Lee Huston leads the way into a stand of woods in Brunswick just a few miles from his downtown bike shop, Center Street Cycles. This is one of the spots where he’s regularly found chanterelles, one of his favorite foods to forage. He’s no mycology expert, he explains, but the native of Lisbon Falls grew up roaming, and loving, the Maine woods. As we toured the neighborhoods of Brunswick with Huston, looking at oak trees where maitake mushrooms should be sprouting in coming weeks, we talked about his path from a boy who loved bikes to boatbuilder to bluebird cultivator. And why this is such a good year for mushrooms in Maine.

GOOD WITH THE BAD: “I know about every square inch of this whole triangle here,” Huston said of the wooded area. There’s an old sand pit, an ancient shooting target hanging from a tree, the bed of an abandoned pickup truck and a lot of mushrooms. “That’s a bolete right there. I don’t eat boletes because there are good ones and bad ones.” (Boletus is a genus of funghi, comprising many species.) Coming across two chanterelles he’d spotted earlier, Huston demonstrated the right way to harvest them, cutting them deep at the base with a knife and then using the brush on the end to clean them. “If you clean it up right at the source, it’s better.” Otherwise you end up with dirt in your collecting bag. Plus Huston likes to eat his mushrooms on the day he collects them (an omelette is a fine vehicle for fresh foraged mushrooms, he says).

ARE YOU CRAZY? His foraging habit started with fiddleheads in the spring and then he graduated to mushrooms while he was working at Chewonki, the camp in Wiscasset where he spent most of his career before buying the bike shop in 2006. “There was a science teacher taking students around collecting mushrooms, and I was like, ‘What, are you crazy?’ And he says, ‘No, let me show you a few things.’ ” That included an introduction to maitake, also known as hen-of-the-woods. Huston relies heavily on local experts, like David Spahr, author of “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada: A Photographic Guidebook to Finding and Using Key Species” and his friend Kevyn Fowler, a local photojournalist with a passion for mycology. Brunswick-based food writer Michael Sanders is also a help when Huston isn’t quite sure what he’s found. “Because he knows quite a bit.”

Huston inspects a Chanterelle mushroom he spotted in the woods of Brunswick. The native of Lisbon Falls grew up roaming, and loving, the Maine woods.

OLD MAN OF THE WOODS: “Here’s an old-man-of-the-woods,” Huston said. It’s a beautiful rich brown, and the underside is covered with tiny dots, like a miniature sieve. “We’ve been seeing so much of this this year.” He’s never tried this kind of mushroom, which begins to turn color just seconds after he picks it. “Lately, everybody is talking about eating it. Kevyn (Fowler) says you’ve got to get it early and fresh.” Huston is cautious, adding just a couple of varieties to his foraging repertoire every year. If he has any doubt, he steers clear unless he is “500 percent” sure it is safe. “I’m not going to eat anything that is similar to anything that melts your liver.”

ON THE TRAIL: Huston tastes a turkey tail funghi and deems it not fresh enough. He picks up an unfamiliar violet-colored mushroom. “It’s an incredible shade of purple.” Further down the path, he stops. “One thing you’ll notice is there is a smell in the woods. It smells like rotting animals.” It’s actually rotting mushrooms, he said. He thinks he spots the bright orange of another patch of chanterelles, but is disappointed to find it is another funghi he isn’t sure he’s seen before. “There is so much going on right now.”

HAPPY HUNTERS: We noticed. What’s happening with all the different kinds of mushrooms this year? It’s a good year for them, undeniably, Huston said, the first good one since 2014. But part of it is that Maine is coming off several dismal years for mushroom growth. When there’s summer drought, we miss a whole wave of growth. Last year, Maine foragers had what Huston called a “flash drought,” a patch of rain followed by a dry period just as the chanterelles were about to “pop.” “It’s been very frustrating.” But not anymore. Parts of Southern Maine were in a moderate drought earlier this summer, but the timing of the recent rains was good for mushrooms. The weekend before our interview, Huston had harvested five pounds of black trumpets north of Brunswick, along with a pound of chanterelles. Mushroom hunters are very happy.


Huston with a boletus.

NO GEAR HEAD: Does Huston sometimes scope for mushrooms from his bike? No, not with his aging eyes, he said. He rides his bike into an area, then gets off to explore. As a bike shop owner, he’s got more than a few bikes, and yes, they’re fancy. “You’ve got to have a bit of bling around.” Center Street Cycles has been a bike shop, under various owners, since about 1949, he said. He hadn’t planned to become a bike shop owner, but was ready for a change when it came up for sale. “It just fell into my lap. I didn’t know that much about bikes. I didn’t know about bottom brackets and headsets and all that sort of esoteric knowledge.” (Neither did we, but FYI, they’re both bicycle parts.) “I am really not a gear person. I like to ride bikes.” The equipment is a means to end, namely being out on the road or trail, enjoying nature. And movement.

BUILT FOR SPEED: He said he was probably the first kid in Lisbon Falls to have a 10-speed, back in 1968 or so. His family was hosting an exchange student from Africa who was attending Bates. “He came down from Bates with a Schwinn Continental I think, and I got on that thing and then 10 minutes later, I’m 3 miles away! So I had to have one.” Huston ran (and cycled) around with a group of boys who were all “really nerdy guys who didn’t really do sports well.” They’d bike down to Brunswick, Durham, or over to Freeport. They also camped, saving up money for freeze-dried foods and asking their parents to drop them off on the Appalachian Trail to camp. “We were always about being in the woods.”

A FORK IN THE ROAD: After dropping out of college, he hit the Appalachian Trail in earnest with a friend, hiking about half of it, “until my feet gave out and I came home.” While he was casting around for what to do next, he kept looking at all the beautiful lobster boats around. Someone suggested he check out the Apprenticeshop in Bath; it’s in Rockland now, but back then, in the 1970s, the seafaring-oriented educational nonprofit was located within the complex of the Maine Maritime Museum. Huston walked in the front door and was a goner. “There were two boats that were just planked, but there was no paint on them yet. And that smell of cedar.” He landed an apprenticeship, and he loved it so much he stayed on as an employee. His projects included building a replica of 19th-century Harpswell pastor Elijah Kellogg’s sailboat, which had been built at the Durgin boatyard on Birch Island in 1846. Huston also taught sailing.

WHITE WEDDING (TRIP): He took a job at Chewonki, running the boatshop there from 1979 to 1981. When Don Hudson took over as head of Chewonki in 1991, he beckoned Huston back. “I stayed there for 15 years.” The two men were such close friends that when Huston got married, he and his then-wife joined Hudson and a group of others on a trip to the Arctic. “I actually went on my honeymoon to the Arctic with Don Hudson.” Hudson retired from Chewonki in 2010. Hudson is still the first person Huston calls when he can’t figure out what a plant is. “Whenever I have a question.”

WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS: While they were at Chewonki together, Hudson also introduced Huston to another hobby, providing homes for bluebirds. “Don said, ‘We’re trying to bring back bluebirds to the farmlands.’ ” The birds are cavity dwellers, but with humans inclined to cut down the kind of decaying trees that the birds like to nest in, they were having trouble finding homes. He began building boxes for them at Chewonki, putting some on the property and others at the old Maine Yankee plant. “Then we built a pile of them, probably 200 of them, at a summer workshop.” He put up pairs of boxes on his own property, which he recommends, since tree swallows are likely to lay claim to one as well; they’ll scare away a second set of tree swallows but open the door for the bluebirds. It paid off in bluebird dividends. “They are there every day.” Including five juveniles he and his partner Roben refer to as “The Gang of Five.” A few falls ago, he said he had a flock of a hundred bluebirds in his yard, flashing their bright colors for two weeks. “I never saw a bluebird in my life before 2003,” he said. “And they’re gorgeous.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.