November 1, 2001
Bradford Angier writes advice on how to live off the country by stealing kills from carnivores,
How to Stay Alive in the Woods - Living off the Country - Chapter 2
“Living Off the Country
ONE DAY YOU MAY BE BOATING DOWN THE PEACE River near the start of its more than 2000 mile journey inland to Great Slave Lake and thence as the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean. Soon after the headwaters of this wilderness highway mingle in the Continental Trough, the river turns abruptly eastward to flow with surprising tranquility through the entire range of the Rocky Mountains. If you watch the left shore after chuting through the minor turbulence known as Finlay Rapids, your eyes will likely as not catch the platinum gleam of Lost Cabin Creek.
Here it was at the turn of the century, during those apical days on the world’s gold-fever chart, that four prospectors shared the cabin from which the stream has taken its name. Their grubstake dwindling, three watched with growing helplessness their fourth companion die, by which time the ”
“survivors themselves had become so feeble they lacked the vigor to open the frozen ground outside.
They buried their companion in the only spot they could find earth still loose enough to dig. A second prospector died and had also to be there interred. Before the fourth succumbed, he had by himself managed to scoop out enough earth so that a third emaciated body could be added to the grave beneath the cabin floor.
Yet as you will be able to testify from what you can see while boating past Lost Cabin Creek, and as I can substantiate from having camped there on several occasions, the vicinity abounds year around with wild edibles.
Sustenance in the Silent Places
Starvation is not a great deal more pleasant than most of us would expect. The body becomes auto-cannibalistic after a few foodless hours. The carbohydrates in the system are devoured first. The fats follow.
This might not be too disagreeable, inasmuch as diets seek to accomplish much the same result, but then proteins from muscles and tendons are consumed to maintain the dwindling strength their loss more gravely weakens.
“No reasonable nourishment should therefore be scorned if one needs food. The Pilgrims derived considerable nutriment during their first desperate Massachusetts winter from ground nuts which are similar to small potatoes. Some northern explorers including Richardson, Franklin, and members of their parties lived for weeks and sometimes months almost entirely on the lichen known as rock tripe.
Wild turnips kept up John Colter’s strength when the mountain man made his notable escape from the Indians. Beaver meat was a main item on the menu while Samuel Black explored the Finlay River. When regular rations on the Lewis and Clark expedition had to be reduced to one biscuit a day, it was the sweet yellow fruit of the papaw tree that kept the men going.
“There is no need to explain why, if any of us are ever stranded and hungry in the wilderness, we will want to start searching for food while our strength is still near its maximum.
Few will disagree, at least not when the moment of decision is at hand, that there is a point where luxuries as such become relatively unimportant.
One of life’s luxuries, which we esteem most highly, is the freedom to indulge our taste buds. Our taste prejudices, a better understanding of which may one day prove beneficial, are commonly based on two factors.
First: there is a human tendency to look down upon certain foods as being beneath one’s social station. Where grouse have been particularly thick in the Northeast, I’ve seen them scorned among backwoodsmen as a “poor man’s dish.” The same season in the Northwest where there happened to be a scarcity of grouse but numerous varying hares, the former were esteemed while I heard habitants “apologizing for having rabbits in their pots. As it is everywhere in such matters, the lower the designated station of the creature, the more prejudiced against eating it the locals are.
Second: it is natural to like the food to which we have become accustomed. We in the United States and Canada have our wheat. The Mexican has his corn, the Asian his rice. These grains we like also, but it would seem a hardship to have to eat them every day as we do wheat bread.
Our fastidiousness, too, is perhaps repelled by the idea of a Polynesian’s eating raw fish, although at the moment we may be twirling a raw oyster in grated horseradish. The Eskimo enjoys fish mellowed by age. Many of us regard as choice some particularly moldy, odoriferous cheeses.
What About Frogs
Frog meat is one example of an often disdained food. Yet frog can be very expensive in the more fashionable restaurants of the world, though in nature it is free for the taking. Amphibians can be hooked with fishing tackle and small fly. They can be caught with string and a bit of cloth, the former being given a quick tug when “hooked with fishing tackle and small fly. They can be caught with string and a bit of cloth, the former being given a quick tug when the latter is taken experimentally into the mouth.
Frogs can be secured with spears of various types. A sharpened stick will do. They can be so occupied at night by a light that you’ll be able to net them and, even, occasionally to reach cautiously around and clamp a hand over one.
With a string and a bit of brightly colored cloth in the absence of live bait, you may be able to capture a frog. When you cannot see frogs, their presence is obvious by their easily distinguished croaking. Jerk the string so the cloth flutters. You may have luck with the chance that a frog will take it as food in its mouth. Then jerk the line and frog towards you to catch it.
“Most of the delicately flavored meat is on the hind legs which can be cut off, skinned, and in the absence of cooking utensils, extended over hot coals on a green stick for broiling. If rations are scant, you can use the entire skinned frog after removing or at least emptying and cleaning the entrails, perhaps boiling the meat briefly with some wild greens.
Letting Predators Hunt for Us
If one of us is ever stranded and hungry, it may not be amiss to watch for owls, for spying one roosting in a quiet shadowy spot is not unusual, and it may be possible to steal close enough to knock it down. Although not as large and plump as would seem from outward appearances, an owl nevertheless is excellent eating.
What is more likely, however, is that we may scare an owl from a kill and thus secure ourselves a fresh supper. We may also have such good fortune, perhaps earlier in the day, with other predatory birds such as hawks and eagles. It is not uncom“mon to come upon one of these after it has just captured a partridge, hare, or other prey that is too heavy to lift from the ground. By running to drive the hunter away, we may thus secure a fresh meal.
Wolves, coyotes, and foxes may also be surprised at fresh kills that are still fit for human consumption. Such carnivores will seek new hunting grounds at the sight or scent of an approaching human being.
“Can Live Meat Spoil Too Quickly to Be Consumed?
One often hears it suggested that when any bird or animal has been unduly harassed before death, as may be considered to be the case if, for example, it has been relayed by wolves, its meat is no longer fit to eat. Such conclusions are false, however, and are more attributed to fancy than fact. Although it is true that the amounts of lactic acid in the muscle tissues of such animals is higher than those not chased by their predators and that the rate of spoilage is faster, this meat is still quite safe to eat if cooked well and immediately.
How About Bears?
“Coming up to a bear’s kill may be something else again. A wild bear probably won’t dispute your presence. Then again it may, and although the chances are very much against this latter possibility, that is all the more reason not to take disproportionate risks.
If you are unarmed and really need the bear’s meal, you will want to plan and execute your campaign with all reasonable caution. This will probably mean, first of all, spotting with the minutest detail, preferably at least two paths of escape in case a fast exit should become advisable. This should not be too difficult where there are small trees to climb.”
“If you are trying to steal dinner from a bear, or just help to clean his plate, be aware of at least two distinct escape routes. Even if the bear seems to have left the vicinity, approach with quiet caution and stay alert. Bears often sleep soon after—and nearby—their last meal. Use discretion to build a fire near the food, gathering enough fuel to keep it going throughout the night.”
“You’ll then watch your opportunity and if, for instance, the kill is a still warm moose calf, build a large fire beside it, discreetly gathering enough fuel to last for several hours—until morning, if night be close at hand. You will take care in any event to be constantly alert as bears, especially when they have gorged themselves, have a habit of dropping down near their food.
If you have a gun, you will be able to judge for yourself if the best procedure may not be to bag the bear itself. Fat is the most important single item in most survival diets, and the bear is particularly well fortified with this throughout most of the year. Except usually for a short period in the spring, bear flesh is therefore particularly nourishing.
Many, most of whom have never tasted bear meat nor smelled it cooking, are prejudiced against the carnivore as a table delicacy for one reason or another. One excuse often heard concerns the animal’s eating habits. Yet the most ravenous bear is a finicky diner when compared to such game as lobster and chicken.
It is only natural that preferences should vary, and if only for this reason it may be interesting to note:
“(a) That many of our close acquaintances who live on wild meat much of the time relish plump bear more than any other North American game meat with the single exception of sheep,
(b) and that, furthermore, these individuals include a sizable number who after long professing an inability to stomach bear meat in any form found themselves coming back for thirds and even fourths of bear roast or bear stew under the impression that anything so savory must be, at the very least, choice beef.
Getting Birds Without Guns
Game birds such as ptarmigan and grouse promise feasts for anybody lost in the wilderness, especially as a few stones or sticks are often the only weapons needed to catch one. If one misses the first time, such fowl usually will afford a second and even a third chance to be captured. When they do fly, they generally go only short distances and may be successfully followed, particularly if this is done casually and at such a tangent that it would seem that one were strolling on past.
It goes without saying that no sportsman finds any amusement in indiscriminate killing: it follows with equal reason that when survival is at stake and when wild meat may mean life itself, otherwise distasteful means of securing meat may be justified, even though regrets for their necessity may remain.
Any bird, as a matter of fact, will furnish good eating in an emergency. The only difference is that some are more tender and plump, and to different palates better tasting than others. Colonies afford particular opportunities, some of which are considered in Chapter 5. Even ripe eggs should not be overlooked when one needs food.
Because bevies of grouse tend to fly and flutter close to the ground for short distances only, a casual pursuit with a few good stones or sticks may lead to an important feast. The birds will usually allow the hunter a few opportunities to get reasonably close enough to them so that his chances of success are quite high.
Why Porcupines Are Given Reprieves
Porcupines, like thistles and nettles, are better eating than it might seem reasonable to expect. The slow moving, dull witted rodent is in human estimation often a nuisance, being so ravenous for salt that practically anything touched by human hands will whenever possible be investigated by sharp inquisitive teeth.
When shooting the rocky headwaters of the Southwest Miramichi River in New Brunswick, I’ve had to hunch out of my sleeping robe a half-dozen times a night to switch determined brown porkies away from my canvas canoe. Several years later, King Gething told me how when boating mail in the Canadian Rockies he’d solved with better success a similar problem, looping wires harmlessly around the yellowish necks of offending western hedgehogs and hitching them to poplars until he was ready to go the next morning.
The sluggish porcupine is the one animal that even the greenest tenderfoots, even weak with hunger, can kill with a weapon no more formidable than a stick. All one usually has to do to collect a meal is reach over the animal, which generally presents the raised quills of back and tail, and strike it on the head. Being so low in intelligence, “the hedgehog requires a lot more killing than might be expected.
Porcupines can not, of course, shoot their quills, but any that are stuck in the flesh by contact should be pulled out immediately, for their barbed tips cause them to be gradually worked in and out of sight. Dogs are common victims. I had a big Irish Wolfhound who became so infuriated at the genus that with no regard for himself, until later, he killed every porcupine he could find.
If you’re alone in the bush with a dog in such a disagreeable predicament, you’ll probably have to do as I did; lash the pet as motionless as possible against a tree, and use your weight for any necessary additional leverage. Pincers can be improvised by splitting a short branch, At any rate, each of the perhaps hundreds of quills has to come out, or death may be the least painful result.
Because they are so dumb, porcupines, which may provide a good source of nutrition, are possibly the easiest forest-dwelling animals to kill. A few blows with a simple, sturdy stick to the head of the slow-moving animal, and your kill should be complete. But take heed: although porcupines cannot shoot their quills, if a quill happens to stick you, it can easily become lodged beneath the surface of the skin, and thus, it should be removed immediately. Before cooking, skin the porcupine completely, using caution, by first making an incision on the smooth underbelly.
This danger from quills is one reason why it is a poor practice to cook a porcupine by tossing it into a small fire. Very often all the quills do not burn off. The best procedure is to skin out the porcupines by “first turning it over so as to make the initial incision along the smooth underneath portion. Many who’ve dined on this meat consider the surprisingly large liver uncommonly toothsome.
The Most Widely Hunted Game Animal
In the spring particularly, those years when rabbit cycles are near their zeniths, the young lie so fearlessly that a dog will step over one without scenting it, and all an individual has to do, if he wants, is to reach down and pick the youngster up.
Adult rabbits themselves depend so much on camouflage that at any time if you pretend not to see one and continue strolling as if going past, it is frequently possible to come close enough to do some immediately accurate throwing with a ready stone.
Tularemia, or rabbit fever, is occasionally a threat in some localities and in one respect the disease is a little harder to avoid when not hunting with a firearm, for one precaution can be to shoot only rabbits that appear to be lively and in good health.
The germs of rabbit fever are destroyed by heat, however, and another safeguard is to handle the animal with covered hands until the meat is thoroughly cooked.
Rabbits are unusually easy to clean. One method is to begin by pinching up enough of the loose back skin to slit it by shoving a knife through. Insert your fingers and tear the fragile skin apart completely around the rabbit. Now peel back the lower half like a glove, disjointing the tail when you come to it and finally cutting off each hind foot. Do the same thing with the top section of skin, loosening it finally by severing the head and two forefeet. You can then, as you’ve already possibly found, pull the animal open just below the ribs and flip out the entrails, retrieving heart and liver. You may also want to cut out the small waxy gland between each front leg and the body.
Starvation Next to Impossible
“It is next to impossible to starve in a wilderness,” says George Leopard Herter, of Herter’s, Inc., sporting goods manufacturer, importer, and exporter. “If no game, fish, mollusk, etc. are present, you are still in no danger.
“Insects are wonderful food, being mostly fat, and are far more fortifying than either fish or meat. It does not take many insects to keep you fit. Do not be squeamish about eating insects, as it is entirely uncalled for. In parts of Mexico, the most nutritious flour is made from the eggs of small insects found in the marshes. In Japan, darning needles or dragon flies are a delicacy. They have a delicious delicate taste, so be sure to try them.
“Moths, mayflies, in fact about all the insects found in the wools, are very palatable. The only ones I ever found that I did not care for were ants. They contain formic acid and have a bitter taste. Some aborigines have capitalized on the ants’ acidity by mashing them in water sweetened with berries or sap to make a sort of lemonade. The eggs and the young of the ant are also eaten.
“A small light at night will get you all the insects you need to keep you in good condition. If the weather is too cold for flying insects, kick open some rotten logs or look under stones and get some grubs. They keep bears fat and healthy and will do the same for you.”
Grasshoppers are edible when hard portions such as wings and legs have been removed. So are cicadas. Termites, locusts, and crickets may be similarly eaten.
Both lizards and snakes are not only digestible but are often considered delicacies for which some willingly pay many times the amount they expend for a similar weight of prime beef. The only time snake meat may be poisonous is when it has suffered a venomous bite, perhaps from its own fangs. This also holds true with lizards, the only poisonous ones on this continent being the Southwest’s Gila monster and Mexico’s beaded lizard. To prepare the reptiles, decapitate, skin, remove the entrails, and cook like chicken to whose white meat the somewhat fibrous flesh is often compared.
An ancient method for securing already cooked insects, reptiles, and small animals is to fire large tracts of grassland and then to comb them for whatever may have been roasted by the conflagration.
A Rule for Survival
Although it is true that under ideal conditions the human body can sometimes fend off starvation for upwards of two months by living on its own tissues, it is equally certain that such auto-cannibalism is seldom necessary anywhere in the North American wilderness.
A good rule is not to pass up any reasonable food sources if we are ever in need. There are many dead men who, through ignorance or fastidiousness, did.
Excerpt From: Bradford Angier. “How to Stay Alive in the Woods.” Apple Books.