I’ve just returned from our annual family hunting camp. We pull the travel trailers into the same space every year, close to a spring with a pipe where we can fill water jugs and barrels to refill the water tanks in the trailers, so it isn’t truly dry camping.
At this time of year, we usually can’t have a real fire, so some years ago, Dennis bought a propane campfire ring that we put inside the stone fire ring and pretend that we have a real fire without the danger of setting the forest alight.
Every morning before daylight, the hunters make coffee in my son’s trailer and eat some instant oatmeal, yogurt, cold cereal, or cereal bars before they head out into the woods to hunt from blinds on migration trails or from tree stands. This year, my son filled his bear tag. As you know if you follow my Garden, Forest, Field blog, I am a big fan of bear meat and love cooking it. Joel said, “Mom, you’re gonna have to give me some coaching.” Of course, I will! Joel and Dennis trimmed 3 gallon bags full of fat off this bear, which I froze and will render a bit later, to use in pastries and for cooking and frying.
Those who aren’t hunting can sleep later and eat home-baked goodies like blueberry muffins, scones, coffee cakes, etc. with their coffee or tea (me). I made a bunch of gluten-free goodies—recipes for gluten-free, apple-cinnamon coffee cake and gluten-free, flaxseed scones coming to www.gardenforestfield.com soon!
When the hunters return around 11 a.m., we often make a big breakfast together, with scrambled eggs, (bear) sausage or bacon, country potatoes or pancakes. (And this year, one breakfast included fried bear liver and bear heart from Joel’s bear.) Then, it’s off to the swimming hole at the river or a visit to one of the many nearby lakes for an afternoon jaunt.
This year, one excursion was to Willow Lake. This lake is unique for our area, but much has changed since I first visited it more than 20 years ago. At that time, I was with a group of college students. I was taking a natural history course at Lassen College at the time, and our instructor, Jim McMillan, brought us up to Willow Lake to look for birds and walk on what makes, or made, Willow Lake unique: the sphagnum bog.
I remember at the time, Jim told us that the bog was turning to marsh, and the marsh would eventually turn to meadow. I never thought I’d see it happen in my lifetime, but in our visit there a few days ago, it was clear that much, if not most, of the bog was gone because of the severe drought in California. Here is a link to pictures of the lake taken in 2007, before this current drought started: http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/CA-PLU-WillowLake.html.
Our area in Northeastern California has been through several severe droughts since we moved here in 1996, and the bog has persisted, but this is probably the worst drought of all, and I don’t know if the bog can survive another dry winter. I fear not. It made me sad to see the change, but the lake itself is still beautiful, and I remind myself that nature is constantly changing and evolving. Here are my pictures of the lake from the trail above.
The swimming hole on the river was lower than it was in July, naturally, and the water was so cold, I waded for a few minutes, hoping my feet would get used it. I climbed out after five minutes, completely numb, and it took another five minutes, at least, for feeling to return to my toes!
After we swim or wander, it’s back to camp for something to eat for the hunters before they go out for the evening hunt. For the non-hunters, it’s cocktail hour. I brought some of my favorites this year: bear liver pate (from Dennis’s bear in archery season), and charred salsa. We also had various cheeses, chips, crackers, and wine and beer (because it’s cocktail hour, of course). A snack is necessary because we don’t eat dinner until the hunters return after dark, about 8 o’clock in the evening.
This year, I made an executive decision to do dinners differently. Last year, I ended up being camp cook, cooking up the raw ingredients everybody brought. I was kept hopping between the outside propane grills and the stove top in the trailer. I was exhausted after camp was over, and I decided that I wanted to enjoy the dinner hour more with my family.
So this year, I asked everyone to bring a make-ahead meal that could just be reheated quickly and easily. I took two nights, and I got to make a couple of my favorite dishes: Bear Sausage and Eggplant Lasagna, and spaghetti with bear sausage in Italian Red Sauce (the sauce was in the freezer, and I used it in both dishes). I froze both the lasagna and the spaghetti sauce, so all I had to do was heat the lasagna in the oven, the spaghetti sauce on the stove top, cook the spaghetti noodles, throw a salad together, heat up some previously cooked green beans with bacon and onion that I’d also frozen, and heat up some store-bought garlic bread. That was dinner on arrival night, and we had leftovers to munch on through the rest of the weekend.
The other meal I prepared ahead was Pulled Pork. This is such an easy crock pot recipe, and I was able to cook it ahead, skim the fat off the drippings so I could make my own sauce, and freeze it all in gallon bags. I took the pork and sauce out to thaw the morning of my dinner obligation, and when it was thawed, I put it all in a 9X13 baking pan, poured the sauce over it and mixed it up, covered the pan with foil, and heated it in a low oven (250 degrees) until it was hot. The French rolls (from Grocery Outlet) were hanging out in the freezer to keep them fresh, so they were also thawed. To go along with the pulled pork sandwiches, I bought bagged, shredded coleslaw mix and made up a big jar of my famous (in the family) coleslaw dressing. My son says he hated coleslaw until I started making this dressing. All I had to do the night of serving was chop some onion, which my sister did for me, and mix the shredded cabbage and carrots with the onion and previously-made dressing. That night, we also had a big pan of the Pioneer Woman’s cheesecake squares with blackberry topping. I’d made the cheesecake ahead and frozen it, and the topping was hanging out in the trailer fridge for a few days. That cheesecake was a big hit, even though the top was badly cracked (despite the pan of hot water in the oven).
Other families brought other things: my sister, Goldie, and niece, Brielle, brought homemade chili and macaroni salad (my sister’s specialty, and oh, it is so good!); my son, Joel, and his wife, Tori, brought smoked and barbecued ribs (Joel did a great job with them), mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob, and my sister-in-law, Cheryl, and my other niece, Corrine, brought the fixings for steak fajitas and seven-layer-dip. Brielle also brought homemade cookies, and Goldie brought homemade pumpkin and banana-nut-bread, and Cheryl and Corrine brought apple cake, chocolate zucchini cake, and zucchini bread made with my mom’s old recipe, which adds pineapple to the mix. Cheryl gave us all a copy of the recipe, which made me very happy.
After dinner, we sat around the propane fire ring and sang along with Joel on the guitar, or we told stories about our parents and people we’d known growing up. We had such a good time every night, nobody really wanted to go to bed.
Family and great food and the beautiful mountains. It doesn’t get any better than that. We all look forward every year to family hunting camp.