Foraging in Minnesota: Wild Strawberries

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If you’re itching to get out and pick some wild berries this year, I have good news for you: the strawberries are in. They won’t be for long and they won’t offer the volume of picking as later berries, but they’re still worth pursuing.

It’s my opinion that wild strawberries are a good way to get kids interested in foraging, or at least engage them in conversation about where food comes from. For one thing, wild strawberries are very tasty; they’re typical of wild berries in that they’re smaller but have much more flavor than their cultivated counterparts. Another reason is that most any kid should recognize a wild strawberry as something they already know as food, and putting that berry in their mouth directly from the plant is a special way to connect with the natural world.

Fragaria spp.

Minnesota is host to two similar wild strawberry species, Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria vesca. Differentiation between the two species is not generally important. F. virginiana appears to thrive in sunny, dry locations, whereas F. vesca is known as the “Woodland strawberry,” and reportedly tolerates more shade and moister soils. Botanists agree that telling the difference between the two will require fairly acute inspection and will not make the berries taste any sweeter.

Leaves are very recognizable, arranged in groups of three. They are regularly toothed with strong veins. Leaf shape seems to vary somewhat in my experience, ranging from oval to elliptical to somewhat ovate. Still, there aren’t many things that resemble them so close to the ground, and a strawberry is unmistakable when you taste it.

Strawberries are famous for colonizing new ground with vigor. The stolons (runners) of our wild strawberries are reddish (sometimes bright red) and will sometimes shoot out quite a distance from the parent plant. While cruising the woods or prairies, it’s the stolons that will usually catch my eye, causing me to stoop and look for a quick treat.

Wild StrawberriesWhere to Look

It’s hard to nail down exactly where wild strawberries will be found. It seems like they’re almost everywhere, especially between the two species. In the woods (F. vesca), just keep your eyes peeled. F. virginiana seems to do well out in the open when it doesn’t have to compete with vegetation that’s too tall or thick. All the same, there are some hotspots I’ve found in the sunny places:

Edges of lawns can be good, and similar places that see only occasional mowing.

Sandy beaches and lake margins where it seems other things have trouble growing.

Restored prairies in sandier soils will often host patches, especially around the perimeter.   

What to Make

If you’re planning on picking enough to make jam, let me know how that goes. Otherwise, it’s best to plan on having only a small amount- the berries themselves are famously petite. They would be good with some yogurt and/or granola. Perhaps also good added to muffins, but I’m no baker. Personally, I prefer eating them “bear” style: right where I find them.

 

Look At Me, I’m A Fishing Genius

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I love catching walleyes and I’m not alone in that. Lots and lots of videos online testify to that fact. A brief survey of YouTube titles will tell you that walleyes can be caught on Lake Erie, Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, and some place way up in Canada whose name I can’t remember but sounds like “We-must-go.”

Just those five lakes.

They catch walleyes hand over fist, and rarely any small ones. Those people are like fishing heroes or something. Geniuses, maybe.

Moment of genius on Mille LacsI want to be a genius too. So, once or twice a winter I’ll go to Mille Lacs and drill some holes and lay hands on walleye flesh. Honestly, it’s not all that hard if you’ve been paying attention. They’ve been making TV shows up there for decades, dispensing their wisdom:

“Blah, blah, blah…mud flats…low light conditions…blah, blah…top of the break…bottom of the break…”

Caught some dandies there in recent years. And the numbers of fish in “The Walleye Factory” are still nothing short of astounding. It’s usually enough to make me feel like a member of the genius club.

And then I drive home.

Well, what about all the places I and so many other people fish every day? I can tell you there are no “mud flats” on little old Burrows Lake. There are no “mid-lake humps” on Ruby Lake, or Marion, or Scotch. What’s a guy to do on a bowl-shaped lake so chock-full of weeds that you can’t find the bottom, much less bounce anything off it? Who’s gonna help me find fish if I don’t want to drive 874 miles one way?

I don’t know who it will be, but they will be my idol.

In the meantime, I’ll keep watching videos, trying to glean useful information. The problem is, I’ll often get knee deep into a video that seems generally informative and realize that what they’re telling me is pretty lake-specific.

Oh, you went 23 miles across the ice in a Sno Bear? You’re on Lake Winnipeg.

The sun just went down and the eelpout have moved in? Lake of the Woods.

You put on a blindfold, drove your boat 8 miles out, tossed a bare hook overboard and caught a 29-incher? Lake Erie.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with going to a world-class fishery. It’s fun and memorable. This past winter I went to Devils Lake for the first time to catch jumbo perch. It was a ball. I’ve never caught so many truly large perch and I’ll never forget it.

But there’s also nothing wrong with fishing in ordinary lakes with ordinary results. We mere mortals have been doing it for generations. We know lines break and buckets go home empty. We know that for every 24-inch walleye, we will have to unhook 80 eleven-inchers and 800 perch smaller than the average golden shiner.

Who’s going to make a video about that?

 

Real-life walleye fishing

 

 

BWCA Entry Point 52: Saved by Gillis Lake

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What do you get when you take a pandemic-weary man, work him nearly to exhaustion, cook him in the sun, and feed him a couple fish? A question for the ages, no doubt. In order to learn the answer, I left home hours before sunrise on May 18th. My destination was BWCA Entry Point 52, Brant Lake- somewhere I’d been trying to go for over a year. Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 52: Saved by Gillis Lake”

Wilderness Food: Lake Trout Over Cedar Coals

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It’s a bit niche, I’ll admit. This method of cooking doesn’t lend itself well to universal use. There aren’t many times and places a person will readily be able to throw it together. Still, it’s too good not to share.

Last year, when I haphazardly threw a trout over the campfire for breakfast one day, I had no idea it would turn out so good. This year, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do when I went back to the BWCA. In fact, I didn’t even leave myself any other options. It was this or nothing. Continue reading “Wilderness Food: Lake Trout Over Cedar Coals”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns

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The Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) seems to be gaining in popularity among foragers, if mentions in social media are any indication. Posts about “fiddleheads” are becoming more and more common this time of year. Also apparent in the social media soup is how much confusion there is when it comes to knowing which species are edible and how they are identified. 

Some people- a proportional few- are vocal in their opinion that the Ostrich fern is not the only edible fern in Minnesota. While that may be true for sometimes complicated reasons, I will not subscribe to that school of thought. Allow me to explain why.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns”

What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps

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Ramps are special, and the season is short. For some foragers, it’s the taste of Spring, and they wouldn’t miss it. I’m not that fervent, but I do like them nonetheless. This year, I made a point to branch out and do more than scrambled eggs with ramps. Now, I’m no chef, so don’t expect any groundbreaking ideas or recipes here. My perspective is that of an avid forager and great fan of trying new things. Continue reading “What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps

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Once again, I blame social media. For what, you ask? For the ridiculous fame that ramps seem to be “enjoying” nowadays. Of course, people have known about ramps for a long time, even holding spring festivals for them in parts of the eastern U.S. where they used to grow prolifically. I say “used to” because it is well known that wild ramp populations are hurting. Because of that, they really don’t need any extra harvest pressure. Every foraging group I subscribe to on Facebook, however, is currently experiencing Ramp Mania. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps”

Stay Well, Stay Sane

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It’s been about three days since all the closures started, and one day since Minnesota declared a state of emergency. Everyone in my household is already feeling cooped up and anxious about how we will spend the next days and weeks. And we’ve already told the kids they’re going to have limited time with friends for a while. So, if we’re going to spend less time in public, avoid movie theaters and restaurants, and otherwise practice hermit life, what can we do? Continue reading “Stay Well, Stay Sane”

The Season for Outdoor Savings

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It seems every year I tell myself I’m going to get new hiking boots. And ice fishing boots. And snow bibs. And winter clothing layers. And a new backpacking stove. I’m sure I’ll get around to all those, but most of my procrastination has to do with finding the right items at the right prices. Well, now is the time of year when prices get slashed and I need to be on top of my shopping game. You should too, especially if you need any type of outdoor clothing.  Continue reading “The Season for Outdoor Savings”

Ways to Extend Your Ice Fishing Season

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Well, the walleye and northern pike seasons ended yesterday here in Minnesota. This always leaves me feeling a little adrift with respect to the remainder of my ice fishing season. Most of my energy is spent chasing those toothy predators; nothing else quite measures up.

But I love ice fishing. I’d rather make use of the time left than hang my head and stuff my gear back up in the top of the garage again.   Continue reading “Ways to Extend Your Ice Fishing Season”

Trip Report: The Jumbo Perch of Devils Lake

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I don’t keep a bucket list. If I did, one of the items on it going into 2020 would have been ice fishing Devils Lake. When that opportunity recently landed in my lap, I couldn’t resist. It was a “Communicator Camp,” arranged by the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), where Devils Lake Tourism and Clam Outdoors hosted several media professionals like myself. 

We assembled the first night, and were given a warm welcome (and the game plan) by Devils Lake Tourism’s Suzie Kenner and Tanner Cherney. Two members of the Clam Outdoors Ice Team– Thayne Jensen and Tony Mariotti- also gave us an overview of all the equipment we’d be using. Everything sounded so good until the conversation turned to the weather.  Continue reading “Trip Report: The Jumbo Perch of Devils Lake”

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs

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Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake. 

Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, though we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Winds were moderate and temperatures were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been worse.  Continue reading “Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs”

New Year, New Adventures

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I’m not a new-year’s-resolution kind of person. Rare are the times I am moved to state such aspirations formally, and rarer yet are the years when they survive to see the next changing of the calendar. Still, I will frequently look back on the past 12 months as that milestone approaches each year. My reflections have been more rewarding than usual this time around.  Continue reading “New Year, New Adventures”

Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree

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Normally, I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links. 

What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5. 

Yes, FIVE DOLLARS.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree”

Product Review: Irish Setter VaprTrek Boot

It all started in 2014. A great pair of leather boots had given up the ghost and I needed something new. Another pair of leather boots seemed a good idea, but with all the walking I do in the bird hunting season, I didn’t want anything too heavy. One boot caught my attention, marketed as light in weight and tough as nails. I’d never owned anything in kangaroo leather before, so who was I to doubt their claims? 

Well, I should have. Astonishingly, I wore those boots out in just one October. The leather in the toes completely disintegrated, and the waterproof layer underneath could clearly be seen. I regret to this day I didn’t take pictures, but I was livid as I packed up the box. I just wanted them out of my sight. Ever since then, I’ve been in search of a boot that could stand up to the way I hunt.  Continue reading “Product Review: Irish Setter VaprTrek Boot”