Editor’s Note: This is the third post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
In 2019, as part of a personal project dubbed The Big Wild Year, I (predominantly of European descent) and another participant (Delphanie, an Indigenous woman) ate a diet of all-wild food, collecting and consuming more than 160 species of plants, fungi, animals, birds, fish, and insects, while giving up caffeine, alcohol, and other agricultural products (including spices). The Big Wild Year began as a personal challenge stemming from our interest in wild foods, hunting, foraging, fishing, and traditional diets. However, recognizing that different communities would likely be very interested in this challenge, we sought to document our progress and institute formal measures of our health before, during, and after our journey. With the assistance of my family physician and the Department of Kinesiology at Nipissing University we collected blood tests before and throughout the year and underwent physiological testing before, at the midpoint, and at the end of the project. We provided regular updates on our progress using our personal social media channels.
Only a few hunter-gatherer societies currently subsist entirely on wild foods. Only a handful of studies have followed Indigenous participants who have reverted to a traditional diet and activity pattern. The Big Wild Year was the first study I am aware of that followed westernized individuals undertaking a pre-agricultural diet over a full year. Most studies of hunter-gatherers find them to have superior cardiovascular health and fitness measures compared to their Westernized counterparts,1 and I hypothesized that our cardiovascular risk factors and fitness indicators would move in positive directions over the year.
Once spring arrived and our supplies dwindled, seasonal foraging became the main focus of our lives, in between working our regular jobs and raising our respective children (for whom we were still cooking regular foods, another challenge of the year!).
We established a few ground rules which included the intention of self-collecting as much of our wild food as possible; we considered non-native species to be wild foods; and we considered escaped/feral plants (such as roadside apples, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes) to be “wild foods”. Although we didn’t establish a geographical boundary for our project most of our foraging happened within about 50 km of North Bay, Ontario, Canada with a few excursions as far as Michigan, USA, and into Northern Quebec in Canada. Although in a relationship at the time, Delphanie and I lived in separate homes raising our respective children. We foraged, hunted, fished, cooked, and ate together as often as possible (several times a week, at least) but also participated independently around our family and work schedules.
Beginning a year in advance, we collected and stored staple wild foods in anticipation of our January 1, 2019 start date. In the winter we fished through the ice. In the spring we netted smelts and picked wild leeks. In the summer we fished and foraged for greens and mushrooms. In the fall we hunted for large and small game, went waterfowling, and collected seeds, nuts, and roots. By January of 2019 we had a freezer full of meats and blanched greens, shelves full of dried teas, and buckets of dried acorns in a quantity to carry us through the lean months of winter until spring harvesting seasons began.
Our diet in the winter months at the start of our project consisted predominantly of meat, berries, and greens. We cooked with bear and raccoon fat. We made cakes with acorn flour, perch roe, and blueberries. We spiced our food sparingly with a small amount of sea salt I made while in the Caribbean, and with yarrow, sweet fern, shepherd’s purse, and other wild herbs. Once spring arrived and our supplies dwindled, seasonal foraging became the main focus of our lives, in between working our regular jobs and raising our respective children (for whom we were still cooking regular foods, another challenge of the year!). As satisfying as a plate of bear ribs with maple syrup might be, cooking grilled cheeses and pasta and omelets for children was a constant challenge to our wild food adherence. At work, I had to be sensitive about what wild foods I put in the microwave or I would risk offending my colleagues; olfactory senses. The balance between regular work, life, and the Big Wild Year was a continuous challenge. Some wild staples which we sought have a very narrow window of opportunity, such as the brief spawning activity of rainbow smelts – miss the critical week and it is an entire year before that resource becomes available again.
We aimed to eat to satiety, however our body compositions changed rapidly, as did our blood chemistries and physical fitness. Between December 2018 and April 2019 our mean total cholesterol (TC) increased 2.1%, mean high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) increased 30.2%, mean low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) decreased 3.5%, mean triglycerides decreased 55.3%, and random glucose decreased 12.3%. By May 2019, I had lost nearly 40 lbs and at 156 lbs I was the lightest I had been since high school over 20 years prior. Our mean body weight loss was -14.4 kg (-18.1%) with mean fat mass decreasing -7.6 kg and mean percent body fat dropping from 26.7% to 21%. Our mean fat-free mass in this period decreased -6.8 kg and we measured a decrease in mean combined grip strength (-5.1%) and double leg press (-17.8%).
My rapid weight loss up until the midpoint of the year was surprising to me, and my relatively gaunt appearance was concerning to the people around me. Although I was still at 16% body fat, we jointly decided to boost our diet by purchasing a large (100 lbs.) quantity of wild rice as well as unsweetened applesauce and walnuts. From that point on our weights stabilized, we regained some small amount of muscle mass, and most of our blood chemistry remained unchanged with the exception of mercury levels.
Mercury and lead are two toxins that can be readily acquired from the environment. Our lead levels did not change significantly over the year, supporting a body of evidence2 that refutes the oft-held belief that hunters are at risk of lead accumulation from the use of lead ammunition. However, our mean blood mercury levels increased dramatically (403%), likely due to the quantity of fatty fish tissues (eyes, bellies, stomachs, livers, and roe) we were consuming to maximize our fat and caloric intake. Fortunately, mercury is excreted, and our levels returned to their baselines several months after we stopped eating wild fish.
Collecting, processing, and consuming an all-wild diet takes a lot of knowledge, skill, and time. Based on our experience, a balanced wild diet that is sufficient in calories appears to promote healthy changes in physiology and biochemistry but carries the risk of exposure to environmental toxins. We found it to be an immersive, exciting, and engaging experience. We were fortunate to have dozens of close friends and family supporting us with wild food gifts and trades, as well as thousands of social media supporters cheering us on along the way. We were happy to have the opportunity to document and share our official results, as well as many interesting anecdotal notes including improved skin health, high resistance to sunburn, and decreased joint stiffness.
Although I considered myself an accomplished forager prior to embarking on the project, throughout The Big Wild Year I immersed myself in further self-study, workshops, and group foraging including Indigenous harvests. The Big Wild Year changed how I viewed landscapes and ecological communities – acute bouts of foraging and hunting fostered a continual awareness of environmental clues speaking to where and when to best apply my collection efforts. Stands of balsam fir were mentally flagged as places to search for chanterelle mushrooms. Aspen forests with nannyberry understory immediately triggered me to look for ruffed grouse. Anonymous patches of sedges, evening primrose, or burdock became spontaneous foraging opportunities. The Big Wild Year taught me that collecting and consuming large quantities of wild food requires dedication, persistence, specific tools, and both a broad and deep knowledge of ecosystems and their components. Although this project is now several years behind me, the lessons have stayed with me. I always have some foraging tools and collection bags with me wherever I go. When I go grouse hunting, I often come home with more wild mushrooms by weight than grouse. Foraging and hunting have ceased to be separate activities, and I feel like I truly became a hyphenated hunter-gatherer.
1 Pontzer, H., Wood, B. M., & Raichlen, D. A. (2018). Hunter-gatherers as models in public health. Obesity Reviews, 19(December), 24–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12785
Rode, A., & Shephard, R. J. (1994). Physiological consequences of acculturation: a 20-year study of fitness in an Inuit community. In European Applied Journal of Physiology and Occupational Physiology (Vol. 69)
Ravussin, E., Valencia, M. E., Esparza, J., Bennett, P. H., & Schulz, L. O. (1994). Effects of a traditional lifestyle on obesity in Pima Indians. Diabetes Care, 17(9), 1067–1074. https://doi.org/10.2337/diacare.17.9.1067
2 Haldimann, M., Baumgartner, A., & Zimmerli, B. (2002). Intake of lead from game meat – A risk to consumers’ health? European Food Research and Technology, 215(5), 375–379. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-002-0581-3
Iqbal, S., Blumenthal, W., Kennedy, C., Yip, F. Y., Pickard, S., Flanders, W. D., Loringer, K., Kruger, K., Caldwell, K. L., & Jean Brown, M. (2009). Hunting with lead: association between blood lead levels and wild game consumption. Environmental Research, 109(8), 952–959. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2009.08.007
Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.