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Forager's Stew


By jstookey - Posted on 13 October 2017

It's Friday the 13th and I have taken the day off from work. I have been spending a lot of time behind a desk and I'm nursing a sore hip so today I need a few things:

1) To take a break from work and regular responsibilities
2) To get some kind of mild all-day exercise besides running and hiking
3) To have an adventure

My first idea was to hop on my bike and go for a long ride. However, this was missing something. Motivation. A long ride requires a purpose or a destination.

I have been doing a little fishing recently using a collapsible fishing rod that I can carry in my small biking backpack. And there are trails we run at in Saratoga, the Skidmore Bike trails at Daniel's Road which has several ponds deep in the woods. Whenever we run past them I know that I need to try fishing these ponds.

Meanwhile I have had vague ideas rolling around in my head for years to spend some period of time relying on foraging for sustenance. It's the only logical conclusion after trying so hard to learn about local edible wild food.

The plan finally materializes. I will get up early and spend the day on my bike with the mission to feed myself on wild stuff for the day. Fuel my bike ride north, stopping along the way anywhere I need to to stock up on foraged supplies. My ultimate goal (which I don't make it to) is the ponds at the Skidmore trails. Along the way, I would like to stop at the Mechanicville Reservoir and try fishing there.

M doesn't know my plan. I wake up with her and start getting ready. "Why do you have a cooking pot strapped to your bike?". Perceptive this one is. I explain my plans for the day. Along with the cookpot, I have gathered the following equipment:
- bike, helmet, 2 empty 1-liter water bottles
- fishing pole, lures, pliers, measuring tape
- headlamp and reflective vest
- water purification drops
- a trowel

In the bathroom I move to brush my teeth, but realize that toothpaste is sort of like food and is off-limits so I brush my teeth with no toothpaste. This is going to be harder than I thought.

I frequently don't eat anything until 11am or later. But today it's 6am and I feel ravenously hungry. My body knows what I'm doing and is trying to encourage me to take the easy way out and grab something from the fridge.

I'm thirsty. But tap water is somewhat off-limits. The temperature is in the 30's. I try to think of the best local water supply. The Colonie Reservoir (in Clifton Park) is supposed to be a backup water source for the town of Colonie. It's two miles away so I put on some gloves and warmer clothes and head over there. Brrr! The water has a ton of green in it - duck weed and algae, but I fill up anyway. While I'm there I notice that the 'no fishing' sign is completely faded, sunken, and not visible. It's still somewhat dark out, so I indulge in a few casts with the fishing pole. I've always wanted see what kind of sea monsters come out of this unfished body of water. The season and time of day is perfect, the location can't be beat, so I am very surprised to catch nothing after several casts. I pack up and head back to the house.

I treat the water. Man! I am frozen to the bone! I climb into a down sleeping bag on the couch to warm up, and pass out. I wake up and catch up on email, and some other errands on the computer. By the time I'm up again it's 11am! I need to eat!

There's a small apple I foraged recently that's been rolling around my house for the last week. That counts. I eat it. The next thing I need is some more easy food. It's a little warmer out now. I hop on my bike and head to nearby Hannaford which has a pretty awesome apple tree out front. The low-hanging fruit has all been taken, but there are very nice apples in the tree, just out of reach. I climb into the tree and take 4 nice apples, two to eat and two to carry in my pack for later. No sooner do I climb into the tree when a retired couple walks by and asks what I'm doing in the tree. "Just fetching some apples." "That's great, hey what are these?" the old man notices that several of the branches have odd berries, maybe small crab apples on them. (Is this some kind of grafting thing? It crosses my mind now that apples can't self-pollinate, so they need to have a second tree nearby in order to produce fruit. Maybe the tree was grafted with another fruit to allow it to self-pollinate). He quickly grabs some of the berries and says, "you gotta die sometime" and pops them into his mouth. I'm like, "I have no idea what those are, I would't eat those if I were you..." but it's too late. He is munching away. He describes their flavor and spits them out. He then motions as if he's choking and dying. Ha ha ha. He has a great poisoning death sense of humor.

Great. I knew this was a bad idea. I've been foraging for less than five minutes and already my actions may have killed someone. Why can't I just forage in peace?

As I walk back to my bike, a Hannaford employee comes up and says she saw me up in the tree and wondered what was going on. I told her I was picking apples. She says, "those are crabapples", after which I grab a nice apple out of my pack and say, "these are pretty legit apples". "Nope, those are crab apples". The then goes on to describe a wonderful pear tree in Glenville/Scotia.

Yesterday a friend (T) told me that he found meadow mushrooms in his yard. They might be my favorite wild mushroom to eat. There is a local place where I have found them once before, so next I head there to see if I can find any, but I find nothing. I eat some wild grapes along the way back to the house. I stop at another place I know of and eat a few really tasty concord grapes. There is also an elderberry bush here, but it has almost no leaves and looks really unhealthy. Also there are green apples here, but they never look very tasty so I leave them behind.

I realize that burdock has an edible root, almost like a potato. I vaguely recall previously taking note of seeing something behind Walmart. Was it burdock? At Walmart, I discover it was milkweed I had seen, not burdock. Something to remember come spring, since milkweed is a good spring edible as I understand it.

Ok, now I have water, and am slightly fed so I am ready to start the real trip of the day. It's on to Mechanicville Reservoir! Along the way I am scouring the nearby brush. At one point I stop to check out an odd looking plant on the side of the road that looks exactly like dill. I pull off some leaves, but it definitely doesn't smell like dill.

On Coons Crossing road along the Anthony Kill, I notice a giant burdock bush! I move toward it, but people are everywhere and I feel weird about digging up a big bush in front of them so I spend a little time fishing the Anthony Kill with no luck. Afterwards, people are still there so I move along.

In this area there are tons of empty beer and soda cans along the side of the road. I keep a tally. By the end of the day I have counted $5 worth of empties. Would I be able to get more food by picking up and returning empty cans from the side of the road, returning them, then shopping at the supermarket? It seems that it might be so. That might help to explain Francis the Can Man as he bikes all over Clifton Park every day, filling up giant bags with empty cans, including past my house and to the Vischer Ferry Store.

I use my phone to help navigate to the Mechanicville Reservoir. I find myself a little on edge. On a hiking adventure in this area several years ago, I placed a backpack with a few random items on the side of the quiet road for a few minutes and when I returned it was gone! Among other things it had my headlamp in it and it was getting dark soon, so I barely made it home in one piece. I don't have a bike lock with me, and I know that fishing will require that I leave my bike unguarded. I will need to keep it hidden.

I crash through an overgrown trail following powerlines. The going is rough, but eventually I make it to a small clearing at the side of the reservoir. There are empty whiskey bottles, beer cans, a fire pit, a chair, and a rope swing. I start fishing. The first cast on a pristine, quiet lake usually represents your best chance of catching a fish. After that first cast, you've alerted the lake to your presence, and the fish will be a little more skittish. So after a few casts without any signs of life, I am disappointed. I start to focus on the negative. It's muddy, shallow, and no-place a fish would ever live. I make my way down the shore to a piece of structure, a long log in the water. A cast near the log produces a big flash and a splash on the surface - it's fish! He missed, but my hope is renewed. Before long I start catching some small fish, and then a nice sunfish and then a keeper-sized large mouth bass! I keep them both for my lunch. I have everything I need to start eating. However, my excitement won't let me stop fishing while they are still biting. Over this period of an hour or so, I catch a total of 6 keeper size large mouth bass including one giant one, a nice sunfish, and several more smaller bass, all on the same little perch Rapala. I start to imagine a nature video about myself, the creature so driven by the compulsion to catch fish that he never stops to eat one and eventually starves to death.

I start feeling tired and hungry and I work my way back to the fire pit. I start a fire and clean the fish. I have always cooked fish by pan frying with some kind of fat - butter or oil, of which I have none. So instead I put the fish filets, a puffball mushroom I found, and 2 cut up apples (apples are kind of like potatoes, in fact the word for potato in French is "pomme de terre" whose literal translation is, "apple of the earth"). The stew cooks up quickly. My first bite is of the fish. Much to my surprise it's delicious! Bass has a really distinct and tasty flavor, even with no seasoning. I enjoy the cooked apples and mushroom as well. How satisfying! If I did it again I would have kept another bass or two for a truly filling meal. Heck maybe even a little more to hold onto in a tupperware container to eat later.

I make my way back home, stopping to dig up the burdock on the way. After a lot of work I don't have much to show for it, but I did bring home a small root to try.

When I get home, my foraging adventure complete, M makes tacos. She notices that I eat a *lot* of food, 5 tacos and more. But I would still like to call my first day of foraging a wild success.