether permits were secured to harvest chaga went unanswered.
At Farmers Markets or over the Internet, ask the seller how he or she identifies chaga and whether permission has been acquired to harvest and sell the mushrooms. Buying from responsible sources will ensure that overharvesting doesn’t occur.
When you venture out on the chaga hunt, it’s best to bring someone who has gathered it, can properly identify it and a map to ensure that you are in a legal harvest area. If you are lucky enough to find a patch of birch trees full of chaga, take only what you need. And like any good mushroom hunter, keep the location secret.