Dinner In The Woods

Forget candle-lit dinners in snooty restaurants, give me a slightly burnt steak in the woods.

A few days back, my boyfriend, dog, and I ventured into Pike’s National Forest for dinner. It was a decent drive on the dirt paths winding up the mountain, and one we’d taken before. We finally stopped near the top of one very high hilltop, deep in the woods, where few people go.

We set up camp, including a tent I purchased second-hand from Rocky Mountain Recyclers. Mostly, we wanted to test it out. It set up quickly (and later, came down quickly) and appeared as though it would serve us well. Boyfriend sprayed it down with a water-resistant coating to protect it, while it was up.

Although we brought the tent and set it up, we had no intention of actually staying the night. We only wanted to test out a few things, and see what we might need later. For one thing, we didn’t have a bear canister, or any means really of avoiding attracting animals. As a result, we didn’t bother to bring a number of things we’d typically need for an overnight stay (although we do have emergency packs, just in case.)

Setting up a fire was easy. The boyfriend had called the ranger station earlier that day to confirm that there was no fire ban and find out what rules were in effect. The woman on the phone said that it was preferable that we use an existing fire site (not necessarily an artificial fire pit, but somewhere people have burned before to avoid further environmental impact.) There was a large ash pile near where we set up. It looked like someone had a large bonfire there. But there was too much ash for that site to be any good for cooking, and it was full of shell casings and broken glass.

However, we quickly found another fire site nearby where it looked as though someone had buried a small fire pit. It was perfect. We cleared the layer of dead plant matter, made a rock circle, and collected dead, dry pine needles for tinder. There was some trouble getting the needles to stay lit. It was probably an oxygen issue. We’ll try making a teepee of small twigs and placing needles around it next time to encourage more air flow. This time, however, I took some dryer lint from my emergency kit (I had earlier poured a very small amount of lantern oil on the lint before packing it) and placed it under the needle bundle. It worked quiet well and we were off. We had no trouble keeping the fire going after that, as there was no shortage of dead, dry wood about. Boyfriend employed his ax, but I found little need for it.

Once the fire had been burning for a while and we had some good coals, we set up my small, metal, campfire grill. This was actually the first time that I’ve been able to use it since I bought it. It was sturdy where it stood, but next time, I think we’ll sink the legs into the dirt a bit more. The steaks cooked beautifully (the boyfriend saw to that.) I like mine juicy on the inside, and crispy on the outside, and that’s exactly what I got (my steak was even on fire a little bit.)

I tried a few experiments. Before we left home, we prepared two baked potatoes wrapped in heavy-duty tin foil. We placed these directly on the coals. It was taking forever to cook. At one point, we put the foil bundles on top of the grill, but then quickly moved them away from direct flame (a few sticks I placed earlier caught larger than I intended) when we remembered the relatively-low melting point of aluminum (about 1200F, if I recall.) It might have worked better if our tin foil bundles hadn’t leaked. I had to keep adding water. Next time, I think we’ll double-layer the foil. Still, what we eventually got was delicious even if the potatoes were a bit firm and bacon pieces a bit burnt.

The lazy bannock did not work so well. Somehow, I got it in my head that I could just use biscuit dough. I tried some wrapped around a stick, and some rolled into balls and placed on the grill. It all just melted.

My last experiment involved an aluminum water bottle from the dollar store. I wanted to see if I could boil water without melting a cheap water bottle. The outside of the container did blacken, but didn’t melt. I was able to safely boil water without any problem. Next time, I think I might be able to boil the water farther away from the fire to avoid charring the bottle. In any case, it’s nice to know that, in an emergency, I can boil water in a sturdy container that only cost me one dollar.

Molly was pleased with the whole trip, it seemed. I placed a blanket on the ground for her, and put food in water in her folding doggy dishes. She was more than happy to take our leftover potatoes and steak. A few times, she wandered a little ways into the woods, which worries us as there could be dangerous animals around, but she always returned to us quickly when called. She doesn’t much like to be alone anyway, and was probably just following a smell and didn’t realize how far she’d gotten. Eventually, she happily settled on her blanket.

As it grew later, the temperature began to drop. My boyfriend wandered over to where he’d rested his gear against a tree, and retrieved his sweater. Just as he pulled the sweater over his head, Molly stood and growled. She lowered he head and body slightly and her hair stood on end. She crept forward slowly, towards the direction where my boyfriend was standing. Immediately, my boyfriend grabbed his shotgun and aimed it into the woods. I flipped the knife I was holding. We still aren’t sure if Molly saw or heard something threatening in that direction, or if she was just growling at the boyfriend because something about the sweater bothered her (she once threw a barking fit the first time she saw the boyfriend with shaving cream on.) We assumed the worst and were on high alert for a bear or mountain lion or possibly a hostile human, possibly attracted by the food or by us. However, we never saw anything.

As it began to grow dark and cloudy, with the temperature dropping and with starting, followed by some light rain, we packed up quickly, fearing a storm. I was amazed at how quickly we got everything back together, even though we didn’t really have much. The fire was thoroughly out (Boyfriend poured something like two gallons of water on it, and it was never a big fire anyway,) and our tent was down, our food and chairs were stowed in the Pathfinder in no time. Then we drove down the mountain, pleased with how well the roof lights my boyfriend had installed were working.

It was a smoky, dirty, a bit of work, a bit out of the way, imperfect, exciting, and fun outing. It was a great way to enjoy dinner.

Posted on 2012/06/04, in Animals, Camp Cooking, Offroad, Outdoors. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Aunt Bunny

    Julie,

    Just wanted to comment on the need for a bear canister. I’ve been camping in Pike National Forest (near Cheeseman Res) for about 15 years & have never seen a bear or mountain lion. We usually have a pack of five to seven dogs with us so I’m sure that keeps the predators away. I also put all the food & trash in the car overnight to reduce any risk to the critters who make their home there. I do not want to be the reason for any bears or cats to be killed.
    Please thank the boyfriend for me for taking the time to check on fire bans. The Hayman fire nearly destroyed our favorite camping spot so I’m a little bitchy about people ignoring
    fire bans. No surprise but most of the people I see with fires during a ban are families.
    “But little Billy & Susy wanted s’mores so we had to build a fire”. Yeah, tell that to the 100+
    people who lost their homes during the Lower North Fork fire this year. I’m sure they’ll give
    a shit.
    Sorry this got so long. Have a great summer & enjoy all your time outdoors!

    Aunt Bunny

    • Julie Was Here

      From what I hear, it’s not generally advised that people leave food in their vehicles. A bear would have no trouble breaking in, if it really wanted to.

      True, encounters with mountain lions and bears are unlikely, but I find it best to minimize my risks as best I can, and avoid allowing them to associate humans and campsites with food. I’d sure hate for anyone, human or bear, to be hurt or killed.

      I wasn’t in this state when the Heyman Fire happened, but I saw the devastation it left behind when my boyfriend and I went offroading in the area last year (about a decade after the fire happened.) As I understand, that one was caused by a worker for the US Forest Service, of all people. One person died as a direct result of the fire, and 5 more people, firefighters, died in an accident on their way to the fire.

      You’re probably right about people with kids being the ones most likely to ignore rules. Not all parents are like that, but among the entitlement-minded folks, many are parents who just can’t comprehend that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them and their kids.

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