Here we are, in the middle of our third winter in the woods of coastal British Columbia. We’re living on our boat while we wait for three and a half feet of snow to melt so that we can begin building our cabin and clearing ground for the garden.
The nearest town — or person for that matter — is 15 miles away across open water that’s pretty vicious most of the winter. It isn’t safe for us to travel much. So we three — man, woman and baby-child — are a very isolated unit . . . one warm pocket of a home in a great area of trees and rocks and ocean. And we’re sufficient unto ourselves, because we plan it that way: We have the warmth of two wood stoves, lots of food and our own sources of amusement.
To judge from Positions and Situations, there are many people who “just gotta get away” . . . who are considering a life like ours, and will one day find themselves likewise in total isolation, dependent on their own resources. I’m writing this report for them, based on the knowledge I’ve gained from three years in the bush.
To prevent starvation — or, at the very least, loss of morale — it’s most important to be like the squirrels in autumn and lay up enough food to last extended periods of time. Presumably you won’t be able to go shopping every week once you’re “back of beyond” . . . and if you’re really trying to get away from civilization, you won’t want to. So . . . before you enter upon your life in the woods, you get yourself a bunch of supplies.
Here’s how we manage the business of stocking up. Each year we work for a short time (six weeks last summer) and buy the following:
Our Basic Staples
80 pounds large-flake slow-cooking oats
150 pounds whole wheat (we have a grinder)
10 pounds cornmeal
10 pounds assorted grains (millet, rye, etc.)
100 pounds brown rice
40 pounds whole-wheat pasta (too much, actually)
50 pounds (approximately) assorted legumes: split peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, kidney, navy, lima and garbanzo beans, etc.
150 pounds non-instant powdered skim milk
32 pounds margarine (one case)
100 pounds brown sugar
30 pounds honey
7 gallons cooking oil
10 100-fluid-ounce cans tomato paste
25-pound bucket peanut butter
12 pounds cheese
5 pounds yeast
10 pounds baking powder, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, turnips
We order most of these things in bulk at good prices from the Big City many miles away and have them shipped up at additional cost. In the case of some items (oil, tomato paste), it’s more practical to pay higher rates at the local market than to lay out money for shipping. Also, our neighboring dealer can get certain bulk foods if we order them in advance. All of which may not concern you if you live on a road, have a truck and can go and get the supplies you need.
At first it seems incredible to purchase so much food at once . . . but you’re buying to last a long time. How long? That’s hard to say definitely, because the answer depends on the number of people in your family, how much you live off the land (at times you can’t), how many guests and pets you feed and, often, circumstances over which you have little or no control . . . like mold running rampant or the dog getting into the powdered milk. (Last winter, mice ate a hole into a 25-pound cloth sack of brown rice we had stored on the rafters. We awoke late at night to the softly slurred sound of kernels raining into the woodpile.) In our own case, the above list is about a year’s supply of edibles . . . as long as the semi-perishables — margarine, potatoes and other vegetables — are replenished betweentimes.
Note that neither the list nor the quantities thereon are right for everyone. Tomato paste, peanut butter and margarine — for instance — aren’t absolutely essential but are really fine to have if you can afford them. And if you don’t use sugar, you’ll have to compensate with more honey for cooking. Or you may not need so much powdered milk (we have a one-year-old son). Still, the foods I’ve named are the ones that have kept us satisfied for three years, so they might be a fair guideline for you who are now planning toward the woods life.
Of course, basic staples aren’t all we get on our supply trips. To liven up the plain raw material we buy spices, sauces and herbs. With these, and ingenuity, it’s possible to create any number of different tastes from the same old food. Don’t underestimate the need for variety in the diet! Overly repetitious meals can become very “so-whatish”, which is bad for health and spirit. Although there’s almost no limit to the resources with which you can dress up your eating, the following will give you a lot of scope:
Garlic (cloves or powder)
Onions (we buy 50 pounds at once because I like them so much)
Soy sauce (for Chinese meals)
Vinegar (for salads, sweet and sour dishes, marinades, mayonnaise and pickling)
Ketchup (nice to have around)
Pepper (cayenne, black or whole peppercorns)
Curry powder (for Indian food)
Chili powder (for Mexican dishes)
Oregano or basil (for Italian food)
Cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg (for baking)
Paprika (for good taste and color)
How about vitamins? Clean air and water, whole grains in our diet and the sight of lots of trees do much for our physical and mental health . . . but we still get a few items to help us along, especially in winter:
Rose hips or vitamin C tabs (in summer, greens and berries provide enough vitamin C)
Cod-liver oil (vitamins A and D)
Blackstrap molasses (for iron . . . I put it in bread, biscuits and cookies)
Brewer’s yeast (B-complex vitamins)
Wheat germ (vitamin E)
There’s plenty of protein in powdered milk, soybeans, cheese, game and fish, and the first two items also contain calcium. In fact, the basic staples — plus the supplements I’ve listed — provide us with a pretty healthful diet.
In almost every load of our supplies there’s also a very nonessential bunch of stuff . . . the foods we buy, if we can afford them, after the necessities are safely stowed away. Such luxuries are simply great for bolstering the spirit. For us, they often include:
Cocoa (for the hot chocolate that goes so well with a wintry day)
Raisins, dates, walnuts, coconut (to make your granola, cookies and cakes extra special)
Popcorn (need I say anything?)
Coffee (an occasional pot)
Sometimes I make soy nuts for a treat, or fudge with raisins and nuts in it.
That’s the end of the shopping trip, but it’s not all there is to eating in the woods. You can stretch your food supply, vary your diet, better your health and decrease your “on the job” time by relying on Mother Earth to help feed you. She will, if you work hard at it.
We hunt deer, bear, grouse and duck. We also fish for cod, flounder and salmon and dig clams. In the spring, summer and fall we gather mushrooms. (Cream of morel soup is a treat we look forward to and remember.) A very good book, Guide to Common Mushrooms of British Columbia by Robert J. Bandoni and Adam F. Szczawinski — published by A. Sutton, September 1964 — helps us identify edible varieties. (This work is out of print, but B.C. residents might be able to find it in their local libraries. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
Wild greens are a regular part of our diet in the spring and summer: sheep sorrel, wild onions, dandelion, cattail, glasswort, sea plantain, wild mint, pigweed. (Did you know that pigweed contains 27,000 units of vitamin A per cupful?) We pick berries too — salal, huckleberries, blackberries, wild currants — which I dry or can or make into jam and jelly. We’re assisted in our foraging by another good book: Guide to Common Edible Plants of British Columbia by Adam F. Szczawinski and George A. Hardy, published by A. Sutton, August 1967. (This also is out of print. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
Gardening and domestic animals (goats, chickens) can provide excellent food to add to your supply. Cultivating bushland is hard work, though. Our own clearing has a foot-thick mat of salal roots beneath its entire surface. This will have to be removed and the soil composted, fertilized and otherwise babied. (Most of B.C.’s forest floor is acidic and our patch will probably need a lot of limestone and wood ashes.) Still, the hope of lettuce, spinach and a store of winter vegetables makes all the hard work seem worthwhile to us.
Now then, you’ve finally landed in the woods with all this food . . . and potential sources of more through foraging, hunting, fishing and gardening. You’ve got a wood stove and have made friends with it. What can you fix to eat? Here are some suggestions:
Various Breads: Corn bread, bannock, biscuits, onion bread, hot cross buns, cinnamon rolls . . . to be eaten with jam, jelly, preserves or honey.
Sandwiches: Your homemade whole-wheat bread plus fish or meat (if you get some), peanut butter, cheese, honey, jam, watercress or — in garden times — tomato.
Soups: Cream, vegetable, potato, onion, clam or fish chowder, split pea, navy bean, lentil, tomato, soy grit.
Salads: Rice, fish, macaroni, cabbage, potato, wild greens, garden greens . . . with dressings like oil and vinegar or homemade mayonnaise (if you have an egg).
Breakfasts: Hot cereals of mixed grains (a grinder is good for this), oatmeal and cornmeal mush, hotcakes, granola, eggs, fish, meat.
Desserts: Chocolate, rice or vanilla puddings made with milk and cornstarch, raisin tarts, cookies, doughnuts, berry pies, carrot cake, fudge.
Main Dishes: Fried rice and onions, vegetables or meat; spaghetti and garlic bread; fish and chips; egg foo yong; potato pancakes; curried rice, split peas or lentils; chili (with or without the carne, depending on how the hunting goes); tamale pie; cabbage rolls; pizza; vegetable, bear, deer, grouse or duck stew; lima beans and tomatoes; baked beans; sweet and sour meat, fish or rice; batter-fried clams, fish or grouse; creamed rice or pasta; macaroni and cheese; baked fish; scalloped potatoes; curried crab; roasts, chops, meat pies . . .
Well, I won’t go on. I only wanted to illustrate the number, variety and quality of the meals you can eat and stay healthy on . . . far from the land of supermarkets.
A final note: If your bread has so far come from a bakery and your spaghetti sauce from a can, you might want to take a cookbook along to the woods. I like Adelle Davis’s Let’s Cook It Right (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, $1.75 in paperback) because it teaches healthful cooking techniques, gives recipes for game animals (including bear) and contains charts that help us cut up our meat (deer are most like lamb). But any cookbook with plain down-home recipes — none of that “take one package biscuit mix and one can mushroom gravy” stuff — should do. Once you have no choice, you’ll soon learn to cook. I did.
Good bread, good meat,
Good God, let’s eat!