The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is often imagined to be a brute existence - with our ancestors suffering and working all the time just to get a meager meal here and there. Yet anthropologists have found just the opposite, that hunter-gatherer peoples often work only two or three hours a day for subsistence and a little more to meet their other needs, unlike modern Americans, who typically work a forty hour week at a job, and another forty hours cooking meals, cleaning, doing yard work, and figuring their taxes. That's the crux of it, really. Hunter-gatherers were not overly efficient. They just lived in a world where real estate was free, a home consisted of a quickly assembled shelter of sticks and bark, and they didn't have a big stack of bills to pay for things like taxes, insurance, car payments, gasoline, electricity, telephone, cable television, or internet. All they had to do was to travel from meal to meal as certain plant and animal crops came into season. And that's exactly what we set out to do with our third annual carp-hunting trip on the Upper Missouri.
We started our trip at Lower Toston Dam Recreation Area, about twenty miles downstream from the headwaters of the mighty Missouri River. I have floated that upper section before, and I have floated on down from the town of Toston as well, but never this five-mile stretch of river between the dam and the town of Toston. I would love to someday float the entire Missouri River, even if it means doing it one piece at a time.
We began the trip with eleven people and five canoes, including myself and my boys, Donny and Edwin, as well as friends-interns-instructors, Nick, Grant, and Kris, plus a pack of Donny's teenage friends, including Matt, Sierra, Alicia, Karissa, and her boyfriend, Glen.
I was excited to have all the teenagers along. In fact, it was a dream come true. As a father, I always felt that I had some pretty unique and special skills to share with my own kids, and I dreamed of having a pack of neighborhood kids to share them with. I would much rather see kids active outside and excited about nature, than surfing the internet or playing video games. So I was thrilled that Donny wanted to invite a bunch of his friends along.
For the most part, the upper Missouri is a placid river, even during normal spring runoff. However, the first few miles below the dam were swift and turbulent. We put our most experienced paddlers in the back, where ninety percent of the steering happens on a canoe, and largely kept that arrangement for the duration of the trip. Donny had both Sierra and Alicia in his canoe. They were by far the loudest, most raucous group, but it sure sounded like they were having fun!
With the swiftness of the water, we quickly swept downstream to Toston, dodging scattered raindrops along the way. Always the concerned parent, I was glad to get everyone through the rapids without incident. We took refuge from the rain under the highway bridge and snacked on bagels, cream cheese, carrots, and apples. Although not wild, the cream cheese, and many of our other provisions were foraged in the hunter-gatherer spirit. One evening, a couple days before the trip, we made the three-hour drive to Missoula to pick up Karissa and Glen, and we all went dumpster diving on the way home, hitting up several grocery stores along the way. We arrived home after midnight with all kinds of goodies, such as cinnamon rolls, sandwiches, a chocolate cake, milk, eggs, yogurt, a few vegetables, a bunch of Pillsbury pop-up rolls, a cherry cheesecake, and eight one-pound packages of cream cheese. It was a nice way to start a foraging adventure, especially when I would otherwise have to buy groceries to feed all the hungry teenagers!
Paddling on down the river, we transitioned into exploring, hunting, and foraging mode, frequently stopping along the way to look around. I found one spear of wild asparagus, and we skinned a number of musk thistles (Carduus nutans), savoring the fresh "wild celery" stalks. I also harvested a big pile of orache (Atriplex hortensis) and goosefoot greens (Chenopodium album) for a salad. I didn't string my bow, however, because I don't have a reel to retrieve an arrow and a carp (Cyprinus carpio) if I should hit one, so I have to be very choosy about where I hunt. But Matt brought a modern bow, equipped with a fishing arrow and reel. Paddling with Grant, they saw a carp along the bank, Grant swung the canoe around, and Matt took the shot. VoilÔø‡! They brought in the first carp for the tribe. It was time to make camp. We stopped on a small island, covered with a nice sheltering grove of junipers.
I love camping in junipers. One good tree can be about as effective as any shelter built out of sticks and bark, and certainly as good as a tent. On a true survival trip, we would have ducked under some tight junipers near the middle of the grove. But for this trip, we had several tarps and one tent between us. We strung up a large tarp between some junipers to make a communal kitchen area and had several individual camps strung out around the island. We started a fire with the bow and drill, then spent the evening cooking and eating. The salad was delicious. The kids fried the Pillsbury pop-up rolls in oil. It takes some imagination and faith to consider them food, but I ate some anyway. We cooked the carp right on the hot coals and picked it apart like vultures.
It is exciting to be out in nature this time of year, when the world is fresh, green, and new, and there are babies popping out everywhere, but that is also the biggest problem with being out here this time of year. There are bird nests everywhere, seemingly in every bush and tree and underfoot. I love to take a quick peek and a picture when I see a bird dart out of its nest. But I also worry that the birds might not come back, or that a magpie might see the disturbance and rob the nest, or that I might step on a ground-dwelling bird nest without ever knowing it was there. But perhaps the most emotionally wrenching problem is the newborn fawns. They are everywhere this time of year.
We discovered two of them on the island, hours after we scared the does away, and one of them was only about twenty-five feet from our kitchen. By far, the best thing to do with a fawn is to leave it alone. Any involvement whatsoever is virtually guaranteed to spell disaster for the young deer. And I have been amazed at the ability of a fawn and its mother to slip right out from underneath our noses after an encounter like this. But this time, the fawn had already been picked up and held before I walked into camp. It seemed somewhat emaciated, as if it had already been abandoned by its mother. Having now touched it, we discussed the best possible options for disentangling ourselves from the situation, including possibly leaving it near another fawn we had stumbled into nearby. It is not unusual for deer to have twins, so they may be siblings. But before I knew what was going on, one of the kids ran out and grabbed the other fawn and hauled it back into camp, doubling our problem. We finally placed them near each other, back where the second fawn was found, and I suspect that they both probably died in the end. This wasn't exactly what I had in mind for connecting with nature!
Turbulent weather threatened to send a storm sweeping across our little island, but never did. Shifting breezes and spitting rains were all we had. We slept well, cooked up a big pot of oatmeal in the morning, packed up camp, and continued our journey down river. We had a lazy day, foraging and exploring along the river. There were some monster thistles along the way, and I was pretty thrilled that the kids eagerly took to skinning their own.
Nick and Matt paired up in one canoe for the day, both intent on shooting carp along the way. They paddled into one shallow backwater while the rest of us waited and waited on a little gravel bar in the middle of the river. I'm not sure why we didn't just paddle back there ourselves to check it out, as I really wanted to and would have loved hunting carp in the shallows myself. But we eventually paddled on downstream, and when the hunters arrived, they brought four nice big carp with them. We made camp early in the evening, on a little chunk of public land just upstream from the town of Townsend.
Matt, Sierra, and Alicia spent hours chasing carp in a shallow, muddy pond cut off from the river. They weren't hunting them, just trying to catch one by hand or sit on one as the slippery fish darted around, almost completely obscured by the muddy water. Kris and Donny practiced the shot put, or rather the big rock toss, seeing how far they could heave a heavy rock. Nick started a fire with the bowdrill, and we all spent hours cooking around the fire. Sierra and Alicia picked a nice mess of plantain leaves and batter-fried them to make delicious plantain crisps. Nick filleted a carp and batter-fried the fish fillets, which were delicious. We also sliced, diced, and fried a big batch of dumpster potatoes, to round out the world's greasiest meal.
Strangely, in all my forty-four years, I've never filleted a fish before. I grew up on pan-sized brook trout, occasionally supplemented by a larger rainbow, brown, or lake trout. Brook trout were too small to fillet, while the others were too prized to waste any meat that might be left on the bone. So, I never learned to fillet a fish, never watched it done, and hadn't thought to try it on my previous carp hunting escapades. We merely gutted the monster carp, cooked them on the coals, and picked them clean until we could eat no more. While delicious, it took a long time to cook the carp that way, and we seemed to reach our saturation point fairly quickly, letting a lot of good meat go to waste.
Filleting the carp transformed a good fish into a great fish, enabling many more culinary options. I spent a good half hour filleting my first carp, taking time to carefully skin and explore with the knife, neatly trimming out the fillet. But I so enjoyed the process and the product that I eagerly took to filleting fish throughout the trip and ate more carp than ever.
The crazy thing about eating carp is that most people won't. Americans typically disdain carp as unfit for human consumption, much like eating rats or mice. But hey, we eat those, too, so it wasn't difficult to transition into eating carp, and by comparison, I would take a carp over a mouse or a rat any day! Maybe that doesn't seem like much of an endorsement, but I truly do like the taste of carp.
The American disdain for carp is hard to fathom, since the meat is delicious, and carp are widely esteemed in other parts of the world. Europeans consider carp a good sport fish and a delicious dish, often incorporated into special celebratory events, such as Christmas Eve dinner. Carp are also raised as food through aquaculture, with global production exceeding three million tons per year. In fact, the fish was originally introduced to North American waters by the government as a food fish. But, carp have been so effectively denigrated as "invasive bottom feeders" that few people still go looking for carp, and fewer still even try eating them. The irony is that millions of dollars are now spent trying to eradicate carp, or at least control their population, which could be much more effectively accomplished if anglers were enticed to catch and eat the fish.
Through many years of wilderness survival adventures, I have intermittently encountered carp spawning in the shallow, warm waters of rivers from Montana to Arizona, and successfully caught some now and then. But I never considered carp as a reliable food source until I heard about the Montana Bowhunter's Association annual Carp Safari, held each June at Canyon Ferry Reservoir, near Helena, Montana.
Until then I had only caught carp by hand, or by jumping right on top of them and heaving the squirming fish onto the bank before they could get away. Cooked fresh over the campfire, I thought it was an amazing, delicious, and surprisingly oily fish, which is a favorable quality in wilderness survival. So, I went to the Carp Safari in 2009 to learn more about it.
All that is required to hunt carp in Montana is a bow and arrow (preferably with a reel), and a fishing license. Bowhunters register for the event then fan out across the lake for the day, competing to see who can bring back the biggest or the mostest carp. At the end of the day, they check in, count and weigh their fish, and discard them all in a great big construction dumpster. Depending on the conditions each year, the collective bowhunters may fill the dumpster anywhere from one-fourth to nearly full. The carp are considered a nuisance in the lake, and the Carp Safari is intended to help deal with the carp "problem," yet the population is so extensive that the effort is more symbolic than substantive. In the attempt to not completely waste the resource, the MBA seeks partnerships with ranchers that might willingly compost a dumpster full of rotting carp.
Kris and I showed up at the Carp Safari with a couple coolers and a bunch of ice, begging the bowhunters to donate their carp to us, rather than heaving them in the dumpster. Most just looked at us as if we were utterly subhuman, but a few people did give us their carp, which we took home, gutted, and froze. Unfortunately, carp doesn't freeze well, turning to mush when it is thawed and cooked. It was quite the disappointment, especially knowing from experience how delicious fresh cooked carp can be.
Nevertheless, we did learn that the carp start spawning in the shallow reeds around the lake and up the river when the water warms up to sixty degrees in the spring, and that's what led to our own annual carp hunting safari, starting in 2010. We had to work at it that first year, mostly because our primitive bows and arrows don't enable carp hunting in deep water. But we ultimately caught more carp than we could eat, and we were not overly disappointed when the seagulls stole the rest of our fish that were being stored at the water's edge. Our second year was much less productive, due to the massive floods of 2011, but we were glad to get another chance this year. We looked forward to the challenge of bowhunting a good supply of carp.
The skies cleared as we finished our greasy, fried dinner, and settled in for the night. We didn't set up the big tarp, but Edwin and I rolled out our sleeping bags under the shelter of a dense golden currant bush for protection from the dew. In the morning, we awoke, cooked a big breakfast of hot cereal, and paddled the last few miles down the Missouri into Canyon Ferry Reservoir. It was immediately obvious that we could easily get all the carp we could ever hope for, and far more than we could reasonably use!
There were literally thousands of carp milling about in the shallow waters, willows, and reeds along the lakeshore. With the early spring runoff this year, the reservoir was several feet higher than it would normally be by the beginning of June, flooding the mudflats with just enough water to turn it into Carp Mecca. It was every hunter-gatherers greatest dream. We were practically tripping over them as we waded around in the shallow waters! The carp probably congregate like that every year, but we come a little too early in order to avoid the mosquito hatch.
Hunter-gatherer bands often congregated to similar events, coming together at a central point and time to take advantage of an inexhaustible food supply. It would have been a time for celebration, feasting, and an opportunity to mingle and marry between bands.
The only problem with having such an abundance of carp is that it took the sport out of hunting them, much like shooting fish in a barrel. We were looking forward to the experience, yet it took only minutes to hunt down a giant carp for every person on the outing, which was far more than we could eat in a day. Like the proverbial weasel in the chicken coop, we were so blood thirsty for the hunt that it was difficult to exercise the necessary self-control to avoid killing and wasting the resource. Instead, we transitioned into playing catch and release, chasing carp and catching them by hand. The kids spent hours chasing the carp, running, screaming, laughing, and splashing around in the water. As a parent, this is exactly the kind of healthy activity I like to see young people engaged in. I am certain that drug and alcohol problems would be largely nonexistent if all kids had ample opportunity to be out in nature like this.
To deal with our surplus of meat, we set up camp and built a smoking rack out of willows. At least it was intended to be a smoking rack, but it really turned into a very slow cooker instead. The meat was thoroughly willow-smoked and cooked to perfection when we tried it in the morning. On previous trips we slathered the carp in barbeque sauce, and on this trip we had lemon pepper, but this simple, willow-smoked, slow-cooked carp was by far the best we ever had.
Nick, Karissa, and Glen all had to leave on that third afternoon of the trip, due to other commitments. So, we hauled out the extra canoe and finished the shuttle run, bringing the car down to our exit point. The rest of us hung out for a few more days in carp world, paddling around the shallows of the lake, chasing fish, playing games, and camping out. The kids spent hours with the carp, even getting down in the muddy water and swimming around with them. Still too young to pull a heavy bow, Edwin was pretty ecstatic to spear a carp on his own.
I get pretty ecstatic about the carp, too, and I find my mind churning with ideas about how to better utilize the resource: Maybe I could come up with a better smoking or drying system to preserve a supply of carp on a camping trip. Maybe I could build something at home to preserve hundreds of carp every year. Maybe I could smoke a bunch of carp and start selling it. Maybe I could entice local restaurants to try putting carp on the menu. I heard that a company once had some kind of automated system for extracting hundreds of thousands of carp down below the dam, which were apparently sold for pet food or something, and I wonder why they ever quit. But ultimately I acknowledge that I will probably never do anything on a commercial level with the carp because I am too much of a hunter-gatherer at heart. I would rather celebrate the bounty and indulge in our own little carp fest, than to turn something so fun and exciting into work and drudgery.
The one blight on the trip was Matt's eye injury. Matt brought a regular fishing pole and was playing a big carp when the line snapped. The spinner shot back and bounced off his eyeball. Although there was no visible damage on the outside of the eyeball, he temporarily lost all vision in that eye, and his iris slowly began filling up with blood as we packed up his gear and made arrangements to get him out to a doctor. Fortunately, we had just met up with my mother, and she drove him right home. From the sound of it, his cornea tore loose from the surrounding tissue, but he was able to avoid surgery. The doctor ordered him to spend about a week in a dark room and to rest for a month after that while the eye healed itself.
Matt's departure left us one man short for the canoes, which wouldn't normally be a problem, but a breeze kicked up big waves on the lake as we paddled the last five miles to our take-out point. Grant took on the challenge of paddling solo, and traversed a mile across the lake, then found it easier to simply walk the boat along the shore. The rest of us paddled in pairs through the waves and into the headwind. The waves were big for our little canoes, but not quite scary big. I liked to gently rock backwards and then forwards with the waves to subtly amplify the rise and crash of the bow as we crested each wave. It was fun to imagine that we were out bobbing around on the ocean.
We could not quite drive all the way to the water at our take-out point, so we had to carry our gear a couple blocks distance to the parking lot. Everyone pitched right in to haul the gear and load the truck and trailer. It was a great group, a great year, and I look forward to doing it all again another year.