PILSEN — As forager Rob Poe dusts the dirt off a mushroom, he talks about what brings him back year after year on life’s great mushroom hunts.
“Part of it is isolation, but I love bringing people to the woods. I also kind of like getting lost in my own head,” he says on the way to a recent foraging trip in Cook County’s Dan Ryan Woods.
Poe, 46, known as the "Mushroom Man" or the "Mushroom Guy," has lived in Pilsen for six years. He got his start as a forager as a 19-year-old camp counselor who inherited a mushroom field guide left behind by one of the campers. Growing up the youngest of seven, Poe often found solace in the stillness of the Dan Ryan Woods near his then-Morgan Park home.
In the past, Poe gave his mushrooms as gifts to friends. About two years ago, his friend Dave Odd of "Odd Produce" began encouraging Poe to cash in on his passion by selling his finds locally.
On a recent rainy trip to those same woods, Poe went for his final run of the mushroom season, which typically ends around early November. During the peak of that season, he'll be in the woods five days a week, in between his "pay-the-bills job" as a carpenter.
It's late in the season for the bright-orange chicken mushrooms and blue-tinged blewits, but Poe's confident he'll find at least a few turkey tail mushrooms, skinny flaky-looking fungi that grow on logs. He begins his trek walking along the wood's water-filled stone paths, but quickly ventures off, keeping his head lowered, constantly scanning the trunks of large walnut and oak trees.
As an urban forager, Poe said you often have to take it where you can get it. The Dan Ryan Woods are one of his favorites. He likes the path, and having a solid path, Poe says, is even more important than knowing there will be a lot of mushrooms along the way.
"Pick just what you need and only pick from areas that have a bounty. You should never pick more than 10 percent of whatever's there," he says, veering away from the path.
In the great tradition of city foragers, Poe said he knocked on the door at Dusek's and peddled his chicken mushrooms and a giant maitake mushroom to Dusek Head Chef Hillary Sundberg.
"It was like the side of a globe. It was beautiful," said Sundberg, who turned the mushrooms into a complementary soup appetizer with crispy cured pork jowls.
During the fall peak of mushroom season, Poe would be at MeztiSoy sometimes several times a day. In late October, he took a group of 20 out to the Dan Ryan Woods and briefed them on the necessary skills of the successful mushroom hunter.
"He taught us that the mushrooms are our neighbors. That they're right there in front of us," MeztiSoy co-owner Sonia Yañez said. “It was like a crash course of mushroom 101. He took time to talk to every single one of us."
The Dan Ryan Woods giveth and the Dan Ryan Woods taketh away. Poe's lost four smartphones and countless knives to these woods. He's had years where he'll march right to trees that consistently produce, only to find empty roots, inexplicably barren.
But last year, the Dan Ryan Woods also gave him an 85-pound maitake mushroom, which he hauled off in reused coffee sacks and gave to friends. His two kids, now 7 and 16, virtually grew up in various Illinois forest preserves. From the time his daughter was old enough to walk, he brought her to the woods every week so she could watch how they changed with the seasons.
As he hikes through the forest preserve, Poe sees something and pauses.
"This is the place where my son will always say, 'This is where I saw the coyote when I was 3 years old,'" he says, looking down a ravine. "So he's kind of like I am, able to recognize trees. He's had it embedded in his mind that he has a close relationship with that spot."
By the trip's end, Poe's small paper bag has a few turkey tails, some honey mushrooms, and a handful of wild ginger root.
Missing in action were the chicken mushrooms and blewits; colorful mushrooms whose time had already passed by this last November hike. The puffballs — round mushrooms which can grow bigger than a human head — had also dried up, and released little clouds of spore dust when poked by Poe's finger.
As the temperature drops and the wind picks up, Poe says he wishes more people would come to the woods. Anyone can be a forager, he says, but first they have to get to know the territory.
Alone in his Dan Ryan Woods, the mushroom man says he often finds himself talking aloud.
"I like to talk to trees, honestly. They don't talk back," he says grinning.
But mostly when he talks to the trees, Poe says he offers them words of gratitude.
"Anytime you can be around something that's 150 years old, that has seen so much happen, you just can't help but thank them," he says.