‘Big Wild Year’: Part XI

Jeremy St. Onge, left, and Delphanie Colyer got out in the cold November days to hunt for deer and grouse, and snared some rabbits along the way.

Hunting success on Manitoulin Island, a hard-wired foraging mindset

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 10th update since they began.

NORTH BAY – The finish line is mere weeks away for the Big Wild Year, with this past November allowing the couple to shore up their food stockpile and ensure they can last through their final month.

“(November) went by really fast,” said Delphanie Colyer, a nurse who has roots in Wiikwemkoong.

“There was lots of unsuccessful hunting culminating in a very successful hunt,” added Jeremy St. Onge, Ms. Colyer’s partner and co-challenger in the Big Wild Year.

For the entirety of 2019, Mr. St. Onge and Ms. Colyer have devised a challenge they call the ‘Big Wild Year,’ a pledge to eat only wild foods that naturally occur in their surrounding environments. They have mainly relied on foraging, hunting and fishing, though they have on occasion bartered with friends in other parts of the province and have, rarely, purchased wild foods.

The two-week deer rifle season in their area began on November 5. Ms. Colyer said there was a positive omen just days before the start of the season when they saw a large buck the day before Hallowe’en. Out on the land, however, it was a different story.

“We were on some good tracks and had some good spots, but we just did not see a single live deer,” said Mr. St. Onge. “Then, the day after the season closed, a big one crossed the road in front of me near my parents’ house.”

It was not promising for their meat rations, but Mr. St. Onge took that deer as the motivation to get a successful harvest later in the month. 

He has been hunting with the Harfields near Sheguiandah every year for nearly two decades and was hopeful about his chances. However, Mr. St. Onge was concerned about being in the hunt camp surrounded by all of the usual comforts like fresh foods and coffee. 

Jeremy St. Onge shot the biggest deer of his life while hunting on Manitoulin Island near Sheguiandah.

“I worried I’d be missing the morning coffee and the big, big morning breakfast—for the nostalgia, the atmosphere and being part of the whole experience,” he said. “But I realized I could happily do without these things. Partly because I knew my diet would be changing in 35 days.”

Ms. Colyer said she did not have the same worries about feeling left out of her social group.

“I went to the Island, cooked dinner for my friends and made my own dinner, but when we sat down it felt the same. I didn’t miss any of that,” she said.

Mr. St. Onge was rewarded for his troubles when a large buck found itself before his sights at the Harfields’.

“I shot the biggest deer of my life so far on that Saturday, so that was very exciting,” he said.

“The Island is the best place in the whole wide world. Every single person we ever talk to always says that—not just for the deer hunting; it’s got everything! Well, except blueberries,” said Ms. Colyer.

Although the deer hunting season near North Bay was unsuccessful, the large amounts of snow meant Mr. St. Onge could start snaring rabbits, bringing home four, and also shooting a grouse in the process.

“Then, I caught a grouse in a rabbit snare—I’ve never had that happen before,” he said.

The grouse were prolific during the hunting season both near North Bay and on Manitoulin.

“While we were deer hunting, we probably saw our limit of grouse every time we went out,” said Mr. St. Onge.

“It’s kind of frustrating because in all honesty, for all the work there is to hang and process the dear, if we’d shot all the grouse we saw we probably would have had the same amount of meat as one deer,” added Ms. Colyer.

While the couple’s online updates have always begun with the number of days that had passed, they have recently switched to a reverse countdown of the number of days remaining.

“It’s going to be a flavour explosion; I’ll have a happy mouth for one day,” said Ms. Colyer of the approaching December 31 conclusion of the challenge.

She described recently cooking moose and deer meat and throwing fiddleheads into the pan, which served as a shock to her eyes.

“We haven’t been having lots of green colour. I was startled by how colourful the pan was; that’s going to be really pleasant. I’m just excited for a few fruits and vegetables,” said Ms. Colyer. “Some people are having a chuckle at our upcoming health issues we might have like weight gain and stomach issues.”

The two will continue with bloodwork and physiology testing for six months after their challenge ends, to get a better sense of the impacts of switching back to a more conventional North American diet.

“Having experienced all of the health benefits over the last year, I’m going to be careful getting back in. There are certain things that won’t do much harm like apples, mangoes and bananas, but I’m sticking away from nightshade (tomatoes and potatoes are members of this family),” said Mr. St. Onge.

He will undergo food allergy testing by May and said he will stick more closely to the current diet until then to ensure accurate results.

“I, on the other hand, am going to go nuts and taste a little bit of everything,” said Ms. Colyer with a laugh, adding that she has lost most of her cravings for sweets like chocolate. 

“But I would really like to have the boring things. I want lots and lots of salad, and other grainy things, too, like quinoa, barley and oatmeal,” she said.

“Oats is on my list for sure. Experiencing how few grains you have on a wild diet, I’ll probably try to avoid them when I can,” added Mr. St. Onge, before Ms. Colyer excitedly bursted in with “cornbread!!”

Snacking has been on their minds of late; Ms. Colyer recently made apple leather and pear leather, with the wild pears being gifted by her sister from a community harvest in Wiikwemkoong. She also made a surprise batch of sunchoke chips for a road trip to Manitoulin Island.

Although they are excited to switch back to a conventional diet, their foraging mindset might not give up as easily.

“I recently picked up my kid at school and when we were driving, I said ‘look out the window, are the seeds ready on that lamb’s quarter?’ I don’t know why I did, because we can coast now this year. It’s funny that I’m still looking; I can see that it’s just going to be a part of my life because we’ve been doing it for so many seasons,” said Ms. Colyer. “My brain is now programmed to just keep looking for food.”

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.