Eating outdoors, a cabin story, and a recipe

What to eat in the wild and the great outdoors? Now that’s a formidable question! Should we forage? Hunt? Pack in prepared dried goods? Is this a front country campground, a backcountry trip, or a stay in a cabin? So many options… (and so many recipe blog posts…fear not, I’ll eke them out over time!) Does food taste better outdoors?

 Food tastes better – and looks better – outside! 

Strangely enough, I attribute at least part of my enthusiasm and pretence at being an almost outdoorsman to a cookbook. A number of years ago, Mrs PlaidCamper stopped for a break and gasoline. Browsing a stack of books, she found “The Outdoor Living Cookbook” published by Williams-Sonoma. We love cookbooks (over the years, I’ve worked in a few kitchens, faking it and earning a living), so Mrs PlaidCamper bought the book. As with plaid shirts, you can never have too many…

We drooled over lots of the recipes, but truthfully, the real draw was the photography – dozens of pictures of lakes, forests, rivers, and cabins taken in all four seasons in many North American locations. We couldn’t (OK, I couldn’t) get enough of the outdoorsy settings. 

A few months later, we visited Brother PlaidCamper, a sibling who’d moved to West Virginia some years earlier. For part of the trip, we stayed in a 1930s log cabin, and were so happy – our first cabin visit – and we brought The Outdoor Living Cookbook with us. We were in a cabin! In the wilderness! Just like the cookbook! And with the cookbook! I remember Brother PlaidCamper looking at us, the cabin, and the cookbook we’d brought with us all the way from England. He glanced at his wife – born in West Virginia, no stranger to cabins, in fact she can’t fathom our romantic views – and they shrugged and shook their heads, thinking, so sad…

  Idyllic West Virginian cabin (well, we thought so…)

Where’s the recipe PaidCamper? Right, I’m on it. Last summer, we had a lovely lunch at SoBo in Tofino BC. We’d heard great things about the restaurant and weren’t disappointed. We bought the cookbook by SoBo’s talented chef-owner, Lisa Ahier. It’s a beautiful book, full of wonderful recipes, stories and pictures, a delightful snapshot of Tofino and the surrounding area through all four seasons – if you enjoy Pacific NorthWest ingredients, cooking and scenery, I highly recommend the book. A recent favourite to cook out on a barbecue is cedar planked salmon, and our method was inspired by the recipe in the SoBo book (her recipe uses dry mustard, we prefer grainy):

  • Soak your cedar plank in water for four to six hours 
  • Heat your barbecue/grill to medium-high
  • For each fillet mix 2 tablespoons grainy mustard with 1 tablespoon brown sugar and a sprinkle of salt 
  • Rub a little olive oil on each side of the fillet 
  • Place skin down on the plank and spoon the mustard glaze on top
  • Put the plank on the grill, close the lid
  • Cook for 15-25 minutes depending on fillet thickness, preference and grill speed
  • Check every few minutes, keep a jug of water handy for flames!

 Cook it, might be good enough to eat…

We often serve this with rosemary potatoes – bite sized pieces of potato mixed with rosemary leaves, a crushed garlic clove, a little salt and olive oil, and all wrapped in a foil parcel to cook on the grill. Delicious! Most recently, to drink with the meal, we had a couple of bottles of Red Seal Ale from North Coast Brewing, Fort Bragg, CA – spicy, hoppy, but not too overpowering, and a perfect companion to the fish. Lovely outdoor eating and drinking (I’ll be truthful, we cooked outdoors but ate indoors, it being early spring in the Rockies!)

  Definitely good enough to drink!

I have to admit, for me, the favourite part about cooking this recipe is the soaking and handling of the cedar planks. It is a beautiful aroma – I’d probably be content with a damp piece of cedar, a bottle of beer, and forget the actual cooking. Is that strange? Although, when I think about it, the fragrantly heady smoke from the grill is pretty pleasant too…instantly transported to the West Coast!

Do you have a favourite outdoor recipe? Please feel free to share. Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Canoes, Ray Mears again, and a slow start to paddling by PlaidCamper

With winter appearing to be over, my thoughts turn to spring as lakes slowly thaw and rivers start to flow. Canoes! Patience is required, at least here east of the Rockies, but as we wait, I ask myself, is a canoe the best transport ever? Yes! On northern waterways in particular. (There you are, question answered, and PlaidCamper’s shortest post ever).

Waiting for the waterways to open…

I love canoes. I wasn’t born in Canada, but my home is here, and there is so much about this country that is remarkable, especially for a late developing would be outdoorsman. If I had to make a top ten list of Canadian wonderfulness, canoes are near the top. (Oh no, will PlaidCamper be doing his Top Ten of Canada? Yup, sometime in the future. Man’s gotta blog, and I love lists too).

My first canoe experience took place in the UK, on the River Wye. A lovely river, it flows fairly serenely through beautiful border countryside between England and Wales. At the time, I was lucky enough to be living in Herefordshire, and we often took trips crisscrossing the border country, visiting crumbling castles, peaceful abbeys, pretty priories, and delightful inns and pubs. 

Just as well I’d taken in the countryside views previously, because, at the start of my first canoe voyage, I don’t recall seeing the scenery pass gently by. It was more me spinning the canoe around and around, my buddy in front getting steadily more irate at my inability to steer a steady course down the river. It didn’t help that we were a little flotilla of five, all close friends on a stag weekend, and there was a considerable competitive edge throughout. With each rotation, buddy in the front wasn’t happy watching the rest of the canoes disappear up ahead through the next river bend. (Earlier, I’d already proved to be hopeless at clay pigeon shooting, and let’s say I lacked speed when quad bike racing. Although when it counted, I was a clear leader in one event – sinking pints). Fortunately, we didn’t sink or overturn the canoe whilst performing a wobbly yet well choreographed swapping of places. I adopted a suitably heroic pose at the front, pretended to know what I was doing, my buddy let me paddle every now and again, and he steered us safely downriver to the pick up point. Another pub, if you were wondering.

                

Canoes on Moraine Lake, AB

So, not the best debut ever, but I didn’t let it get in the way, and I am happy about that, because every summer since being in Canada, we take out a canoe whenever we can. Is there a finer way of whiling away a few sunny hours? Spectacular scenery on a calm lake, or along a more challenging journey downriver, taking gentle to more strenuous exercise, and enjoying good company. I saw my first bald eagle from a canoe – what a feeling. I become completely Canadian just clutching a paddle, and I can’t wait for my buddy from above to come visit one summer – show him I can navigate safely and with confidence now!

For me, canoes are such a part of the Canadian identity, seemingly ever present in books, songs, movies and paintings. I can never resist taking a photo, always seeking to capture the essence or spirit of what canoes represent. The shape is beautiful, so elegant and purposeful, an absolute triumph of form and function. 

                

Lac Beauvert, Jasper, AB

Not only do I love canoes, I also love learning about them from Ray Mears. (Ray Mears is a role model for appreciating wilderness. And yup, there will be a future blog about him. He is a marvellous man). For an eloquent and boyishly enthusiastic video essay on the beauty, history, and total practicality of the canoe, I highly recommend watching Ray Mears learning to build and describing his love of birchbark canoes:

Ray Mears Bushcraft – Birchbark Canoes

A lengthy video, worth all the time, and really entertaining. Ray Mears’ bushcraft company Woodlore (RayMears.com) has occasionally offered courses related to birchbark canoes and canoeing. I think that one of these trips or courses really should be on my important things to do list. I hope Mrs PlaidCamper reads this and remembers it next time old PlaidCamper has a birthday. (Yes, I’m that unsubtle). If you’ve watched the video, you’ll be adding it to your own list too. Won’t you?

An evening view from a canoe – Bow River, AB

Have you ever stood in front of the canoes in an outdoor store, saying to your partner “but if we bought one and used it x times, it would be better than renting, in fact it practically pays for itself,”? Or is that just old PlaidCamper, every time he’s in MEC, trying to convince Mrs PlaidCamper it’s a good idea? One day, PlaidCamper, one day…

Be warned, canoes will likely feature over and over in this blog – and why not? Do you have a canoe story, or piece of water or stretch of river you’d like to share? Thank you for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Last chance for a winter walk – where did winter go?

Two weeks ago, PlaidCamper was a very happy boy because it snowed overnight in Kananaskis – while he was there! OK, enough of the third person…

Normally, that is not such a noteworthy weather event, but it was probably only the first or second time this winter season that I’ve experienced snow falling while being out in the mountains…maybe I haven’t been out there enough this winter! It has been an unusual six months or more, where the highest snowfall in Calgary was back in September. At school, students were making snowmen a few weeks into the new academic year. It is not entirely unheard of to get snow in any month, being so close to the mountains, but still – snow angels in September? There hasn’t really been that much snow on the ground since then. Continual chinooks over the city and relatively light(ish) snowfall out in the eastern Rockies have made it a different winter than usual. Lots of Calgarians don’t mind the chinooks, but there have been so many this year, and I like winter being just that – winter!

                     

Winter in Kananaskis

So, to be out in Kananaskis and to be hiking through deep(ish) snow, and in ongoing flurries was very pleasant. As the day progressed, the snow eased off, the clouds drifted away and the sun broke through, lighting up the landscape. Skies were the beautiful Alberta blue that I’ve come to love in the winter months. Stands of aspen that were a dramatic and moody black and white against grey skies earlier in the day, became silvery and shimmery when the bright sunlight hit them, the air so crisp and sharp that every spruce needle on each tree stood out clearly. 

                     

Becoming brighter…

It being late winter in the front country of the Rockies, nothing could be taken for granted, and not more than an hour after the skies cleared did the clouds come rolling back in, at first providing a misty cloak for the near distant mountains, and then completely enveloping them. After that, it was back to the more sombre feel of a monochrome winter day. The sparkly and the sullen all in a short while, winter fickle as a teenager.

                     

Back to the mists again – still beautiful!

There has been little snow and unseasonably warm temperatures since that walk, so it feels as if that’s it for winter this year, at least as far as snowshoeing and easier winter hiking goes. There’s still time for skiing and snowboarding up in the heights, but an early spring seems to have arrived in the foothills…unless winter has time for one or two more tantrums – here’s hoping!

Do you look forward to the end of winter? Is it a favourite season? Or is spring your thing? Feel free to share. Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Heading out and returning home – thoughts on belonging (plus a little book review)

These post headings are getting longer than the posts. Apologies on the PlaidCamper meander…

I never know what is best about a trip away from home – is it the planning, the trip itself or returning home? I love the anticipation, and even the thought of a short day out or a weekend trip can raise my spirits during what (sometimes) seems a lengthy work week. (Just to be clear, I enjoy my day job, teaching, but there can be moments when a lesson seems a lifetime, and then a brief thought related to an outdoor adventure puts things in perspective!) Positive longing for the outdoor trips, without wishing away the present, is likely no bad thing. 

If you’ve read even a little of what I’ve posted previously, you know that I’m an almost outdoorsman, with more enthusiasm than expertise, but a willingness to try most things, safe in the knowledge I’m not living the wilderness life full time and I go home at the end of the day, weekend or time away. I’d love to spend more time outdoors, but we have annoying responsibilities like educating students, and feeding a family…not to mention financing the adventures. 

                  

Colorado cabin – I’d happily spend more time here…

The reality is that the return from a trip can, for me, be almost as satisfying as heading out. I suspect it is because there is a marked contrast between the (very pleasant) everyday life I have, and the wonderful contentment of simply being in the mountains, or whatever version of the big outdoors I find myself in. The journey home is a time to reflect on this contrast. (Or maybe I just can’t wait to bore the pants off any audience with tales of my latest exploits?) I often wonder, can I call the mountains home? Our second home? Is home simply a sense of belonging? 

                  

North to the Fairholme Range, AB. Is this home? A sense of home?

The idea of contrast, between belonging somewhere and a sense of longing for somewhere else, is one that William Fiennes explores in his marvellous little book “The Snow Geese”. I had not read this until Mrs PlaidCamper urged me to a few weeks ago, saying she thought it would appeal to me. As ever, she was absolutely right. The book covers so much ground in a genuine and beautifully written way. Reducing it to the most basic description is to undermine exactly how good the book is, but here goes:

Fiennes was recovering from a dangerous illness, one that had left him weak, scared and uncertain about much that he had taken for granted. He spends time recuperating at his parents’ house, a place of security and familiar comfort. Slowly, his strength returns, and with it a growing restlessness. Part of the restlessness stems from watching and reading about migratory birds, some reading specifically about snow geese. As Fiennes thinks and researches more about migration patterns, he begins to feel the need to follow the snow geese on their journey from the southern US up to their northern breeding grounds in Canada. The security of the familiar has started to stifle him, and he questions his sense of identity. To find out who he might now be, Fiennes follows the geese, describing the people and places he visits along the way. 

Reading the paragraph above, I know I have done a terrible disservice to how brilliant the book really is. Trust an old PlaidCamper when I say the book is so much more than the sum of its parts. If you have ever pondered on the nature of home, belonging, and the need to travel to different places – and you have a love of wildlife – then you will enjoy The Snow Geese. It’s a delightful meditation on travel, learning, and the kindness of strangers in strange places. You’ll also incidentally learn so much about migration patterns in birds you might even want to follow in Fiennes’ footsteps. It’s got me thinking about a trip…



In the end, it doesn’t matter how or where you define home. A combination of being with the right people or person at the right time in a particular location, and feeling contentment in all that, can amount to a sense of belonging. Perhaps it isn’t easy to define – I do know that being in the wilderness helps me think about such matters, and that’s a fine way to spend time.

Have you read The Snow Geese? Do you have a travel or outdoor book to recommend? How do you define home? Feel free to share, thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Snowshoeing – get outside (and what a workout)

My first effort on snowshoes was a couple of years ago, and effort was the right word. It looked simple, and friends who were practised in the art said things like “oh, if you can walk, you can snowshoe” and this was perfectly true. Yet what they should really have said, especially to the unwitting first timer, was “oh, if you can walk comfortably wearing very large overshoes that spread your normal gait wider than is comfortable, while taking exaggerated strides, then you can snowshoe”. That would have been more true.

The physics of the shoes do work. Your weight is spread evenly, and you don’t sink far, particularly on firm snow packs. Not that I believed it – and me being a teacher too – silly boy. That first time was such an effort, getting all sweaty, legs burning and my heart pounding, overheating even in -15 temperatures. I remember thinking “are these snowshoes really necessary?” So I took them off and tried walking without. Sinking almost immediately into midthigh snow and trying to walk even a few metres was a lung buster – that unnatural snowshoe gait suddenly seemed very attractive. Old PlaidCamper never felt as old as he did than in those few steps without the snowshoes. My respect for the wit, wisdom and ingenuity of the original snowshoers increased exponentially with each floundering snowshoeless step. Snowshoes! A marvellous invention and a great way to travel! I put them back on, learned very quickly to adopt a good gait, and imagined I was Huron or Algonquin (go here for a brief history of snowshoes: snowshoes.com).

As much as I love them, skiing and snowboarding are sometimes too fast for taking in the natural beauty of wintry mountain valleys. There are times and days when a slower mode is what I’m after. Snowshoes fit the bill. We’ve gone from borrowing pairs, just to “give it a go”, to acquiring our own, such has been our enthusiasm. Real peace, quiet and solitude can be found on a pair of snowshoes. Especially since, after a few outings, my original laboured breathing, hammering heart, and ponderous lurching has diminished to the point where snowshoeing is perfectly simple. Now it’s all about pine scented air and breathtaking scenery:

Bow Valley, AB, Feb 2015

Honestly, take it from me – an old PlaidCamper – if you can walk, you can snowshoe!

Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Man flu thoughts…but still got outside!

What a brave little PlaidCamper. 

Sometimes, we can’t always get to the big outdoors – work commitments, timing or illness – but we can get outside. Living in Western Canada – Calgary, to be precise – almost anywhere outdoors can be delightful. For me, Calgary is a great place to be, located in the foothills of the Rockies, so an outdoor adventure can be had any time of the year. Even in the city there are many wonderful parks, with biking and hiking trails, enough to make being outside in the city a real pleasure in all seasons.

I try and get outside every single day for an extended period of time. Over the past year I’ve aimed to walk a minimum of 10 000 steps daily, and surprised myself by pretty much achieving that. I’d read somewhere that doing this is an excellent way of preventing future health complications. I’m no gym bunny, but walking appeals to me. We are designed to move at walking pace, and I manage to do most of my best thinking – whatever that means – when walking. So, even though I have been suffering – without complaint, just ask Mrs PlaidCamper! – from man flu, I staggered out today to hit my 10 000 steps. And it was a lovely afternoon! Minus 10C with blue skies and no real windchill, and the sun felt great. Days like today are what make this part of Alberta so pleasant to be in during the winter. It is a long season, but usually my favourite – either snow or blue skies, and rarely grey or overcast – you just get out and enjoy it.

I live close to Princes Island park on the Bow River, which means there are amazing views of the downtown, and today you could hear birdsong and there were various tracks in the snow – I like seeing and hearing animal traces, especially so close to the city centre. This afternoon, it got me thinking that even our large cities are quite temporary in the bigger picture, and that the Bow will still be flowing, and animals will still be leaving tracks in the snow long after we’re gone – those sort of thoughts are comforting. Not especially profound thinking here, mostly the product of a man flu fevered brain…

Thank you for reading, keep your guy ropes secure.

A pretty picture from this afternoon:



Why Plaid Camper?

Why Plaid Camper? I’m a new blogger so let’s start with an introductory post – and by doing that I’ll answer the question. There are many answers, but I’ll give it a try: I am (possibly) obsessed with canoes, cabins and camping. Oh, and checked shirts. I have too many plaid shirts in my wardrobe – there, I’ve said it. Unless I’m buying beer and outdoor or camping gear, I’m generally not very fond of shopping. Yet I find it hard to resist the allure of plaid. All my adult life, before grunge, through grunge and post grunge, I’ve worn checked shirts. When it was cool, and when it wasn’t, I’ve worn them. I’ve heard it’s cool again because bearded hipsters and lumbersexuals are wearing them. I do know I’m not cool because I overuse the word cool. PlaidCamper Jr told me that. I’ll write in later posts about where my outdoor enthusiasms began – I wasn’t born to it – but I like to think my (lack of) fashion choices played a part. So if I’m walking past a store and the display features even a hint of outdoorsy plaid, I’m in. I don’t always buy one, but when I do, it’s usually plaid. Although every now and then I like to surprise Mrs PlaidCamper – I go all daring and get a denim work shirt or similar. You know, out on a limb. The “old” in OldPlaidCamper? Why, some of the shirts are quite well worn… 

I wish I could write that I have a cabin and a canoe, and I spend many happy hours paddling about, fishing, and wearing my plaid shirts before heading back to fry up the fish I caught. I wish, but sadly that isn’t true, so this blog is called PlaidCamper. Not PlaidCabin owner or even PlaidPaddler, but maybe one day…However, I do have a tent, so it’s PlaidCamper. Not my real name, you may have guessed, but PlaidCamper is who I’ll be on here. I’m not sure I’ve really done much in the way of an introduction, but this first post is for you (and me) to dip a toe in the water. Preferably a lake or a river. We’ll get better acquainted further along as our stories unfold, and that’ll be fun. 

Keep reading if you have a love for the outdoors, you don’t take everything too seriously, and you don’t want to learn survival tips from a grizzled mountain man. I’m getting grizzled, but not so much in a rugged way, more in the aging way. Mountain man? Again, I wish, but it wouldn’t be true. I’ll write about my (sometimes) outdoor life, all the mistakes, confusion (have you read the bear advice?) and misadventures. It might include camping trips, visits to different cabins, how I can start a fire without matches (matches are quicker), or stories I’ve picked up from other happy hikers. I like to cook, so I’ll share favourite outdoor and cabin recipes, and I love movies with outdoor settings (but not you, Without A Paddle), so we can talk about that as well, and just see where this all leads.

I like to write, but I’m not very disciplined, so trying a blog might help me stick to the writing. I start stories but rarely finish them. Friends say “oh, you should write” – I suspect they really mean “please stop talking” but are too polite to say so. More later – thanks for reading, feel free to comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.  Little Bear Cabin, Near Bozeman, Montana