Speaking of the dangers of foraging...

judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin
edited October 2020 in Wild Edibles & Medicinals

Here is something I wrote while back, that I apparently forgot to share with the group...

A Warning On Wild Foods

I hate to post any thing negative this early on in the blog, but I think I really should issue a warning. Harvesting wild food can be dangerous, both physically and legally. Although this blog will not be focused on gathering wild food exclusively - there will be lots and lots of gardening info - it is an important aspect. If you harvest from the wild... and you should... you need to know your plants, your environment and your laws. We all know that there are poisonous plants, or that you can slip on wet moss and break a bone... some threats are less obvious, and those usually come from other people. In all honesty, there are a lot of laws on the books to discourage/prohibit harvesting wild food and there are people paid for the sole purpose of trying to catch you do something that violates those laws - you are not paranoid (hopefully); sometimes, they are out to get you.. they got me, recently... and I know more about such things than most!

So, lets start with simple things. Any time you walk out of your front door, you are in danger. Granted, there are dangers inside your home - that is where most accidents occur. But outdoors, there are poisonous snakes and spiders, biting insects, ticks that carry Lyme Disease, animals with rabies, bears, etc.... heck, Jimmy Carter was even attacked by a rabbit... the Secret Service never saw that coming! There are slippery rocks, limbs to trip over, holes to fall in, steep banks to fall down, water to drown in... heck, there may even be quicksand! In all my years of foraging and harvesting meat and fish from the wild, I've never been seriously injured. I have sprained ankles, broken fingers, gotten beat up and scratched up from falls and blackberries, slipped on wet rocks so many times... I have had frost bite, burns, sunburn, cuts and a lot of hornet, wasp and yellow jacket stings. Not much to write home about though. Actually, the worst things that ever happened to me were a surprise snow storm and an infestation of redbugs (not at the same time).

I guess I was about 16 when I learned the first lesson, in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a pleasantly cool/crisp, sunny, January day. I went out on a 10 mile hike. It was just a hike, so I only packed a light lunch and some water. About 4 miles in, I spotted a nice fishing hole in a trout stream that I had never seen before. With the bare trees and the bright winter sunlight hitting it, I had to investigate. It was down a steep bank and near the bottom, I slipped on some ice. I ended up knee deep in extremely cold water. I clamored out and up the hill, realizing I had to keep moving to keep from freezing. It was a high of 45 that day and I was soaked. Around 4 pm, clouds moved in, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees, and it began to snow. I made it home, barely... and only thanks to a good trail. I was covered in snow, my clothes were frozen and I had frostbite. I learned THREE lessons that day: 1) Check the weather forecast. 2) Carry some form of heat and/or insulation - a lighter or emergency blanket would have been a very good idea. 3) Avoid water when it is cold. I should add to be careful of steep bank, but I still slip and fall all the time.

The next lesson came just 2-3 years later, on an otherwise very nice weekend of fishing in north Georgia. My friend and I were catching nice catfish, 5lbs average, from a small lake. It was late summer. The woods were lush. The smell of fried fish filled the air... paradise! Little did I know that I had wandered into a nest (not sure if that is the right term) of chiggers/red bugs. There was no feeling of being bitten and the bites did not show up until late at night. By morning, it was very evident that I was covered in hundreds of bites! I took Benadryl for the itching and had a very disturbed night of sleep. By morning, many bites were showing signs of infection and I was running a high fever. Fortunately, I was only a few miles from town and not alone. A local doctor gave me a shot of antibiotics and some hydrocortisone for the itching, so I was okay.... except for passing out in the doctor's office... as I was twice his size, that was an issue for him!

I probably should add the story of when I got lost in a cave, without a flashlight.... or the time I followed some noises and wandered up on a bear.... but the only moral of those stories is a warning against stupidity... there is no cure for stupidity.

So, before going out, know your environment. Know the terrain. Know the weather forecast. Take emergency supplies for heat, insulation, shelter and food. Take a first aid kit. Know how to disinfect a would or apply a splint. You should probably take your phone (I don't, but the risk is outweighed by the peace for me). Know what bugs, spiders, snakes and dangerous animals are in the area. Take a knife and a gun. Always take antihistamines and any medicines you may need for your particular allergies or medical conditions - they can save your life! Take a map and a compass... and know how to use them (many people don't, these days). A bit of cordage and a lighter, a can of sterno, a metal cup, some iodine tablets and a rain poncho are always a good idea. And, if possible, always tell another person where you will be and set a time to check in. If you don't know the basics of safety in the woods, read an old Boy Scout manual, and learn how to use the info... otherwise, don't go.

Always, always, always look before you step or place your hand anywhere. I have come very close to stepping on copperheads and even rattlesnakes... but haven't, because I look first. Generally speaking, land snakes are rarely aggressive - don't threaten them and they will usually leave you alone. Water snakes, such as water moccasins/cotton mouths can be very aggressive... so can gators, of course. I lived for several years, as a kid, in the eastern swamps... my advice is that if you are unfamiliar with gator/snake country, don't go in or near the water. I won't give more advice than that, because a gators and poisonous snakes can and do kill. I don't live where animals such as crazed wolverines or charging moose are an issue - if you do, you need to learn how to avoid such things. Where I live, bears and wild hogs are probably the most dangerous animals that can actually kill you, but they would usually rather be left alone... I suppose a pack of coyotes or the occasional mountain lion could be an issue... but other than coyotes, I've never had any problems. If you find yourself surrounded by a pack of coyotes on a trail at sunset or dark, do not run... walk deliberately out of danger and shoot at any coyote that comes near... be frugal with your bullets... they are relentless. Again, don't go out without a gun. Avoid animals that act strangely - they may be sick; do not try to help them.... rabies is serious.

Next comes the topic of poisonous plants. Thankfully, there are not that many poisonous plants that look like edible plants, and out of all the plants you might encounter, there are probably not that many that you will really want to eat. So, get a field guide or take classes, or find a mentor. Only eat plants you can identify. Do not eat anything unless you are sure what it is. Learn how to identify the poisonous look-a-likes if there are any. The same is true with mushrooms. A s the old saying goes, "There are old foragers and there are bold foragers, but there are not old, bold foragers." If you are not 100% positive what it is and that it is safe, don't eat it.

The next biggest threat is human. Any wilderness area may contain human hazards. There are a lot of crazy people, a lot of criminals and a lot of territorial people in this world. Whether private land or public, there may be someone lurking there. Recently, My friend Tim Roper, "The Meat Trapper" came very close to encountering a violent criminal who as camping on public land. Fortunately, he never came face to face with the man, and only discovered his semi-permanent campsite after he had been re-arrested or disappeared. There, he found evidence that the campsite's former occupant may have been a very dangerous, very disturbed person. Many of us go to the woods for peace. Some go there because they cannot find peace anywhere else. Also, on public land, there is the danger of stumbling onto illegal activity. In the Appalachian Mountains, hidden pot farms on public land are all too common. These farms may be booby-trapped with deadly or maiming devices, or guarded by armed killers. The better they are hidden, the greater the chance of a person stumbling upon them unknowingly. Sometimes, one either wanders onto private land, or onto public land that may have once been family land for someone who still considers it their own. The only answer is to know your territory, your maps and your neighbors. Carry a gun (yes, I am saying it again)… keep your eyes and ears open.... avoid conflict if possible; stand your ground only when necessary.

The last issue is one I mentioned in the first paragraph... the law. Although I have a great deal of respect for law enforcement, I have to admit that many laws regarding foraging, hunting, fishing and trapping are not fair or applied equitably in all cases. Laws are written to discourage and/or prevent people from taking food from the wild. Sometimes, such laws make sense and prevent duck or deer populations from being wiped out... numbers are regulated. Others make sure people know how to hunt safely. Those are reasonable. But some, are very unclear and arbitrary. There are men and women who are paid to enforce those laws.... their job is not really to enforce those laws by ensuring that they are followed by an educated public... if it was, they would give you a warning and explain what is permissible and not. No, their job is to catch you doing something wrong and punish you. It does not matter if you knew you were doing something wrong. Often times, they will set up circumstances that encourage people to break the law, so they can ticket or arrest them. And yes, it does matter who you are.... frankly, an officer alone in the woods has a lot of discretion. Sure, maybe he is Dudley DoRight… but, often times, a relative, politically connected person, neighbor or former school-mate may not be treated the same as a stranger. That is just human nature.

Recently, I was at the coast gathering oysters and clams. Now, before I went, I got all necessary licenses, read the code of law/regs and even talked with the governing agency on the phone to find out what areas were open. The lady I spoke with told me the open areas and said I should sign up for "proclamations" by email to find out if any were to become closed while I was there. As I was gathering near a wilderness area, she assured me that I didn't need to worry too much about closings. The regs stated that all shellfish had to be 3 inches across or larger. So, I was set.... or so I thought. On my 5th day, I was harvesting at low tied. I noticed a boat a few hundred yards away just kind of hanging out. I had a bushel of lovely big oysters and clams the size of baseballs... a couple of hours hard work... and was really struggling to carry them to the parking area. As I neared the parking area, after all that work of getting there, the boat came up and a Marine Patrol officer accosted me. He informed me that they had just temporarily closed that shellfish bed that morning, for no apparent reason. They had not put up any signs or marked it. I didn't get any emails about "proclamations" but, if I had checked their website that morning, I would have seen it. The closure went into effect at 7am... and there was a short grace period... but he sat and watched me gather shellfish until that grace period had past, rather than warn or inform me. He took all my nice shellfish, to "dispose of them". That translate as to eat or give them to a cousin who sells them. He held me in custody for about two hours, and gave me a ticket. I was supposed to have a $35 ticket with $180 in court costs.... but he wrote a total of $255.... I'm sure that was an honest mistake... yeah, right.


  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,395 admin

    @judsoncarroll4 Great info! I'm sure most of us here on TGN are good responsible foragers but your cautions are well taken even for experienced foragers. Too bad we couldn't educate the remainder of the population that has little to no awareness of the hazards and pitfalls of foraging. I have a feeling that rural and wilderness spaces might become congested with these individuals this year, looking for more open spaces to social distance as opposed to the more populated parks and trails that they might otherwise visit. I am thinking of this in my position as a first responder and what I might get called out to attend.

    Your list of emergency supplies that everyone should be carrying is a good one. Learn how to use the supplies you are taking with you. Take a first aid course or a wilderness survival course if you are going out for the first time. First timers should go with an experienced forager. If you haven't told someone where you are going, at the very least leave a note at home or in your vehicle. For those of you who may be resistant to guns, @judsoncarroll4 is not repeating himself too much on this subject. If you are going into the wilderness, particularly alone, carry a gun. (I use a "Defender", a short barrelled 12 gauge shotgun with slugs) Especially in areas where berries are prolific. I would take more than one knife. GPS units are great but I also prefer a map and compass. You might only be going out for a few hours but that could turn into many hours or days so be prepared for all eventualities.

    Included in the know your environment should be the caution that not all wilderness areas are pristine. In some areas human workings can be quickly overtaken by Mother Nature and things may look wild and natural but contaminants may linger in the soil. Don't forget to be aware of any areas that might have effluent pipes emptying into waterways upstream of where you are harvesting.

    I know that there may be temporary closures of fisheries here on the west coast as well that need to be verified the day you go out. And there are intermittent red tide closures (algae blooms) to be aware of when harvesting shellfish. Checking the fisheries website for your area daily is the best idea.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin
    edited May 2020

    @torey I think the people where you live may be more hardy than where I live. This is where people call 911 if McDonald's runs out of chicken "nuggets". I can only wish more people would go tot he woods rather than Walmart! Basically, dog parks and golf courses are all that get used here.... the rest is just off limits for no apparent reason. There is a small wilderness preserve about 30 minutes from here 5,000 acres or so. The most cars. I've ever seen int he parking lot was 4. It has become a wonderful breeding habitat for huge packs of invasive coyotes, rather than woods for hunting and foraging. "We can't let the rednecks loose in the woods"... is the way the thinking goes around here. Never mind "the rednecks" are the ones whose ancestors fought and died so the ones who look down their noses can enjoy North Carolina.... and are still the ones who join the military, the police force and who become EMTs. Well, that is a rant for another day. The Defender is quite a weapon! My old 12 gauge is always my first choice. I usually carry a little .38 in the woods, though, when I can't carry a long gun.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,395 admin


    Most of our national and provincial parks and trails are closed right now along with some city and regional parks, so we are seeing an influx of people from outside our community coming for "Sunday" drives. Some of them parking on rural side roads or logging roads to go walking, jogging, dog-walking, etc. The increased focus on the local food supply and the foraging websites and programs online are going to increase that in my area. I live on a very popular berry road. Depending on financial situations for some people, we might see an increase in firewood harvesting, too. Lots of cautions to go along with that for first timers and the more experienced alike, but that could be for another thread.

    Too bad about the coyotes taking over the preserve and that more people don't use it for recreation and/or foraging. This is such a stressful time for some who are or have been in quarantine, you'd think they'd be anxious to get out into such a great natural area.

    We are not allowed to carry hand guns in Canada unless we have a "Dangerous Use" permit, which is available to loggers, timber cruisers, miners, surveyors, ranchers or anyone else that has a job that takes them into bear or cougar habitat. They are much more convenient (and lighter) to carry than a long gun. I have a pistol grip for my Defender which makes it a bit lighter to carry and it is usually in a back holster. But I prefer to go picking with someone else (and they can carry it). Two sets of ears and eyes are much better, not to mention safer, if there is some sort of accident or incident.

  • seeker.nancy - Central Texas
    seeker.nancy - Central Texas Posts: 795 ✭✭✭✭

    Great information @judsoncarroll4 and @torey! You'all have covered a lot of material, and a lot of things that most people living today have no clue about. Thank you'all for sharing all this. It takes time to write out these thoughtful posts and know that we appreciate it!

  • csinclair461
    csinclair461 Posts: 159 ✭✭✭

    Thank you for sharing this. I grew up hiking trails, and always went with others. A lot can still happen on a trail, but it is easier to get lulled into feeling like you will be ok on a short hike when you have been ok so many times before.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin

    A short hike with my dog was when I was surrounded by a pack of coyotes... they were like a swarm of hornets!

  • Voodoo Flóra
    Voodoo Flóra Posts: 258 ✭✭✭

    @judsoncarroll4 thank you for the comprehensive info. Just a brief comment on unfair fines / fees. Many times the clowntards who hand these out have no way to legally collect on the payment they demand. If you don't pay they may try to take away your birthday or so...well good luck! Anyhow, I've done a passive resistance nonpayment in many cases and never had a successful collection against me. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and experience.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin

    Well, I have to ask how that works! Granted, I had a very dear Appalachian friend who told a collection agent, "I hav never done business with you and I don't owe you a damn thing... I'll blow a hole through you a foot wide with my shotgun if I ever see you on my property".... but, that did not stop the cops from serving warrants. What am I missing?

  • Voodoo Flóra
    Voodoo Flóra Posts: 258 ✭✭✭
    edited May 2020

    @judsoncarroll4 I'm all for the shotgun approach but only to defend family home your life. Otherwise passive resistance suffices quite well. The statists are a bunch of clowntards for the most part. I have roots run deep to Appalachia. Respect. Thanks for sharing!

  • probinson50
    probinson50 Posts: 49 ✭✭✭

    Now that I live beside a state forest and own 17 acres of wooded property, I find myself wanted to pick and taste from nature as I hike. Even as a Master Gardner and Certified Master Naturalist, I am very cautious of "new" finds and do careful research and consult with others to ID plants I am not familiar with. Fun learning!

  • stephanie447
    stephanie447 Posts: 404 ✭✭✭

    Thanks for sharing all this great info! After reading this, I think I will stay home and garden. LOL

  • KimWilson
    KimWilson Posts: 197 ✭✭✭

    One of my favorite medical botanicals looks A LOT like hemlock. It pays to be very careful while foraging or wildcrafting

  • Linda Bittle
    Linda Bittle Posts: 1,469 ✭✭✭✭✭

    If you are in North America, I highly recommend this book to learn your plant families. Study the ones that will kill you or make you ill first. Then study the edible and medicinal ones. Note that some families - like the carrot family - contain deadly poisonous ones as well as edible ones.

    Don't ever eat something you are not 100% sure is edible, and then be aware of allergies. Start with the safe ones, and try to find an expert in your area to show you what's what.

    Also available at all your usual book dealers. The "in a day" part is sort of tongue in cheek.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,282 admin

    It is good. I did a 7 month study of the book, with the flash cards.