August Steinborn sometimes thinks he sees people following him, but it isn’t because he’s paranoid. It’s because people are following him.
Steinborn picks mushrooms. He knows how to delineate the delectable from the dangerous, when it’s time to move from one elevation to the next and what to do with those mushrooms when he finds them.
The Yakima resident finds morels popping up in “beauty bark” in the heart of Yakima in spring and then later in the orchards and finally the uplands. He gathers bagfuls of yellow chanterelles, king boletes and blue chanterelles in the late summer along the hillsides overlooking the Chinook Pass corridor. He finds matsutakes, that most prized (and expensive) of edible fungi, nestled under pine needles in the early autumn.
Fine-dining establishments are quick to tout menu items containing those tasty wild mushrooms. They’re worth money. Steinborn knows where to find them.
And others would like to know that same thing.
So, yes, more than four decades after a military tour in the jungles of Vietnam where he had to be constantly vigilant about who might be watching or following him, he’s being watched and followed again.
Only, this time it makes him laugh.
Sometimes, he even has a little fun with it.
Once he was on his way to pick mushrooms near Mount Adams when he realized he was being followed.
“I’d seen these guys coming up behind me. They’d seen me at a buyer’s station and checked out my vehicle,” says Steinborn, 62, who retired from construction work several years ago with what he says was Agent Orange-related health issues dating back to his days in Vietnam.
Anticipating the other pickers would follow him, clothed in the anonymity of their distance, Steinborn headed far off-trail, putting little stringers of tape in the tree branches. He led them into what he knew to be a swampy area and then hid.
“When they went by me, I went back behind them and followed my stringers out, taking them off as I left,” Steinborn says with a little chuckle. “I saw them when they got back to the buyers’ station pretty late that day. They didn’t say anything, but they looked right at me and it was obvious they weren’t very happy with me.”
Not that Steinborn cared. After all, they had been trying to take advantage of his work ethic, his willingness to look far and wide, to hike miles into the boonies to find the right vegetation, the right moisture levels and shade, the right ground cover for the shroomers he and his wife, Sadie, will saute to enjoy or sell to enrich.
“There’s many people who will try to follow you,” Steinborn says. “That’s why, if you ever go to a buying station, you don’t go with the same car you use out in the brush. You take your mushrooms back to wherever you’re camping and trade cars before you go into the buying station. Because they’re going to look at your car, look at your license plate, and they’re going to follow you.
“You’ve got to outsmart them.”
Perhaps it’s for that reason Steinborn prefers not to have his photograph splashed across the local newspaper when he takes a reporter out on a mushroom-picking expedition.
Maybe it’s why, when he ended up on the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” show four years ago on a segment about wild mushrooms, he particularly enjoyed what he self-deprecatingly calls “my eight to 10 to 15 seconds of fame.”
“All you saw,” he says with a grin, “was my hands.”
When Steinborn is out on a mushroom hunt, usually one of those hands will carry a cane or a pointed walking stick, which he uses to brush aside the ferns and low-lying plants that can hide a cluster of yellow chanterelles. It can also come in handy on the rare occasion he has unwelcome company, like the overly curious cougar he bopped on the nose with it while gathering matusakes near Mount St. Helens.
Of course, most mushroom expeditions aren’t that exciting, and that’s precisely why Sadie has been accompanying him over the 15-plus years they’ve been together.
“It was a very intriguing thing,” Sadie says of accompanying Steinborn on his wilderness forays early in their relationship. “A couple of times in the beginning he took me on a couple of hell hikes, and I hated him for it.
“But it just stuck with me, and I enjoy doing it. I love being out in the forest, and it’s calming. It’s just very tranquil. You hear nothing but chipmunks occasionally, and of course crows.”
And, when August and Sadie are separated on their mushroom hunts, checking different draws and hollows, you hear August and Sadie, too.
They make little hooting noises or whistles, each sound meaning something different — I’m into a bunch of mushrooms, I’m Lost, Where are You, or even I Need Help.
Typically, though, the only help either needs is in gathering and carrying the latest load back to the truck. Steinborn re-ups his commercial picker permit every year because he can’t refuse the siren song of that mountain bounty.
And its call begins every year not in the high country, but down in the flatlands. Steinborn starts looking around town in mid-March, “just to see what varieties are coming up,” he says. “And when mushrooms start growing at this elevation, they’re going to start moving up.”
So he follows them. In the spring he picks morels in the landscaping bark — which he calls “bark dust” — at public places around town. “Eisenhower High School’s got brand new beauty bark, and if it’s the right kind of bark dust, there will be morels there next spring.” He pauses to chuckle at a mental image. “Can you imagine walking around the high school picking mushrooms, people looking at you?”
About the time the wild asparagus starts popping up, that’s his signal to move to the orchards and the first upcountry morels. By late spring he’s working the morel-rich hillsides overlooking the Nile, while also looking for “leftovers from the previous fall of chanterelles.” They’ll show him where new ones will return in the fall.
When the ticks start to get bad in the Nile, he’ll move further upslope to Cliffdell and beyond for the last of the season’s morels. Then, when they’re done, he’ll go back down and start looking for spring boletes before beginning his search for the early chanterelles.
For a mushroom picker, there’s almost always something in season.
The matsutake is a mushroom hunter’s most prized find, primarily because of its popularity in Japan, where it’s a gift of great respect in the corporate world and is considered to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Because of that, brokers with Japanese connections will pay top dollar for matsutakes and a picker can pocket up to $600 per pound. But because those market prices fluctuate wildly, these days Steinborn only occasionally searches for them.
In the end, Steinborn is at heart a mushroom eater, and that’s why he picks them. He talks about the “nutty flavor” boletes have, “like a Brazilian walnut.
“The blues (chanterelles) have more of a sweet, mild flavor. The whites are kind of a mild, light peppery taste, where the yellows have a strong pepper taste to them.”
When August Steinborn talks about cutting yellow chanterelles into slices and dry-sauteing them in a pan over medium heat before putting them back into the pan “with a little butter, some olive oil, onions if you want them,” you can almost hear his taste buds screaming out for that first bite.
So if you’re following August Steinborn around on one of his mushroom expeditions, you’re wasting your time — because, sooner or later, most of those mushrooms are going to end up in the same place.
Right there on his dinner plate.