Walking with Erica Marciniec through the forest is like walking with a friendly pirate carrying a treasure map.
There’s no “X marks the spot.” Instead, the map she teaches you to read is dotted with surprises of wild edibles.
“I gotta show you. We just passed over the most awesome berry in the Rockies,” she said, darting a few feet off trail during a hike near the Mesa Cortina Trailhead in Silverthorne in early August.
She described how the huckleberries, or blueberries depending on whom you talk to, can range in color from maroon to purple-blue, from powder blue to almost black. Then she picked a handful and offered them to share.
“Aren’t they amazing? I’ll spend a couple hours on my hands and knees getting these.”
Marciniec, 39, of Breckenridge, has been foraging off and on for almost 30 years.
About 1,500 people subscribe, she said, while her blog’s Facebook page has about 4,300 likes. Most of her Facebook fans live in the Denver area and are in their late 30s.
Marciniec stresses that foragers must harvest wild food in a way that’s sustainable and safe. She worries about people getting too excited about eating things they find and harming the ecology or making themselves sick.
She also teaches people to follow local regulations. In Summit County, most foragers hike and hunt on national forest land, which means they need a permit to collect mushrooms. Small amounts of other foods are usually OK without permits.
Marciniec was first turned on to foraging by her uncle, who was of the generation enraptured by a book called “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” by Euell Gibbons.
“When I was a little kid, he used to pick things in the forest and give them to me to try eating,” she said, “and, of course, I was so just amazed by it.”
She studied archeology in college and later earned a master’s in technology education. She also obtained an elementary teaching certification and did communications for a school district in Los Angeles for years.
She moved to Colorado six years ago, when she rekindled her love for hiking, studying plants and sometimes eating them.
Now, Marciniec trains snowboard instructors at Breckenridge Ski Resort and serves as an adjunct faculty member at Colorado Mountain College. She wanted to be a writer when she was younger, but she wasn’t sure what she loved to write about until foraging led her to Wild Food Girl.
Though most of her plant-identification skills are self-taught, Marciniec named Cattail Bob Seebeck, author of “Best Tasting Plants of Colorado and the Rockies”, and Samuel Thayer, who wrote “Forager’s Harvest,” and others, as mentors.
They passed on knowledge that generations of humans around the world used to rely on for survival.
Marciniec said the lack of knowledge about local wild edibles in today’s society reflects a larger disconnect between people and the environment.
“Summit County is blessed. A lot of people who live here love the forest and want to preserve it and engage with it,” she said, “but I think if you look at the country as a whole you have a lot of disconnect, which is unfortunate.”
COLLECTING WITH THE CRITTERS
The practice is sometimes frowned upon by some who believe people shouldn’t take things from forests and wild areas less impacted by humans. Leave the berries for the bears, they might say.
Foraging certainly goes against “Leave No Trace” environmental ethics, which promotes taking only photos and leaving only footprints.
For Marciniec, though, foraging falls into a middle-ground type of environmentalism.
“When we interact with nature, we understand it better, we appreciate it better,” she said, and that leads to a greater desire to protect and conserve natural resources.
Marciniec said people collecting wild edibles need to do their homework on how best to impact the local ecology as little as possible.
Foragers can take as much as they like of edible invasive species but should be more careful with native plants and gather only a small amount of each plant from a thriving population.
“I’m careful about what I choose to collect,” she said. “I’ll go on a hike, I’ll come home with a little bit of maybe two different plants.”
She often counts the number of specimens in a certain area, aiming to collect only if she finds 30 or more healthy plants, and she is mindful about which part of the plant she picks.
While some wild roots are edible, she hasn’t experimented with those because taking them often kills the plant.
Berries, though, she loves. On that hike in early August, she lit up at the sight of patches of huckleberries and small, sweet strawberries carpeting the woods.
“Berries are the fruit of the plant. They are meant to disperse seeds. You can eat them and you’re not harming the plant at all,” she said. “The thing to be mindful of would be other creatures that depend on the berries for food.”
Marciniec once quarreled with a squirrel over a wild mushroom in her backyard.
She had been watching the mushroom, waiting for it to grow a little bigger before she picked it. When she went to check on it one morning, she found a small squirrel perched on top of the mushroom.
She shooed the animal away and when she bent down to pick it up, the squirrel ran between her legs. In the end, the squirrel had to look elsewhere.
“I’ll often find little bitey marks in mushrooms from small animals,” she said, and bigger bite marks in porcini mushrooms, likely from elk or deer.
CAREFUL STUDY AND EAGLE EYES
Marciniec has never gotten sick from eating a wild plant.
She carefully studies any specimens she isn’t certain about, using several reference books, and sometimes asking her fiance for a second opinion.
“It is definitely possible to distinguish edible from poisonous plants, but you have to make an effort,” she said. “You can’t take eating decisions lightly. You have to be informed.”
With mushrooms, especially, she uses established pictures and descriptions as well as spore prints and other tests to rule out toxic and inedible lookalikes. When she is unsure about a species, she keeps it separate from others on the way home, and after identifying it, she cooks it well.
She recommends trying a small amount of one new edible mushroom in a 24-hour period and keeping a specimen in the refrigerator in case a negative reactions warrants a visit to a toxicologist.
As for other wild foods, Marciniec has studied plant families and carefully observed the life cycles of certain local plants over her years in the mountains.
“You learn a name and pick it out, you learn another name and you pick it out, and before long you realize there are families of plants that have similar characteristics,” she said. “Plants are easiest to ID when they’re flowering or fruiting, but sometimes young greens are the best part of the plant.”
In August, would-be foragers might find currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries and that High Country huckleberry (or blueberry). A wide variety of mushrooms, which spring up in the days after warm weather and rain, grow in the mountains in the summer, including, shaggy manes, puffballs and hawks wings.
Marciniec’s mushroom obsession began in earnest about three years ago, and now she collects and eats 20 to 25 different species. Whenever she hikes, she keeps an eye out for elusive morels and tasty porcinis.
“I dedicate a lot of each summer to looking for porcini,” she said, adding that if she doesn’t find any she still enjoys her time in the forest.
“You know what usually happens when I’m on a mission for one plant? I find another I’m psyched about, and then it doesn’t matter.”
Those interested in local wild edibles can check out the 7th Annual Eagle Wild Mushroom & Wine Weekend in downtown Eagle Friday, Aug. 22, through Sunday, Aug. 24. For more information, visit eaglemushroomweekend.com.