Greetings from the Monongahela National Forest.

FROM THE JUMP

My name is Ivy Makia and I am one of two CLM interns out here in the Marlinton-White Sulphur district office at the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. I’m just a little over a month into my program and dare I say—everything has been all but conventional. From the very start of the pandemic, I was so on edge about everything, particularly about the status of my internship and whether or not I’d have to miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. As someone whose been dreaming about this program for the last two years of undergrad and had no other post-graduation plans other than doing this, I felt so incredibly grateful and relieved to be able to take part. This deep sense of appreciation has really set the tone for my time here so far, despite the ups and downs; the only down being a bout of pharyngitis which I developed two days into my 14-day quarantine. While that was pretty rough, I think back on it positively because I didn’t miss out on any work and I got to eat a lot of soup!

Upon first arriving in West Virginia, I was completely enamored by her beauty and limitless amount of open green spaces and rolling hills. I definitely wasn’t in Florida anymore! While the views here are utterly spectacular, the one thing that stands out the most is the quiet. The complete absence of heavy traffic and never ending construction filled me with so much more joy than I anticipated. How could I ever go back to the big city?

First sign that I had made it!

PEAS IN A POD

Caroline (right) and I (left) after a day of assisting fish biologists on a Trout habit survey using electrofishing!

Throughout my short time here, while life has been shifting around me, the only constant has been my co-intern, Caroline. Before I met her, I wasn’t too sure about what to expect and I was super nervous that my lack in hiking experience would frustrate her and put a strain on whatever work relationship or friendship we might develop. And even after meeting her and talking to her on occasion during our time in quarantine, I was still so nervous and even intimidated because of how different her way of life was from mine. It wasn’t until after our quarantine was over and we had moved into the bunkhouse that our friendship took off! When I thought 2020 couldn’t surprise me anymore, I was blessed with this incredible human who is one of my biggest supporters.

As I hinted at earlier, I have no experience with hiking, let alone nature! I come from a tourist city where our best attractions are all man made. So when I confessed my noob status to her, the first thing she did was take me to a trail and guided me through my first ever hike. On that hike, I saw so much beauty and learned new things about myself and about my new friend, Caroline.

Caroline and I on my first hike

That trail was pretty easy compared to the off trail hikes we’ve since had to do on botanical surveys. Last week’s survey in particular, was the hardest hike. The unit that we surveyed that day was nearly 88 steep acres, and on top of that we were getting mercilessly thwacked by the red spruce trees that dominated the area. It got to a point where I couldn’t go on and I was brought to actual tears by the exhaustion and disappointment that panged throughout my being. While I was frustrated by my physical inability to keep going, I was so grateful for Caroline because from the very start of the hike she was there for me. Before I knew what was going on, she always had her hand out for me to grab. Before I knew to speak up for myself, she always stepped in to make sure we took a moment so I could breathe. I can honestly say that I don’t think I would have been able to get as far as I did without her presence and her unwavering support. I felt so weak for crying but she somehow made me feel strong. That was the day that I knew that I couldn’t have gotten a better co-intern and friend.

MORE TO COME

Due to the concerns surrounding COVID, our start date was pushed back by nearly two months (when you include quarantining) but it was definitely for the best considering that most of the flora here have just begun flowering or going into fruit. So we’re finally going to jump into seed collecting as early as next week! Until then, Caroline and I will continue to study the plants that fill this amazing and vast forest ecosystem.

Ivy

Fruity treasures

There is a remarkable place behind the Monongahela Ranger Station in Marlinton, West Virginia. Beyond the parking lot, through Mountain View graveyard and around the forest road gate lie the remains of the old Marlin Mountain fruit farm, now regenerated into mixed oak-maple hardwood forest speckled with patches of rhododendron in the understory. From the standpoint of the common recreationist, this deciduous forest may appear altogether ordinary, if not dull. It is likely that the inconspicuous treasures of these woods will be missed by anyone who arrives ill-equipped for noticing the hidden. Finding the enchantments of this forest requires a keen eye, a sharp nose, and an openness to impulsive excursions off trail. A seeker must be willing to break through spider webs, crawl over windsnap, kneel frequently in the mud, and earnestly enjoy the rain. If you’re like me and are prone to wandering, and you have plans to go on a casual trail run through this forest, be warned: your plans have been thwarted. 

Although it was early golden hour in the open expanse of the graveyard, the gilded, green vegetation diminished as soon as I passed under the first arch of trees on the forest road. In the dim light, trunks and leaf litter fused into homogenous gray walls hemming the dirt road, which itself was barely bright enough to continue. I pressed on at a cautious pace, scanning the road for ankle-rolling rocks while keeping my peripheral awareness open. Fifty paces into the jog, I was stopped in my tracks. Two tiny orange sentinels stood in my path. 

Cantharellus lateritius

Chantarelles! Beyond the first two mushrooms was a whole line of them dappling the road, glowing orange against the muted gray backdrop of leaves and soil. I had come across chantarelles only once before, though as an amateur mycologist I have had an eye out for them for many years. I felt as though a huge welcoming gift had been bestowed on me by the forest. Chantarelles are some of the most popular edible wild mushrooms, and are sought after worldwide. Unable to contain my excitement, I spread my arms open toward the canopy and let out a beaming “Whoop!” of unbridled gratitude. Although these little chantarelles were far too small to pick that evening, I made a mental note to return in a few days. It was clear that this road had not been used for some time, and I felt safe to assume that no human would come pick them before I returned.  

I continued on my run, but only after a few moments with my belly to the soil and my nose pressed against the little orange mushrooms, inhaling that signature fruity fragrance. As soon as I started to run, I was dodging another patch of tiny chantarelles mixed into a rainbow of mushroom hues: seafoam green Russula variata, scarlet Russula emetica, bright white Destroying Angel, brown and yellow boletes. I had to run on my tiptoes to keep from smooshing them. Only a hundred paces later, I was stopped once more. To my left, a prominent pearly shape stood out from behind an oak against the ever-darkening wall of gray woods. I had to investigate! Jumping off the road and sliding down the embankment, I swung around the tree to have look. An enormous, bright white mushroom with a cap the size of a Frisbee shone up at me. I brimmed with awe at its size and measured its diameter with my hands: ten inches across. Wow! The largest gilled mushroom I’ve ever seen, second only to Berkeley’s Polypore, an edible polypore which can grow to be more than three feet wide. While beautiful, my newfound Green-Spored Parasol (Lepiota molybdites) is not edible. In fact, it is responsible for the greatest number of mushrooms poisonings in the Appalachian Mountains. I would be admiring this mushroom, but certainly not eating it. 

Lepiota molybdites

A heavy mist set in, and it began to rain. I hopped back on the road and continued on up the ridge, being stopped every few yards by a new fungal form. Fat boletes, itsy Hydrocybes and convex Lactarius peckii lining the road caught my eye and beckoned me to stop and notice. I was walking and squatting far more often than jogging. My run was not turning out as planned, but it didn’t matter. I felt as though the forest was revealing itself on another level, and I didn’t want to miss it.  

Just as I was getting back to a more normal running pace, I glimpsed a patch of humungous, bright orange, smooth chanterelles lining the road along a rhododendron patch. I chuckled at the pure gratitude I felt at the two thumbnail-size chantarelles I saw only thirty minutes before. These were most definitely ripe for the picking. I was nowhere near finished with my run, so I marked the spot on the trail with sticks for my way back. I continued to mark the trail for the rest of the chanterelle patches (and black trumpets too!) which kept getting larger and more plentiful as I climbed higher in elevation. It was evident that the chantarelles were ripening on an elevation gradient, beginning high in the mountains and continuing downslope with the progression of late summer. A week after my first run-in with the tiny chantarelles at the beginning of this story, they were the size of my palm, and the ones at the top of the ridge had long ago decomposed.  

On my return journey, I picked half of the largest chantarelles, leaving many mushrooms of different life stages to carry on reproduction. Even so, I had a shirt-full of mushrooms by the time I reached the gate. My arm was tired from the load, and I frequently had to switch from one hand to the other as I jogged back home. 

It was dark by the time I got to the house. Warm light streamed from the windows, and someone was playing jazz. I kicked off my soaked shoes before I walked into the kitchen to greet my new friends, bounty in-hand.