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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

On a Maine island: Euell Gibbons's Solo Wilderness Adventure


Euell Gibbons on a Maine island
When Euell Gibbons bragged about his foraging abilities, his students put him to the test on a rocky Maine island

The southeast coast of Maine is dotted with hundreds of islands. Some are large, covered with vacation homes, and visited regularly by ferries. Others are just small lumps of granite rock jutting out of the ocean, carpeted by a few trees and other plants, and rarely visited by anyone. It was on some of these islands that Euell Gibbons partnered with the Hurricane Island School to offer wilderness survival and foraging training to enthusiastic young people in the late 1960s.

 

“I endeavor to train the students in the recognition and use of the wild foods that nature so generously offers in this section,” Euell wrote about this program and a similar one at the Minnesota Outward Bound School in his 1971 book Stalking the Good Life: My Love Affair with Nature. “It’s not done in a classroom, but right on the lakes and streams and in the forest. They learn by actually gathering, preparing, cooking, and eating these delicacies.”

 

The climax of these wilderness survival courses was “the solo survival test, where each student is marooned—all alone—on some lake or promontory, with a minimum of equipment and no food whatever, and has to live three days and three nights on the bounty that nature can provide for those who approach her with knowing eyes and a humble spirit.” Some students enjoyed their solo trip and some hated it, “but all agreed that spending those three days alone on an island had been one of the most important episodes in their lives.” And Euell’s instruction in sustainable foraging was so good that, even after five years of the program, the berries, seafood, and edible vegetation were still as “abundant as ever.” “Boys who have been trained to live in harmony with nature, rather than trying to conquer her, do not destroy,” Euell concluded.

 

But some of the more observant students in one of the Maine programs noticed a discrepancy. Sure, Euell was an expert forager—but when they cornered him, they discovered that he had never been on a solo trip without lots of equipment and supplemental food. “It was their unanimous opinion that I had never been on a survival trip that could fairly be compared to their solo experiences, and furthermore, they believed I should go on such a solo immediately,” he recalled. The students waited until right before lunch, rushed Euell into a boat, relieved him of a ball of twine and some sugar that “just happened” to be in his pocket, dropped him off on “a hunk of granite called Bald Island,” and left.

 

After an initial moment of “mild panic,” Euell decided that he had an obligation not only to survive three days on the island, but to harvest and cook as much wild food as possible. He picked wild rose hips, scooped out the seeds, and filled the cavities with ripe raspberries. He made a salad from orach, glasswort, sea blite, sea rocket, and sheep sorrel. He shelled and cooked beach peas, collected some skunk currants, and gathered blue mussels, periwinkles, sea urchins, and clams from the oceans. He ate so much that he gained three pounds, plus gathered a big pile of wild foods to take back to camp.

 

Three days later, the students picked Euell up and assessed his performance. Euell expected them to be in awe of his abilities as a forager, but he was in for a disappointment. “After they got my story they decided that I should receive a passing grade, but no more,” he reported. “They would have agreed to a higher grade, except for one thing. I had been telling them that solo should be a time of serious meditation, deep contemplation and integrating spiritual experiences—and apparently, in the whole three days, I had thought of nothing but food!”

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