I have lost track of the exact count, but I have visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota and the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park almost 20 times. For those that are unfamiliar with this pristine area it is an enormous wilderness park that takes up much of northeastern Minnesota and is over 1,000,000 acres. The adjacent Quetico is equally as large and between the parks there are thousands of lakes and rivers with endless miles of canoe routes. This area is one of the last true strongholds of wilderness in North America and is conspicuously absent of cars, motor boats, electricity, roads, cell phone reception, humans or any evidence of their presence. However, there is an abundance of wildlife: moose, bear, wolves, pine martens, ravens, gray jays and loons, are all common residents. Wilderness solitude, where you carry and paddle all of your belongings many miles into remote forest, is a “vacation” few seek out. This is unfortunate as the benefits of totally disconnecting from society must be experienced to truly appreciate. All of my trips, independent of weather or bug conditions, have never failed to completely refresh and revitalize me. The silence, the remoteness, the loneliness, always sharpen my focus and bring a sense of peace and aliveness that has been impossible to duplicate outside of these trips. Naturalist, Sigurd Olson reflects much of the same sentiment when he writes of the Boundary Waters:
“Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.”
In recent trips I have had sincere intentions to enrich my boundary waters experience by foraging to provide sustenance for a couple of meals. However, because of the convenience of eating the food that I carried in the canoe and on my back over numerous portages, and just plain laziness, I have put off these ambitions. If there were blueberries or raspberries along the trail I would always stop and eat my fill. Fishing, although often productive, has always been more for leisure than necessity. This trip will be different.
Why Wild Foods?
Those of you who know me personally are familiar with my interest in human health and nutrition and that these interests brought me to medical school. I ended up leaving that pursuit because I was discouraged by the pharmaceutical focus of the program. However, I have retained a strong interest in human diet and its contribution to chronic disease. Western approach to human health is largely a treatment model. Considering that copious amounts of research support that the modern, heavily processed diet is directly responsible for most degenerative disease including: obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and several forms of cancer, this is truly unfortunate. Of course the fundamental question that arises from any discussion regarding diet is: What is a healthy diet? If you ask a hundred people this question you will get a hundred unique answers. However, any biologist will tell you that the healthiest diet for an animal is the one that they are evolved to eat: Tigers can’t survive on grass; rabbits will quickly die of coronary failure if fed meat. The healthiest diet for humans was slowly shaped by our evolution which relied on hunting and gathering for the 50,000 years that preceded the industrial revolution. Much of the wisdom of what specifically constitutes such a diet has been carelessly lost with a rapidly expanding human society. However, the answer is still outside all around us and the same wild foods that indigenous people once ate are still present in the forest and field.
Taking the leap.
Many say the best way to learn a foreign language is to submerse yourself in that culture. Surround yourself with people that don’t speak your language and you are forced to quickly acquire at least a rudimentary knowledge of the foreign tongue to survive the inevitable interactions of daily living. For this years trip to the boundary waters I have decided to submerge myself in a gathering experience. I figured the best way for me to truly focus on obtaining food is to bring no food. Seems logical.
Why am I doing this?
I imagine many who would undertake such an adventure would do so to prove themselves in an emergency wilderness situation. Surprisingly, this is not my motivation. Instead, I’m excited about the education this experience will undoubtedly offer. Over the last few days I have already begun to scour over my field guides searching for what plants I might encounter that are both edible and in season. I embrace the opportunity to learn plants that are unfamiliar to me and experience the finding, identification and preparation of native foods. However, I believe the more important education is evaluating how my body will respond to this diet. I will make no effort to conceal that this is a point of anxiety for me. Honestly, I really have no idea what to expect from this experiment. One possible, perhaps even probable scenario, is unpleasant. I could be constantly hungry, irritable, exhausted, bloated, or even sick. However, I am hoping for a different experience, one in which I am vibrant, satisfied, satiated, mindful, healthy and happy. In reality, I will most likely experience elements of good and bad, but I will embrace what comes. I often preach about a diet rich in whole foods, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This will certainly be the epitome of such a diet and my experience will certainly leave me the wiser. I intend to document much of my preparation and experience and share it with those who are interested.
“Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.” Sigurd Olson