I will go out on a limb by saying that most people who are going into the backlands do not carry a GPS or a compass. I have written about how a wristwatch is also a compass, but lets say, regardless of these comments, that you do find yourself lost. You are also cold and you need to find a way to make a fire and warm up. If you have followed the motto of the Boy Scouts, “Be Prepared,” then survival is on your side.
Any outdoors person entering the backlands to fish or hunt, or maybe just to sightsee, should carry a small backpack. In that backpack, a chocolate bar or two, an extra pair of socks, a snack and a bottle of water and some waterproof matches. It is also advisable to have a small lighter that has been securely wrapped in waterproof tape. (Note: this lighter should not be used for anything else other than starting a campfire.) This same small backpack is also good for carrying in kayaks. For starters, your knife should be on your belt, not in your backpack or in your coat pocket.
There is lots of good starter wood in any Yukon forest. Look at the lower branches of conifers (evergreens) and generally you will find dry twigs on the lower part of the tree. Make a small stick, a teepee, over the starter shaved stick, and light the shaved stick. (A word of caution about fire pits: If you are going to make a fire pit out of rocks, do not use shale. Under extensive heat, shale has actually been known to explode.)
When thirsty, in the winter backlands, never use snow to quench your thirst. Melting snow in your mouth consumes a considerable amount of energy. As a last resort, melt snow in your hand and suck up the water. Actually, melting ice will use up about half the amount of energy as melting the same amount of snow in your mouth.
If you are in areas where cattails are growing, in swamps, the brown fuzzy head of a cattail is excellent for starting a fire. The cattail is not only a good fire starter but, raw or cooked, it tastes much like a potato.
Another plant that grows along streams and in marshy areas is the bulrush. The flat leaves of this plant can be eaten, and the brown stem is much like celery. The roots (after you scrape them clean and remove the hairs) can be put into the hot ashes of the fire for about half an hour. Then rub them clean and you have roasted vegetables. If you are just on a camping trip and have brought along some salt, sprinkle some salt over he baked roots and you will have a tasty bush treat.
Some edible summer plants
It might come as a surprise, but many wild so-called weeds are not only edible but are far richer in nutritional value than some store-bought vegetables. Back in the mid 60s, I took a three-week survival course under the professional guidance of a Swedish survival expert by the name of Berndt Berglund. I got a real eye-opener on “Nature’s Restaurant” in the backlands. These are some of the pants we learned to survive on:
- Wild onion – The root can be eaten raw or cooked, especially in stew.
- Common plantain – another edible plant.The young leaves should be picked, cut up and used in a salad, or boiled. This has rich nutritional value.
- Wild rose hips – one of the highest food-value plants in the backlands. The fruit of the rose hip is extremely high in vitamin C. If you have a small metal container, load it up with rose hips and put the canister in the warm coals of you campfire overnight. Come morning, you will have your edible rose hips. Don’t forget to eat all the seeds, as they are high in vitamin E (much higher than in most store-bought juice).
- Dandelion – This might surprise many, but dandelion leaves are great in salads. They should be washed and then boiled twice, changing water in between. Cut the leaves up and use them in a salad. Actually, they are extremely high in vitamin A (much higher than in most store-bought vegetables).
- Shepherd’s purse – When washed, the tender leaves can be eaten raw or added to any green salad. You can also boil them for 15 minutes and serve as a hot vegetable.
Actually, there are 50 or more wild plants in the Yukon that you can eat. I would strongly suggest visiting the Mac’s Fireweed Books, on Main, to pick up Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada by authors Andy MacKinnon, Linda Kershaw and John Arnason; or find a copy of the small handbook on edible wild plants of the Yukon produced by the Government of Yukon.
One of the first things we had to learn on the Berglund Survival Course was what is known as a “Pacing Factor.” It is crucial in survival mode. A “chain,” in surveyor’s language, is sixty-six feet. I would suggest this weekend you measure of a couple of chain lengths, put your bush shoes on and walk this three or four times at your normal step. Consider one step to be as follows: from where your right food leaves the ground to where it comes down, again. In other words—a natural step. Average this out to see how many steps you would take to equal one chain. If you want to walk a straight line to get out of the bush and come upon a wetland, you take so many chains (say) to the west; then, at the edge of the wetland, so many chains to the north; then the same amount of chains to the right (you first took them to the west) and you will end up right back on your straight line forward, as if you had been following on the other side of the wetland. Write your steps down, per chain, on a piece of paper and put it in your wallet.
A final note: When going into the backlands, always carry two small pieces of wood (and make sure one piece is a match!).
This weeks saying: “Truth is the opinion that always survives.”