I often dream of doing things that have been done a million times before. Actually, in general, that’s mostly what I want to do. I’m not really into innovation, or discovery, or whatever. I just want to walk on the ice and through the snow many many miles in the cold of winter, eat whatever’s around, freeze my fingers, sleep on a bed of boughs, drink tea, make camp every evening, use only the things I’ve made, cook endless pots of wild rice, mix bear fat and maple sugar, and live with the seasons and weather all the year round. In other words, same old same old,historically speaking.
And if there’s a tried and true way of getting around, I suppose it would have to be by foot. Walking – now that’s an old idea.
Another old idea: Eat the things that live around you, make what you need from what’s at hand, drink the water from the source, and in general be a direct part of the process of living.
This past winter some friends and I decided to walk to the place where we have our Sugar Camp – the maple forest where we set up tents and boil sap. Toboggans and snowshoes were made. I sewed a new lightweight wall tent – an oval octagon designed to fit up to six people (more on that some other time) – and we packed a woodstove, traps, wild rice, bear fat, dried whitefish, deer jerky, maple sugar, and miscellaneous dried wild fruits and greens. Oh, and peanuts and dried figs. They were on sale.
We didn’t pack enough food for the whole trip, however. That’s why we brought traps. A three week, 120 mile trip in the dead of winter requires a lot of calories, and it would be a big load to carry. The old way, of course, is not to carry it all, but to get some as you go. This is where the beaver comes in.
The beaver lives in a lodge. The lodge is visible in the winter. If you know what you are doing, you can set a trap in the afternoon where the beaver habitually swims, and with a fair amount of reliability, catch him by the next morning. Now, you can also try and shoot a bunch of red squirrels, or snare a bunch of rabbits, but you aren’t gonna make it as far with them. It turns out the great secret to life, or at least to life in the winter, is fat. And the beaver, he’s a fat one.
As we traveled, we trapped and ate 5 beavers in their entirety – heads, feet, brains, tails, organs, and all. This was approximately 160 pounds of beaver, liveweight. We also had another 20 pound beaver extra – we ate him when we arrived at the sugar bush, waiting for everyone else to show up.
Each evening before bed, a beaver head and some ribs would go in the pot to simmer all night long. The first person to wake up would throw in five handfuls of wild rice. Breakfast. Each evening once camp was set, big slabs of beaver fat were diced up and fried crisp in a skillet for an appetizer (on special occasions, taken out and coated with maple sugar), followed by backstraps and a leg fried in the remaining fat. Beaver deep fried in itself, a meta-meal. Just to see what it would be like, I ate nothing but beaver for one entire day. I felt like a perfectly normal person.
It has been said in old accounts by early fur traders that the beaver was the “cattle” of the north, and that native people “farmed” them like Europeans raised livestock. As a food source, their value was of prime importance, and people understood how to take what they needed in a way that did not deplete the population, and when necessary, in a way that would grow the population.
When the Cree people were initially asked by fur traders to start bringing in more beaver pelts than they had been doing, they were confused. Why, they asked, would we ever want to trap more than we need? To do so would be to court starvation in the long run. (See “Home is the Hunter,” by Hans Carlson, for some of these early accounts.) Of course that all changed once the fur trade really got fired up, liquor barrels rolled in, and white people started trapping native grounds.
To travel in the cold and snow, pulling heavy loads from dawn until dusk, taking down camp in the morning and setting it up elsewhere at night, is to metabolize an astonishing amount of energy. It is hard to believe how much you can eat once you’ve been at it for a couple of weeks. That the beaver can eat bitter aspen bark and turn it into fat, and then we can turn his fat into our own, is not so much a miracle as a celebration. What a world.
I was a vegetarian for ten years, but then lots of stuff happened, including the strong desire to eat the foods around me. I also saw that everything was eating everything else, and that everything was alive and equal in its way, and I wanted my food relationships to be honest, and direct. Setting a trap at dusk on a frozen remote stream, sleeping in a tent while the woodstove rattles and the wolves howl, and then waking up, checking the trap, skinning an animal, and putting the liver in the skillet for breakfast, now that’s pretty direct. It’s not the only way to have this experience, but it’s the one I have come to appreciate.
We also trapped and ate two muskrats, and hit the jackpot on rosehips and highbush cranberries (many things become a “jackpot” when you are hungry and cold enough). A quart of maple syrup could easily be downed in two nights (no need to put it on anything, just drink straight up).
We also woke up to -30F a number of mornings, which ain’t such a big deal at all if you live in the north, but feels like at least a little bit of a deal when you’re sticking your arms through the ice, pulling out traps, and everything instantly freezes.
Finally, we continually woke up to no new snow. The high wispy clouds kept showing moisture coming, but the front just couldn’t push its way through. A tiny dusting would fall, and that’d be it – back to northwest winds and clear cold. So we hardly wore snowshoes at all, just plodded along with them strapped to our toboggans. In my mind, I live in a land of deep snow, constant cold, and endless expanses of wilderness. In reality, I live in northern Minnesota, where the snow is sometimes deep, January thaws show up at any time, and logging trucks are the state mammal (they breed everywhere, and prolifically).
The best way to see interesting things out in the woods is pretty simple: Spend a lot of time out in the woods. I’ve been tuned into the small mammals lately, trying to better learn their tracks – shrew, vole, mouse, mole – rather than just saying “well that’s another mouse or vole or shrew.” And then also trying to guess as which species of shrew it could be (there are six species in my general region). As we walked, I felt like I was seeing lots of pygmy shrew tracks, and then, sure enough, one ran across the trail in front of us. We gently scooped him up and got a close look (when was the last time you had a close look at a living pygmy shrew?), then put him down at the entrance to his tunnel in the snow. Zoom. He was gone. I started recognizing star nosed mole tracks on the river we were traveling, and then we found one squished and frozen on the ice, run over by a snowmobile. On a creek, I saw a hole where a muskrat had tunneled out through the ice. Following his trail a short distance, I found him curled up, dead, with no sign of injury and no other tracks in sight. Of course, when it comes to seeing interesting things, we all have our own definition of what that might be…
By the end of 19 days, our food was down to wild rice, bear fat, and beaver. A person could easily just keep going on this, but it is also a good reminder of how much fun food variety can be. Fruit! Vegetables! Tea! No matter, we arrived at our destination, cooked up a last pot of the holy trinity, and started getting ready for the sap to run.
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