‘Haycorn’ harvesting from our New Mexican oaks

‘Piglet was busy digging a small hole in the ground outside his house.
“Hallo Piglet”, said Pooh. “What are you doing?”
“I’m planting a haycorn, Pooh, so that it can grow up into an oak tree, and I’ll have lots of haycorns just outside my front door, instead of having to walk miles and miles. Do you see, Pooh?”
“Supposing it doesn’t grow up into an oak tree with lots of haycorns?” said Pooh.
“It will, because Christopher a robin says it will, so that’s why I’m planting it.”
Piglet put the haycorn in the hole he had made, covered it with earth and jumped up and down on it.’
– From The House at Pooh Corner, by A. A. Milne, originally published 1928.

It was an early beginning to acorn season here in Pacheco Canyon. The monsoon rains didn’t come as strongly and frequently as in previous years and so, our plants have been moving through their fruiting phase swiftly so as to send the nutrients they do have back down into their roots, where they’ll hold them until more moisture comes. Instead of rains, the fires came through the lands around where I live but we have beautiful big acorns still for gathering.

Amazingly, here in the desert we have a variety of oak trees! Unlike the grand oaks of the east coast or Europe, ours are generally smaller and so may be passed by more easily by you until you get a feel for them! 

Generally in Northern New Mexico and around Santa Fe we most commonly find Gamble Oak (Quercus gambeli), Shrub Live Oak (Quercus turbinella), Grey Oak (Quercus grisea) and Wavyleaf Oak (Quercus x pauciloba). Botanically speaking Oaks are in the ’Fagaceae’ family of plants (the Beech Family).  ‘Quercus’ is the ‘genus’ or specific line of that family and the word that comes after ‘Quercus’ gives a description of the species or specific type of oak.

Oak trees are divided into two groups – the first group are the ‘black oaks’. These trees have pointy or toothed leaves and small hairs on the inside of the acorn shell when it is cracked open. (Shrub Live Oak is in the Black Oak side of the family.)

The second group is that of the ‘white oaks’. These can be determined by their lobed leaves (rounded edges) and the lack of hair found on the inside of the acorn shell. (Gamble oak, Grey Oak and Wavyleaf Oak are all in the White Oak side of the family.) 

The following botanical drawings are by a wonderful botanist Robert DeWitt Ivey, from his thick plant identification book ‘Flowering Plants of New Mexico’. These pictures will give you a beginning identification for the oaks you see around you. 

Oak trees are well known for their beneficial insect-plant relationships. Have you ever seen an ‘oak apple’? It’s an insect (wasp) nest laid on an oak leaf that swells to accommodate the small wasp larva who grow within it. These insects are given accommodation by the oak as they pollinate the oak, which in turn forms acorns. Check out this link for a bit more information about oak apples and the galls they make when they harden: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak_apple

Below is a photo I took when out on a walk this summer. Most oak trees will have oak apples on them somewhere, so take time to have a treasure hunt and look for the oak apples as you come across oak trees. 

Acorns are one of the most important foods in human history, really and TRULY! Why don’t we eat them still? Acorns (and the whole part of the oak tree) contain tannins that are extremely bitter and when eaten in excess can a cause upset stomachs and diarrhea. However, with a little effort, we can ‘leach’ the tannins out in water (they’re water soluble) and then happily these protein rich, oil rich and carbohydrate rich nuts either as a flour in baked goods or as ground nuts in a burger, casserole or stew.

Before we go further, I want to mention that although tannins are extremely bitter, they are also astringent (drying, tightening and toning) and can be used very effectively as a medicine taken in appropriate amounts internally or applied topically for specific conditions such as diarrhea, as a mouthwash and poultice for inflamed gums or to sooth sore throats (although I prefer marshmallow root for sore throats). For external or topical use a decoction/tea can be made of the leaves, inner bark, unleached acorns or oak galls and placed on second degree burns. This application seals the burns and stops them from weeping and possible infection. 

How do we LEACH acorns, then, so we can eat them?

While I was attending Winter Count Primitive Skills gathering* this year, I was fortunate to catch a fascinating class on acorn processing by an exceptional bioregional herbalist of the southwest desert region, called John Slattery. John took a large crowd of us through the steps of processing acorns (that have already been gathered and dried) into flour. We then made an incredibly delicious and moist sweet acorn bread. Here is John’s blog post on acorn processing – it’s well written and should give you a clear step by step understanding of how to gather, dry and prepare acorns to eat! And they’re worth eating!!!

John does give a few recipes to try out at the bottom of the blog post and here is a simple recipe (I have slightly modified) to entice you into acorn eating!

ACORN PANCAKES from Sharon Hendricks (Slightly modified by me!)

  • Break an egg into a bowl. Add: 
  • 1 teaspoon avocado/coconut oil
  • 1 teaspoon of honey or sugar
  • 1/2 cup of ground and leached acorns
  • 1/2 cup of corn meal
  • 1/2 cup of whole wheat, white, spelt, or gluten-free flour
  • 2 teaspoons of double action baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • Beat all together. If the batter is too thick to pour, thin it with milk. Pour pancakes into a hot, greased griddle and cook slowly until brown on both sides. 
  • Serve with butter and syrup or wild blackberry jam. Delicious!!

*(If you’re interested in the primitive skills gathering I attend each year, here is the link:-     https://wintercountcamp.com/)

Just to round this blog post out….here’s a little more from Pooh Bear in The House Around the Corner…

I thought Tiggers were smaller than that.” Said Piglet
Not the big ones,” said Tigger.
They like haycorns,” said Pooh, “so that’s what we’ve come for, because poor Tigger hasn’t had any breakfast yet.”
Piglet pushed the bowl of haycorns towards Tigger, and said: “Help yourself,” and then got close up to Pooh and felt much braver, and said, “So you’re Tigger? Well, well!” in a careless sort of voice. But Tigger said nothing because his mouth was full of haycorns.
After a long munching noise he said: “Ee-ers o i a-ors.
And when Pooh and Piglet said “What?” he said “skoos ee,” and went outside for a moment.
When he came back he said firmly: “Tiggers don’t like haycorns.”
But you said they liked everything except honey,” said Pooh.”
Everything except honey and haycorns,” explained Tigger.

Winter Hikes Part 1: Diablo Canyon

The Diablo Canyon Recreation Area is a wonderland of black rocks, dramatic cliffs and sand. It is worth the bumpy drive along the washboard road to get there.

Directions are below. You will see the towering rock faces as you get near. As you begin your walk, you might see some little dots on the sheer rock cliff face above you.  These dots are people who climb this massive rock: remarkable and inspiring, and for those who prefer to stay close to the ground, downright scary.  Luckily, you will be on solid ground, and it makes climbing the big black boulders below seem very safe by comparison. 

With little ones you will prefer to stay in the sandy, beach-like wash that navigates between the sheer face on your right and the pile of boulders on your left.  The canyon narrows and then opens up, widening and eventually reaching the Rio Grande. You can walk down as far as you desire, which is often not too far with kids who love to create their own games and play, jumping off the big rocks. There is usually spring of water seeping up from the sand which makes for a fun play spot.

If your kids are a little older and you have confidence scrambling over big rocks with them, you can walk up the black rocks on your left and go as far as you feel comfortable.  I have been to the tippy-top of the mesa with some confident climbers in the 9-12 year-old range.  If this is your cup of tea, it’s a blast: inspiring confidence and memorable moments. If you are a nervous mom or dad, you may want to keep the kids on the down low.

I have seen rattlesnakes here in the summer, so do keep your eyes peeled and don’t stick your hands into dark places. Winter should not be an issue, but it is getting warm, so look for them sunning themselves. They will not bother you if you don’t disturb them.

How to Get There: Take Highway 599, get off at Camino La Tierra (Las Campanas exit), and then drive until you see Old Buckman Road on the right. Take the right and you will see a trailhead and parking area after seemingly endless miles of washboard road. You will pass some of our city wells along the way, which in interesting to point out to the kids, and talk about where our water comes from. Total drive from downtown is about 45 minutes or so.

August 5: Mud, Clay, & Camouflage

It’s been another muddy good week with the Mountain Kids! It all began with an adventure to Deer Creek, where the Hummingbirds and the Eagles discovered several puddles of mud, camouflaged themselves from head to toe, and cooled down with an afternoon spent playing in the flowing water. While the Hummingbirds played in the stream much closer to the trailhead, the Eagles enjoyed a lengthier hike up to the ‘swimming pools’, where they practiced their [what felt to be] cold plunge and admired the beauty of the waterfall!

Tuesday, the two teams parted for different adventures. While the Eagles explored their way up the Santa Fe river, from Patrick Smith Park, the Hummingbirds took a sweet little adventure to Glorieta, where they gathered local clay, before heading back to the park due to incoming weather. While the adventures in Glorieta were short lived, the two teams enjoyed the opportunity to recombine at the park and spend an afternoon sculpting sweet pieces of art with our freshly harvested clay.

Wednesday morning started with a fun craft which showed the Mountain Kids how to create paintbrushes from yucca and painting pigments from different crushed up elements and stones. Before long, both teams were on their way to Abiquiu Lake, where the Mountain Kids found ample amounts of mud, dug through the dirt, sand, mud, and clay, and made a splash for several hours in the lake.

The Eagles and Hummingbirds headed up to the Big Tesuqe Trail for their Thursday adventures. While the two teams participated in separate hikes, both, the Eagles and Hummingbirds were able to practice their camouflage skills through games such as Eagle Eye” and “Pig”. Of course there was plenty of time, too, for the kids play in the water as they wished! Several of the Eagles competed in a dam building competition and used their wild imaginative creativity in order to build fairy houses along the river.

Friday found both teams exploring the Santa Fe River with an adventure up to the nearby tire swing. During our hike up the River, the Mountain Kids found several different berries and plants which we broke down into vibrant body paints. The afternoon was filled with much fun, playing at the Cerro Gordo Park, in the river, and on the tire swing! Our day was finished with a sweet little treat and a lovely lesson on bee keeping. One of our Hummingbird campers is a local bee keeper and brought a jar of his recently harvested honey to share with us, in addition to showing us his gear and talking us through the process of beekeeping. It wasn’t long after our lesson on bees that each Mountain Kid began running around and involving themselves in a massive water fight to end an exciting week!

 

Survival Hunting Tools: July 15-20

This was a week full of watery fun, skill building with knives and bows, and some good heart pumping hikes with views for miles and miles.

Monday we started with spear making at the Big Tesuque. Knife safety was the most important lesson of the day.  Campers made some pretty nice looking spears in preparation for our Atl Atls on Wednesday.  We played games to get to know one another and explored nature in all of it’s glory. (Caterpillars and all.)

Tuesday was a Rio en Medio adventure, a good wet hike to a waterfall where the campers enjoyed plunging into the icy water.  They quickly chose to wear rain jackets to protect them from the icy flow. It was a joyous day on the Rio en Medio trail.

Wednesday was our day of Archery and more tool making in Chupadero.  We worked on our spears and Atl Atls (an ancient hunting tool which provides speed and leverage fro throwing a spear).  We then tried our hand at archery.  Bark Bunnies was a fun game for all –  aiming for chunks of bark, laden with jerky. If you hit the bark, and knock the jerky down, you get to eat the jerky.  Yum!

Thursday we headed up the Winsor Trail for Raven’s Ridge.  It was a challenging climb, so Michael helped break it up by teaching the kids how to make animal traps in the wild.  Super simple and cool.  The view from Raven’s Ridge was worth the climb! Nice work, all.  We had a great week of tool making, hiking and playing with you all!

July 8-12: Forest Survival School with Archery

What a full week of fun and skill building we had this week.

A Monday spent at the Norski Trail was the perfect opportunity to learn about the Leave-No-Trace Principles, how to be prepared with the 6W’s (who, what, where, when, why, and weather) and what one should do if one were in a survival situation.

Shelter is a high priority, so we learned the finer points of the Debris hut, the most suitable shelter for our climate, and tried our hand at making them.  Two groups worked together to make a couple of pretty amazing shelters in a short period of time.  A shelter tour ensued, bisected by a tour of our local Catarpillar Sanctuary, which had been created by a third group of empathetic campers.

We used Leave No Trace principles and dismantled our shelters, which can be very fun, and an important part of our play in the forest.

We played Eagle Eye to end our day, a great way to practice our hiding and sneaking skills.

A great start on a Debris Hut.

 

Caterpillar Care was an important part of the day for some campers.

 

Caterpillar Sanctuary Tour

Fire is another important aspect of wilderness survival. Tuesday took us to Chupadero where we learned several primitive ways to make fire from Michael, a wonderful Primitive Skills educator. We tried our hand at the bow drill and the hand drill in small groups.  Primitive fire making takes a lot of practice, and the campers all practiced….  soon there was a good fire smell wafting around the tent and wisps of smoke could be seen. Ultimately we all worked together to make a coal for a fire.  Team work saves the day! Not inly does team work help in a survival situation, we spoke about the importance of attitude (keeping it positive!) in a survival situation.

Trying their hand at the Hand Drill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bowdrill takes more coordination, but ultimately many find a good way to get your first survival fire.

Archery was a popular activity, especially when we began to play “Bark Bunnies”, a game where small targets of bark are donned with some Turkey Jerky. If you hit the target, you eat the jerky.  Yum!

Arching for Jerky during a game of Bark Bunnies

 

Wednesday took us to the Borrego trail, with handmade fish hooks and rods.  We charted our hike with a topographic map, determined which direction we were headed and how far we had to go.  While the length did not seem daunting, the topo lines also show us that there was some significant elevation drop and gain along the way, making our hike more difficult than it would be if flat!  We spoke about the importance of telling someone where you are going and when you will be back.

How long is the hike? Which direction are we going? How to remember the four directions? (Never Eat Soggy Waffles) Time to use a Topographic Map!

Thursday was all about water, and games!  We played another sneaking and hiding game called “Pig” and talked about various ways to filter and purify water in a survival situation.

Actually, Friday was really all about Water!  We spent the day cooling off by swimming  and practicing our camouflage, getting muddy at Abiquiu Lake.

Camouflage at Abiquiu Lake, an important skill! 🙂

Thanks for an action-packed and fun week, Mountain Kids!

June 24-28: Wilderness Skills

The Hummingbirds (Mountain Kids’ younger group) started their week exploring the trails and waterways of the Beaver Ponds, while learning what to do should we encounter a bear and mountain lion.

The fun continued with an introduction to building survival shelters and a lesson on their importance. As the week continued, the Hummingbirds discussed the essential 6W’s (who, what, when, where, why, & weather) and why they’re important even before entering the wilderness. The children also learned seven new hand gestures in order to help them better understand the seven Leave-No-Trace Principles (ways in which we can respect and take care of our wild lands and parks with low impact practices). We also explored ways of staying S.A.F.E.R. (a mnemonic for how to stay safe while spending time in the outdoors), with one of the key elements being to STOP AND STAY PUT if you get lost.

During our week of acquiring new wilderness skills, the Mountain Kids roamed through areas such as the Rio en Medio, Aspen Vista, and the Ski Basin, all of which are  beautifully wooded locations and provided us with a wonderful setting for each camper to use their imagination while becoming animals such as deer, mountain lions, bats, and moths.

Our week ended with the Eagles (older campers) and Hummingbirds gathering together for a day filled with fun and games at the meadow of the lower Big Tesuque trail. What a fun and adventure-filled week!

June 17 – 21: Wonders of Water

Our week was full of wild and wonderful water expeditions. We began our days together learning about the Santa Fe Watershed, where our water comes from and the life and adaptations of our natural dam builders, the Beavers. From there we discovered just how frigid snowmelt is as it passes through our higher mountain streams and worked studiously ourselves on creating highly effective dams with the added joy of dismantling them afterward. It’s quite exhilarating releasing even the smallest of well made dams, water surely wants to move!

During our trip to Nambe Falls we experienced strong currents gushing down the river as we worked together, holding hands, locking arms or taking rides on Counselors backs in order to make it to and from the Falls. What a thrill it was to stand, wade, and explore the strong white water spilling speedily from the Falls. On Friday morning, Micael Meade and his brother, Alex, came to help us co-create a water dance and song, allowing us a chance to move and sound like various forms of water while singing to all the precious and vulnerable waters we know and remember. A beauty-filled practice!

As always, with a bit of cheek and fun, we Councilors managed to get one up on the children and soak them after our water relay on Thursday, to which the children self organized and proposed a culminating water fight on Friday – children versus Councilors! The ultimate ending to a wet and wonderful week, saturating all of us equally.

June 10-14 Bikes and Boats!

What a busy and fun-filled week we had.  We began our adventures with two days of mountain biking at La Tierra.  The kids got to try cross-country riding, learned how to brake, climb and descend.  We talked about the Ready Position, and used our new knowledge on the Flow Trail and the Wee Whoops. In the afternoon we spent some time trying out the small jumps in the terrain park, and then playing Capture the Flag and Baby Squirrel, among other games, when we needed a break from the sun and heat of riding.

On Wednesday we packed up and headed to Abiquiu Lake for two days of kayaking, swimming, jumping into the water, fishing, eating, playing games, story telling, singing, and sleeping!  Everyone challenged themselves to jump off the rocks into the water at their own level.  It was impressive to watch the kids expand their perceived limits and try something new. The photos tell all!

Steve, our kayaking guide, led the keen kayakers for a good long kayaking along the shore of the lake.  Most campers had been kayaking before, and several were trying it for the first time.

We returned to Santa Fe Thursday with time for an ice cream stop at Bode’s, a sweet reward after all of our fun in the sun.

The Friday Finale was a great day to play games at the Big T. Everyone was tired from camping and a low-key day was the perfect way to round out our action-packed week!