Sending the kids to wander

Posted on August 31st, 2018

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

“She may be growing up in Hawaii, but she’s got Michigan blood,” Chelsea laughed as we watched our 4-year-old niece charge through the hardwoods.

The daughter of my brother and his wife, Konoha found herself in the middle of a sprawling oak forest during the Engle’s annual visit to Michigan in August. Paige and Kono are best friends when they’re together, so we borrowed our niece for a few days of sleepovers and adventures in Gaylord, and that’s how she ended up looking for mushrooms and berries in this stretch of woods 4,300 miles from home.

A cluster of poisonous white baneberries hang at the edge of a trail. Photo by Chris Engle

Kono’s mom is a native of Tokyo so she’s actively learning and using two languages. Paige picks up on the Japanese words whenever they’re together, and exploring the northern hardwood forest with her brought out a whole new vocabulary.

“Kono, how do you say ‘deer?'” I asked as we circled around a pile of deer hair left by a discarded hide.

“Shika!” She exclaimed. Mushrooms are “kinoko.” Fish are “sakana.” Paige, who latches on to potty humor, stuck to her favorite word taught by her younger cousin: “oshidi.” That means butt.

The sandpaper-like bark of a beech tree is flecked by the telltale white powder of a bark disease. As the species succumbs to the disease across the state, chanterelles can still be found around beeches. Photo by Chris Engle

We’d come to this patch of woods, on the south side of Old State Road, not for the giant oaks for which it is managed but for the intermittent beech trees scattered among them. It’s around these beech trees this time of year that chanterelles — golden rings of delicious edible mushrooms — should be growing.

A cluster of mushrooms erupts from the base of a dead stump. Photo by Chris Engle

Unfortunately, this area suffered a terrible drought for most of August, and only one hard rain had fallen before we came to these woods in search for the delicacy. Some mushrooms were abiding and sprouting from the moist soil, but chanterelles were nowhere to be found.

With the kids leading the way down a sandy two-track logging trail, we resorted to picking and eating blackberries and whistling for our dogs who were enjoying their own freedom by chasing each other on quarter-mile laps through the trees.

Konoha and Paige Engle give a big oak tree a hug. Photo by Chris Engle

We also took in the rare opportunity to stand among oak giants, some more than two feet in diameter. Maple trees dominate our northern hardwoods here, but this particular area a couple miles east of Old 27 has been planted and managed for decades to grow oaks. As a result, the area attracts all kinds of critters who eat acorns, especially squirrels, and I’ll hit this area at least once during small-game season when it starts in two weeks.

Since that outing a week ago, we’ve gotten a lot more rain and cooler nights, triggering more species of mushrooms to fruit. The chanterelles should not be far behind, and I’ll be spending a lot more time in the woods after school starts.

Whether it’s for mushrooms or small game, I’ll definitely be doing some hunting in September, so look for some of that in my next post. As for now, it’s time for me to get off my “oshidi” and get outside on this last day of August!

Chris Engle is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County.

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