Welcome to the Wilderness: Water and Food
By April Thompson
Having covered the basics of fire and shelter making in our previous sessions of Welcome to the Wilderness, today we would learn about two essentials that go hand in hand: food and water.
As a foraging foodie, I’d focused on the plants and fungi that offered nutrition, energy and hedonistic pleasure, but didn’t know much about safely staying hydrated — objectively, the more urgent need of the two. Many of us take access to potable water for granted. Yet bacteria and protozoa like shigella and giardia kill millions of people every year, so this wasn’t just a hypothetical question for so-called survivalists.
Our instructor Drev walked us through the pros and cons of various water purification methods, from the icky tasting iodine tablets I remember carrying with me to countries with questionable tapwater in the 90s (Drev’s take: “good, but not great”) to Aquamira, a branded system of water purification deploying chlorine dioxide to kill bacteria, which Drev said was a favorite of many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.
Drev also covered more laborious ways of harvesting and purifying water, one involving digging a clay trench several feet deep in a creek bed, but two simple, passive methods stuck with me. The first was leaving water in a clear container in direct, full sunlight for a few days, letting UV rays knock out “the yuckies.” (Things I never thought I would say: maybe a certain former president’s suggestion of zapping COVID with light rays wasn’t that crazy?). The second, an old Air Force trick, I immediately put on my “to try” list: tying a bag around a conifer branch, which would supposedly yield a cup and a half of water per day.
The surest things in life often aren’t the sexiest. Boiling water is the most surefire way to kill most things, though it can’t destroy elemental contaminants like heavy metals. Drev showed us a simple way to yank a dangerously hot container out of the fire, with parachute cord knotted around a stick propped inside a bottle neck.
Other water risk mitigation strategies Drev offered: pitch your toilet at least 100 steps from camp; look for moving water with a healthy amphibian population; check for recent outbreaks when traveling; wash your hands and, for god’s sake, don’t drink your own piss.
To tee up our next topic, the class enjoyed handmade treats Drev and I had brought in: Drev’s delightfully gingery kimchi, spicy fire cider and Merlot-spiked, bone-in, venison jerky, and my spicy fermented chickweed paste and almondy pickled cherry blossoms.
Surprisingly, much of the food portion of Drev’s lecture focused not on hunting big game but on cooking up little critters. “Most bugs taste like seafood. Roly-pollies taste just like popcorn shrimp,” Drev said, smiling wistfully at the thought. “Wax worms taste like butter cookies and grasshoppers taste like a nut. And eat a veggie burger with a scorpion on top – just be sure to knock the stinger off – and you’d swear it was topped with crispy fried onions.”
Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, is an important protein source in many parts of the world. As a rule of thumb, Drev suggested staying away from brightly colored insects or ones with more than six legs. (These rules of course being rough ones, just as the mushroom hunter’s catchphrase, “if it stains blue, it’ll make you spew” was paved with more exceptions than examples, as this bicolor bolete lover can tell you.)
Termites, June bugs, maple-dwelling grubs: this opened up a whole new world of eating. My only bug-eating experience was a meh one of chapuline taco that left me with cricket legs stuck in my teeth, but I was game to try again.
Before finishing the day roaming Fox Haven’s grounds for edible signs of spring, we rooted ourselves in the rule of thirds – not to take more than a third of a plant to leave some for whatever critter might come after and for the plant itself to stay healthy. This too was another rule that could be broken with the right intention, for example taking out an aggressive stand of garlic mustard to give other plants a chance to flourish.
We greeted old plant friends not seen since last year, peppery bittercress (pictured), lacy yarrow, and purple dead nettle, with their beautiful waterfall ombre of leaves. Other parts of the landscape hadn’t yet awoken from their winter slumber, like dried out clumps of “chicken of the woods” growing from a willow log, hinting to delectable meals still ahead.
For more teachings by Jason Drevenak, visit his new website: www.bushcraftforbipeds.com
Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram
April Thompson is a Washington, DC-based writer, gardener, foodie, and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging, and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste, and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC, and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a board member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.
To read about more foraging adventures with April, you can subscribe to her blog The Wild Life!