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By John Dowd 

Woods Journal

Survival is rough on any outdoor enthusiast


December 31, 2020

When it comes to wintertime, along with all the winter sports and activities comes an inherent danger. Those who live their lives out in the wild enjoying nature are all too aware of the fact that things can go horribly awry and an emergency can become the reality. Getting lost in the woods in the summer can be dangerous, but in the winter the danger becomes immediately life threatening. Not only is the cold an immediate concern, but as the sun goes down that cold can worsen, and the dark of night and the snow in the northwest especially can make traversal near impossible. Along with that comes a greater, albeit more long-term concern: food procurement.

I started teaching wilderness survival in college, and one year took a small group of headstrong young adults into the woods for a three-day survival excursion. This group included some guys who for all intent and purposes were not wimps. One was a Marine, three were at least hunters and the last was a police officer who was co-teaching with me. In Alabama, where we were at the time, snow and the loss of daylight are small concerns in the winter, unlike they would be in Montana. However, the ambient air temperature predicted for the weekend was set to be around 25 degrees. It would in fact get far colder.

These well-trained outdoorsmen were confident that a traipse through the woods in the cold was the most they would have to endure, as most of them were self-proclaimed survivalists. Most people who hunt and “live off the land” find in the real deal that survival is not a walk in the park. It is one thing to step out of your warm tree stand to clean a deer you shot at nearly 70 yards. It is another thing completely to move through the wild in the dead of winter with nothing but a .22 and your bare hands. After the first two days of eating nothing, the guys were about ready to consume their own limbs. After a few kilometers of travel, we stumbled upon the best wild edible forged by God: the cattail.

Cattails are by far one of nature’s greatest gifts. They grow in abundance on nearly every continent in the world and are full of starches and carbohydrates. They also have many parts that can be consumed raw and can be eaten year-round. I instructed the guys to start digging into the cold mushy ground. Cattails change throughout the seasons, and reveal different edible and usable parts seasonally, but the one thing that remains perennially are the rhizomes. As the potatoes saved the Irish, so too would these morsel roots save us.

Under spans of cattails spread a mat of interwoven roots that stem out connecting the different shoots of leaves. Each individual cattail is often part of a vast network of underground tubers, all of which are edible. As the spring comes, the shoots can be eaten raw. In the summer the heart of the plant, where the leaves connect to the root, can be peeled, and enjoyed uncooked. In the spring as the namesakes of the plant start to form early, they can be consumed exactly as corn on the cob, boiled or not.

We had a meager pot and some water to spare, as creeks ran readily through that area. We took the roots, as one should, peeled them, cut them into short lengths, and then boiled them. Once soft, we poured out the top layer of water, which had a layer of undesirable oils leached during the boiling process. After that we dug in. It took several boils for us to get enough for everyone in that little pot, but we were able to delegate tasks and do the work efficiently and quickly. Though the food was not enough to fill us, it would give us the energy to keep going.

After we finished, the officer and I went out to search for some protein, hoping for a beaver, or even a squirrel. After hours of searching, we finally came to the evening of the last day and located the only meat we had been able to get within range of all weekend- a small finch. But that little bird was the tastiest thing either of us had ever seen. We shot it and brought it back to camp triumphantly. The others had had little luck with food gathering on their end. Though humbled by the famine of the cold, these guys learned some lessons about collecting food in the winter. There never was a sight seen quite like six big hungry men gathered around the fire to piece out and eat that lowly little bird.


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