The traditional river menu for Maine Guides, as well as canoe trippers in the Boundary Waters, is cook kitchen heavy, consisting of full sized camp stoves, cast iron cookware, pots, pans, percolators, and so forth. On a recent trip in northern Maine, which mandated several portages of varying lengths, our group discussed the merits and downfalls of a traditional menu.
A traditional menu for northern Maine river tripping looks a little like this:
Breakfast on the river means some combination of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, or blueberry pancakes, reflector oven baked biscuits, etc. As one can imagine, the camp kitchen set-up and breakdown is significant, as is the amount of dishes that will need to be cleaned. However, it’s a filling and satisfying breakfast that gives one energy for miles.
For most canoeists lunch is the quickest meal of the day as it represents a breaking point, rather than a final stopping point. Even traditional guides make this one the most simple of the day, and design it for little to no cleanup. I’ve seen everything served up from pasta salad (cooked the night before) to cold cut wraps. Personally speaking, I favor a backpacker inspired meal that consists of a cheese and salami wrap, or straight up peanut butter bagel sandwich (one of my favorites). Both of which stay good without requiring a cooler.
A river tripping dinner is no holds barred: steak tips, fresh baked salmon with salad and rice, stroganoff, chili, spaghetti with homemade sauce and meatballs…, Needless to say, the list is as long as one’s creativity and palate.
For our trip we decided in advance to pack our own breakfast, snacks, and lunches. This allowed for a quick and easy morning in camp. (We were up around 6am and paddling downstream by around 7am.) Water was heated for oatmeal and Starbucks Via, or tea. Lunch was the same, and resembled the menu noted above. Only once did I see a personal stove taken out for lunch.
For dinner we pooled our resources and I designed a menu that included a fire baked salmon fillet, with fresh spring green salad, and wild rice, as well as burritos another night, and a pasta dinner for our last night on the trip. Every attempt was made to keep the dinner hearty, yet minimal in terms of prep and cleanup. To that end we succeeded. Yet, on those portages, our camp kitchen – consisting of a cooler, dry box, and stove, was still too heavy, and we agreed that on our next trip (hopefully the St. Croix), we will do things differently.
Simplicity equates to elegance.
Traditionalists be damned. I want a minimal amount of fuss when it comes to creating a satisfying meal after a long day of paddling.
From a guide’s perspective, breakfast and lunch are rarely a problem. (Although breakfast can see quite superfluous at times.) Dinner is what gets to even the best river guide because we want our group to be happy and filled, and we want to surprise and impress. On a cold, rainy day there’s rarely such a good feeling as to pull into camp and see your guide start whipping up a hot chili. I can assure all readers, should I ever guide a group there’s no compromise for me. A hearty group dinner always wins. But, on smaller trips, or with a group of friends the game changes.
Me? I’ll unapoligetically pack a couple freeze dried meals. Good to Go offers pricey, yet shockingly delicious meals. (Review forthcoming.) Or, I can whip up some angel hair pasta with dried pesto mix – brought back to life with olive oil – and then top it off with a black peppered salmon portion from Patagonia Provisions. These are easy and filling “one-pot” meals that take only a few minutes to make, and require cleaning out one’s personal bowl. For dessert, I’ll pack Brookside’s Crunchy Clusters, a multigrain and dried berry mix, coated in delicious dark chocolate. It doesn’t get much more simple and delicious than that.
All of this can be cooked easily with an MSR Pocket Rocket, (which I prefer over a Jetboil or other cooking systems) allowing me to ditch the big two burner stove, the pots, the pans, and utensils, automatically eliminating the need for a dry box and cooler, altogether. I essentially adopt a backpacker setup, which lightens my canoe, shortens my portages (one trip, one direction), and creates a much more enjoyable multi-day paddle.
Here’s the catch: traditionalists will make you think that to not indulge is to somehow suffer, or to compromise good taste and quality provisions. This is the same logic that forces us to consume the next “biggest and best” thing in our daily lives. And it’s false logic. The more I simplify, the more satisfying the experience becomes. The more I recognize that I don’t need to rely on so much stuff, the more I connect with the true essentials of wilderness living.
Of course, at the end of the day, the choice is up to you. You’ll need to decide what you’re willing to give up. For us? We found this wasn’t a sacrifice at all. Going light wasn’t just a convenience, nor was it a chore. It was a pleasure to look forward to.