‘Big Wild Year’ Notebook: Part IV of a series

The two birthdays during April in the Big Wild Year challenge called for celebration. Jeremy St. Onge and Delphanie Colyer enjoyed bear burgers flavoured with juniper, yarrow, garlic seeds and boletes, as well as a hare, alongside glasses of chokecherry juice for dinner. Dessert was a special Jerusalem artichoke chiffon pie made with acorn flour, homemade gelatin, bear fat, berries and walnuts.

Couple celebrates birthdays, hits end of greens supply

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Expositor will be checking in regularly with this couple who have ties to Manitoulin Island as they embark on their Big Wild Year challenge. This is the fourth update since they began.

NORTH BAY—April proved to be a month of highs and lows for North Bay couple Jeremy St. Onge and Delphanie Colyer, who have survived the throes of winter and must now ramp up their gathering during the warmer months of their Big Wild Year challenge.

“I was a little panicky. We had enough food, but I was starting to feel scared about starving,” said Ms. Colyer. 

“We started to see the bottom of our freezers. That was a big change from the other three months,” added Mr. St. Onge.

For the entirety of 2019 during what they are calling their ‘Big Wild Year,’ the couple will only eat wild-foraged foods such as indigenous plants and animals they have hunted. Mr. St. Onge is an environmental studies professor at Canadore College and Ms. Colyer is a nurse with roots in Wiikwemkoong.

In last month’s update, the two were growing concerned about their dwindling greens. Throughout the month, those resources reached new lows.

“We were right down to the dregs for greens. We weren’t having greens with every meal,” said Ms. Colyer. “I made sure that we had greens for the meals that Jeremy was here for because we really needed them.”

Their existing supply is currently down to a single package of daisy and dandelion buds, a third of a cup of leeks, some dried leeks and a small amount of milkweed. The situation was not looking positive for the couple until last week, when temperatures edged into the double digits and melting snow exposed small shoots of dandelions eagerly stretching for the sun’s warm rays.

“We had a gigantic salad the other night. I picked a big stainless steel bowl full and made a dressing. These were our first fresh greens of the year. I was so happy about it, though my guts weren’t later,” said Ms. Colyer.

In the first three months of 2019, they had consumed a dozen litres of maple syrup—far more than they had anticipated. Although they have not quite reached their production goal of 100 litres yet, Mr. St. Onge said they had about 23 finished litres of syrup as of this past weekend and they still expected a few more days before sap dried up.

“We’ve heard that it wasn’t a great year for sap, and earlier we heard it wasn’t a great ice fishing year. We really picked a good year to start this challenge,” said Ms. Colyer with only the faintest hint of sarcasm, though she did acknowledge that this will be an excellent test of their resilience for the future.

April is a special month for Ms. Colyer and Mr. St. Onge—both have their birthdays only 10 days apart. Mr. St. Onge celebrated his 40th birthday on April 18 with a special supper of bear cub ribs, wild mushrooms, leek greens and a Jerusalem artichoke chiffon pie. 

The bear cub was fresh roadkill they had salvaged and saved in the freezer for the birthday celebrations and the pie was a unique experiment in ingredient substitution.

“I made my own gelatin with a bone broth and made a pie crust with acorn flour,” said Mr. St. Onge.

The pies received a garnish of blackberries, chopped walnuts and maple sugar, and there was an icing made of maple sugar and bear fat.

“It was so tasty. I want the same for next year,” said Ms. Colyer.

For a bigger 40th birthday celebration, Ms. Colyer knew a restauranteur who let the couple bring in their own food over the Easter weekend. They invited a group of Mr. St. Onge’s closest friends and shared their mealtime while everyone had the chance to eat what they preferred.

Unfortunately, the after-party did not go entirely according to plan.

“We got tons of food to serve there. But lots didn’t show up because it was Easter, and the people who did show up had eaten their Easter meal beforehand. Talk about starting cravings!” said Ms. Colyer.

Her home was inundated with all kinds of chips and dip, deli meats, cheeses, crackers and wine, most of which turned into several nights of dinner for her kids.

Both have recently undergone bloodwork and received clean bills of health. Mr. St. Onge continues to lose weight at the steady rate of one to two pounds per week. He is currently down to a weight of 161 pounds from his starting weight of 194 pounds.

“I’ve been trying to encourage Jer to eat a bigger lunch because of that weight loss. A friend of ours, as part of his yearly routine, he harvests wild rice. We’re going to drive down this weekend before Jer leaves for Grenada and get some; I’m not sure what we’re going to trade for it yet, it might be in exchange for some work,” said Ms. Colyer.

There’s the next adventure in this challenge: Mr. St. Onge is about to leave for the Grenadine island of Carriacou to supervise a field camp for his students.  Although one of the principles of the challenge will have to be modified due to time constraints—buying fresh-caught fish at a local market rather than catching them himself—Mr. St. Onge said he is working with a local guide who is helping him source local foods such as coconuts, breadfruit, almonds, cactus fruits and agave.

Mr. St. Onge said he has recently harvested some grackles, which are considered a pest species in Ontario.

“We haven’t done it yet but we’re hoping to have four and 20 blackbirds baked into a pie,” said Ms. Colyer with a laugh, referencing the 18th century nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence.’ 

“Going out this week just really brought back all that anticipation and the urgency that is coming with collecting food. There’s no more luxuries that we will have the food around anymore. It’s going to be a lot of work,” said Ms. Colyer.

A sad moment happened when she drove past a North Bay property that has been a vacant lot for decades and was a good source of jewelweed. It had recently been clearcut, leaving Ms. Colyer to consult her notes on other places to find the same resources.

She said she was planning on visiting Manitoulin Island soon in search of morels. She still knows of a few spots where they grew during her childhood, but is seeking more locations to expand her harvest. Should any Expositor readers wish to help out with this cause, the couple would certainly appreciate any tips through a private message on their Facebook page. 

Now that the warmer weather is at hand, Mr. St. Onge and Ms. Colyer are eagerly looking forward to an abundance of leeks, smelts, catfish, suckers, dandelion roots, chicory roots, trout lilies and maple flowers, among many other species.

To follow Ms. Colyer and Mr. St Onge’s Big Wild Year, you can view their updates at Facebook.com/BigWildYear. The Expositor will be checking back with the two throughout the year to share their experiences in this unique endeavour.