Northern Wilds Magazine
Many edible mushrooms can be found along the North Shore, including chicken of the woods. | ARIEL BONKOSKI
Along the Shore

Ariel Bonkoski’s journey into the world of mushrooms

Some individuals discover their lifelong passion at an early age, while others tend to discover their passions at unexpected moments later in their lives.

For Ariel Bonkoski, a casual conversation with a co-worker nearly 10 years ago, followed by a trip to Grand Marais, set her on a fulfilling and unforeseen trajectory into the world of mushrooms and fungi.

“It really just kind of fell into my lap,” Bonkoski said.

Bonkoski, who lives in Duluth, grew up disliking mushrooms. However, a conversation with a co-worker at Amazing Grace Cafe about a mushroom called chicken of the woods piqued her interest. After work, she researched the unique and bright-colored chicken-flavored mushroom.

As it tends to happen when one’s curiosity is sparked, Bonkoski continued down the mushroom investigative rabbit hole. Shortly after, she joined numerous Minnesota and Wisconsin mushroom-themed Facebook groups and slowly immersed herself in the online mycological community.

Bonkoski then put her growing mushroom identification skills to the test in 2016 while hiking the Superior Hiking Trail along Devils Track River in Grand Marais. She and her husband discovered what she thought was a lobster mushroom along the trail. After posting photos on her trusted mycological-based Facebook groups for confirmation, they harvested a few mushrooms for dinner to sauté with butter and garlic.

“That’s really where it all started for me,” she said. “From that point on, I had a mushroom book in hand.”

Ariel Bonkoski foraging for mushrooms on the Superior Hiking Trail. | ARIEL BONKOSKI

Her curiosity and growing passion for mushrooms deepened after her trip to Grand Marais. She began endlessly studying mushrooms, quizzing herself, and helping other Facebook group members with their identifications. Over time, she became a prominent and commonly known name among the online mycological community. In 2019, her hard work paid off as she landed her first job leading a weekend mushroom foray, a guided mushroom hunt in western Wisconsin.

“At that point, I was like, oh, I do know what I’m doing,” Bonkoski said. “And I’m good at it. And other people see that.”

She began collaborating with the Minnesota Master Naturalists, various mycological societies, and other organizations to host forays. “People in other states were recognizing me as an expert,” she describes. “That’s when I thought; I can probably make a business out of this. Teaching people how to do this and doing it safely.”

So, in the spring of 2022, Bonkoski did just that. She left her full-time job and started her own business, Ariel’s Mushroom Co. Her business is dedicated to educating and inspiring individuals through online classes, guided hikes, forays, and conferences.

In addition to starting her business, she co-founded the Lake Superior Mycological Society and is now the moderator or admin for most Minnesota mushroom Facebook groups.

“I’ve had such a great time with the mushroom community,” Bonkoski said. “It’s just very different types of people that come together, which is really fun.”

Ariel Bonkoski preparing mushrooms while camping. | ARIEL BONKOSKI

Nearly eight years after discovering and identifying her first mushroom in Grand Marais, she is now commonly referred to in the mycological space as ‘Duluth’s mushroom lady.’ Her expertise has more recently gained recognition worldwide. “I get people from Africa emailing me asking to identify mushrooms. I get people from Europe to help them ID mushrooms,” she said. “So, I really have more of a global reach.”

When she’s not teaching classes or speaking at conferences, Bonkoski likes to spend her time foraging along the North Shore. “I do most of my foraging year-round around the North Shore area, between Duluth and all the way past Grand Marais,” she said. “It’s my favorite spot to forage.”

During Fisherman’s Picnic each August, Bonkoski plans a camping trip to Grand Marais to forage for scaber stalk boletes, lobster mushrooms, chanterelles, and chicken of the woods varieties.

“I call it my mushroom vacation,” she said.

While Bonkoski said she doesn’t necessarily have a favorite type of mushroom, she does enjoy the mid-summer start to chanterelle season the most. Chanterelles are generally easily identifiable mushrooms for individuals entering the foraging realm and have a slight apricot odor and meaty flavor. Bonkoski said chanterelles in the Midwest are typically found among oak, birch, or other hardwood-associated species. However, she has discovered a conifer-associated chanterelle species unique to the North Shore area.

After foraging for chanterelles and returning to camp, she enjoys frying the thinly sliced chanterelles with some potatoes in butter, salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning over the fire. “That’s probably my favorite way to enjoy them. Sitting on the lake and eating chanterelles that I foraged for dinner. It’s a really cool experience.”

For someone looking to learn more or dip their toes into mushroom foraging, Bonkoski recommends taking a class or hiking with an experienced forager. The Lake Superior Mycological Society and Minnesota Mycological Society host casual hikes for aspiring foragers.

Having an expert along is helpful as there are many look-alikes for edible mushrooms in the northeast region, Bonkoski said. As for foraging advice, she said, “One of the biggest things to tell people is that no mushroom can harm you from touching it. It is safe to handle all mushrooms.”

Taking photos of the mushroom, including the underside, and picking the mushroom is an important step in the identification process, Bonkoski said. “Mushrooms themselves are just fruiting bodies of a larger organism. You will not harm that organism by picking a mushroom as long as you don’t damage the environment around the mushroom.”

The diversity of mushrooms in the dense boreal landscape of northeastern Minnesota is vast and provides endless adventure and opportunity for individuals to explore and forage for mushrooms. And, like Bonkoski, an opportunity to find a new and consuming passion.

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