Like a mushroom itself, a lot goes on beneath the surface of the Eagle Mushroom Festival to make it a growing success as it enters its fifth year this weekend.
"This has the best format in the state of all the mushroom festivals we do here," said Larry Evans, a world-renowned mycologist who has been part of all five Eagle Mushroom Fests. "The a-la-carte pricing makes this more accessible while other festivals are expensive and less educational."
By "we," Evans was referring to his equally renowned comrade, Daniel Winkler. Originally from Bavaria, Winkler is famous for his "Mushroaming Tibet" eco tours. He is also an expert on the medicinal properties of mushrooms and was recently quoted in National Geographic.
The two came to Eagle a few days early for the festival with the intent of finding fungal treasures of their own.
The Eagle Mushroom Festival is Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Events begin 5:30 p.m. Friday with a presentations at Eagle Town Hall. Paradigms Restaurant and Luigi's Pasta House feature kick-off dinners at 7 p.m. The restaurant meals are not included in the price of the event and reservations are recommended.
On Saturday and Sunday, events start at 8:30 a.m. Offerings include classes, hunts and foodie stuff like cook-offs and cooking classes.
Admission to attend all events is $90, excluding the restaurant dinners. Tickets for only Saturday or Sunday are $50. Admission to individual events is also available on an a-la-carte basis for $30 or $35, depending on the event.
The mushroom hunts from 10:30 to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday are free. Participants will meet at the Eagle County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall and carpool to the foray venue.
For more information and a full listing of event activities, visit www.eagleoutside.com and click on the "events" tab.
To purchase tickets, contact organizer Tom Boni at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (970) 328-9619.
The first Eagle Mushroom Fest was more of an informal gathering. Eagle Town Planner Tom Boni had met Evans at a mushroom event a year earlier and enlisted him to start something in Eagle.
Only a handful of people participated that year and the next but it got the attention of the community.
"We're building an audience," Evans said. "The first event turned up a lot of people who were already into it. Chefs and restaurateurs came out of the woodwork. They helped make this successful and haven't asked for anything in return."
Boni added that the town of Eagle and other businesses have also chipped in support.
The biggest day last year saw about 40 participants. This year is shaping up to be even bigger.
"It grew from local, to regional and it's drawing people in from farther and farther out," Winkler said.
Mushroom hunting can be tough, as the best spots to find the fantastic fungus are usually off the beaten path. A person might have to bushwhack and climb over logs and mud. Once he or she finds the hidden delicacies, however, the pain is often forgotten and a mushroom hunter emerges from the woods.
"On our second year," Boni said, "there was a woman who was not dressed well for the hike and she had not done any strenuous hiking in a long time. The conditions that year were especially difficult. We went through lots of mud and the woman fell down repeatedly. I worried about her but at the end of the day she was smiling and talking about how great it was."
Winkler said it's the satisfaction of finding treasure that makes mushroom hunting such an addiction.
"I'm always looking, even in New York City," he said. "I took a vacation to Panama with my family and I about went crazy because there weren't any mushrooms there."
The climate of Eagle County doesn't exactly produce the best or most consistent mushrooms but it's definitely not a bad place for them, either.
"With all the different aspects, drainages and altitudes here, there are always mushrooms somewhere," Winkler said.
"That's the beauty of Colorado - there are different places to look at any time."
Winkler said it might be tough to find chanterelle mushrooms in these parts this year after the drought.
"Hawkwings are happening now, though," he said.
Winkler and Evans said the U.S. is far behind most of the world cultures when it comes to embracing the benefits of fungus.
"America has sort of a mycophobia that seems to stem from the English heritage," Winkler said. "In Europe, where I come from, everyone picks mushrooms - children, grandmothers. They view the majority of mushrooms as benign while the English and Americans see them as mostly dangerous."
Evans said there are many health benefits to be had by eating more fungus.
"All the vitamin B you've ever had came from a fungus," he said. "Many mushrooms help the body recognize itself, helping to prevent auto-immune disorders like multiple sclerosis where the body attacks itself."
Meanwhile, many of the foods Americans eat on a daily basis are not exactly nutritious, Winkler said.
Together, the two experts are hoping to open western eyes and pallets to the benefits of fungus consumption.
"The good thing about fewer people looking for mushrooms, though, is that it's easier to find good spots," Winkler said.
Fungus played an important role in shaping the natural world as we know it today, Evans said.
"Four hundred million years ago, fungus and plants were balanced," he said. "The fungus consumed everything the plants produced and provided nutrients to the plants. Then the plants evolved and produced a material - lignin - that the fungus couldn't break down. That material fossilized and became known as lignite - coal. Then the fungus evolved to consume the lignin and that was the end of the carboniferous period."
Fungus is still important for maintaining the balance of the natural world, Evans said.
"The mushroom is only the fruit of the fungus, a small part of it, maybe 15 percent at most in extreme cases," he said. "The rest is underground and having an understanding of what is happening there will help you find mushrooms."