Camping In Canada: Wild Food Foraging

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Churchill talks about his camping with the family and how they foraged a good meal in the remote wilds of Canada.

After an evening meal of fresh lake trout, cattail
biscuits, arrowhead vegetable and raspberry dessert, my son
and I took the canoe–leaving my wife and daughter to
their own pursuits–and crossed the 150 yards of
Ranger Lake that lay between our island and the mainland.
We were going to cruise quietly along the shore in hopes of
seeing a moose. If we were lucky we might even get a
picture.

Nearing a “bay”–which we found out later was a
creek–we heard some commotion in the thick aspen and
evergreens. Suddenly a white tail buck bolted straight up
the almost vertical hill that was the bank of Ranger Lake
at this point and we smiled at each other in delight at
seeing a familiar Wisconsin animal here while camping in Canada. The
noise coming from the bush didn’t stop, however. It wasn’t
the deer that had made it. Paddling very softly forward we
could detect a crunching; chewing sound coming from the
base of a large aspen. Suddenly the tree dropped into the
lake with a tremendous splash and water shot high into the
air. We had witnessed a very rare sight: A tree actually
falling that a beaver had cut. This more than made up for
us not seeing any moose on the entire trip.

We had arrived at the island on which we pitched our camp
by traveling through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,
crossing the International Bridge at Sault St. Marie and
driving our small, low clearance auto right up to the lake
via Ranger Lake road.

Now, the Ranger Lake road may not be the best highway in
the world, but it was surely one of the better wild plant
foraging trails early this fall. There was acre after acre
of large sweet blueberries, patch after patch of
raspberries, huge sweet-tasting dew berries and many
choke-cherry trees with the largest choke cherries I had
ever seen. Cattails grew in hundreds of pot-holes along the
road, arrowhead root was abundant, white pond lilies were
everywhere and though we didn’t fish them, many trout
streams tumbled through the hills and gorges of the route.

We stopped a couple times on the way in and filled our pans
with berries against the possibility that they would be
scarce where we planned to camp. At Ranger Lake itself I
noticed dandelions, thistle and plantain right in the
campground but didn’t pick any. We were too anxious to get
to the island.

A mountain of sleeping bags, tents, cameras, pots, pans and
clothes was swiftly loaded into the canoe . . . but not so
swiftly that I didn’t notice the small smoke houses that
are located at almost every permanent dwelling on Ranger
Lake. I found out how they’re made and used and I’ll try to
include the plans in another issue.

We launched our canoe from the Garden River campgrounds
and, about eight miles north, stopped for a shore lunch. I
made a semi-circle through the bush of the gravel bar where
we were eating and found raspberries, the inevitable
blueberries and a pin cherry tree. After lunch we continued
on toward our planned destination: The junction of Ranger
Lake and Saymo Lake, where our map showed a small island.

The vastness of this country keeps the uninitiated looking
at the changing blues of the water, the towering greenness
of the hills and the pink rock formations. Several times I
had to speak to Jim, my son, to keep him from forgetting to
stroke the bow paddle and our eight-year-old daughter kept
up a solid commentary of “look at this” and “how did that
happen” until my wife had to shush her.

In the back of my mind I envied the natives of this great
territory with their possible diet of moose steaks, lake
trout fillets and mountains of wild berries. I really
wouldn’t care if I got lost up here . . . for the summer at
least. I did notice that it had dropped to 72 degrees below
zero one winter at a town nearby, though, so careful
preparation would be in order for that season.

The next day we left our camp behind, canoed to the head of
Ranger Lake and crossed on the portage to Saymo Lake. There
is a fly-in or boat-in lodge there although we didn’t see
anyone around. An old wooden dam is located at the junction
of the two lakes and it appears to have burned sometime in
the past. Portaging was a welcome break after the paddling
and, while the family stretched out on the bank, I took a
walk through the adjoining bush. Here I saw blueberries,
raspberries, choke cherries, pin cherries and dandelions.

A large brown mink kept coming from the jumble of timbers
around the dam and staring at us as we left. He didn’t
appear to be afraid, which is unusual for a wild mink, and
we didn’t try to get too close as the possibilities of
rabies always exists in animals. Paddling north on Saymo we
saw a large island jutting up from the lake. On the
southern shore of this island was a small, red log cabin.
The lonely, washed place of beauty was deserted and we felt
sad that the owner had left . . . for whatever reason.

We paddled around to the north side of the island and
decided, then and there, to forage our lunch. While my wife
and Jolain picked blueberries and Jim fished, I walked in
from the beach for the rest of the meal. There was plenty
of dandelion and plantain, more berries and cherries and,
if I had been really hungry, there was a plentiful supply
of poplar trees whose inner bark makes a vitamin-filled
survival food. I had instructions from my wife to bring
back just a wild green and a vegetable, however. That was
going to be easy.

I quickly picked my fishing vest pockets full of
plantain–selecting only the small, inner, perfect
leaves–for the greens and when I broke through the
dense forest of the island to the other shore I walked
directly into a large patch of arrowhead. No better
vegetable exists if my palate is the authority.

One hurdle in gathering arrowhead is finding the
potato-like tubers in the mud and water from which they
grow. Here I was fortunate. The plants were about 1 1/2
feet of water and the layer of mud underneath was
thin.

Borrowing a method from the Indian squaws old, I took my
shoes and socks off and waded into the patch barefoot. It
was great fun squishing around in the cool mud for the
tubers with both hands and both feet. I could feel the
tubers in the mud and I tried to pull them loose without
disturbing any plants. Even though this particular
arrowhead patch was the very thin-leafed variety with small
tube I harvested enough for a meal in a very short time

A point or two of interest about this plant: A general
rule, the larger the arrowhead the larger tuber growing
underneath. Not all plants of family have arrowhead shaped
leaves, either. The leaves are elliptical on some varieties
and tongue-like on others and such plants have very small
tubers.

Berry Pie Recipe

When I returned to camp the ladies had blueberries and
raspberries crushed together and sprinkled with sugar. If
we had been home or had an oven available, my wife would
have made blueberry pie to the following specifications.

To four cups fresh berries add 2/3 cup sugar, four
tablespoons flour, two teaspoons quick cooking tapioca,
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Stir
gently until well blended. Pour in pie crust, “dot” or
distribute one tablespoon butter over blended berries. Let
stand for 15 minutes. Cover with top crust and bake in
450 degree oven for ten minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and
bake until crust is golden . . . about 40 minutes total
baking time. This same recipe will make raspberry pie with
the sugar increased to one cup.

Jim, the invincible fisherman, had caught a dandy lake
trout on a Flashing Spoon. I had the vegetables and the
girls had found dessert. In less than an hour we had
foraged a good meal from this heavily forested island in
the remote wilds of Canada.

Arrowhead Tuber Recipes

I turned my attention to the arrowhead tubers first, filled
a four quart pan partly full of lake water and gave them a
good scrubbing. I used my knife, then, to scrape away the
purple and loose skin. When this was done I washed the
nodules thoroughly, covered them with water and sat the pan
on the coals of the campfire. After it had boiled five
minutes I drained this water and added a second. This was
to eliminate the slightly sharp, bitter taste common to
arrowhead. The pan went back on the coals to boil another
two minutes, salt and pepper was added
and–finally–the tubers were boiled three
minutes more.

We sliced them then and dropped the slices in a pan of
sputtering bacon grease my wife had ready. When they turned
a golden brown we dipped the tubers onto the tin pie plates
that we use for dishes when we are camping.

Another way I cook arrowhead is to peel and slice 1/2 cup
of tuber, add 1/4 cup chopped wild onions and one cup of
any meat or fish on hand. Boil vigorously for ten minutes,
salt and pepper and let simmer for about one hour. This
will serve one person in from the fields. Proportionally
larger amounts will serve more.

Arrowhead tubers are pretty good raw also and they make a
satisfying substitute for new potatoes in recipes such as
this:

To make creamed tubers and milkweed pods, slice and peel
the tubers and boil them until tender, changing the water
once. Prepare an equal amount of milkweed pods by methods
outlined in Food Without Farming, MOTHER EARTH NO. 3.
Now
pour the water off the tubers, add one tablespoon
butter, salt and cover with milk. Add the milkweed pods.
Make a thickening of one tablespoon flour and enough water
for a smooth paste. Stir the thickening into the milk and
vegetables. Simmer until well cooked. Serve hot.

I had covered the plantain with cold water to soak clean
while I worked on the arrowhead tubers. I now changed the
water and swished the plantain around in a pan to clean it
very well. Plantain always seems gritty to me if it’s not
soaked before cooking . . . but perhaps that’s just a
notion.

I started the water, boiled the plantain for about ten
minutes, drained it and added a tablespoon of butter to the
pint of greens. The butter was stirred in and salt and
pepper added. The greens were ready.

In the meantime, Jim had cleaned the trout he caught and my
wife had rolled the fillets in corn meal and fried them a
beautiful brown. The meal was ready and we ate.

Whale we were enjoying our lunch a raft of poplar branches
floated by, going directly upwind. It was a beaver floating
dinner across the lake to his lodge. Foraging is good for
everything in this wild country.