Sometimes I like to say that I've always been a plant person, into herbs and trees and fruits and teas and all that they can do. It's not untrue, after all. I was taught to identify raspberries and currants at an early age, helping grandpa in the garden. I spent many a happy afternoon playing in the rain, sending maple helicopters flying down the gutters of my suburban street, racing ahead of me in the watery rush for the drain. I made gallons of pretend soup in an all-purpose brown bucket in the backyard. My pretend soup recipes were practically nonexistent and invented on the fly as I investigated our often overgrown yard for treasures to add to the brew. Small sticks, acorns (with and without caps), berries, leaves, interesting rocks to add flavor, and maybe a small sprinkle of flowers floated on the top for decoration. The idea of stone soup at its simplest, with plenty of imagination for seasoning.
As the years went by, I came to learn that there were so many more teas in the world than I'd ever imagined. I traveled across the US, to Germany, England, and Ireland, where I learned to drink my tea at least twice a day, with a bit of milk and sugar. A five-week trip to Vancouver Island and back, via the trans-Canada highway, led to the discovery of Saskatoon berries and maple black tea. And after all this time, my childhood favorite Sleepytime tea remains a staple in my house. I drink it hot to mellow out of an evening, and iced with a little honey for a refreshing, cooling, summertime afternoon beverage.
Backcountry Motivations: wild edibles and field medicine
In my late twenties I found myself on my first backpacking excursion, to Isle Royale National Park. This beautiful island is surrounded by the shockingly cold waters of Lake Superior, and is the farthest north you can go and still be in Michigan. It is a land of conifers and stone, of ferns and wild raspberries, of the haunting calls of wolf and loon. At 31,700 square miles, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world. Separated from Michigan's Upper Peninsula by a 3-6 hour ferry ride, the first step onto the island can be intimidating. All that green and nothing in between! For a suburban girl, it was like stepping into another world. I paid close attention to the ranger's dockside introduction to Isle Royale and the backcountry, afraid I'd miss something important. We filed our trip plan, stocked up on drinkable water, and set off into the forest for a grand adventure.
The idea of leaving civilization for five days was daunting, that first time. I was with experienced Isle Royale backpackers, who advised me on gear, food, clothes, and what to expect on the trails, but honestly, I had no real idea what it would be like. Once we left the boat dock, NPS office, and tiny camp store behind in Rock Harbor, I concentrated on keeping up with our trail leader, whose singleminded steady hiking pace I was never able to fully emulate. After that first day, we got smart, sending our tireless leader ahead to secure a good camp spot for the night, while my hiking buddy and I rolled into camp late in the afternoons, taking plenty of snack and scenery rest stops along the way. As we traveled farther into the interior of the island and I started to get used to the backpacking routine, I noticed more and more details of the landscape around me. Isle Royale is full of beautiful colors that shine brightly on sunny days and glow with a soft, almost otherworldly allure in the rain and the mist. Lake Superior ("the big lake") changes color with the weather, swashing cloudy steel gray, dark royal blue, clear bottle green wavelets plashing on the rocks.
We subsisted on prepackaged meals, granola-like energy bars, fruit leather, jerky, and gorp. I thought it tasted fine, especially since after a day of hiking 5-8 miles with a 45-lb pack over rough terrain. By the third day, though, I was really wishing for a good salad with plenty of fresh vegetables and a nice vinagrette. Fresh food is heavy, so most backpackers I've met don't carry any. My hiking companions talked enthusiastically about thimbleberries, which are easily found on the island and make a delicious sweet-tart trail nibble. As we snacked our way across the island on thimbleberries, I wondered what else we might find along the way. I was determined to add some greenery to my meals if I could find some.
Isle Royale has three main (and many smaller) ridges that run the length of the island. These ridges are largely ancient lava flows, sculpted by glacial activity. Traversing Isle Royale along a north-south line can be challenging as you climb up a ridge, down into a valley, up the next ridge, and so on. For this reason, a fair portion of the trails are spent hiking along the ridgeline, occasionally dipping down into a valley. From the higher ridges you can see beautiful vistas of the inland lakes and valleys of the island, and on clear days you can see Canada, twenty-some miles away. Hiking up on the Greenstone Ridge, we found tiny blueberries! I was elated to find these little blue gems growing profusely on small bushes no higher than my calf. Though it can get pretty hot and sunny up on the ridge, this is where the blueberries ripen earliest, and I loved them for that. I filled up the two small empty containers I had with me, and ate handfuls of just-picked little blueberries for snack breaks. I put blueberries in our morning oatmeal, and ate them with crackers and peanut butter. It was a delicious break from gorp. There are also wild red raspberries to be found on the island, particularly in areas that have been settled in the past. Raspberries are my very favorite, and I spent a happy afternoon picking berries just outside camp. Same as with the tiny blueberries, little red raspberries made their way into breakfasts and snacks as long as they lasted. I nibbled raspberry leaves and used a handful to make tea. No salad-type greenery to speak of. I was pretty sure there were plenty of edible greens on the island, but I just didn't know what to look for. I came home intrigued and determined to find something wild and green to eat.
I don't remember when I started foraging for wild raspberries, but I was used to finding food growing in unexpected places. I always loved the idea of gathering, of free food all around, just waiting to be noticed. Before setting off for Isle Royale again, I bought a book on Isle Royale flora and fauna, making notes on everything edible. I read Euell Gibbons' wild edibles books to get ideas. I was sure I was ready to find green food!
Turns out it didn't work out very well. We hiked nearly every day on that year's trip, and I had little time to try to identify plants. I also didn't have a proper field guide, which (herbal understatement of the year) is a real handicap when trying to ID anything unfamiliar. I came home determined still, and convinced that what I really needed was some education, from a real person this time. So, I looked around. Out of a few options, I decided on a summer herbalism course in town, at the Gaia Center for Herbal Studies. It wasn't wild edibles directly, but it was education on Things To Do With Plants and I figured I'd pick up some wild food tidbits along the way. I did. I also made friends, learned how to use a field guide, and make useful remedies with plants and food, discovering a passion that was previously unknown. From this initial foray into the herb world I was led to jim mcdonald, and the concept of bioregional, folk herbalism.
And then I was off to the races.
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