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Less Screen Time, More Green Time

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The sun draws close to the distant ridge. Pine boughs whisper from above and fire warms our faces. Oak smoke rises into the breeze and disappears into the year’s first buds.

My daughter and I have been sitting silently on fireside stumps for minutes on end. There are no words worth speaking just now, in the presence of mesmerizing flames and overheard conversations between robins. This is peace much needed and well earned.

The journey here was not physically strenuous; perhaps more symbolic. Ninety miles in the car, up a hill, a couple miles through the woods. Schedules and emails traded for sunshine and quiet. No school, no internet, no other people. Just us and the waking woods. 

Stress and cares have all but floated off and dissipated like smoke. 

As it happens, a week ago my son and I swung from the trees on a ridge across the river valley. That was an entirely different trip but refreshing nonetheless. 

It was a dark day. The outing began on the heels of a several-day rainstorm. Light showers kept our shirts damp on the two-and-a-half mile trek. Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, and bluebells glowed from the trailsides while the drumming of grouse pulsed through the dripping woods. 

A campsite chosen in a stand of white pines offered views on both sides and a carpet of needles to keep gear from getting muddy. With hammocks hung and tarps placed, the agenda was short: supper and a campfire. Ramen bowls and tuna tortillas were the easy part. Making a fire in a soggy environment proved less easy but perfect for staying warm while the woods turned colder. 

My boy slept like a rock that night. I did not. Owls, deer, and geese took turns coloring the dark with their respective outbursts. Then there were the coyotes— they were in a league of their own. I’m not complaining, mind you, only astonished at how a 12-year-old boy can sleep through all that. 

The morning crept in slowly and gently. Instant oatmeal warmed us when we emerged from billowy chambers. We lingered a bit, soaking in the sounds and smells, talking about nothing in particular.

Cranes and cardinals provided a new soundscape as we returned to the car by another meandering route. The terrain fascinated and challenged us. There were many questions and I did my best to provide answers. Mostly we just walked and looked and discovered. 

It was simple, and yet perfect. 

Since the hammock camping experiment in March, I’d been looking for another opportunity to exploit my son’s shiny new enthusiasm for it. It’s hard to find anything that motivates him lately. Whether due to his age or pandemic weariness, it has become increasingly difficult to pry him from his rhythm of bouncing between technology and listlessness. These years are both fleeting and vitally important in shaping who he will become. Problem is, sometimes as parents we flail ineffectually in attempts to make the most of every day. 

When I proposed we go backpacking with hammocks, my son accepted enthusiastically. Even without a destination or plan outlined, he was all in. It’s heartening to know my kids have that instinct. As for my daughter, she wasn’t going to let me off the hook— she was to get her own hammocking trip, ASAP.  

To tell the truth, she played right into my hands. She needs this as much as anything right now and the proof is unfolding. She is already relaxed, carefree, and more like her natural self. It always works. And it doesn’t matter if we’re camping, fishing, foraging, or whatever. As with her brother, transformation is assured so long as the recipe is followed: 

Minnesota state forest dispersed camping

Choose one or two kids. Remove from the heat and pressure of modern life and allow to cool. Add generous amounts of fresh air, exercise, and natural stimuli. Ferment until desired consistency is reached. 

And so, we revel in silence so hard to come by these days. Soon it will be dark and the fire will die out. In the morning we will eat and talk and do whatever we like.

At precisely the right time, we will shoulder our packs and follow a new path. I will have made the most of this weekend and this sweet child of mine will be ready to face another week. 

Foraging in Minnesota: Stinging Nettles

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The growing season has begun, and with it, the foraging season. While many have a laser-like focus on morels, others recognize this as the time when many useful and tasty greens will appear. This includes one plant which is easily overlooked, if not considered a downright nuisance: the stinging nettle. 

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to a large portion of North America. Famous for its tiny, irritant-imparting hairs, it is familiar (and memorable) to kids, gardeners, anglers, and other outdoor venturers. 

U. dioica does well in many environments. It can produce thousands of seeds per stalk, but also forms colonies via spreading rhizomes. It thrives in disturbed and/or moist soils, like stream and river banks, ditches, lakeshores, and construction zones. In good conditions specimens can easily grow to over six feet. They are easy to spot throughout the season with their heavily textured, emerald leaves. 

Nettles for Health

Nutritional content is probably the main selling point when it comes to foraging for nettles. They are known for being rich in many things, including protein, calcium, Vitamin A, iron, and more. So rich, in fact, that the term “superfood” is often used. 

Nettles also have a reputation for providing medicinal benefits. As with chaga and other mushrooms, this “knowledge of the ancients” is well known and recognized as dating back thousands of years. And it’s not only the province of herbalists currently orbiting on the edges of cyberspace (You know, the ones who haven’t washed their hair in 18 years and make tea out of absolutely everything). A quick internet search reveals that even the likes of The Lancet and WebMD allude to unquantified, yet real healing properties of nettles— including pain relief. 

Sometimes when I’m out foraging and a lower back ache is on the horizon, rubbing a leaf or two all over that region seems to take care of it. It burns like heck, but it works. And maybe that’s the placebo effect, but one thing is for sure: foraging-induced back aches not treated in that manner will persist 100% of the time. 

Nettles for Dinner

Nettles emerge and develop quickly compared to many other plants. I prefer to harvest nettles fairly early in the spring, while the leaves are smaller and decidedly more tender. Unfortunately, all parts of the plant seem to be more prickly than later in the season. On the other hand, waiting too long—especially after the plant blooms—will allow the leaves to become tougher and take on a bitter flavor. 

Some people avoid trying nettles because they do not want to endure the stinging and itching associated with nettle leaves. I have found that rubber or light leather gloves will eliminate the threat altogether. 

If intended for cooking, the stems will need to be removed. Once the leaves are cooked, stems will otherwise persist as lumpy or even woody additions. Removing them can be done at home, but I prefer to leave the stems on the plant. The trick is to pinch near the base of the leaf, then twist and pull in order to tear it free from the stem. It isn’t hard, and a person need not lose much of the leaf in the process. 

To reap the benefits of nettles, many users will make tea. This can be done from fresh or dried leaves. It’s kind of a classic, but I have yet to try it. 

I do, however, like to make nettle risotto at least once every season. It’s a guaranteed hit at my house. I use Hank Shaw’s recipe from his book, Hunt, Gather, Cook. That recipe, along with many others for nettles and wild greens, can be found on Hank’s website

This year, I feel it’s time to try a nettle soup for the first time. It looks like the patch out by the back fence is big enough now to give up a few handfuls of leaves. And the rain seems to have finally quit after four or five days, so I think I’m out of excuses. 

What’s yours?

~

If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.

Yellow Bass of the Fairmont Chain

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I was on the phone last night with an old Minnesota fisherman. He asked if I’d done anything interesting lately. I said, “See if you can guess. What are yellow with black markings, plentiful, and taste good when they’re battered and fried?”

“Bananas.” 

“Yeah, well, okay….here’s another hint: they wiggle and flop when you throw them on the ice next to your sled.”

“Puppies?”

“What? No! I’m talking about yellow bass.”

“Huh. Never heard of ‘em.”

No kidding. 

Continue reading “Yellow Bass of the Fairmont Chain”

BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing

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For years I have dreamed of camping and ice fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Biting cold and slush-laden lake tops have kept me home the last two winters. That was fine; I’m not one to press my luck. But the warmer-than-average weather we’ve enjoyed lately had me itching to get at it.

Entry Point 25, with walleyes in Newfound Lake and brook trout in Found Lake, was the perfect setting for my introduction into winter adventuring. Little did I know, however, that introduction would come with a sobering peek into my own psyche. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 25: Winter Camping and Fishing”

The Year of Untouchable Bucks

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Hanging some antlers on the wall is a dream that sparkles in every deer hunter’s eye. Unsurprisingly, big bucks dominate deer hunting marketing and media. I will admit I’m not immune to the images and hype.

But at this time in my life, my main priorities each deer season are observing tradition, pursuing new experiences, and doing all I can to secure meat for my family. My 2020 deer hunt embodied those three as much or more than any other, spread across two weeks and three distinct settings. Continue reading “The Year of Untouchable Bucks”

Do Something New: Minnesota State Park Deer Hunt

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It all started about two years ago. My deer season had almost gone by without a single deer sighting. I’d spent two rainy days in a deer stand on private property, then one especially frigid day hoofing it on state forest land. If it weren’t for the good fortune of my brother and dad, we’d have been short on meat for the year. Continue reading “Do Something New: Minnesota State Park Deer Hunt”

Trip Report: Bottomland Paddling and Sanborn Canoe

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After my incredible deer hunt in the Mississippi bottomlands of southeast Minnesota last season, I’ve been hot to find similar territory for future excursions. And since the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge contains almost limitless opportunities for somebody with more ambition than sense, it was an obvious place to start.

Continue reading “Trip Report: Bottomland Paddling and Sanborn Canoe”

Do Something New: Hook a Dinosaur

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I haven’t had many fun surprises lately. For better or worse, life has been plodding along at its sedated, pandemic pace. Nothing seems to change and there isn’t much to look forward to. Until Thursday, that is. 

An invitation came out of the blue from my friend Scott Mackenthun, who is a Fisheries department manager with the Minnesota DNR. He asked if I’d like to go out with him and try to catch lake sturgeon. I’d never caught one before, and wouldn’t have thought that was likely to change. I was intrigued, to say the least. Continue reading “Do Something New: Hook a Dinosaur”