Until I observed a pileated woodpecker chiseling out a cavity in one of the nearby elm trees, I had not considered that consuming sap as a survival food could be a viable option in northern climates of North America. It appeared that the huge woodpecker was feeding off the nearly-frozen sap in a crevice of the bark. He carved away like a professional woodcutter, rather than by using the rapid strokes and bore holes of smaller woodpecker relatives. I had understood that this woodpecker only ate berries and insects, and that he would have been consuming insects mired in the solid goo. I checked closely and found that there were no insects – at least none visible to a naked eye with 20/20 vision.
In the past, I had occasionally used birch sap, pried from trees with my knife on really cold days. Much of the surface sap, found just underneath the thin inner bark of birch, poplar and willow, is tar-like during cold months. Contrary to what many people believe, at least two of the three types of sap do not “retreat” into the roots of trees in the dormant season. Rather, trees protect themselves with a natural antifreeze (sugars, etc.), with the sap remaining not quite solid at temperatures as low as -40. While birch and other similar trees have sap that is quite bitter, they also contain many essential nutrients, minerals, sugars and amino acids. Only a handful of North American trees, such as the Sumach (leaves of 3, let them be) are poisonous, toxic or stimulate an allergic reaction in consumers, so that leaves a very large number of potential food sources if you are looking for survival food in the forest.
Still, as badly as the saps may taste, they do provide sustenance and the sugars a vital energy source if you are in danger of hypothermia. Simply chew on the stiff gums after carving bits from the tree trunk, or add water (melted snow) and boil. Along with the tree saps, needles from evergreen trees offer an acidic, vitamin c-rich beverage when boiled and drunk as a tea.
There actually is a great abundance of food in the woods in winter, yet few people who are lost know where to look. Many of the climber vines hold berries well into winter. Mountain ash berries remain on their branches until early spring. Where tree caterpillar infestations occur, their climbing nests, looking a great deal like the excrement you dog leaves behind for you to pick up, contain larva or eggs that taste palatable when fried. After all, if woodpeckers can find and eat insects in the winter, why can’t you?
Also turning to wildlife for hints on surviving a day or two in the wilderness, pine cones contain seeds and if squirrels and seed-eating birds find them suitable, there is little reason for you to avoid them.
Then there is the old swamp standby, the cattail. While it is difficult prying their rhizomes from the frozen ground, these roots are tasty and nutritious eating, either fried or boiled. In winter, the lower stalks are pretty tough and flavourless, but the brown flower heads off you three benefits: great insulation for wet feet or in gloves, a fantastic firestarter and a very unpleasant soup made from the stringy (formerly fluffy) ripe seeds and corn-cob-like head.
While movies teach us to rely on catching wild game and small rodents for our meals, or netting or shooting a few birds, we are much more likely to survive, and survive longer if, instead of killing the birds and beasts, we observed and mimicked them!