For the last two weekends now, I have gone hiking in the local mountain range here in the Korean north east. This past Sunday, I went mushroom hunting with local bad ass gaucho, and co-English teacher, Mr. Son (rhymes with "bone.")
Mr. Son has been exploring the mountains on the Korean east coast for years. As a result, he knows all of the hidden back country foot paths. This past Sunday, I got a little peek at what he knows about the land here.
Our mission, that Sunday, was to collect the coveted and rare Pine Mushroom. We hiked into the Odaesan area using one of the main entrances. It was very crowded on the trail. (Hiking is a huge national pass time in Korea.) After about 40 minutes of hiking, we stopped next to a very steep hill. We waited for a window when none of the other hikers were looking, then we quickly started up the hill. After climbing for about 30 minutes, we reached a heavily forested ridge. This was Mr. Son's secret mushroom hunting ground. He even knew specific trees to look under. The key to finding Pine Mushrooms is to look in a 3 meter radius around the older pine trees only. The trees are found in groves, separated by thick patches of brush and oak trees. Inspection of the pine groves is relatively straight forward, since the Pine Mushroom is normally the size of a human hand. That means it was not necessary to get down and really search.
We searched for about two hours, making our way along the ridge. We found nothing. Towards lunch time, we left the ridge. It was hard work to bushwhack down the brush covered slope. We both did our share of slipping and sliding through the ground cover. Sometimes, large rocks would get dislodged and begin to roll down the hill. We could hear them rolling and smashing into stumps and roots. It would take almost a minute before the stone would come to a halt. We finally made it to the bottom of a deep valley where there was a stream and lots of big flat rocks. The rocks must have been worn smooth by the changing course of the stream. This made for a good clean place to sit down. We took lunch there, next to the stream.
At the beginning of the trip, Mr Son gave me a 2 way radio in case we were separated. Upon finishing lunch, I discovered that I had lost the radio. We knew we had to go back up the slope to look for it. We did our best to retrace our steps. All the while, I was using the second radio to help find the first. Near the top of hill I finally heard some radio chatter. Mr. Son and I could hear that the radio was close. I spoke into the radio again, and Mr. Son spotted it. The lost radio was hanging in a young tree. After hi fives, we continued to work our way back up to the mushroom ridge.
We followed the ridge as it climbed to meet its parent mountain formation. We were aiming for another unofficial trail that would cross our path at some point. It was a great relief to reach it. I had worn shorts, and by this time, my legs were pretty cut up. Getting cut wasn't so bad, but having branches continually scratch over the old cuts was annoying.
We followed this trail for about two hours. It followed a ridge opposing the one we had hunted mushrooms on. While on this trail, we stopped at a number of look out points. Each time, Mr. Son would ask "Does it command a fine view?"
At this point we found our one and only mushroom. Although it was edible, it was not a Pine Mushroom. (Later, after our hike, we went to a local restaurant and asked the cook to prepare it for us.)
Finally, our walk on the ridge ended and we scrambled down a very steep section of trail. When we got to the bottom, we found ourselves in a deep ravine. Mr. Son referred to that place as "The Hidden Valley." Indeed, it was hidden. Without Mr. Son's previous trips to explore the area, the uninformed hiker would never find the way in or out. We walked down the length of the ravine and eventually came to a series of water falls. The rocks here were cut slick by the water. There was no way to continue. Mr. Son led the way to a hidden path among the long sharp slabs of rock. The path climbed vertically out of the ravine. After following this, we found ourselves, essentially, back near one of the official Odaesan park trails. We could see the droves of hikers through the trees. We waited for an opportunity, and scrambled out of the woods to mix back in with the crowd. Grinning, Mr. Son announced "We are back on the Highway."