Snuggled deep into my sleeping bag, I could tell it was daylight only by the faint yellow hue that insinuated itself through the breathing hole at the top of my fleecy cocoon. Warm and far too cozy, I removed the orange foam ear plugs that vouchsafed a good night’s sleep, despite the snores of my various neighbors in the tents on either side of me. I heard voices that told me some of the men were back in camp after the early morning hunt.
I lingered in the warmth, thinking of the previous evening around the campfire when friendship and the words of Robert Service’s poems about the north country had woven a spell that kept us up until after midnight. I already knew that last night had gained a spot on my roster of all-time special occasions to remember, a list that has grown to several dozen files of memory and may soon require the assistance of an external memory bank.
It had joined the wildflowers of last June in Turnagain Pass, the trail out of McCarthy when my dog team had exceeded all my wildest dreams, last summer’s reunion on my back deck with my Girdwood “family,” and the time in September I had walked at nightfall, as if invisible, through the midst of two dozen ethereal moose gathered in a small copse of dark spruce and golden quaking aspen not too far from where I now lay.
My arms surfaced from the depths of fleece and microfiber to ignite the catalytic heater in my tent. I allowed it a few minutes to work its thermodynamic magic before I once again fought with the zipper on the sleeping bag, and exposed myself to the warming air. Pulling moistened baby wipes from their packaging, I used the cold cloths to do what I could insofar as personal hygiene was concerned, smeared a chunk of ice in a blue bottle labeled “Ban” under my arms, then quickly donned the layers of cotton and fleece meant to keep me warm.
I turned off the propane heater, unzipped the access flap of the tent, and crawled out onto
the “porch” created by a blue tarp under the tent and another blue tarp stretched over the tent to keep off the rain. My glasses were tucked deep within a jacket pocket, slowly warming so they wouldn’t fog when I donned them.
Still captivated by the spell of last night, I thought of another Service poem as I walked towards the camp kitchen to get a cup of water so I could brush my teeth:
It’s fine to have a blow-out in a fancy restaurant,
With terrapin and canvas-back and all the wine you want…
Well, I thought, we don’t have turtle and duck, but we have almost everything else here. It sure could be called a fancy restaurant. I amused myself while brushing my teeth:
Pork chops and canned Spam, and crisp heads of lettuce,
Coffee and sodas and large jugs of Bailey’s,
Pastries and onions and bright yellow mustard,
These are a few of the camp foods I see.
Burger and hot dogs, rib steaks and bacon,
Brought by four-wheelers and kept in coolers,
Sliced jalapenos to liven things up,
Even my favorite black coffee cup….
This was Tom’s kitchen, now under the stewardship of Matt, because the big “C” took Tom from us several years ago. There have been some changes, new equipment such as the compact four burner propane stove with oven, but all in all, it’s pretty much the way Tom had set things up every year for close to 20 years. The extravagance of the kitchen stove became a necessity after Tom left and didn’t pass on his skill at baking birthday cakes in a Dutch Oven. Matt has perfected meatloaf in the heavy iron cooker, but the biscuits and cakes go into the propane oven.
Every item, all the foodstuffs, paper plates and paper towels, TP and bottles of propane, huge coolers full of ice, everything had been brought by four-wheelers towing trailers in countless trips over a boulder strewn, deeply rutted trail that could disappear into a bottomless bog around the next turn, or present a hill that required each and every horsepower the ATV engines had. This was no roughin’-it camp, no MREs, no diet of peanut butter sandwiches for the duration. This was Tom’s legacy, and the fine dining continued.
Corn on the cob, charcoal grilled rib eye steaks, green salads full of fresh veggies, roast pork tenderloin, sautéed zucchini, biscuits and gravy, pancakes with fresh-picked blueberries, and grilled fresh moose tenderloin were on the menu.
The kitchen area was covered temporarily with a blue tarp when I got to camp. As soon
as the younger men arrived, it was replaced with clear plastic and the nearby cottonwood trees began to decorate the transparant ceiling with falling leaves of gold.
The Boulder Creek "fancy restaurant” kitchen.
In addition to the propane range and a charcoal barbecue, we also had a flat grill, the only surviving piece of equipment from the l964 fire that destroyed Lower Tonsina Lake Lodge that Howard’s parents had owned. Each year he brings the old restaurant grill to camp. Over in a corner by the snack table waits the burner and pot and five gallon jug of peanut oil for deep-frying turkeys.
A stout expanded metal grate extends over the campfire and holds a restaurant quality cooking pot for heating water. Another propane burner and heavy duty pot are set aside for boiling drinking water.
A tall spruce tree stump stands in a front corner of the kitchen and nestled in a “vee” between two exposed roots is a bronze plaque embedded in concrete, inscribed with these words:
Thomas Rush Smith
Faithful Indian Guide
Near the top of the stump, fastened to its sturdy trunk, are some of the cross pieces that form a grid to hold the rainproof plastic ceiling that protects us—and the kitchen—from rain or snow. I wondered if it was serendipity or by design that Tom’s memorial plaque just happened to fit in that hollow between the roots of this tree, this tree that now holds protective arms above to shield his friends?
This was Tom’s domain. No one was allowed in his kitchen—ever—until the last when, weakened by disease, he allowed “guest cooks” into his territory.
I thought about him as I stirred the meatballs and gravy and kept an eye on the wide egg noodles simmering in the steaming pot. The Happy Hour whistle was hanging from its hook, and Tom’s spirit was alive and well in our midst. Was he watching from his place at the fire? Maybe leaning against the tree that rises above his memorial plaque?
When dinner was ready, I considered Tom’s traditional call to man your plates and forks: “Come and get it or I’ll throw it out!” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. That’s Tom’s job. I was just a guest cook for a blow-out in a fancy restaurant.
© Sept. 2007, Gullible