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Irina Fedino was expecting a pleasant walk when she went to pick mushrooms near her home in the Russian Urals. She returned almost a month later, emaciated and covered in mosquito bites, to tell her husband that she had been lost in the forest.
Her tale of survival has fascinated Russians, for whom the annual hunt for mushrooms takes on an almost religious intensity. Getting lost, it seems, is an occupational hazard for many as they scour the forests for fungi and forget the way home.
Experienced pickers pack maps and compasses and on websites, mushroom clubs discuss the best pocket satellite navigation devices.
Scores of people still go missing each autumn in the vast Russian wilderness, forcing officers from the Ministry of Emergency Situations to look for them. Most are found within a few hours or days, but some are presumed eaten by bears.
Mrs Fedino, 37, recounted how she had been terrified by howling wolves at night as she wandered disorientated near the town of Nizhnaya Salda. She said that she survived on mushrooms and berries for 24 days.
Her husband Aleksi told The Times: “I was sure I would never see her again because the rescue services had looked for two weeks and found no trace of her. She was in a terrible state when she turned up. She spotted some fresh car tracks and followed them until she met a hunter who helped her get out.”
Rescue services have recorded almost 70 cases of missing mushroomers in recent months, from Irkutsk in eastern Siberia to the Kaluga region, southwest of Moscow, where at least five people have died. More than 120 people went missing outside St Petersburg in one month after a bumper harvest in 2003.
Devotees said that it was easy to lose track of time and place in the hunt for edible treasures that are preserved and eaten through the winter. It is a ritual that has passed through generations and few are deterred by tales of tragedy. Irina Kravkova, 81, has collected mushrooms all her life. She said: “They are so beautiful and each one is different. I look for them everywhere and each time I find a mushroom it gives me such pleasure.”
Natalya Savinkova, a music teacher from Moscow, said: “Mushrooms are a very healthy gift from nature and it’s natural for everyone in Russia to look for them. But it’s not difficult to lose yourself. I got lost in the forest once and it took five or six hours before I found a way out.”
Getting lost is not the only risk for inexperienced mushroom hunters. In Ukraine, 25 people died and 135 were taken ill in one month in 2006 after eating poisonous fungi.
In Mrs Fedino’s home region of Sverdlovsk, the governor suggested that mushrooms could solve the economic crisis by creating jobs. Eduard Rossel told residents: “One businessman picked 180 tonnes of mushrooms, processed them and sold them abroad. We can gather them and feed ourselves and others.”
Food and foreboding
— Mushrooms hold a special place in Russian culture, where they are considered to be a guarantee against hunger during hard times. Orthodox believers rely on them as a source of protein in place of meat during the many occasions when their religion requires them to fast
— Superstitious Russians believe that an excess crop of mushrooms signifies the coming of war, while seeing a mushroom in your sleep is a sign of impending tragedy
Scores of people still go missing each autumn in the vast Russian wilderness, forcing officers from the Ministry of Emergency Situations to look for them. Most are found within a few hours or days, but some are presumed eaten by bears. ahahahahahaha