‘Big Wild Year’ Notebook: Part III of a series

Jeremy St. Onge and Delphanie Colyer recently tried cooking bear meat in maple sap at the ‘Sappy Shack,’ their sugar bush where they have well over 100 tapped trees ready for this year’s maple syrup run. They have already consumed a dozen litres of syrup since January.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Expositor will be checking in regularly with this couple who have ties to Manitoulin Island as they embark on their Big Wild Year challenge. This is the third monthly update since they began.

NORTH BAY—The Big Wild Year is already 25 percent over and the long, cold winter has been pushing Delphanie Colyer and Jeremy St. Onge’s supplies to their limits.

“We’re at the end of our maple syrup, which is luckily starting to flow. And really, we’ve just got crumbs of greens left,” said Ms. Colyer.

“I’m down to my last two bags of blueberries,” added Mr. St. Onge.

For the entire year of 2019, the couple has pledged to eat only wild-foraged foods such as plants that are indigenous to the area and animals they have hunted. Mr. St. Onge is an environmental studies professor at Canadore College and Ms. Colyer is a nurse who is originally from Wiikwemkoong.

Now that the snowpack is finally melting, the couple said they have high hopes that they will be able to harvest the early season greens soon.

“I organized my little collection diary/field journal. I went through pictures of what I was finding month-by-month so some of the early things will start in this month and April. But not until the latter half of the month,” said Ms. Colyer.

Some of the early species on which she said she was waiting were garlic mustard, nettle and dandelions. Next will be primrose, but she said that may still be three to four weeks away. Fiddleheads will have to wait until roughly the third week of May. 

Part of the reason for the shorter supplies is because Ms. Colyer said she planned her meals based on calorie intake, which often was not enough to offer the couple the satisfied “full” feeling. Ms. Colyer said she could have been more frugal with her green usage but Mr. St. Onge said he simply did not have enough set aside. Despite the challenges provided with this year’s collection, they agreed this would be beneficial in the long run.

“I think we’ll do better this year. We have a good idea of how much we’ve gone through in these three months,” said Ms. Colyer.

“And we know what we want to eat now, too. If I’d known we’d like burdock so much we’d have tripled what we got before,” added Mr. St. Onge.

Another plant they missed this year was chicory root because the snow fell last fall before they could harvest it.

“I think the other fun thing is there’ll be new foods for us to have too, not just what we already enjoy,” said Ms. Colyer. She estimated there were about 30 species in the area that they did not collect last year, so 2019 will offer a greater variety of flavours from which to choose. Repetitive meal choices has also been noticeable on their Big Wild Year Facebook page, where friends had been joking that their food was a bit more boring than it had been in the past.

They added that they were excited for the upcoming hunting and fishing seasons, especially given their poor luck at ice fishing through the winter.

Health-wise, both said they were feeling really good. Ms. Colyer’s weight is holding steady since it dropped by 27 pounds soon after the start of the challenge and Mr. St. Onge’s weight is still dropping slightly.

One item the couple was looking forward to was tapping the trees at their sugar bush, lovingly called the “Sappy Shack.” They have recently received a lot of equipment from a syrup production outfit in Montreal through a sponsorship on Mr. St. Onge’s YouTube channel One Wildcrafter.

They have already gone through about a dozen litres of syrup this year alone, far higher than their estimated 20 litres for the whole year. They are hoping to make at least 50 to 60 litres of syrup this spring.

“Growing up on the Island, everybody did sugar bushes. Everyone went in the spring and I remember watching the sun come through the slats in the boards hitting the steam, smelling the wood smoke and the sweet syrup. I’m looking forward to living it again and also that the kids will be getting to do that. Because it stays with you for a lifetime,” said Ms. Colyer.

The couple is also experimenting with making flour from the inner bark of different tree species. They recently tried porcupine and said they were surprised by how little meat was present on the animal. However, they did collect a large number of quills which can be used for crafts and trades. One of the trades will likely be a quill box Ms. Colyer planned to send to her sister in Nova Scotia in exchange for some sea salt she is collecting.

To change up some of the flavours, they said they will ferment some of their roots and greens this year using red wine vinegar they made from wild grapes. They also planned to keep experimenting with frying up sunchokes, which Ms. Colyer said forms a healthier substitute to fries or chips.

“It’s really nice to have a little bit of the old life, the old flavours,” she said with a laugh.

They were recently invited to talk about their experience at an event hosted by Dokis First Nation that included the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. There they spoke about the resources available on the land beyond its timber value and how the trees were among the least of their interests when so many other species were available.

“We’ve gotten a lot of information from other people too when they share their experiences with us. We’ve built a real community – I expected that to happen but thought it would take much longer. It really happened quite quickly.

A cake made with berries and topped with a meringue made of whipped perch roe and maple syrup provided an interesting perspective for Ms. Colyer.

“I used to have so much fun making fun of vegans. I always thought it was ridiculous – just eat the food, don’t eat what you call a brownie because it’s really just black beans. But I get it now because we’re totally doing the same things. We make things that are reminiscent of the thing we made before as sort of food memories,” said Ms. Colyer. “I guess I have roe on my face now for making fun of them!”

To follow Ms. Colyer and Mr. St Onge’s Big Wild Year, you can view their updates at Facebook.com/BigWildYear. The Expositor will be checking back with the two throughout the year to share their experiences in this unique endeavour.