KINDRED, N.D. — Living along the Sheyenne River in southeast North Dakota, Jeffrey Miller and his family have access to a wealth of fishing, hunting and trapping opportunities.
To everything, there is a season, and Miller makes the most of all of them in his quest to live off the land to the greatest extent possible.
“Locavore” is the fancy word, but by any name, raising or gathering their own food is a way of life for Miller, his significant other, Melanie Kraker, and four kids — Naomi, Maia, Ivy and Carter — on the property they call Cottonwood Bend Farm.
“There’s no such thing as being totally self-sufficient in this day and age — it’s impossible,” said Miller, 38, director of the Cass County Soil Conservation District in Fargo. “But the other night, we had venison, potatoes and tomatoes, and the tomatoes were fresh out of the garden. Everything we ate that night was something I either shot or we grew ourselves. There’s a lot to be said for that.”
It’s not a regular occurrence, but mealtime might even include such delicacies as raccoon, beaver or muskrat, he says.
“I trapped when I was a little kid,” said Miller, who grew up near Henderson, Minn., southwest of the Twin Cities, and graduated with a natural resources degree from North Dakota State University. “Then I got out of it for years and came back to it because my daughters, even before my youngest was born, were kind of interested in it. So, I got some traps and we caught a couple of raccoons.”
Rather than throwing the carcasses after skinning the animals, Miller decided to check out some of his old wild game cookbooks and see how the critters tasted.
“I hated throwing away so much,” he said of the carcasses. “I figured I’d at least try to make it worthwhile.”
Beaver gets the edge
They’ll make sausage, burger and “all kinds of different stuff” from the beaver he traps, Miller says. Raccoon is best with strong spices such as Indian curry, he says, and they’ve made tikka masala and other curry dishes.
“It’s not that it tastes bad,” Miller said of raccoon. “It’s just that it doesn’t taste like much without seasoning.”
Muskrat looks “a little off-putting,” and the meat is very dark, but it’s also quite mild and tender, Miller says.
“Beaver is the one that even a person who’s squeamish about wild game would enjoy,” Miller said. The backstraps and hindquarters taste “very similar” to beef, he says.
“If you took a small piece of beaver and a small piece of beef, I don’t think you’d be able to tell the difference,” Miller said. “It’s very mild tasting.”
Sausage is another tasty option, he says.
“I think we made 30 pounds of summer sausage out of beaver this year, so that was able to stretch the meat and stretch the budget a little bit,” he said.
Once or twice a year, Miller will cook up a beaver tail on the grill. It’s done when the skin blisters; he then peels the skin away.
“It’s got an interesting texture,” Miller said of the tail. “If you’re a person that has difficulty with textures, you wouldn’t like it because it’s almost like Jell-O — kind of a gelatin texture — but it’s got a real beefy flavor.”
Way of life
The family’s self-sufficient lifestyle includes growing fruits and vegetables and raising free-range hens. Miller also produces and sells handcrafted fur hats and mittens from the animals he traps.
“You can wear a pair of fur mittens and go on a snowmobile in the winter, and there’s no man-made material that will keep your hands anywhere near as warm,” Miller said. “It just doesn’t exist.”
Everyone who buys Miller’s handmade fur mittens or hats gets a note with information about where the animal was caught and how the product was sewn.
“People can have that connection that, ‘This was an animal, but now it’s a garment that’s really useful,’ ” Miller said. “I wouldn’t trap if I didn’t make (gloves and hats). It’s rewarding to see people wearing it and valuing it.”
Fish and wild game make up about 80% of the meat they consume, but “it’s not every meal all the time,” Miller said.
“We still like getting Chinese takeout, and it’s hard to beat a T-bone steak,” he said. “For us, it’s more just trying to do as much as we can on our own and realizing you still need the grocery store. But it does feel better to grow your own veggies and harvest your own needs as much as you can.”
This time of year, that means picking fruits such as elderberries, white currants and chokecherries from their small orchard and harvesting tomatoes from the garden for salsa, ketchup and other goodies.
They sell some of their produce and do lots of canning.
“I think part of it is just feeling good about what you’re eating,” Miller said. “The way our diets are now compared to the way the diets of people were 100 years ago is very different and not always for the better. It’s nice to be able to kind of control at least some of what we eat and feel good about it.
“We have a huge garden,” he added, although the yield is down this year because of the drought.
Life in ‘Klasburg’
Miller, who also is a freelance writer, writes a monthly column for the Cass County (N.D.) Reporter called “Musings from Cottonwood Bend” about his family’s outdoor lifestyle. Recently, he dipped his feet into the fiction waters with “Klasburg, North Dakota: Collected Stories from the Middle of Nowhere.”
Self-published through Amazon, the collection of short stories includes many with outdoor themes and some loosely based on real-life events. The book is available in both Kindle and paperback formats and will soon be for sale at Ferguson Books and More stores in Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck.
All of the stories are based in and around the fictional southeast North Dakota town of Klasburg. Like Stephen King has Castle Rock and Garrison Keillor has Lake Wobegon, Miller has Klasburg.
“I thought it would be fun to do that,” he said. “There’s nothing like that in North Dakota.”
Miller’s approach to living off the land successfully isn’t about shooting the biggest buck or catching the biggest fish, and that philosophy comes across in his writing.
“I went through a period where I tried to shoot a really good buck every year, and if I didn’t, I’d be disappointed — like I failed,” Miller said. “Then, I started realizing there’s a lot that goes into shooting a really big buck.
“Most years, I’m not going to (harvest a big buck), but you can shoot a deer every year,” he added. “I’ve made a couple buckskins out of deer hides. It’s kind of being mindful of (the fact) I’m not going to shoot a giant deer every year, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a successful year.”
In keeping with that theme, Miller makes occasional trips to a lake in western Minnesota that’s loaded with small northern pike, taking advantage of the 10-fish limit for pike in that part of the state to pickle and can the fish he catches.
They’re not big, but they are tasty.
“That’s what I’m trying to promote — you don’t have to catch the biggest fish or shoot the biggest deer to really enjoy the outdoors,” he said.
Whether hunting, fishing, trapping or gathering, Miller’s way of life allows him to be fully invested in the outdoors lifestyle.
“That’s why trapping and other outdoor pursuits are important,” he said. “They get you to think like a predator. And we’re so far away from that kind of thinking as a part of our daily lives, and I think that’s important for people to learn.
“We’re born with that desire to hunt, fish and gather, but most people never have a chance to really follow through on that.”