Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Foraging with Nikki

Some people are magic. I think Nikki is one of them.

Early in this trip I read 'Becoming Wild' by Nikki van Schyndel. It is an amazing story about how she fulfilled a lifelong dream of surviving in the wilds of the BC islands in traditional ways for eighteen months, with her friend Micah and her cat Scout. I can't at all do her story justice with all of its trials, tribulations and her deep spiritual connection to the natural world that developed along the way. It's truly an incredible story to have had rambling around in my brain while immersed in these wild, beautiful and unforgiving islands. She survived endless cold and wet, starvation, cougar stalking and in an effort to not waste any food eating mice delivered to her by her faithful cat. In desperate need of protein, she managed to trap two bears and process every last scrap, a painful emotional process for an ex-vegetarian.

Our visit to Village Island, where she spent her first six months, and Booker Lagoon, where she spent her final year, were a bit of a Nikki pilgrimage for us so we could see first hand where she lived. She now lives in a small cabin in Echo Bay near the famous Billy Proctor whom we met last year and which you can read more about here. She now has her own eco-ventures business where she takes people out to see wildlife or gather wild food. Knowing we were planning a stop at Echo Bay I contacted Nikki to set up an excursion to gather wild food with her. I have always wanted to forage for food off of the shores here but I haven't felt comfortable trying to puzzle it out with a book, so who better to teach us what we can and cannot eat than Nikki? I was super excited!

We arrived in Echo Bay with enough time to walk over and show Emma Billy Proctor's Museum. After taking a look around, Billy, Nikki and a gaggle of very clean and well-dressed logger-hipster types came walking down the path. Nikki recognized us, said hello and told us she'd be right back after she took care of the other people she was with. That gave us some time with Billy as he showed us around his museum. We ended up out on the porch talking with Billy when Nikki came back. It was so fun to watch Nikki and Billy banter back and forth. Clearly they have a very special connection. Nikki explained that the extra-clean bunch of people we had seen earlier were photographers and models from some outdoorsy catalog and they were doing a photo shoot. all makes sense now. We talked a little about the next day's excursion and set a time. Nikki then hopped in her boat to go gather kelp, which she had plans to dry in Billy's upstairs room. We said good-bye to Billy and we hiked through the rain back across the island to our boat.

The next morning Nikki showed up at our dock at 11am. We all hopped into her little motor boat and sped away. Immediately upon entering the channel just outside of Echo Bay we saw a humpback spout. Nikki drove in closer for a better look. Over the next ten minutes we watched what looked like a mama and baby humpback cruise back and forth across the channel. It was a magical experience to see humpbacks so close.

Next we were off to the Burdwood Group to look for food. Along the way we stopped at Deep Sea Bluff where she showed us nesting guillemots. I loved that Nikki talked to all of the animals we saw along the way and seemed well acquainted with them all. When we got to Burdwood Group there were people there so Nikki decided to take us Simoom Sound instead. At the entrance to the sound she anchored the boat and we all scrambled off onto a small rocky island where we gathered bladderwrack seaweed. Inside Simoom Sound she showed us a patch of nodding onions and which were the best to harvest. Jason has been wanting to gather shellfish but we always worry about red tide. Nikki told us that limpets are algae feeders so there is no need to worry about red tide with them. The trick to getting a limpet off the rock easily is to very quickly grab it before it has a chance to suction tightly to the rock. It's way harder than it sounds but we managed to gather a few to go along with our bladderwrack and pile of onions. We then ventured over to another island where we gathered all kinds of new edibles I wasn't aware of. We gathered sea plantain, English sea plantain, sea asparagus, sedums, and arrow grass which tastes surprisingly like cilantro. We dug licorice root to suck on while we gathered spinachy-tasting orache. We talked about the medicinal purposes of yarrow and old man's hair. English plantain can be crushed and used to soothe insect bites. Bladderwrack seaweed can be boiled and slathered on your face for a rejuvenating facial mask. So much cool information.

Next we gathered kindling for a fire and then Nikki handed us bits of cedar bark. She showed us how to shred, fluff and turn it into a little nest. While we worked on nests she chopped all of the plants we had gathered. She then took out her bow drill. I have never seen anyone start a fire this way. It was magical to watch her work the drill until a tiny spark of fire came to life. She delicately cradled the glowing ember, gently dropped it into the cedar nests we had created and carefully wrapped it up in the fluff. She then, literally, breathed life into it until the nest smoked and flamed. Pure magic! She placed it on the ground and added the kindling we had gathered until she had a flame big enough to cook over.

She warmed her cast iron skillet over the fire and then dropped in our wild harvest, added some cooked rice she had brought along and sprinkled some dried bull kelp over the top for seasoning. She dished us up each a generous portion in giant clam shell with a muscle shell for a spoon. When we went into this I wasn't sure what to expect from the taste of the wild stir-fry. It was absolutely amazing! It tasted so delicious, fresh and healthy. I, literally, feel like I could eat it for every meal and am still craving it. She got rave reviews from everyone around the fire. Next, as she said "sorry little guys" she boiled up the limpets for us to try. The limpets seemed like they would be good in a chowder but not-so-great by themselves. Next on the menu, as a request from Aaron and Jason, was tiny beach crabs. Aaron ran around and gathered a few to fry up. Me, being an ex-vegetarian and Emma, being a current vegetarian, had to walk away from the fire when the cute little guys went into the pan. Turns out that the little guys all fried up crispy are super delicious, like little crab croutons.

With happy bellies we cleaned up the remains of the fire, disposed of them and then hopped back into Nikki's boat to head back to Echo Bay. Back on the dock she met Pika for the first time and it was love at first sight. When I asked her to sign my copy of her book she asked who to address it to. We decided Pika.

It was such an amazingly enriching experience to spend the afternoon foraging for food with Nikki. It was inspiring to meet a person with such an adventurous spirit who dreams big and makes it come true in spite of the incredible difficulty and accompanying misery. I love meeting people who embrace who they are and follow their dreams, big or small. It reconfirmed for me that I am so eternally thankful we pulled the kids out of school nine years ago and set out on our own path outside of what mainstream society expects from us. Thank you Nikki. I'm so excited to put the knowledge you shared with us to good use.

Click here for photos.

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