Awesome Sauce

So what’s a camping trip without a mole? And by mole, I mean the pepper-based sauce from Mexico and not the burrowing beady-eyed critter. Mole (pronounced mo-lay) tastes amazing over fish, chicken, or basically any kind of meat (except over mole meat, which is disgusting).

Mole is an ancient Spanish word that loosely translates to “mix.” The recipe has its roots in the Mexican town of Oaxaca, about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City. Popular legend has it that nuns were rushing to prepare for a visit from the archbishop and they just made up a sauce out of what they had on hand.

Souzz visited Oaxaca last month on a business trip, and she managed to squeeze in a mole-making class during her visit (I guess the margarita-chugging class was fully booked).

Souzz raved about her class (and her trip) when she got home. So when we started planning a menu for a backpacking trip with our good friends Lou and Kay, mole-making became an obvious choice (with margarita chugging as a backup). Our destination was Racer Camp Hollow, a favorite of ours in the Blue Ridge mountains near Wardensville, West Virginia.

We made a mole verde that used tomatillos, which are smallish green Mexican tomatoes. Our mole recipe also used pumpkin seeds, jalapenos, onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a little bit of chicken stock.

The whole trick to backcountry mole–besides a penchant for cooking the absurd–is to carry a hand-crank food processor. Our new little toy worked out great, and it weighed less than a pound.

It turns out there are actually several makes and models of hand-crank food processors, which had me wondering how many lunatic foodie backpackers there could possibly be? Or maybe people want to cook fancy during power outages? But mostly I wondered if this thing could be used to make margaritas.

The absurdity of our meal planning came into sharper focus when we decided to include fresh doughnuts for breakfast. We always use a paper bag to shake and coat the doughnuts, which naturally prompted a text exchange ahead of the trip about cow pies.

In any case, dinner was delightful, and we served the mole over rice and some fresh grouper that we had hand-carried from Florida a few weeks back. We followed the main course with Kay’s apple tart for dessert, which made for a pretty elegant backcountry meal.

Camping with Lou and Kay is a lot of fun under any circumstance, but in particular when you team up for a five star meal at a five star campsite. It’s great to be with folks that know both the outdoors and food…and it’s a total bonus when they also know Heather Locklear trivia (don’t ask).

 

DSCN4332-2

A Swell Time

Our recent trip to great state of Utah featured a lot of variety: a four day backpack on the historic Boulder Mail Trail, a day of canyoneering in Capitol Reef, downhill skiing at Brighton, and mountain biking in the central part of the state. We also caught up with our cousin Brian and our nephew Pat, so we got in some good family time, too.

Over the course of the week, we traveled by plane, bus, car, foot, rope, ski, and bike—not bad for a couple of flatlanders from the east. And we capped off the week with bear watching (ok, so the bear was the mascot at a Utah Grizzlies hockey game).

Part of our trip was spent around the town of Price, a coal-mining community of about 8,000 that at first glance doesn’t look like much of an outdoor playground. But there are some great mountain bike trails on the plateau just outside of town, and friendly locals told us about a nearby must-see area called the Little Grand Canyon in “The Swell.” After getting some vague directions, we poured over our maps and found what they were talking about—a BLM recreation area in the heart the San Rafael Swell.

To get to the Little Grand Canyon required about 20 miles of driving on a dirt road…but “it’s a good dirt road where you can go 60 miles an hour,” to quote one of our new friends in Price. We were a little slower than that, but the road was in great shape. There was a BLM visitor center kiosk along the way that provided some information as well as a few good area maps.

The locals were right that it’s a spectacular place, with cliffs and canyons as far as we could see. The Little Grand Canyon itself is not as grand as its larger namesake, but there are stunning vistas, petroglyphs, an old (1937) bridge, primitive campgrounds, and an abundance of hiking and biking trails. And what is plenty grand about this place is what’s missing: people, concessionaires, streams of vehicles, and the suffocating infrastructure that can be somewhat common in larger parks. This place is definitely a hidden gem.

As we were leaving Price earlier in the day to head towards the Swell, the guy at the local convenience mart asked where we were going. “Aaaah, yes, the Swell, you’ll love it,” he said. “It’s exactly like the Grand Canyon, only way better. And who wants to drive all the way to Arizona anyway?”

Swiss Time

I’ve wanted to hike hut-to-hut in Switzerland for years, but planning such a trip always seemed like a daunting task. For starters, there are more than 150 huts in the Swiss Alpine Club system, which seemed totally overwhelming. And the language barrier for someone that doesn’t speak Swiss German is big, as almost all of the websites and information are in Swiss German (go figure).

IMG_5160
Looking down at the Terrehutte and the clouds

Enter our good friends Reto and Annika, who live near Zurich and know a thing or two about these huts. They helped us plan a three day trip of about 30 kilometers on the Greina Plateau in the south central part of Switzerland–and by “helped us plan,” I mean that they planned it. Best of all, Reto came along (perhaps he thought we could use a chaperone?).

 

Getting from Zurich to the trailhead near Vrin was ambitious enough, requiring four hours, three train rides, three cups of coffee, two bus rides, and a kilometer of walking up a village road.

 

From the trailhead, it was about 9 kilometers and 800 vertical meters to get to the Terrihutte, which is a beautiful stone structure on a point at the head of a valley.

 

The Terrihutte was built in 1925, although it has been renovated and expanded multiple times since. It has space for 110 in shared bunk rooms, as well as a full kitchen and a bar with cold beer and wine (as with most huts, restocking is done by helicopter). It also has electric power generated from the creek below, quite the luxury.

Food at the hut was simple but hearty. Potatoes, meats, soup, breads, butter, and salads are typical, all served family style in a dining room that offers ridiculous views.

 

The huts are also highly social places, even if you don’t speak the language. We were generally sitting across the table from someone who hiked the same hard kilometers that we did, which means we had a few things in common–including sore feet and tired legs. And, despite our ugly American language skills, many of our fellow hikers were gracious enough to reach out in English (which was a good thing, as hearing Reto and his family laugh as I tried to say the word for “three” in Swiss German wasn’t very encouraging).

 

The next day we headed up and over our high point at Greina Pass (2703 meters) to the Medelserhutte. It was a 15 kilometer hike, including some scrambling and a descent of a long snowfield. There were also some really fun glissades (the easy part) before a short ascent to the hut.

 

The Medelserhutte is in a saddle with a commanding view to the west. It is a smaller hut than the Terrehutte, with 55 bunks, but still plenty roomy. Despite an early-ish start to our hike, we didn’t get there until nearly 6pm–but that was still enough time to catch sun on the back patio and watch Capricorns (a type of bighorn sheep) run the hillside.

 

Looking back, Reto and Annika made it easy for us to do something that would have been very hard for us to do on our own (impossible?!), and for that we are very grateful. Visiting Switzerland with their help was priceless, spending time with them and their children before and after our hike was a treasure, and we are still glowing about our trip.

As for our time in the huts, I caught myself wondering how the Swiss built these places. But mostly I wondered why my legs were so sore. And then I wondered what another beer would taste like.

DSC_0471

Holes on the Menu

As we planned our menu for an upcoming backpacking trip, Souzz reminded me that she “basically grew up on doughnuts”—which was a shocking revelation coming from somebody so fit. Apparently her hometown of Buffalo has a long (or round?) doughnut heritage–with Freddie’s, Paula’s, Tim Horton’s, and Zen’s (her family favorite as a kid).  Doughnuts were (and are) such a part of the Buffalo scene that hometown hockey hero Jim Schoenfeld once famously screamed at one of the lesser fit NHL referees to “have another doughnut!”

The weekend’s destination was a quick overnight to Kepler Overlook, in the Blue Ridge near Van Buren Furnace. Our good friend KB joined us for the first day.

The hike started out along Cedar Creek before finishing on a long ridge, covering about five miles and 1000 feet of elevation. There were several great campsites up high, as well as a nice “improved” site on Cedar Creek with benches and a huge fire pit. We headed to one of the sites on the ridge, bringing a gallon and a half of water along with a bunch of good food (winter camping, even on a warmer weekend, should always be about food).

It was too bad KB couldn’t stick around for the evening, because dinner at our camp overlooking the Shenandoah Valley was fabulous. We started with an appetizer of local ham, smoked trout, and cheese, and then followed with beef tenderloin, gnocchi with tomatoes and garlic, red wine, and frybake chocolate chip cookies. We don’t lose weight on these trips.

The day’s mild temps eventually dipped into the high 30s, and then morning dawned warm and sunny….perfect doughnut weather, right? We learned soon enough that backcountry doughnuts really are pretty easy. We’d made the dough ahead of time using a Betty Crocker recipe, and we didn’t really need a lot of extra stuff on the trail–just an instant-read thermometer, a pair of tongs, vegetable oil, and cake doughnut toppings (chocolate, cinnamon, and powdered sugar).

While the oil was coming to temperature on our cook stove, we rolled out the dough and cut it into shape using the top of a Nalgene bottle and a cap from a Diet Coke. Then we dropped the dough into 375-degree oil for about two minutes a side. From there it was a quick dunk into the topping of choice and it was time for our Zens-like moment(s).

With several miles of walking ahead of us after breakfast, it was pretty easy to justify a doughnut. There was less of a case for the next four.

dscn3529

Looking for Sasquatch

The east coast has some fun destinations, including Great North Mountain, which forms the border between Virginia and West Virginia for about 50 miles. Much of the mountain is above 3000 feet, so the views across neighboring valleys are among the best around. The area also has a well-developed trail system, including a few summits that offer 360-degree views (ok, so I guess you can actually see in multiple directions from any place).

This weekend’s trip was to Sugar Knob Cabin, which was built in 1920 as a shelter for rangers patrolling the George Washington National Forest. Nowadays the cabin is managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and is rented out to backpackers willing to make the six mile (round trip) trek.

I have backpacked past this modest 10 foot square stone structure many times, dating back to the mid-1980s, and have always been curious about it. I was invited inside once by a few new friends on a rainy day, but I had never stayed there–until this past weekend.

Souzz and I arrived at the trailhead on Forest Service Road 92 on Saturday morning, heavy on food but light on everything else. We carried just a small butane stove, a first aid kit, headtorches, a small lantern, a water filter, a few extra clothes…and the frybake, which I carry with me at all times (in case somebody needs an emergency casserole). As for water, there’s a spring not far from the cabin, and we’d been told that the cabin was stocked with pots, pans, utensils, axes, a wood stove, and pretty much anything else we were likely to need.

The hike in was steady uphill (1500 feet of elevation gain), but not too steep. Little Stony Creek runs right along much of the trail, and there were some nice views as we got closer to the ridge. The hike seemed longer than three miles, suggesting that the map is wrong…or perhaps suggesting that most hikers don’t carry a 6-pack, a bag of charcoal, a mini-cooler, and a four course meal.

The area has a deep history, including a moonshine operation in the 1930s, a tragedy in the 1950s (sadly, a scout leader got lost near here in in a winter storm), a lot of bear sightings, and even a pretty recent Bigfoot sighting.

As for Bigfoot, a hiker wrote that his group was staying in Sugar Knob Cabin and saw “a dark, very hairy large face looking at us about a foot outside the window.” Hmm…that sounds suspiciously like just about everybody I’ve ever hiked with (except Souzz).

With no Bigfoot sightings to amuse us, we were left to enjoy this fabulous spot. Sugar Knob Cabin is cozy and quaint, and one could almost feel the history of the place. Looking around inside at the stonework and the wood stove, I wondered what those walls would say if they could talk (perhaps something like “man, Souzz’s husband is a total blowhard.”)

As for dinner, we started with cheese and salami, then moved on to steamed mussels and fresh-baked bread (from the frybake). The mussels appetizer was pre-cooked with tomato and garlic sauce by a company called Bantry Bay. We highly recommend this dish–but I suppose there is a carbon impact when one eats mussels from Chile sold by an Irish company while hiking in the Blue Ridge. All told, it did feel like a big foot print (so to speak).

We followed the mussels with filet mignon, mashed fingerling potatoes, and green beans with mushrooms. It was great to eat next to the fire, and the weather was perfect.

After dinner, we enjoyed the fire, made “break and bake” cookies in the frybake, and marveled at the beautiful starry night sky.

As we soaked in the sounds of crickets and tree frogs, all was well in our world–until Souzz was startled by a huge, smelly, hairy creature tromping around near the cabin.

I was just getting some more wood.

Happy Campers

This past weekend I had the chance to go on an adventure with a friend that I’ve known since the 1960s. Tim and I share a hometown and a lot of interests–including a passion for the outdoors–and we’ve been tied together for a long time (sometimes literally, on technical climbing trips). Tim also happens to be my brother.

This was to be the first-ever backpacking trip for Tim’s sons Sebastian and Tristan, so it seemed important to pick a good place! We chose one of our favorites, the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, about three hours to the west by car.

The Sods are one of our favorite places for a bunch of reasons. There’s a great trail system, nice cool weather (even in summer), and the high elevation (4000′) translates to flora and fauna that are more typical of Quebec. It is the southern-most range of a lot of interesting plants, and the winds up high are so constant that many of the spruce trees are three-sided.

The human history of the Sods is interesting, too, as the region was named after a German immigrant (Johann Dahle) that used the area for grazing cattle in the mid-1800s. At some point, the spelling of the region was changed to the now familiar Dolly, and in 1975 the area was designated as Wilderness.

Some years back, we had the chance to meet one of the original Dolly descendants, known to the locals simply as “Mister Dolly.” We wanted to cross his property with our kayaks to access the river, so we walked up Dollytown Road (really) and knocked on his door to ask permission. He answered right away and talked with a thick accent and a rapid fire cadence that made him hard to follow (but made it easy for my friend KB to imitate him afterwards).

As we chatted, we noticed that Mister Dolly was calling city folk like us “smarties,” and we wondered where the conversation was headed. But in the end he charged us a dollar a boat and tucked the bills into his shirt pocket in a way that made it seem like he’d done that before. It was a pretty good deal considering that we got river access and a story, all for $4. We enjoyed meeting him…and he seemed to enjoy meeting us.

mrdolly
That’s me and Souzz to the left with a few smartie friends. Guess which one is Mister Dolly?

Smarties or not, the Dolly Sods are a pretty smart destination. We started out from Red Creek Campground under cloudy skies but generally great weather. Sebastian and Tristan did more than their part, carrying packs that included their gear as well as a Nerf football. Tim and I shouldered the rest—including a generous kitchen and a rain tarp (in case the skies ended up “watering the family tree,” so to speak).

The trail was wet and muddy, but that didn’t dampen anybody’s spirits–and might even have lifted a few, as the boys enjoyed the challenge of keeping dry feet. The hike was fairly straightforward and the terrain and scenery were interesting, including blooming mountain laurel. We also saw a deer and jumped a wild turkey, so we had a pretty good sampling of the flora and fauna.

DSCN2880

At some point, the boys decided to “gameify” the hike and rock-hopped most of the way. I have no idea who won–but when we got to camp, they immediately started throwing the Nerf ball, played baseball using hiking poles as bats, and swimming in the creek. There was no shortage of energy in this crowd (or at least half of it).

The trip really wasn’t about the food…but what backpacking trip isn’t at least a little about food? With this being a short hike, just four miles or so, we’d brought along homemade beef jerky, antipasto, homemade Buffalo wings, and the makings for two fry-bake pizzas.

The boys jumped right into prep, which was a great help! For the pizzas, we used store-bought fresh dough and sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, and a bit of fresh basil. For the baking itself, we used 6 charcoals on the bottom, 12 on top, and the baking took about 50 minutes (which gave us time to devour the wings, which we heated in a frybake).

After dinner, we started a fire and then we turned attention to dessert. The center of attention was a treat that dates to the 1920s that was originally called a graham cracker sandwich. Now it is commonly called a s’more—two graham crackers, chocolate, and a roasted marshmallow. No matter how old I get, s’mores are still a ride right back to childhood, when my campfire limit was about a dozen. As an adult, just one bite had me searching for a glucometer (a new vocabulary word inspired by the trip).

What I’d forgotten about s’mores is just how social an experience that they are. For starters, there’s the need to search for and then carve the perfect roasting stick, with plenty of consultations along the way. That’s followed by a lot of discussion about the best area of coals for roasting, and then a lot of riffing on anyone that drops a marshmallow into the fire. The whole process is a Sociology Masters Thesis waiting to be written (providing one has access to a good ultralight glucometer and doesn’t mind that nobody reads their thesis).

After enjoying a handful of s’mores, my nephews told us that the only thing that they loved more than s’mores was ice cream. Of course, we knew that going into the trip, so there was another surprise in store. Through the wonders of dry ice, two pints of (very frozen) ice cream made their appearance, along with grishgroom (homemade chocolate sauce). At that point, the night became one long sugar coma. And isn’t that what a backpacking trip should be with your dad and your uncle?

 

DSCN2873
Tristan, Tim, and Sebastian, ready to head homeward

Buddy, Can You Spare A Rib?

Virginia is bracing for record-breaking snowstorms tomorrow, but I’m still basking in the glow of a fun backpacking trip last weekend with my friend KB. We went to Brown’s Hollow, near New Market, Virginia, and we had a fabulous hike. We also cooked up a storm, and once again our frybake dutch oven came in very handy. Past frybake meals have included lasagna, cheesecake, enchiladas, even Baked Alaska, but we’ve never deep-fried anything–until this weekend.

Barbecued ribs have always been a favorite dish, but a dish that typically takes hours–which is completely impractical in the backcountry. But deep-frying offered a shortcut, so we decided to give it a try. To make it happen, we brought along a rack of pork ribs (of course), two cups of peanut oil, and some extra stove fuel. We used a recipe for beef ribs that we adapted a bit, and in true Eiger Sanction tradition I was smart enough to get KB to carry the ribs.

Brown’s Hollow is a great hike along a beautiful stream, complete with cascades and beautiful views as well as some interesting rock formations. And, like much of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, it offers both geological as well as human history.

The hollow was named after the family of former Old Rag postmaster William Brown, whose ancestors lived in the valley through the 1800s. Life could be a challenge in those days, but much of the recorded history is decidedly upbeat. One of William Brown’s descendants shared that his family “may have been poor people, but compare them to the people in the soup lines in the Depression. They grew everything they needed, except coffee and sugar.” Food for thought.

William Brown
William Brown

After a really nice hike on a well marked trail, we dropped our packs, set up camp, and headed up to the saddle of Brown’s Mountain. Once back at camp, dinner started in earnest with bacon-wrapped stuffed dates (hey, why not?) and then we baked some cornbread (also in a frybake, of course).

DSCN1438

IMG_5535

IMG_5556

While the cornbread was baking, we heated the peanut oil to 350 Fahrenheit (our MSR Dragonfly stove was a key, as was a small instant-read thermometer) and got busy with the ribs.

IMG_5543

IMG_5545

IMG_5550

Jose-Andres
Chef José Andrés

It was tricky to maintain the temperature of the oil on such a cold night, but in the end it worked out just fine. In addition to the cornbread, we cooked up some beans, and we topped things off with some Crown Royal and Swiss chocolate. Celebrity chefs like José Andrés couldn’t have done it better (ok, so actually José could’ve done better. Much better. But let’s see him hike.). 

Brown’s Hollow was a new destination and fried ribs was a new recipe, but both proved to be good choices. We also enjoyed the chilly weather, with lows in the 20s and a dusting of snow. The cold seemed like an invitation to shamelessly consume a lot of calories, a task that we took very seriously.

IMG_5537

IMG_5567

Adventures with KB, a great friend for nearly 30 years, are always fun. We had a nice hike, we stayed warm enough, we shared a lot of laughs, and we ate well. Sure, our pants are fitting a little tighter, but isn’t that the point? (ok, don’t answer that).

IMG_5578

 

Cakewalk

When something is easy or effortless, it is sometimes called a “cakewalk.” Suzy was first introduced to the term at her high school fair, where she bought a ticket, walked in a circle, music played, a number was called, and someone handed her a cake. She had to carry it home on her bike…but come on, it’s basically a free cake. If that happened every day, life would be a cakewalk, and I would eat a TON of baked goods. Anyway, I digress.

This weekenDSCN2675d’s cakewalk was a bit more involved–a six mile hike, two frybakes, 34 pieces of charcoal, a snake, and a windstorm—but it was worth it. We’d never made cheesecake or lasagna in the backcountry before, so we decided to do both while enjoying the brilliant fall colors. Our trail of choice was Racer Camp Hollow, near Great North Mountain on the Virginia-West Virginia line.

DSCN2669At the trailhead, we ran into a DSCN2673big group from the Georgetown University Outdoor Club, which hit the trail just ahead of us. It’s great to see other kindred spirits out enjoying nature, especially the next generation.

As for the meal, we assembled the ingredients ahead of time and froze them in ziplock bags. We also carried charcoal, a spatula, and two extra plastic containers for mixing bowls. Lastly, we carried a foil pie tin, which weighed next to nothing and worked well for keeping things warm by the fire.

As we crested the first big hill on our hike, I stumbled ontoDSCN2600 a snake right in the middle of the trail. Once I came back to earth– and Suzy stopped laughing–I realized it was fake, left by someone in the outing club to entertain fellow club members. I’m relieved to know that higher education is still paying dividends in this country, and that camping pranks have elevated beyond sneaking rocks (or beer) into a friend’s backpack. We thanked the outing club for the laugh when we passed their camp later. (Oh, and a belated thanks to KB for that backcountry beer in 1993.)

In late afternoon, we found a nice camp well up the trail, set up our tent, collected some wood, and set our sites on dinner. Souzz took the lasagna, and I took the cake (so to speak). For the lasagna, we used no-bake noodles, sauce, ricotta/spinach/eggs, sausage, and mozzarella. We carried the eggs pre-scrambled in a small plastic Nalgene bottle and added that in to the ricotta mixture at the last minute. Most of the rest was pre-mixed.

 DSCN2612 IMG_0115 DSCN2624 DSCN2633 DSCN2635

Prep was actually pretty easy, about 15 minutes, and the cooking took about an hour and fifteen minutes (18 coals split top/bottom). It’s trite to say it was worth the wait, but it’s also true.  And we enjoyed a nice fire, garlic bread, and a few appetizers while we waited. I’d give this dish a full five sporks on the Souzzchef rating scale.

IMG_0170  IMG_0184  IMG_0187

sour cream cheesecake
original recipe, written on an envelope!

Cheesecake prep was similarly easy, maybe 15 minutes. We used a package of graham crackers and third of a cup of butter for the crust, and 12 ounces of sour cream, eight ounces of cream cheese, two eggs, a half cup of sugar, a dash of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a half teaspoon of almond extract for the filling.  For the crust, we melted the butter over the stove and stirred in the crushed crackers. We assembled the filling, poured it in, and baked for about an hour and 20 minutes (eight coals on top, eight coals on bottom, adding some coals from the fire at the very end). For this dish, we used a “deep alpine” frybake (3 inches deep, a prototype not yet for sale but likely to be on the market soon).

IMG_0106 DSCN2611 IMG_0113 DSCN2617

DSCN2623 DSCN2625 DSCN2637 DSCN2644

A wind break would have helped, as cook time was slowed down by a light breeze, but that at least helped cool the cake afterwards. We added cherry topping and we had ourselves a nice fall treat.

The only thing we’d change is to avoid freezing the sour cream ahead of time, as it lost its consistency during the freeze/thaw.  As a result, the texture wasn’t even…so I’m only rating it four out of five sporks. There’s got to be a way to carry along some makeshift refrigeration, perhaps wrapping the sour cream with the other frozen ingredients.  Still, the cake was very good.

IMG_0173  IMG_0194

With dinner done, it was time to sleep.  Some years back, I took a mountaineering course and was told that I was sloppy with my gear–that one day something important was going to get blown away or covered in snow.  So my custom now is to pack camp tight before heading to bed, with everything bolted down in case of a surprise storm, an aggressive raccoon, or both (and I would totally post photos if a raccoon ransacked camp in the middle of a storm, as that would be kind of cool).

Lo and behold, the wind picked up in the middle of the night, and several times we were woken up by 35 mph gusts.  So many leaves were hitting the tent that I actually thought it was raining. We emerged in the morning to see that the wind had stripped the trees almost bare, and we had seemingly gone from fall to winter in a single night.  Two hikers that passed us in the morning shared stories of holding onto their tent fly with both hands, exciting stuff. 

We made coffee and a nice breakfast and marveled at how different things looked with all of the leaves gone.  The weekend wasn’t easy or effortless, but it sure had turned into a fun trip.  And then Suzy handed me a piece of leftover cheesecake. Did someone say cakewalk?

IMG_0101  IMG_0102