by Justin Rampert
A life of adventure can lead to some of the most positive outlooks in our delicious endeavors. In the prime of my youth, I’d been invited by my best friends to participate at a camp in Bowdoin park, Wappingers Falls. This is where my vast wonderment of nature sparked. It was held for one week during July every summer where we’d play games, build fires and practice many Native American survival techniques.
All of this was great, but what really changed my perspective was the teachings about wild foraging. Growing up through this camp the head counselor, Dave Beck, incited his most trusted campers to join him and his crew at the “other” program he held during August. During what he coined, “Advanced Survival,” we did almost everything we’d do at Bowdoin, but in a more secluded environment via Wilcox Memorial Park, a hidden gem located between Red Hook and Rhinebeck.
It was during my first year at the ripe age of 12. The weather was scorching and we’d been working non-stop to finish our debris huts in preparation for Thursday night’s campout. What I found to be the most difficult was the foraging challenges at noon.
Completing this task was tedious and frustrating, but highly rewarding when you earned your lunch. Each day, Dave requested we find at least one wild edible that was safe to eat before we could even touch what our mothers had packed the night prior. Twelve-year old’s have a short attention span to say the least, remembering what was safe and what might kill you was pretty intense. Luckily, my group and I had ears like valleys and sounded our thoughts off of one another.
There were more identifiable plants that came to mind: lemon hearts, red clover, wild carrot, blueberries, strawberries, stinging nettles and etc. Fortunately for us there was plenty of bounty in the Summer and we just happened to be lucky enough to stumble across them.
Back then we didn’t have much experience with foraging, nor did we know any technical skills about outdoor cooking. We revelled in our primal youth and cooked everything on a stick over scorching red flames. Just think, Lord of the Flies, but less grotesque or insane.
Fast forward and I’m digging back into my roots. This past summer, I worked what may have been my final bought where my foraging journey had begun at good ol’ Wilcox park. I was lucky enough to regroup with the maintenance team after my years of lifeguarding the park waterfront. These guys reignited my passion about earthly ravages and for that I am forever grateful.
Now, as you are aware, the fall season is closing curtain and we’re headed straight towards a cold winter. Snow and harsher temperatures prove to be unideal to harvest what was mentioned prior, however that doesn’t mean Mother Nature is exempt from providing us with natural ingredients.
By far some of the easier and simplest wild dishes to create are soups and teas. Winter in the northeastern U.S. will crop: roots, berries, nuts, seeds, tree branches and saps that you can turn into sweet syrup. People today, including myself, consider foods from the wild to be especially soul warming towards your connection with Earth, but the majority care more about the health benefits. To simplify, we’ll focus on one tree that spores one of nature’s most immune boosting fungi, the Birch Tree. Native to the North Eastern United States and Canada, this tree has white bark and really sticks out in the wilderness.
The winter season proves to be the best to harvest an ancient medicinal fungus known as Chaga.
Safety precaution: travel with a guided expert and/or bring a fungi identification handbook. Eating the wrong type of mushroom has potentially serious consequences, including illness or death.
This parasitic mushroom appears as a black, burnt, crusty, cancerous lump protruding from the tree trunk. The interior of the fungi is a softer and spongy with a brown-orange color. The exterior is hard to the touch which means you’ll need to be armed with a sharp knife or hatchet if you want to harvest any. Remember to be sustainable and take what you need because it’ll be a couple years before the stuff grows back.
After obtaining the Chaga, you’ll want to cut it into chunks and let it sit in a warm, dry, ventilated area for a couple of days. This will ensure it dries out properly and prevents any mold from forming. Once the Chaga has become rock hard, you can either grind it into a powder and make tea bags or let the chunks steep in a pot of hot water until you end up with a dark colored brew.
Chaga Mushroom Tea
2 c. water
½ c. Dried Chaga chunks
*1 tbsp. Honey (optional for taste)
Add water to a pot and bring to boil
Turn off heat and add Chaga chunks when the water has cooled for a minute
Let the Chaga steep for about an hour (the longer the better)
*Add your honey and drink up!
DO NOT BOIL, this will kill all the goodies inside. The health benefits of this mushroom will provide additional antioxidants, boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, improve your physical endurance and even prevent cancer. Remember to do your additional homework if you decide to go out and hunt for this endangered fungus.
I deeply encourage a day of adventures especially in these colder months because a find like this could keep you healthy and thriving for the coming spring, where plenty more edibles will take bloom. Stay intuitive and trust your instincts. The elders are always wiser.