A lone paddler floated his pack raft downstream on a remote Alaskan creek. Though wary of this human, the wildlife went about its business. As the paddler rounded a bend, numerous rocks materialized and the current gained speed. With little warning, it drove him into a large boulder and the raft flipped on top of him. He struggled for footing in waist-deep current and slipped when he tossed his backpack onto the creekbank. It landed on his forearm, cracking one of the bones. He managed to pull himself and the raft to shore. But he lost his paddle — and the toenail of his big toe. ...
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Backcountry emergencies requiring medical attention often catapult travelers into dire circumstances. Emergency rooms are hours away across rugged terrain and the sick or injured must double as their own first responder. Though harrowing, there’s light. Those in medical need just might be surrounded by a natural pharmacy.
Gigi Stafne has a thing for weeds.
Stafne educates students at all levels of herbal medicine in a variety of educational settings including immersion in nature, and has for decades. Stafne is a naturopathic physician and herbal educator who founded and operates Green Wisdom School of Natural and Botanical Medicine in Eau Claire, Wis. The school (greenwisdom.weebly.com) Stafne’s traveler medicine workshops incorporate natural approaches to Lyme disease, canoe travel, and “weed walks” to help students learn plant identification.
“I say ‘weed’ very affectionately,” she said. “Culturally, weeds are unwanted. But the weeds are something that have been historical medicine.”
Stafne, 60, said northern Minnesota is abundant with boreal botanicals. She recommends outdoor people learn to recognize at least six common plants found on-trail in any given area that could be used for medical situations. These would not be for life-threatening emergencies, but acute incidents when help is not immediately accessible.
Stafne encourages people to assemble a conventional first aid kit and augment it with herbal medicines. If nothing else, a natural medicine kit offers people peace of mind about entering the woods.
“[It’s] putting power back in people’s hands,” she said.
Students new to plant identification sometimes get overly ambitious, Stafne said, and force themselves to learn 30-50 plants in a weekend class. But she recommends starting in digestible chunks with maybe three to six from a backyard or nearby woods.
“Get really familiar with those so you’re certain that you’re identifying the right plant or fungi or lichen, and then build from there,” she said. “There are incidences where people have plucked and ingested the wrong plant that have been toxic. So, it’s good to be trained, have good botany field guides and just take it slow.”
Stafne also explained some of the legal and ethical realms of natural medicines. She said people may opt for herbs as simple alternatives to medications obtained at conventional clinics or pharmacies.
“We technically have to call these ‘foods,’ even though they’re referred to as herbs,” she said.
What’s more, some botanicals have become so popular that overharvest or incorrect harvest of the resource becomes a concern.
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… The paddler was Walter Wysznewskij from Montello, Wis. He had been trained in natural medicines through Green Wisdom School. After setting up camp, he tended to his injuries, relying heavily on botanicals to see him through. He gathered usnea that he found on trees and wrapped it around his injured toe to stave off infection. He made a wooden splint and used an elastic wrap for his arm, then boiled a pot of spruce bud tea. Along with the tea, he used the spruce buds for snacks. Though bitter, the cottonwood leaves he ate were a natural pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory. Similarly, birch leaves offered him vitamin C, and an antibacterial and antiviral. The next morning, he began his three-day trek out of the wilderness. …
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Here’s a sampling of common botanicals Stafne provided that people can find in northern regions. Each includes plant capabilities, locations and how to prepare them.
Antibiotics: Evergreens needles such as white and red pine, balsam, fir and tamarack have “anti” properties, meaning they are antifungal, antibiotic, antiviral, antiparasitic. Cut them up, boil them and drink them as a tea if you’re beginning to feel ill but don’t know what it is. They are also vitamin A and C. So, if you are in a jam, that also is food.
Usnea is one of the stronger northern antibiotics. It’s a light-green lichen found around wetlands, on evergreens and tamaracks, and in bogs. It looks like the northern Spanish moss. Gather some usnea with pine needles and use it as a strong, antibiotic tea for someone who is ill.
Cuts and bites: Plantains are a drawing agent and feature two types of leaves, broad and narrow. Apply the leaf on skin to help draw toxins from an abrasion or at the point of entry for a bug bite, including ticks. On-trail, some people mix it with their saliva then apply it like a green mash. Hold it on with a cloth or bandanna until the wound can be better-cleaned. Plantains are most likely found near footpaths.
Jewelweed, a k a spotted touch-me-not, contains an anti-itch agent. The tiny, orange-yellow flower is found along stream banks and wetlands. It likes areas not immersed in water but simply wet. Gather the flowers and the leaves, mash them and even mix them in with plantains. Along with anti-itch, it becomes a light antihistamine and anti-inflammatory.
These two versatile plants and are super for first aid kits. You can also prepare your own salves and oils in advance, or buy them at herbal retailers.
Poisoning, upset stomach: From its flowering tops to the roots, the common and ubiquitous dandelion provides about 50 quick on-trail uses. Its roots alter the state of blood and are a good detoxifier if someone felt they had a type of poisoning, bad food or sour stomach. The leaves are bitter but edible and a good vitamin and mineral source. They cleanse the liver.
Bleeding, fever reducer: The flowering tops and leaves of yarrow have properties that help staunch bleeding, or work as a diuretic. Crush the flowers and add water or some aloe vera. Irrigate the wound and apply it as a compress directly to the skin to help stop bleeding. Yarrow can be made into tea and ingested for internal hemorrhaging. Yarrow prefers sunlight and is often found in open fields.
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... Though his feet were constantly wet and muddy, Wysznewskij said his toe never became inflamed. He had some stiffness in his arm and numbness in his hand for about six months after the incident. But since then, other than during certain weather conditions when the arm and other past injuries might ache, everything has healed nicely. His doctor told him to continue using natural medicines as he had.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.