Saturday, February 23, 2008

Eating Green

Apparently I've been poisoning myself on occasion, and not just on toxic grasshoppers. That's the problem with learning about edible plants from books, sometimes good and bad are hard to tell apart.

Luckily I and the Wethergirls were able to attend a wild edible plant tour out at Jesse H. Jones Park. It was a real eye (and mouth) opener. We munched our way through the woods guided by the park expert, Anita.

Anita the Expert, basket in hand.

Fellow Piney Woods Primitive Skills Group member "Wildcat" and his two kids were also along.
Sidenote: the tiny blue arm isn't his.

The first wild edible I learned were violets. Back in my undergraduate days I had a friend who was nuts about breeding violets. He had this big hydroponics system set up and used to talk on and on about how delicate his violets were and how the slightest change in his system would cause all his violets to die. Now, I knew violets were edible but after hearing lecture after lecture about their sensitivity from this guy I never bothered to look for them in the woods. Turns out they are all over the place!

The heart-shape leaves are violets. They are about about the size of a quarter.

Where there are violets there are quite likely also cleavers (Galium aparine). These long, semi-vine-ish type plants are very clingy and I've often left the woods with these stuck to me. I wouldn't have guessed these are edible as they are covered in fine, prickly hairs. Cooking the cleavers (sautee, steam, or boil) destroys these hairs.
Sidenote: You can stick a bunch of cleavers together to make an impromptu strainer while out in the woods.

Texan woods are filled with many types of vines ranging from small ones with diameters under 1/2" to massive wild grape vines thicker than my wrist. There's an old jungle trick for acquiring fresh water from vines. You find a thick one, reach up as high as you can and cut the vine off. Then you cut the vine away at the bottom and let its water drain into some container. Once the water stops flowing from the vine cut off the top two feet and more water will flow out. Once the flow stops again cut the next two feet off and continue in this manner until the vine has been reduced to two-foot sections. This will give a person a significant amount of fresh, drinkable water. Of course, the trick is to make sure the vine itself isn't poisonous.

At least here in Texas the easy way to tell the difference between safe and toxic vines is by the bark and also by its growing technique. Vines that cling tightly to trees as they grow are toxic while "Tarzan" vines that dangle loose from the tree are LIKELY to be safe. To confirm the dangling vines are safe you need to look at their bark. Vines with smooth skins are toxic while vines with rough bark are safe to tap for water.
Rough-barked grape vine, whose sap you can drink, and fruit/leaves you can eat.

Now, the rough/smooth-safe/toxic vine classification does not apply to greenbriar. The young, tender shoots are bitter when raw but cook up quite tasty. The greenbriar root can be cooked, then dried and pounded into a high-energy gelatine powder. It's fruit is also edible though quite chewy.

Two different greenbriar vines.

Another easily overlooked wild edible is betony. The leaves can be used to make tea but its real treasure is underground. Betony roots can produce swollen tubers that taste much like radish.

Betony tuber (spelled wrong in my notebook). Yes, it kind of looks like a maggot but tastes completely different.

Close-up of a betony plant.

A large patch of betony. Sidenote: only a few plants actually had tubers this time of year. We had to dig up a lot of the plants to find just a few tubers. Luckily Miniwether (with bag of cereal) likes to dig.

Meanwhile, mambowether is more of the supervisor type...

The wonderfully fragrent seasoningbay laurel trees are plentiful in the area. However, the almost identical and highly poisonous cherry laurel grows in the same area. Luckily it is easy to tell them apart. First, the edges leaves of the toxic cherry laurel are jagged or toothed while the edges of the bay laurel leaves are smooth. Second, crushed cherry laurel leaves smell like a mix of cherry and bitter almond (from the large amount of cyanide it contains. Crushed bay laurel leaves smell like bay leaves (think Italian cooking).

Toxic cherry laurel. Notice the fine tooths along the leaf's edge. Bay Laurel leaves are smooth-edged.

Another edible plant with a toxic mimic is wild onion. For years I've nibbled on what I thought were wild onions growing in my yard. Turns out they were the identical-looking but somewhat poisonous Crow's Poison. The only sure way to tell the difference is by smell. Wild onions smell like onions, Crow's Poison doesn't really have much of any smell. Unfortunately, my sense of smell was damaged long ago in a lab accident so I have a very hard time telling these two plants apart.

Crow's Poison.

A much safer plant is wild lettuce. This plant looks similar to dandelion but isn't quite as sharp-tasting. The leaves of wild lettuce can either be smooth-edged or somewhat toothed.
Toothed wild lettuce.

Smooth wild lettuce.

One last thing I learned, the seeds of river cane/wild bamboo are edible, not just the young shoots. Sidenote: make sure you are collecting the seeds not fungus pellets. The bamboo fungus is highly toxic but can be distinguished from the bamboo seeds by color. If the grains you collect are pink/purple you've collected the poisonous fungus. Don't eat it.

The tour ended with a lovely salad made from the plants we had harvested.
It was very tastey, fresh and crisp. The purple parts are redbud blossoms, not bad bamboo fungus.

So, of course we had to swing by McDonald's on the way home to fill ourselves up...

Happy munchers (with dirty faces).

Adventure! Excitement! Fooooood!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Return to San Jacinto River

Ah, President's Day! A day to kick back and rejoice the dead white men who've made our country what it is today.

Hmmm, methinks I need a different opening...let me try that again.

Ah, President's Day! Nothing says "Hooray for Democracy" like the uber-capitalism of department store sales! Heaven forbid an American do something unpatriotic on this day. We should spend it exchanging pictures of dead presidents for goods and services! Being a proud capitalist I did my part by paying the boat launch owner at Edgewater Park in Kingwood, TX $5 to watch Red Rider while I and my band of readers paddled the San Jacinto River nineteen miles from hwy. 242 down to hwy 59.

Back in June Clark and I paddled the San Jacinto River from Conroe down to hwy 242, just north of The Woodlands, TX. It was a wonderful trip filled with beautiful scenery, deadly water moccasins, wild pigs, deer, beavers and near-deadly thunderstorms. The original plan was to go from Conroe all the way to Kingwood, TX but low flow rates on the San Jacinto forced us to drag Seeker's Fate for about a third of the trip, slowing us down too much to go the whole 35+ miles in one day (we have a tendency to set unreasonable goals for ourselves). We've been meaning to get back to the San Jac and finish the job but life keeps getting in the way.

I'd be a bit more disappointed if my life didn't rock so much. I can handle my life getting in the way, especially if great-smelling hair is involved. Uh, but I digress, which is especially bad since Misseswether and I will be celebrating our 10-year anniversery tomorrow. Can you believe she's put up with me for that long?

Hmm, still digressing.

Sadly, Clark wasn't able to join me to finish the San Jacinto, so maybe it makes sense that Seeker's Fate was also not involved. Instead the trip was made in the company I egotistically call...
Merriwether's Men!

Sidenote: women are welcome, it's just none ever ask to come along.

More and more people have been contacting me through my blog asking for advice on possible adventures in the Houston area. My natural friendliness coupled with a complete trust in the goodwill of fellow internet users lead me to inviting said contacters to join me on my adventures. This time we had six people paddling, plus a seventh TOTALLY AWESOME reader who took time out of his day to shuttle us from the landing site back to 242 but could join us on the water. How cool is that?!

It had been raining hard for the later half of last week which meant the San Jac was filled with run-off. The rain ended Saturday afternoon but even on Monday the flow rate was over 1,700cfs. Conventional wisdom states the San Jac is paddlable between 250cfs and 10,000cfs. At Monday's flowrate the river pulled us along at around 4 miles per hour without paddling. I can only imagine what 10,000cfs would be like! Well, I can only imagine until I actually try it...

It's nineteen miles from 242 down to Edgewater Park, just past hwy. 59, so we could have made the trip in about four hours if we paddled hard, but why the hell would we want to do that? It was an absolutely perfect day on the river. As it was, we put in at 9:50am and finished at 4pm on the dot. During that time we meandered, explored, fished (but didn't catch anything), ate, and B.S.-ed our way down the river. The San Jacinto has the reputation of being a dull, boring paddle but I can't understand why. It was beautiful that day.

Where it started.

Laumch site. (sidenote:the rum I'm currently drinking seems to be kicking in)

San Jacinto at 1,700cfs.

Me in a borrowed kayak, plus a bit of Fuzzy Buster's thumb.

The rest of Fuzzy Buster.

Manly men in manly plastic boats (and one fiberglass canoe).

Not Seeker's Fate.

Maybe it's the rum, but we looking friggin cool...

Shomtimes we're closes othertimes far apart

Totally cool snadbar. We spent an hour picking up peices of petriefied wood the size of our fists. Better still was the...

Coyote skull.jpg
...coyote skeleton! I brought the skull, pelvis, and some leg bones howm with me. Misseswther loves me anyway.

I was using the one with the green bucket in back.Cool, my fingers are feeling all numbly. Good rum (tough day at work. I'm up to my eyeballs in projects, teaching, and trying to revamp the international shipping procedures. Note to working stiffs: if your boss comes to you with "an oppertunity" get ready to get screwed. Why the heck they have a chemist trying to build a database of what documents we need to ship equipment overseas is beyond me. Oh, wait. I'm a friggin (and currently rum-soaked) genius.

But I digress, and most egotistically I might add.

Lunch time in heaven.

Mmm, food on sticks!

Cliffs like those that trapped me during the thunderstorm.

A sign that the end is near: the old hwy. 59 bridge.

The San Jacinto generally has reputation as a boring, ugly paddle but for the life of me I don't understand why (and that's not just the rum typing). Sure, the water was brown but then so is all the other water around here. There were no deadfalls or other blockages to portage around. The gravel pits were all hidden behind thick trees or high banks. The sandbars were filled with all sorts of cool treasure, the banks were beautifully tree-lined, all sorts of tributaries begged to be explored... We didn't see much wildlife but we saw plenty of sign/tracks including a rather large alligator slide. There was no sign of humanity for long sections, not even trash.

I definately plan on running this section of river again and again, preferably as a multiday trip. There's just too much to explore there to do it quickly. The woods and tributaries along it call to me, as it did to the other Merriwether's Men. We are definately going back! Considering it's only eight minutes away from my house, i suspect I'll be back soon.

And now on to Merriwether's Tips:
1. Gary, the owner of Edgewater Park in Kingwood, TX is an awesome guy. We dropped our trucks off there before he arrived and so were unable to pay him until we landed that afternoon. He still guarded our trucks on just a note promising we'd pay him when we returned. Considering the number of trucks stolen from the free San Jacinto landing directly under hwy. 59 it's worth the $5 to park at Edgewater Park.

2. The quickest way between the 242 launch site and the take out at Edgewater Park is:
a. East on 242 to FM1314
b. Turn left (south) on to FM1314
c. Turn left (south) on to Sorters Rd.
d. Sorters Rd becomes Sorters-McClellan road which becomes McClellan Rd, just keep heading south.
e. Slow down as you pass Kingwood Community college. There's a cop hiding there.
f. Continue on McClellan Rd across hwy 59. Turn left 9south) on to 494.
g. You turn left again almost immediately on to Hamblen Rd.
h. Edgewater Park is down the dirt road on your left just before you get to the railroad tracks.

3. Kayaks are awesome, though much wetter than canoes.

4. If Lonestar-C comes to your house make him park out in the street by himself. That way when he leaves his keys in his kayak which his dad took back to Deer Park he won't be blocking other people's cars forcing them to wait almost two hours while his dad fights his way through rush-hour traffic to return said keys. Hey Lonestar, has your wife forgiven you yet for being so late?

Thus ends another of Merriwether's adventures. Damn, what an utterly perfect day (unless you were Lonestar-C or Dr. Zyme, who he trapped)!

Damn good rum tonight, too.

Adventure! Excitement! San Jacinto!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Brass Ring #3: Video!

Okay, here's my video demo. The sound glitch at the beginning is where I cut out me saying my real name.


Adventure! Excitement! I'm A Lion!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Brass Ring Update #2

So, I spent the morning with a video camera and a dream out at the Peckinpaugh Nature Preserve. I was back home by noon then spent the next ten hours editing ninty minutes of tape down to an eight minute, fortyone second masterpeice.

Well, maybe not a masterpeice but hopefully enough Merriwetherness to get me to the next stage of this game. Unfortunately the nation-wide cold snap is even reaching down here so the alligators were staying tucked away asleep in their burrows. Considering it's a $500 fine for disturbing an alligator in Texas, I figured I wait until I have some hotshot Hollywood lawyer backing me before I start digging gators up... But hey, give me a few days and I'll have it up on and you can see moving and talking. Won't that be cool!

Anyway, I just got back from Kinkos/FedEx. My demo DVD is now in the hands of some minimum-wage midnight flunky awaiting the plane to take it to New York. $27.43 will get it to Ms. Rapp's office by 10:30am Friday morning. After that it's just waiting.

I hate waiting unless it's someplace with a decent bar. Unfortunately, company policy forbids running a bar from ones office which seems silly since we have all that un-denatured pure alcohol sitting there in the lab. Sure, the stuff costs an absolute (ha ha) fortune and requires all sorts of paperwork, but I bet it'd make one hell of a tequila sunrise! Oh man, I could go for one of those right now, maybe with a big platter of nachos. If I get this television gig i'm definately going to try and get that written into my contract - after shooting there will be a fresh tequila sunrise and a heaping plate of nachos waiting for me in my dressing...uh, tent. Wouldn't that be the good life?

Adventure! Excitement! Airmail!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Brass Ring Updated!

Apparently y'all have made an impression on the folks at NorthSouth Productions! I received this e-mail today:

Hi Merriwether,
I've been getting quite a few emails from your supporters. If I haven't already sent this to you, please see below to be considered further:

In our host we are looking for a combination of expertise and personality. True knowledge and experience in the wild animal and outdoor fields as well as the charisma and communication skills to engage us.

To be considered further, please film yourself or have someone film you answering the following questions and send me the tape (VHS, DVD, or mini-DV formats only) by Friday, February 15, 2008. Materials will not be returned. 5-10 minutes max. Shoot outdoors if possible.

- Your name, where you live, your occupation
- Describe your expertise relating to wild animals and the outdoors.
- Describe your experience working with wild animals, specifically in the field
- If you're hiking a mountain and a lion approaches, explain what you should do. Further explain what to do if the lion attacks you.
- What is the most dangerous encounter or experience you've ever had (animal related or other)?
- This show will have you out in the wild, communicating to viewers what to do in the event of an encounter with a deadly animal. The experience will be authentic -- you really will be on location encountering wild animals. Are you willing to do that?
- If possible, show us you working with or encountering a wild animal.

Thank you,

Amy Rapp | Head of Development
NorthSouth Productions

So I basically have two days to get a demo disc together. Yikes! Thankfully, I work well under pressure. It would help if I had someone to run the camera Wednesday morning, but alas all y'all will probably be at work. As for the wild animals, I know of a gator burrow with baby alligators, maybe I can get some video of me and their mama.

I'll try and get the demo up on YouTube at some point. A friend suggested I start making survival/adventure videos for YouTube but that would eat up a lot of time. Still, the thought intriuges me...

Anyway, thanks again for all your support! Let's see how far I can ride this wave, eh?

Adventure! Excitement! Very Close Deadline!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Reaching For The Brass Ring!

The following post appeared tonight on the forum to which I belong.

NorthSouth Productions is seeking an experienced WILDLIFE EXPERT to host a new documentary-style TV series about deadly animals for a national cable network. Want an outdoorsy adventurer, with education and field experience with dangerous animals. Male, 30-50. Charismatic, attractive, smart, communicative, who's not afraid to get his hands dirty...or be up close and personal with deadly animals in the wild. The host is the expert so must be able to communicate his expertise in an engaging way.

If you are up to the challenge or know anyone else who might be, please email your photo and bio to by Monday, February 11th, 2008 to be considered. No phone calls please. We will be in touch.

Thank you,
Tay McEvers
NorthSouth Productions

Dudes and dudettes, this is my shot at the big time (though it could also by my shot at becoming lion lunch)! I humbly ask you to e-mail before Monday, Feb 11th and politely suggest that they give me a screen test. Including your favorite quotes or adventures from this blog might help.

Wow. Can you imagine...?

Adventure! Excitement! Cable!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Survival: A Primer

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
-Charles Darwin

Be Prepared
-Scout Motto

Contrary to some of my posts, survival is very, very important to me. When I head out on an adventure I really want to return (eventually) to Misseswether and the Wethergirls. This instinct for survival plays a role in my everyday life, not just on adventures. Living in Houston there are definate threats (hurricanes, flooding, chemical plant toxin release, etc) that one needs to be aware of and prepared for. When Hurricane Rita was heading straight for Houston it quickly became apparent to my neighbors that I was the "Go To" guy for advice on what to do before she hit us. Luckily, the hurricane swerved away from Houston, but my reputation remaind. Since then a number of neighbors/coworkers/friends have asked me for preparedness advice. Being a teacher at heart, I've developed a primer to survival to help guide people in preparing for the threats in their lives. Without further delay, I introduce The Triangle of Survival.


Sure, luck will always play a part in survival, but I'm focusing only on what a person can control. So, let's explore this deeper.

Planning/Preparations, Gear, and Resourcefulness. Laid out in print they seem self evident. This blatent obviousness is why a lot of people, even those who profess to being prepared, completely miss them. Some people rely strictly on buying gear thinking each new shiney gizmo will add another layer of safety to their lives while others disdain anything more than a knife and a loincloth. Some spend a great deal of time thinking about stuff but never actually try/do anything. They read a book on edible plants then picture themselves saving a planeful of 19-yr old co-eds after crashing in the Andes. Others dabble lightly in two or three of these and consider themselves ready, but their lack of imagination about possible events and low-quality gear leaves them woefully impaired.

Okay, so back to The Triangle. What's the big deal? Well, like I said these are the things YOU can control. Let's look at them deeper, starting with Planning/Preparation.

Planning & Preparation
This corner of the triangle covers all the preplanning involved in survival. Under this topic falls all your thinking about possible threats, assigning likelihoods of these threats, researching about how to handle these threats, and then any steps you take to diminish these threats. Examples of this are things like checking the weather report, analyzing your financial situation, learning where any hazardous material depots may be nearby, exercizing to improve your health, or learning how to make fire by rubbiing sticks together. Planning & Preparation is sort of a catch-all for the verbs, the "doing stuff" of being prepared. The saying "Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance" is very true. If you don't know what threats are out there you can quickly become screwed. The same goes if you know what the threats are but don't actually get off your tush and do something about them. Knowledge without experience/practice is rarely enough. Very few people (me included) can learn just by reading a book, not to mention "the book" was most likely written for a climate/situation much different than yours! There's a quote in the military that goes, "In a crisis one does not rise to one's level of expectations but rather falls to one's level of training." This is very true.

Here's an example of Planning and Preparation from my life. Before building our house the areas around here suffered a flood. This alerted us to the risk and so we did two things, we bought flood insurance and we wrote up a plan on what to do if it looked like we might be flooded. A few years after moving in Tropical Storm Allison hit and the water began to rise. According to our plan it should have only taken about one hour to prep the house. In reality, it ended up taking over three hours as we discovered things we hadn't considered. Luckily, the water didn't make it up into our house.

Sidenote 1: Being in shape is a VITAL PART of preparation no matter what threat you may face.

Okay, back to the triangle. As you figure out the threats and begin preparing for them you enter many people's answer to survival: Gear!

Gear is the dangerous one. Many people have the misconception that they can just buy some techno-magical device or year's supply of food and they are go to go. There's nothing wrong with buying gear. The problem is buying gear because it's cool rather than because it fits in with your threat assesment/abatement plan. If you've done your planning properly you are much more likely to acquire the proper gear for your situation. A down sleeping bag may work great in cold desert nights but if it turns into a soggy mass while trapped on a mountain you can end up royally screwed. Plan first, THEN buy gear based on YOUR likely situations, not the situations some magazine (or blog) writer a thousand miles away. Gear reviews are a good starting point, but please make sure the test situations match your own, especially if it's something you may need to save your life.

Sidenote 2: MRE's and Ammo. If your gear consists of eighteen crates of MRE's and 10,000 round of ammo maybe you should spend a bit more time on the Planning & Prepartation corner of the triangle.

Sidenote 3: First aid kits often fall into a this trap in one of two ways. In many cases your average store-bought complete kit is often woefully inadequate for anything more than minor cuts and scrapes. On the other hand, some people start adding all sorts of heavy-duty medical stuff to their first aid bags even through they don't have the slightest idea how to use them. You may have a suture kit in your bag but unless you stitch people up for a living just keep those needles/thread sealed. Scalpels? What, you are going to remove the appendix of some kid in the mall food court? Know your limits and stay within them. Don't make matters worse.

Okay, so now you've figured out what threats you may face and you have the gear you need. Then suddenly your friend's truck breaks down stranding you and him 25 miles away from anywhere and your gear is reduced to a pocket knife and shoes laces. This is where the third corner of the triangle comes into play.

Resourcefulness covers what you can pull out of your brain. It's your knowledge and creativity that allows you, the natural tool-building top of the food chain, to figure out what to do when reality blindsides you. Primitive skills, first aid training, mechanical knowledge, etc... The more you know the more likely you are to be able to find a solution to your problem. Learning and practicing falls under Planning & Preparation. Think MacGyver or Les Stroud. Figuring out how to use this knowledge/gear to save your ass is resourcefulness. Figuring out how to use this knowledge/gear to save your ass is resourcefulness. The neat thing about becoming resourceful is that the better you become the less gear you need. The bad thing is that becoming resourceful can take a lot of effort, hence the reason most people just buy gear.

Basically, it seems to me people get into trouble because they focus heavily on one corner of the triangle to the detriment of the other two. Luckily, in most cases it seems like having two of the corners covered will get you through an incident but to truely be equipped to survive you need to cover all three.

Anyway, just some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head. I don't know if they'll actually help anyone but if they do that'd be cool.

Adventure! Excitement! Getting Home Again!