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Patrick Connolly: Can I eat this? 22 miles on the Florida Trail with no packed food.

ORLANDO, Fla. — A typical hiking or camping checklist includes several basics: food, water, shelter, a sleeping system, reliable footwear and perhaps a small first-aid kit.

Imagine ditching all of the food and most of the water, two absolute essentials for human survival.

That was the plan — to forego the food and forage instead, filtering water as we went along part of the Florida Trail through Ocala National Forest. My hiking partner and I had packed a small amount of oil and seasoning to aid in cooking. My one cheat item was coffee, something that has no real caloric value but I require (as every caffeine addict does) every morning for basic human function.

I only had the confidence to even consider such a daring excursion because of my company, Mike Grace, who turns to wild foraging and mushroom hunting as a source to supplement what he can grow or buy at the store. He’s a member of the Florida Native Plant Society and a permaculturist who loves spending time with plants. I was largely relying on my hiking buddy’s expertise to know what was edible and what to stay away from.

The plan was to spend two days and two nights out there, and though our experience was cut a bit short (more on that later), we largely succeeded in what we set out to do.

A Sunny Start

We departed Juniper Springs Recreation Area on a sunny spring morning, but not before we made sure our bags were clear of any edibles (besides my coffee and our cooking supplies, of course). I found a stowaway sleeve of energy chews in my backpack, which I tossed into Mike’s truck without a second thought.

As we set off heading north on the Florida Trail, my companion carefully scanned the ground for edibles and I often forgot that we had a secondary objective besides hiking — feeding ourselves.

Not even a mile into the trail, we stumbled upon a prickly pear cactus and knelt down to harvest several of its pads, trying to dodge its tiny spines that threatened to poke and prod our skin.

It’s worth noting that no plants were seriously harmed in the making of this adventure. Everything we ate was sustainably harvested in such a way that would encourage future growth and replenish what we took.

Mike was also quick to point out smilax, a vine with heart-shaped leaves that loosely resembles the taste and texture of asparagus. A little further up, we stopped to investigate a sweet bay magnolia tree and harvested a few of its leaves for cooking.

It was at this moment we realized ticks might be our worst enemy on this excursion, presenting perhaps an even more formidable foe than hunger. Mike plucked several of the crawling, bloodsucking parasites off him while I thoroughly checked myself. My clothes were treated with permethrin to ward off the critters, but I still kept a watchful eye on them.

Forging Ahead

During a stop at Hidden Pond, which would have made a great lunch stop (if we had lunch), we took a dip into the clear waters and refilled our bottles, using filters to remove impurities. The temperature wasn’t scorching, but the sun was out and it was warm enough to warrant a swim. I sort of wished I had a granola bar.

On we went, enjoying the scenery and keeping an eye out for food. Mike was hoping to find mushrooms but conditions in the prairie and pine scrub habitats were dry and not conducive to finding any edible fungi. At least not until we had a stroke of luck later in the afternoon.

My eyes caught a glimpse of something odd nestled in the trunk of a fallen tree. As I pointed it out to Mike, he fell to his knees in exaltation. It was a Boletus edulis mushroom, something my friend called a “choice edible.”

Before long, we set up camp on the edge of Hopkins Prairie as daylight was just beginning to wane.

After setting up both of our hammocks and bug nets, we got to work on removing spines from the prickly pear cactus pads using our knives. I was trying to remove only the parts of the plant we couldn’t eat and save the rest, but it proved tricky.

“C’mon man, that was like 10 calories right there,” Mike quipped as bits of prickly pear cactus fell into the dirt. There went a little part of our dinner.

As the ingredients sat together in a bowl and we got ready to cook over a small camp stove, I was ravenous and almost drooling with anticipation.

But this was also the moment I knew our experiment could work. Seeing the mushrooms crisp to a charred golden brown made my eyes wide; my ears perked up while listening to the satisfying sizzle of prickly pear cactus becoming tender.

We doled out portions, being mindful to split our small feast exactly in half, and I savored every bite of my dinner. The prickly pear was tender and carried the likeness of well-cooked bell peppers, while the smilax had the crunchy and almost woody texture of asparagus. The mushrooms were delectable with a crisp-cooked exterior and meaty inside. Without them, the meal would not have been complete.

This excursion felt daunting, bold and sometimes nerve-wracking, but at least I wasn’t going to bed hungry.

Seeking Sustenance

I awoke before the sun when I heard Mike rustling around. Or rather I had been up for some time, trying to fall back asleep but distracted by the sounds of mosquitoes buzzing in my ear as they landed on the other side of my bug net.

“Hey man, it’s 6 a.m. and the ticks are getting to me really bad. What do you say we hike out today?” he asked.

The combination of bloodsucking parasites, who had grown quite “attached” to my hiking partner, and mosquitoes made the camping experience less than desirable. That, combined with the lack of food we found on our trip, was enough to make us want to get off trail early. So we packed up and began hiking pre-dawn.

By the standards of a typical American meal (size large), we had a pretty light dinner. But the hunger hadn’t kicked in yet, and our foraged food had proven sufficient to get me through the night and into the morning.

Mike was even lucky enough to enjoy a small meal as we started our day.

“I just got breakfast, a bug flew right down my throat,” he joked.

After a few miles of hiking, as my body burned more calories than it had stored, my mind began to wander.

“I’m thinking about what’s in my fridge right now,” I announced, remembering that my fridge was at least an hour’s drive away.

We passed bush after bush of unripe blueberries, my eyes playing tricks on me. I saw dark leaves that resembled ripe berries and felt disappointed time after time. Mike and I thought we might dub our experience the “Blueberry Mirage.”

Within a few miles of finishing our excursion, we found just a few blue morsels ready for eating, and they were just enough to give me the final boost I needed.

I first heard something that sounded vaguely like buzzing bees, until I realized that it was in fact road noise filtering through the trees — our first sign of returning to civilization.

I’ve never been so happy to see cars, restaurants, gas stations and everything else we were away from for only about 24 hours.

Back to Abundance

A giant wave of relief crashed over me as we had Odd Todd’s Tacos within our sights, right across from Salt Springs where we had staged a car. The kind woman running the roadside food truck called for her son, who was out back mowing the lawn, to come and take our order.

The other pair of diners may have given us some side-eye when seeing our grisly appearance (or perhaps it was Mike’s machete), but we were beyond the point of caring.

In short order, we had an appetizer of chips and guac, which was slightly brown in appearance but tasted fine. After all, we had been eating leaves and twigs for the past day. As I sipped on my oh-so-refreshing mandarin Jarritos soda, the main course arrived.

A giant burrito filled with rice, beans, and beef brisket materialized in front of me. Mike got to work on his veggie tacos while I happily devoured my huge lunch. Perhaps my stomach had shrunken a little bit, so I only had room for half and happily brought the leftovers home with me.

A week in the wilderness with no packed food might be enough to fundamentally change me; one day and night wasn’t. Still, I left the woods with a greater appreciation for food and where it comes from, and a sense of gratitude for the cozy life we live.

No longer do we have to hunt and forage food; abundance is all around us. But far from Publix and Walmart, there are much more primitive ways of finding nutrients and surviving. It’d be hard to make it living like that full-time in this day and age, but foraging food makes for a worthwhile and educational experience.


For more foraging know-how, turn to the expertise of Peggy Sias Lantz, a Florida Master Naturalist and author:

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This story was originally published May 26, 2022 5:30 AM.

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