‘Big Wild Year’ Notebook: The final monthly report of one couple’s efforts to eat what they could forage

Shortly after the end of their challenge, Delphanie Colyer and Jeremy St. Onge went out on Lake Nipissing for perch fishing through the ice on a bright but crisp January day. Although their challenge is over, wild foods will continue to make up a significant portion of their diets.

Part XII of a series

Duo endures busy, tempting December, finds old foods don’t live up to hype

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Expositor has checked in regularly with this couple who have ties to Manitoulin Island as they undertook their Big Wild Year challenge. This is the 12th and final regular monthly update on their progress. Delphinie Colyer is a Wiikwemkoong band member.

The Big Wild Year challenge, a year-long endeavour by a North Bay couple to only eat wild foraged foods, has officially drawn to a successful conclusion after 365 days of challenges, triumphs and new experiences. 

“In some ways, it felt like it was never going to happen. In other ways it felt like it went by so fast. It’s kind of hard to judge the magnitude of what we’ve accomplished,” said Jeremy St. Onge, one half of the challengers in the Big Wild Year.

For all of 2019, Mr. St. Onge and partner Delphanie Colyer completed the Big Wild Year challenge in which they only ate wild foods that occurred naturally in their surrounding environments. They subsisted on foraging, hunting and fishing, bartering with friends for goods and, on occasion, purchased wild foods.

Mr. St. Onge is an environmental studies professor at Canadore College and Ms. Colyer is a nurse with roots in Wiikwemkoong.

December was a busy month for the two. Between holiday plans, several news media interviews and the anticipation of the end drawing nearer (complete with daily countdown posts on the challenge’s Facebook page), there was little time to rest.

The anticipation was palpable with the daily countdown posts on the challenge’s Facebook page featuring funny memes about the end drawing nearer. But despite the excitement, the month did come with ups and downs.

“I wasn’t feeling super hot in December, to be honest. I think I was missing some nutrients and I wanted it to be over,” said Ms. Colyer.

Christmas dinner took a wild twist—roadkill turkey as the main event, with wild-ingredient cookies for an irresistible dessert.

In terms of their food collection, December was mainly a ‘coasting month.’ Mr. St. Onge managed to snare upwards of 16 hares but these were not necessary to see the year through completion. With the slow start to this year’s snow, finding their trails proved problematic—quite the opposite problem with last year’s snares being covered by the persistent snowfall.

Ms. Colyer isn’t big on the taste of the hares and Mr. St. Onge admitted that they can be very dry, but he said he was happy that he could now prepare them with more spices and a creamy sauce or proper gravy.

The two took part in interviews on RadioCanada, CBC, the North Bay Nugget and BayToday, offering a reminder of the start of the challenge when they were also facing plenty of media attention.

Christmas was a mental challenge, being surrounded by so many delicious foods that were off-limits for just one final week. They opted for a roadkill turkey for Christmas dinner (although Ms. Colyer forgot her rice dish at home), along with a fantastic berry and nut cookie recipe.

The two went to an annual get-together on Christmas Eve which had an overabundance of foods from cheeses to cookies to meats. It was nearly an unbearable experience, save for a big bowl of walnuts and hazelnuts. They soon had a small pile of shells in front of them which caused many laughs at the event.

New Year’s Eve came with much anticipation, but not before one final surprise to the challenge—only one of the two gut microbiome testing kits arrived despite being ordered at the same time. Mr. St. Onge ended up taking the first test and Ms. Colyer will complete the test when it arrives.

As the clock counted down to midnight, the two prepared their promised food. For Ms. Colyer, a poached egg; for Mr. St. Onge, a bag of chips.

“That egg was divine,” said Ms. Colyer. “Biting into it, watching the yolk run out and seeing the black pepper cracked on top, oh my God it was so good!”

Mr. St. Onge’s experience was not quite as religious. He said his chips were fine, but they did not feel quite as special when compared to the other foods they had been eating. He had a similar reaction to butter tarts, but a coconut cream pie was excellent.

Ms. Colyer tried chips and chocolate but had difficulty eating them; they were okay but not anywhere near their expectations.

All of these reactions played out in real time over a livestream the two hosted to ring in the new year.

“The next morning, I looked at Jer and said, ‘now what?’ We’ve posted a little bit of information about what we’ve done and how we’re feeling. People are still pretty interested,” said Ms. Colyer.

The challenge has become such a key part of their lives that Ms. Colyer has caught herself in old habits, such as going to wash her fingers after cutting into a birthday cake rather than simply licking them off, even though the challenge is now complete.

At the end of 12 months both said they’re feeling satisfied with their health.

“Looking back a full year on where I was before, I feel quite a bit healthier,” said Mr. St. Onge.

“On the year as a whole, it’s nice being lighter and definitely eating better. I had fewer headaches last year,” added Ms. Colyer. “When I stop and think, it’s almost like we have our younger selves’ bodies.” 

Ms. Colyer and Mr. St. Onge took part in a final round of physical testing in the middle of December.

“We are waiting for some of the results but our flexibility increased, aerobic capacity increased, we were stronger than in the summer and Jer was for sure stronger than last year,” said Ms. Colyer, adding that she was unsure of whether or not she had gotten stronger but knew she had not weakened. The results of resting metabolic rate and fat percentage have yet to come in.

As a whole, both said without hesitation that they would absolutely undertake this challenge once again. 

“It would be better the second time around. We’re already over so many hurdles,” said Mr. St. Onge.

“We now know our favourite meals and which foods we’d want to target,” said Ms. Colyer. “Overall, it was very worthwhile.”

The Expositor will be following up with Ms. Colyer and Mr. St. Onge in the near future to gather their reflections and thoughts on the conclusion of a successful but hard-fought challenge.