Four miles down a lumpy dirt road slithering past Bogus Basin's Nordic Center, Ray Vizgirdas and a team of teenage campers traipse through mountain terrain learning basic survival skills. A biologist, college professor, author and naturalist, Vizgirdas has teamed up with Fort Boise to help out at this inaugural week-long mountain discovery day camp. For Vizgirdas, who teaches mountain ecology and survival classes at Boise State and regularly conducts all-ages edible plant walking tours, his goal is to debunk the Man vs. Wild hysteria that has swept the country. Vizgirdas' advice if you find yourself in a survivalist situation: Calm down, stop wasting calories and learn to be symbiotic with your surroundings.
What's the breakdown of the camp?
It's a week long, and they meet down at Fort Boise early. We come back every day except for Thursday around 4 p.m. We're using maps and compasses right now, then I'll probably interject some primitive ways of finding out where you are--utilizing sun and shadow and those types of things. We just try to keep it fun and entertaining. Not too technical, not too boring. Things that they can take home with them--basic skills.
So it's like a kid's adventure book?
No, it's more of a discovery on their part. But rather than hammering in threats and everything else, it should be an unplanned vacation out here. It should be an enjoyable time outdoors. Don't look at it as being full of monsters.
So, the kids build their own shelters and spend the night Thursday evening?
Yeah. In fact, there's an example shelter I've got back there [points to wooded area] because I teach wilderness survival courses out at Boise State every semester. And during the fall, we build these types of shelters ... to spend the night in, just to give them a sense of place so that they feel comfortable. Then in the wintertime, we build snow shelters down by the Nordic Center. In fact, we have a whole little area [where] we build a city with igloos and trenches.
What's your background?
Well, I'm a biologist by training and a naturalist at heart. I bring what I know about the natural world and approach wilderness survival, if you will, in a more positive connotation than negative. What you read in the papers is that survival is man against nature. But actually, it's kind of an opportunity or vehicle that I use to explore nature. Since I'm a botanist and ecologist and wildlife biologist all rolled up into one, it's kind of nice to walk amongst friends instead of looking at things as the enemy ... When you go back in time, the aboriginal people, the hunter-gatherers, they looked to this as their marketplace--all the raw materials are here. Anything from basketry to rope-making to food to medicine.
What are some edible plant species that are particularly interesting or cool?
Yesterday, we began with something called stonecrop, which is a very succulent little plant. It's very juicy with lots of water. You get water and vitamins and minerals at the same time. If we were to go for a walk, you'd probably log in over 50 plants ... But again, it's not ... already processed, you have to make some efforts.
What are other valuable plants out here?
If you compare it to a salad bar ... you go to a salad bar and you're looking at empty calories ... Where as one of these wild lettuces out here, they're small and they're packed with nutrients ... You see that nice white flower over there? That's called Solomon's seal. It produces berries. You want to be careful with those berries: They are edible, but they don't taste very good. If you eat too many--we call them scooter berries--you scoot off to the bathroom. However, there's the plant's underground stem, which is edible. But, the thing is, you have to prepare them in a certain way. You have to literally soak them in lye ... When you mix water and white ash together, you have a caustic solution, which renders that plant edible. It's like [natural foods author] Euell Gibbons used to say, "The range of tastes out here go from barely palatable to awful, but then there are exceptions at either end or in-between."
Is there any rule of thumb you should operate by when eating wild plants?
There are a number of books out there that'll ask you to follow an edibility test. You take a small piece, you touch it to your lips, if it doesn't burn you, then go ahead and put it in your mouth, chew on it, spit it out and so forth. It could take like eight hours ... The unfortunate thing is, there are plants further down along the Boise River--one in particular that is called water hemlock is the most violently poisonous plant in North America. Ingestion of a small, pea-sized part of the plant could kill you within a half hour ... And supposedly, this plant tastes sweet, so you would not know if you applied that other test.
Generally, the focus should be placed on the passing down of knowledge?
The best way, of course, is learning to identify plants on your own. Reading up about them ... But going with someone who's knowledgeable about plants is probably one of the better ways. Even out here, I've offered the various plants because I know they're absolutely safe.
You and your wife write books on edible plant species together?
She takes credit for the illustrations, and we both take credit for the writing ... She's a botanist with the [Boise National] Forest, and basically, it's just something to do. She kicked and screamed when I asked her to do illustrations, but now she utilizes that experience and she's teaching art--botanical illustration classes.
How many books have you written?
We've done a total of eight in the last eight years. Three of them are in various forms of review at publishers ... One book is part of my own research--looking at plants and seeing how they contribute to human health and survival. I talk about ... how our diets today are totally out of sync with our genetic makeup ... I look back to wild plants and how the Omega 3's, various roughage and other nutrients that we so vitally need, we really don't get from our current diet. We get hypertension; we have high cholesterol and diabetes. Some of this goes back to the diet. Refined sugars and things like that. When you look at the wild stuff, it has lots of things to offer you.
So has that changed your diet as a whole?
Yeah, I'm forced to think that way. But on occasion, I will indulge. You sometimes get the yearning for a greasy burger, which is fine.