WILD HARVEST: Porcinis & Puddle Ducks

Timed with the opening of duck season in the north, this story describes the unique circumstances when poor logistics during a field research project enabled our crew (Robert, Craig and I) to reconnect with the fertility of the boreal landscape. The setting is along a rich confluence of the Churchill River in northeast Manitoba. The season was that magical transition from summer to fall.

I was exploring an old burn, behind our simple plywood cabin overlooking the river, one foggy September morning. About the time we were running out of food, I couldn’t help but notice a veritable supermarket of wild edibles underfoot. In addition, the fall migration in northern Manitoba was just building, and excellent numbers of mixed waterfowl were travelling the river en route to the Hudson Bay coast. The majority were mallards, but greenwing teal, American widgeon and pintails became increasingly concentrated with each passing day. The mighty, heritage-steeped lower Churchill River is without a doubt a waterfowl super highway, both spring and fall. It was the last day of August, and duck season was right around the corner.

Hungry, and more or less stranded, we were forced to make the best of the situation. We had about a week left in the bush, a partially stocked camp and everyone was pretty resourceful each in his own way. Later, we were told that the majority of our carefully pre-purchased food, specifically put aside for re-supply, simply did not make it on the plane. Thanks. One damaged link in a logistic chain can be all it takes for something like this to occur. No sense crying about it; the situation was what it was.

Days later found us scrounging in and around the cabin pantries for odds and ends (some flour here, some Spam there,) at which point I suppose we were slowly forced to transition. More and more, wild edibles made up a greater component of our diets that week. I enjoyed the conversion.

Fortunately for us, aside from the plentiful blueberries, bog cranberries and Labrador tea, were extensive patches of monstrous boletes, or Porcini mushrooms. World-class fungus was growing all around us, and more than we could ever hope to eat! We ended up drying several pounds over the wood stove, capturing the northern flavours for home. I keyed in on the mushrooms through my eastern European heritage, having spent many days with my Polish grandparents picking mushrooms in the more competitive south. For anyone that’s never seen it, in the north they would grow to the size of dinner plates, in all their glory, spread spore and decompose sometimes completely undisturbed. As an avid mushroom picker, it was a sight to behold.

“I wish my grandmother could see this!” I said.

The ducks gradually became as plentiful as the mushrooms, and the camp harvested what we needed. Duck soup with Hungarian-style dumplings, dried mushrooms and the last of our root vegetables was a big hit. Our duck spot was only a couple hundred yards from the cabin, where the river had flooded a low-lying bay. What was typically hard ground covered in long grass, sedges and willow clumps was now swallowed knee to waist deep by the river. It was essentially perfect. Only a handful of decoys were all that was ever needed to sucker in a fresh, migrating mixed bag. Many ducks, however, were not the objective – just what we needed for a couple days’ feed. Regrettably, those subsistence duck hunts never lasted long. We took to more aggressive berry picking around the cabin in the mornings or when returning from a quick duck hunt, whipping up some fresh cranberry sauce for our breakfast bannock.

For the remainder of the expedition, we ate like kings. I appreciated that all these natural, wild edibles were scrounged within 500 metres of camp, feeding several grown men for several days. It was a refreshing change and blast from the past in an otherwise modern, Saran Wrap-packaged world.

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