November 1, 2001
Angier explains the science of staying alive in the woods, describing that scurvy can be prevented by eating fresh meat, and that the fat is the most important nutrient to look for while rabbit starvation can happen if not enough fat is eaten with protein.
How to Stay Alive in the Woods - The Science of Staying Alive - Chapter 3
Science of Staying Alive
SOME NATIVES ROAST THE BLAND YOUNG ANTLERS of the deer family when they are in velvet. Others esteem the stomach contents of herbivorous mammals such as caribou, for such greens mixed as they are with digestive acids are not too unlike salad prepared with vinegar.
Some aborigines, as desirous of wasting nothing as those who can whole sardines, do not bother to open the smaller birds and animals they secure, but pound them to a pulp which is tossed in its entirety into the pot. Other peoples gather moose and rabbit excrement for thickening boiled dishes. Even such an unlikely ingredient as gall has, among other uses, utility as a seasoning.
Nearly every part of North American animals is edible. Exceptions are polar bear and ringed and bearded seal liver which become so excessively rich in Vitamin A that they are poisonous to some degree at certain times and are usually as well avoided. All freshwater fish are likewise good to eat.
Animals should not be bled any more than can be helped if food is scarce. Whether they should be so handled at other times is a matter largely of circumstances and of personal opinion.
Blood, which is not far removed from milk, is unusually rich in easily absorbed minerals and vitamins. Our bodies need iron. It would require the assimilation of ten ordinary eggs, we are told, to supply one man’s normal daily requirements. Four tablespoons of blood are capable of doing the same job.
Fresh blood can be secured and carried, in the absence of handier means, in a bag improvised from one or another parts of the entrails. One way to use it is in broths and soups enlivened perhaps by a wild vegetable or two.
Leather and Rawhide Both Edible
The skin of the animal is as nourishing as a similar quantity of lean meat. Baking a catch in its hide, although ordinarily both a handy and tasty method of occasionally preparing camp meat, is therefore a practice we should not indulge in when rations are scarce.
Rawhide is also high in protein. Boiled, it has even less flavor than roasted antlers, and the not overly appealing and yet scarcely unpleasant look and feel of the boiled skin of a large fish. When it is raw, a usual procedure naturally adopted in emergencies is to chew on a small bit until mastication becomes tiresome and then to swallow the slippery shred.
Explorers speak of variances of opinion among individual members of groups as to whether or not leather, generally footwear or other body covering, should be eaten. When we are so situated that to reach safety we will need to walk, retaining our foot protection should of course come first. If we are cold as well as hungry, we will stay warmer by wearing the rawhide than we would by sacrificing it to obtain a little additional heat via the digestive system. If the article in question is made of commercially tanned leather, the answer will be simpler indeed, for such leather generally has scant if any food value.
Bones May Mean Salvation
A lot of us, given the time, capitalize on the food value inherent in bones in two ways: Small bones go into the pot to thicken stews and soups, and we may also like to chew on the softer of these, particularly if we are lounging around a campfire. Larger marrow bones are opened so that their soft vascular tissue can be extracted.
The mineral-rich marrow found in the bones of animals that were in good physical condition at demise is not surpassed by any other natural food in caloric strength. What is, at the same time, the most delectable of tidbits is wasted by the common outdoor practice of roasting such bones until they are on the point of crumbling. A more conservative procedure is to crack them at the onset, with two stones if nothing handier is available. The less the marrow is then cooked, the better it will remain as far as nutrition is concerned.
All this is something to consider if any of us, when desperate for food, happens upon the skeleton of a large animal.
Rare or Well Done
When food supplies are limited, nothing should be cooked longer than is considered necessary for palatableness. The only exception is when there may be germs or parasites to be destroyed.
The more food is subjected to heat, the greater are the losses of nutritive values. Even the practice of making toast diminishes both bread’s proteins and digestibility. The greatest single universal error made in preparing venison and similar game meat for the table is overcooking which, in addition to drying it out, tends to make it tough and stringy. What this practice does to the flavor is a matter of opinion.
Scurvy Easily Prevented and Cured
A very definite risk when fresh food is habitually overcooked, especially under survival conditions, arises from the fact that oxidation destroys the inherent Vitamin C, lack of which in the diet causes scurvy.
Scurvy has gathered more explorers, pioneers, trappers, and prospectors to their fathers than can be reckoned, for it is a debilitating killer whose lethal subtleties through the centuries have too often been misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Scurvy, it is known now, is a deficiency disease. If you have it, taking Vitamin C into your system will cure you. Eating a little Vitamin C regularly will, indeed, keep you from having scurvy in the first place.
Spruce tea can be made, by steeping fresh evergreen needles in water, that will be as potent with the both preventative and curative ascorbic acid as the ordinary orange juice. This vitamin you can get even more directly by chewing the tender new needles, whose starchy green tips are particularly pleasant to eat in the spring.
Boiling supple needles in water will provide as much Vitamin C as fresh orange juice and can restore a body with warmth and a sense of well-being under cold and trying circumstances.
Fresh meat will both prevent and cure scurvy. So will fresh fish. So will fresh fruits and vegetables, wild or otherwise. So will lime juice and lemon juice but, no matter how sour, only if they too are fresh. The Vitamin C in all these is lessened and eventually destroyed by oxidation, by age, and, incidently, by salt.
How Rabbit Starvation Really Happens
A man can have all the rabbit meat he wants to eat and still perish. So-called rabbit starvation, as a matter of fact, is particularly well known in the Far North.
An exclusive diet of any lean meat, of which rabbit is a practical example, will cause digestive upset and diarrhea. Eating more and more rabbit, as one is compelled to do because of the increasing uneasiness of hunger, will only worsen the condition.
The diarrhea and general discomfort will not be relieved unless fat is added to the diet. Death will otherwise follow within a few days. One would probably be better off on just water than on rabbit and water.
The Tremendous Importance of Fat
Why is fat so important an item in a survival diet? Part of the answer, as we have seen, lies in the fact that eating lean flesh without a sufficient amount of fat will kill us, an actuality that may seem astonishing, for in civilization we obtain numerous fats from a very great number of often unrecognized sources. These include butter, margarine, lard, milk, cheese, bacon, salad oil, mayonnaise, various sauces, candy, nuts, ice cream, and the fatty contents of such staples as bread.
If in an emergency we have to subsist entirely on meat, the fat of course will have to come from the meat itself. The initial consideration in a meat diet, therefore, is fat.
Yet history tells of supposedly experienced men who, although starving, have burned vital fat to give nutritiously inferior lean meat what seemed to them a more appetizing flavor—a suicidal error of which we, having learned better in an easier way, need never be guilty.
It has always been believed, among all social levels of all peoples, that starving human beings left to their own resources will devour everything suspected of having food value, including their fellow human beings.
“It is rare, except in fiction, that men are killed to be eaten. There are cases where a member of a party becomes so unsocial in his conduct towards the rest that by agreement he is killed; but if his body then is eaten it is not logically correct to say that he was killed for food,” Villijalinur Stefansson says. “What does happen constantly is that those who have died of hunger, or of another cause, will be eaten. But long before cannibalism develops the party has eaten whatever else is edible.”
Some scientists, who point out that objections are psychological and sociological, declare abstractly that animal proteins are desirable, in direct ratio with their chemical similarity to the eating organism, and that therefore for the fullest and easiest assimilation of flesh, human meat can hardly be equaled.
What to Kill for Food
Some member of the deer family is what anyone really bogged down in the North American wilderness is most apt to turn to for sustenance. The adult male, as any sportsman knows, is fattest just before the mating season which, varying according to species and climate, commences roughly in early autumn. The male then becomes progressively poorer. At the end of the rut, the prime male is practically without fat even in the normally rich marrows.
The mature female is the choice of the meat hunter once the rutting season is well under way. She remains preferable until approximately early spring. Then the male once more becomes more desirable. Generally speaking, older animals have more body fat than younger ones.
Tidbit of Old-Time Trappers
Beaver was something I had very much wanted to eat ever since I was a boy and had read Horace Kephart’s regretful observation: “This tidbit of old-time trappers will be tasted by few of our generation, more’s the pity.” It was a lean black-haired trapper, Dan Macdonald, who gave me the opportunity some years later, and as beaver are one of the principal fur animals along the upper Peace River I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to enjoy amisk many times since.
The meat is so sustaining that anyone lost and hungry is markedly fortunate to secure it. Beaver cuttings on trees, which indicate the presence of the amphibian, are easily recognized by the marks left by the large sharp teeth that have kept gnawing around and around, biting continually deeper until the wood is severed. Because beaver don’t know how trees will fall, the animal is occasionally found trapped beneath trunk and branch.
If you have a gun and enough time at your disposal to wait for a sure shot, an often productive campaign is to steal to a concealed vantage on the downward side of a beaver pond. The furry animal may then be seen swimming and shot in the head. If you have a choice and not much ammunition, wait to bag the biggest one you can. Beaver, the largest rodents on this continent, weigh up to fifty pounds or more.
Beaver quarters seem almost incommensurably delicious when you’re hungry from outdoor exertion, although with the larger adults the meat does, even though you may be reluctant to heed it, have a tendency to become somewhat fibrous and stringy when cooked. The meat has a distinctive taste and odor somewhat resembling that of plump turkey. A sound idea in an emergency is to supplement it with lean flesh such as rabbit, so as to take the fullest possible advantage of the fat.
A beaver tail looks surprisingly like a scaly black fish whose head has been removed. Tails may be propped up or hung near a cooking fire whose heat will cause the rough black hide to puff and to separate from the flesh, whereupon it can be peeled off in large flakes.
The beaver tail is so full of nourishing oil, incidentally, that if set too close to a blaze it will burn like a torch. The meat is white and gelatinous, and rich enough that one finds himself not wanting too much of it at a time.
What Parts of Meat to Eat
We will probably want to eat most of any animals we can secure if short of food. Some parts, such as the liver, have been recognized even among some primitive tribes as a specific cure for night blindness as it is high in Vitamin A. But any section of plump fresh meat is a complete diet in itself, affording all the necessary food ingredients even if we dine on nothing but fat rare steaks for week after month after year.”
Excerpt From: Bradford Angier. “How to Stay Alive in the Woods.” Apple Books.