Death caps were everywhere.

Plodding along the softly carpeted forest floor, feet sinking into inches of freshly fallen and decaying leaves, my eyes scanned for any sign of life sprouting from underground. With each spotting of a white rounded cap, my excitement would grow, only to soon lament it was only another killer I had found by the dozens already.

I wanted something different—chanterelles, puffballs, chicken of the woods! I’d describe myself as more novice than expert, but with a few years of mushroom identification on my recreational resume, I was ready to put my skills to the test—and maybe, just maybe, find something to eat.

“That’s part of the fun of mushroom hunting,” Outdoor Education Coordinator Jon Aull told me and the dozens of others in our group at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER). “You never know what you are going to find.”

Mushrooms fill a table to be identified.

Varying mushrooms found by our foraging group sit on a table to await identification.

In the 13 years I’ve lived in Chico, I finally made my first trek to the BCCER in late November, energized by a short-notice invitation to capitalize on the moment where moisture and temperature meld to make mushroom magic.

“Timing is everything. That’s part of the attraction of mushroom hunting—that it’s so ephemeral,” Aull said. “There are a lot of things you seldom get to see, and they don’t last long.”

Now is a prime time for pursuit of these elusive and unpredictable wonders, as recent rain and ensuing sunshine-filled days have them sprouting up fast. And the reserve is an ideal place to start your search, offering 3,950 acres of oak woodlands, chaparral, pine forest, rock cliffs, and other habitats in elevations ranging from 700 feet to 2,044 feet.

Community members and program coleaders Steve and Beth Wattenberg joined Aull in giving the crowd of 30 campus and community members a quick lesson in identification, and we divided into smaller groups—I opted for a strenuous hike that promised to cover a lot of ground in hopes of increasing our chances of a good loot.

For those who are unfamiliar, mushrooms are above-ground fruiting bodies of fungi. There are more than 1,000 described species in the world. Our quick-and-dirty lesson in the “woodwide web” told us about those we might be so lucky to find on the reserve, and I had my pocket copy of All That the Rain Promises and More to help me in my identification in the field.

A cluster of brown honey mushrooms sprouts from the grass.

Honey mushrooms were prevalent on our hike. The stalks can be peeled like string cheese.

We had been hiking mere minutes before stumbling upon generous clusters of honey mushrooms. Ryan Edwards, a senior majoring in physical geography who works as a land steward at the reserve, showed us how the long, tawny brown stalks can be peeled like string cheese to reveal a delectable, edible white interior.

A few strides later, we turned our attention to turkey tails. Clusters of fan-shaped fungi sprouted from the sides of logs and trees, looking unmistakably like their namesake. We popped a few leathery pieces in our mouths and chomped on them like chewing gum. A little dry, not tremendously flavorful, but not the worst forest find I had ever sampled. Edwards suggested turkey tail tea is a little more palatable.

Ryan Edwards holds up a death cap mushroom to talk about its lethal properties.

Ryan Edwards, far right, holds up a death cap and talks about its lethal properties.

And then, we found our nemesis. The death caps. They proved to be prolific this time of year, pushing upward from the forest floor at varying elevations. A simple mushroom tinged green or yellow with white gills, it’s not much to look at but lethal if eaten.

“If you want to get into foraging, you need to learn these first,” Ryan said.

Disclaimer: Never eat wild mushrooms unless they have been identified by an expert! As my mushroom mentor had taught me a few years ago, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If nagging fear or worry plagues every bite, stealing the pleasure from the meal itself, it’s better to relish the hunt and identification rather than the chance of making a meal out of mushrooms.

“There’s only two that will kill you, here on the reserve,” Aull said. “The bad news is they look like some really tasty ones.”

After 90 minutes of hiking, we found enough varying species of mushrooms to cover two large tables. Aull and the Wattenbergs demonstrated how the blood-red Satan’s boletes bleed blue across their cream-colored insides when you cut them. As he held up a lion’s mane the size of a soccer ball, we admired its beardy threads stretching long and thin. And it was irresistible to poke at the little orange gelatinous globs of witches’ butter that seemed more fitting for a faraway planet than a forest.

John Aull stands in front of a table of edible and nonedible mushrooms.

John Aull, center, discusses the various species of edible and nonedible mushrooms found by our foraging group.

We were also able to add three new finds to the reserve’s species list, pushing the total roster to more than 90 species. The additions include bird’s nest fungi, a yellow waxy cap, and fairy fingers. (The names are one of my favorite thing about mushroom foraging!)

“It’s kind of a citizen science,” Aull said, as we worked together to identify our finds. Most were inedible, if not poisonous or with promises of gastric upset, but a few well-identified species made their way home with people for dinner.

While we didn’t see much wildlife on our foraging foray other than the orange-bellied California newt, our guide Edwards regaled us with stories about encountering black bears in broad daylight, dense groups of black-tailed deer, and many other mammals, birds, and other creatures that call the reserve home.

“I just love the diversity out here,” said Dori Wall, a faculty member in the School of Education, as she strolled among the oak trees.

Bigger and more wild than Bidwell Park, the reserve is open to the public every day from dawn until dusk. Mushroom hunts are a great introduction to the property, which is owned by the CSU, Chico Research Foundation, because they require adventuring into the expanses of the reserve and rapt attention to one’s surroundings.

Of those in our group, only about one-third had ever visited the reserve before. I had broached its western border while hiking along Ten Mile House Road but never explored it as its own destination. Now, I’m restless to return.

“Our motto is ‘Where education meets the land,’” Aull said. “That’s where we see our role—as preserving the habitat and bringing people to show them how special it is.”

For details on upcoming guided excursions to the reserve, including an Autumn Watersheds adventure on Sunday, December 11, visit its Facebook page and check out its website for species lists and other interesting information. And please remember, collection of fungi or anything else on the reserve is not permitted outside of education programs.