02 December 2009

Winter Roots And Berries

III ) llllllllllllll Winter Roots and Berries (2Dec09)

Piipiiaakii and I went to Park Place Mall to have our pictures taken in old-Chicago style, and ever since then I've taken to calling her Mahoney. I don't know where I got this name, but to me it sounds kind of gangsterish, or like something a beat cop might call his partner. And that's what we're going to need for the next little bit, a lot of camaraderie to make some real headway together in Project Niitaowahsin - our new endeavor to transform our diet so that, in one-year's time, everything we put in our bodies will be coming from the Oldman River Watershed, and the more indigenous and wild the better.

Maybe we picked a rough time to start this up, going into winter and all. But then again, this season will provide us opportunity to get a better fix on what we'll need to do to take full advantage of the summer to come. Besides, it's not as though winter has nothing to offer. Taking a survey along the canal, from BTAP to Shane Little Bear's place, a couple days before our chosen start-date for Project Niitaowahsin, there was still a lot of exciting things going on. The canal itself has been empty for a while, but the remaining puddles (mostly iced over) and the wind shelter of the levees keep the animals near. Surprisingly, there was nobody at Innokimi, even though its waters remained mostly open. After that though, we began having encounters. There was a killdeer picking around in the mud, a trio of magpies down for their morning sip at a puddle, a coyote hunting an adjacent stubble-field, and a great horned owl roosting in a hawthorn tree. Then coming up along Mookoan Reservoir, we saw perhaps a dozen mallards and buffleheads, but also thousands of aapsspini and a couple hundred snow geese. All but a few small flocks of these mixed geese were in the lake itself, and one of those whose members grazed in a nearby field was being stalked and chased around by a coyote. Good stuff.

Seeing the coyotes on the prowl reminded me that I should start directing my attention a somewhat differently. At least for the next little while, I need to really give myself over to a study of natural food sources, and the eco-social relationships these sources hold within the wider living system. My objective, in this regard, would be to pursue learning that might enable Mahoney and I to reciprocate for any life we take in our quest to increase our degree of emplacement as human beings of the Oldman River.

One of the animals I need to learn a lot more about is the deer, especially the whitetails, who seem to have the most prominent presence outside the protected zone of the City of Lethbridge. Truth be told, I've never been much of a hunter or fisherman. Whenever outdoors, I'm drawn to respond to anything that happens to be calling my attention in the moment. And in my experience, hunting and fishing activities do not lend well to this kind of engagement. But perhaps my impression is due to a lack of familiarity-with or commitment-to some of these animals. When fishing, I merely throw a line in the water and either wait for a nibble or, if using a lure, reel it in and cast again. Again, again. Repetitive. With no idea if there are fish nearby, and with no clue about the behaviors of different fish species. Hunting, for me, is not much different. I either sit and wait, with no idea if a deer will come along, and no clue about their behavioral patterns. Or I cast myself into the woods, stalking around, hoping to scare up an animal who's close enough to my position that I can send an arrow it's way with a reasonable hope that it will find its target. This, I realize, is pitiful. Such a far cry from the approach Mahoney and I have taken visiting and coming to know the geese and ducks in order to perfect the art of egg-gathering, and also very different from the manner in which we've gone about securing plant foods like asparagus, mint, onions, wild turnips, and all the berries of summer.

On my way to work one morning, after Project Niitaowahsin began, I stopped off at a little dip in the land above Mookoan Reservoir. After about fifteen minutes there, I’d uprooted enough niistikapa's (yampa) to last me through two lunches. This is a prime example of the difference in approach I'm becoming aware of. With niistsikapa's, I already knew very well where they would be growing, and I was careful not to over-pick, because such a rich patch as this one is rare this far from the mountains, and actually quite delicate, difficult to re-establish if abused. Mahoney and I have worked hard to gain intimacy with some of the birds and plants. We follow their lives. But not so the fish, deer, and a handful of others we might need help from in order to succeed in Project Niitaowahsin. This would be a new challenge for us, one I'm excited about.

Yet my looming sense of unfamiliarity has not been assuaged at all over the past week, as I traveled on three separate occasions into the floodplain poplar forests in search of deer. A few days ago, for instance, I left work early on account of the building being shut down from a heating system malfunction (typical of winter at Red Crow College). I Figured it would be a good opportunity to go sit by my log near Minii for an hour or two as dusk approached, to see if any deer came my way. The snowfall from the weekend prior had all but melted off. The backroads, which had been slushy the day before, had dried out again.

In order to get to where I wanted to go in the coulee, I had to travel down a narrow oil and gas road that has two blind-turns. I always hope I don't encounter one of the big-rig trucks on this slope. Once safely at the bottom however, I'm able to drive a couple ruts through the open forest of the floodplain, making my way to the downriver (and downwind) end of this flat.

On this particular afternoon, while passing through the forest, I spotted the unmistakable silhuette of ksikkihkini, a bald eagle. It was a mature bird, standing on a low cottonwood branch overlooking the river, no doubt hunting. I stopped to watch, but the eagle was aware of my presence and soon took wing upstream. I've seen these birds take aapsspini on the ice later in winter, but I'm curious to learn what they're hunting in this season, while the water's still open.

A little further along, I pulled off in a patch of grass near the river. Outside of the truck, it was windy, though not too cold. As I grabbed my gear, a small flock of aapsspini passed by overhead, moving downriver. I wondered if they'd seen the eagle upstream and decided to relocate. They flew around the next bend in the coulee and disappeared. Then I, myself slunk off between the bulberry brush and made my way into the forest proper, to my log overlooking a sparsely vegetated strip of meadow that must function as an oxbow when the river runs high. Here I notched an arrow, sat down on the leafy forest floor, partially concealed by the log, and prepared to wait. In my mind, I was like the eagle, hoping my next meal would drift by.

I wasn't there long when the Sun slipped out of view over the coulee rim, and all of the bottomland became cast in shadow. The forest was loud with the rumble of wind through the trees, yet there was a quiet in this pervasive sound. I spotted a magpie flying between trees some distance away in the forest and realized that I must eventually open myself to recognizing the behaviors of these birds that will tell me what else his happening in the woods around me. Perhaps the magpies are like ravens, and would lead me to food.

When I'd been squatting behind the log for over an hour, my legs lost circulation, and I began to grow cold. Sometimes ksikkihkini hunts on the wing, so perhaps it was time for me to do the same. I decided to move slowly through the forest, stopping to watch now and then, and making a sunwise circuit back to the truck. Hardly do I begin this stalking when I noticed the fruits of a female wolf-willow. I was hungry, and figured I might as well collect a pocketful to nibble on. Moving from one bush to the next and, coming over a small rise out of the mid-forest meadow, I suddenly scared-up two awatoyiksi from where they'd been bedding down. Neither appeared to have run too far, so I notched my arrow again and start walking slow and quiet toward one of them, who'd headed back to the river.

I wanted to track the deer, and yet it was hard to stay focused. Just above the coulee rim there was a swirling cloud formation being lit in brilliant pink and gold by the setting Sun. I couldn't help but take out my Elph camera to snap a shot. Then, just as I was putting the camera back in my pocket, everything in the forest took-on a strange bluish hue. Out came the Elph again. Seconds later, the snow began to fall, almost like hail, heavy and wet. I needed to get back before the climb up to the coulee top became too slick.

I start moving quickly then, pushing through the bush. Just as I was coming to the truck, I saw the deer I'd been after. It was a young buck, with just a couple tines on each antler, trotting through the trees by the river. I thought I'd make one last attempt to get close to it by moving with it along on its flank. But the buck was a step ahead of me. As I lost sight of him momentarily, crossing behind a thick bulberry stand, he turned, re-entered the forest, and disappeared. I was tempted to continue after him, but I'm glad it didn't, because once I drove back up on the open plains, a blizzard hit. The ride home was treacherous.

It was a similar story the next morning. This time, I headed down to the coulee by Weasel Fat Flats to check out the new tracks on the icy snow. The Sun was up and already things were starting to thaw. I pulled in by the river, grabbed my bow, and walked along an old road through the forest. Just like the day before, I started noticing lots of berries still on the wolf willows, and figured I might as well fill one of my pockets as I walked. There's a steep cutbank along the river, with licorice root growing above. Experience tells me that if I return and focus on those roots, I'll be able to pull quite a few in a relatively short time.

There were aapsspini just upstream from the licorice roots. They must have been able to hear the crunch of my boots in the icy snow, because a small flock of them started honking and took off over the coulee rim. There were still some who remained down at the water, and though I could have probably shot one, they were all clustered along the opposite shore, so it wouldn't have done me any good.

Leaving the aapsspini behind, I started into the forest, and right away a large whitetail buck sprung from the brush ahead of me, waving his tail as he leapt into the distance. This time, I figured, I wouldn't have to rely on guess-work to relocate the buck. He would leave a clear trail for me to follow. So off I went in pursuit. The buck led me through the forest, crossing several other deer paths, and passing under a tree where a fat porcupine slept. I was tempted to shoot the porcupine, having heard from my friend that they used to be hunted this time of year. But then I thought I'd better check with Mahoney and make sure she'd be willing to eat one with me, were I to bring one home. On I went, continuing after the buck, trying to move quietly on styrofoam-sounding snow. There were lots of other whitetails around. Several of them kept ahead of me as I moved. Eventually, the tracks took me up on a grassy flat in the middle of the forest, where the animal had stopped to rest amidst some buckbrush. I really hadn't expected to catch-up with him, so I was surprised and unprepared when I stepped onto the flat and was greeted by a loud snort just twenty meters away. There was nothing I could do. Before I had a chance to even take an arrow from my quiver, the buck was off and running again.

Instead of following, I sat down, had a cigarette, and surveyed the view from this flat. It looked to me like it might be a nice spot to return to. There were several heavily-travelled deer trails leading up to it, and if I were to sit in one the bushes up on the rim, I should be able to see them coming a ways off. Ideas, ideas.

As I sat there considering the possibilities, I heard a magpie giving a five-call back in the direction of my truck. This gave me all the excuse I needed to conclude my pursuit of the buck. I wanted to see if responding to the magpie would lead me toward other animals. Sticking to the edge of the flat, I walked around and moved uneventfully back through the forest in the direction from which I'd heard the calls.

The magpies didn't lead me to any other awatoyi, or anything else that I was aware of (although there must have been some rationale behind their chatter). What I did find though was a nice open slough, not unlike the one downriver by Minii and my log. It would be another opportune place for a future stake-outs.

Obviously, for me, successful hunting will be something I'll have to work toward, and I imagine it's going to take as much time spent watching the deer without pursuing them as the other way around. That's fine, because there are alternative ways to get our protein while this learning process unfolds. All Mahoney and I want to accomplish in the first year of Project Niitaowahsin is to change our diet, so that it's comprised entirely of local foods. This can include bison, beef, chicken, Hutterite geese, etc. Yet it will still take research. Whenever possible, we intend to support environmentally-conscious producers who utilize organic methods that are renewable. Thus, we'll need to learn about the different farms and ranches of this watershed, and their methods of production.

I'm also interested in charting our progress. Mahoney, who does not suffer so many obsessive-compulsive symptoms as I do, may take a different route. But to me, there's something persuasive about a visual record. So I've started keeping track of everything that goes into my body, and how much I spend on it. After tallying the first five days, to mark my starting point for comparison of progress down the line, what emerges is a grim reality:

Solids: 4 Starbucks bacon breakfast sandwiches (bacon, cheese, and eggs in bun), 3 Starbucks cranberry bliss bars (gingerbread with icing and dried cranberry bits), 1 slice Starbucks banana loaf, 1 Subway foot-long club sandwich, 2 small steaks (local, 1 eaten wrapped in a tortilla with mayonnaise), 4 sausage rolls, 1 heaping plate of spaghetti with local ground beef, 1 KFC chicken wing, 1 piece summer sausage, 1 serving cheese log, 36 wheat thins, 2 tortillas with melted butter, 1 serving peas, 1 serving mashed yams, 2 servings niistsikapa's (yampa / wild carrot), 2 servings apssi (wolf-willow berries), 1 serving bison and saskatoon pemmican, 3 kinii (prickly rose hips), 1 peanut-butter and saskatoon jelly tortilla roll, 2 pieces beef jerky, 1 small bag of mixed nuts, 1 piece of a small Toblerone chocolate bar, 18 Milk Duds, 2 cookies, 3 Reeces Peanut Butter Cups

Liquids: 9 cups Good Host iced tea, 9 cups coffee (7 with BeeMaid honey from Winnipeg, 2 with white sugar from unknown source), 2 cups eggnog (local producer, 1 with splash of brandy), 1 large fountain Coke, 2 cans Pepsi, 250mL Dr Pepper, 4 cups Lipton wildberry tea with splash of brandy, 3 cups Naked Grape shiraz, 1 cup Naked Grape blanc, 3 cups sake, 3 cups Oldman River tap water

Gas: 101 cigarettes, strong odor of decomp coming off passing truck

Expenditures: $117.57 fast food and junk groceries, $55.26 organics and locals, $72.75 cigarettes, $41.99 alcohol

As soon as I read these figures off to Mahoney, she made me eat a green apple.