On my first-ever float trip three summers ago, I was ill prepared, to say the least. Nobody told me beforehand that river beds were made of sharp, pointy rocks (how would a city gal like me know that?), so I didn't think there was any reason to pack moccasins or other appropriate, sole-saving footwear. I didn't realize that three grown adults sharing a canoe could mean capsizing trouble, especially when one of those people happens to be a helluva drunk, or that a bikini top fastened together with a flimsy plastic clasp could be brought down (literally) by a single, low-hanging branch along the riverbank. (Thankfully, a friend in another boat brought along an extra sports bra. Otherwise, I might still be standing out there in the Meramec, holding my capsized canoe to my chest and looking around desperately for that dang clasp.)
Eating was another key factor of the float-trip experience where I ranked as a neophyte. I learned the hard way that a pre-made, poorly wrapped po-boy, a bag of chips and a bottle of Boone's Farm does not a happy camper make; it makes for a starving, soggy-bellied, malnourished one. On subsequent floats, I ratcheted up my rations substantially and boned up on the basics: a box of Pop Tarts for breakfast at the campsite, a pack of brats tossed into the cooler for dinner, and for lunch on the river, GORP (Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts) and Lunchables. (Good? Eh. Water-tight? Yes.)
Then last summer, as a friend and I discussed our upcoming annual float, inspiration struck. We were having dinner on the patio at King Louie's, that venerable midtown restaurant where warm weather ushers in their outdoor grill menu wood-roasted chicken, hickory-grilled top sirloin, roasted halibut. Couldn't we manage a similar level of gourmet gastronomy around the campfire? Would it really be any more difficult than piercing a wiener through the end of a stick and twirling it over the flames till it's done?
Turns out, no, it's really not difficult at all. In fact, it's remarkably easy to feast like a king on a float trip, requiring relatively little effort beforehand and about as much money as you'd normally spend on all those prepackaged foods.
"Are there really people who don't know how to foil-wrap a hunk of meat with onions, garlic, peppers, and a potato or two and set it in the coals for 45 minutes to an hour?" asks Washington University graduate student Adam Eggebrecht, an experienced floater and camper. (When he said this, I thought it best not to mention my travails from three years ago.) "It takes about twenty minutes of prep at home to wash and slice up veggies, wrap them in foil with your meat of choice, and throw it in a cooler and that's if you're preparing dinner for your whole group."
Which, coincidentally, is exactly what a friend and I did last summer: We rubbed some tilapia filets with olive oil, pepper and lemon juice, sealed them up individually alongside chopped veggies, and kept them on ice. When we cooked them over the fire the following night (simply by placing the foil packets atop the grill and leaving them be), we were heralded by our famished friends as the world's most innovative chefs. Remarked our buddy Scott: "Cooking the pre-bundled dinners seemed like even less effort than grilling hot dogs." And clean-up was as simple as balling up the leftover foil and stashing it away in a plastic bag (to recycle later at home, of course).
"Good planning and proper refrigeration" are really your main concerns when figuring out your float-trip cornucopia, according to local chef-turned-cookbook writer Abby Hupp, who actually sticks to old-school hot dogs and hamburgers on floats, claiming that "we eat 'gourmet' at home enough." Beyond that, any epicurean delight you can cook, grill, sauté, boil, roast, pan-sear or even bake in your home kitchen, you can likewise do at your campsite.
South-city resident and realtor Fred Hessel has prepared London broil on float trips. It's a perfect cut of beef for such an occasion, he claims, because "it tastes great medium or medium rare, and there's no need to marinate it." He simply dresses it up with a just-add-water package of demiglace. For his starch, he'll half-bake a potato in the microwave at home, then finish it off by swaddling it in foil and tossing it right into the campfire. Hessel is also fond of marinating chicken or sirloin beforehand, then cutting it up and arranging it on skewers with quartered onions, peppers and mushrooms. Once he's ready to grill them, he adds fresh grape tomatoes to the skewers.
Novice outdoorsmen would do best to first try camp-cooking a dish they already know from home, according to C.W. Welch, a former Idaho game warden and author of Cee Dub's Dutch Oven and Other Camp Cookin'. "You don't want to get lost in the recipe," explains Welch. Rather, a camp cook's attention should be focused on the fire and the heat it is (or isn't) producing. "Cooking is time and temperature," says Welch. "People don't have to learn a new recipe when cooking over a campfire, but they do have to learn a new way to manage their heat."
Toward that end, Welch recommends that beginners bring along charcoal briquettes to use as their heat source; they're easier to monitor and manipulate than a blazing pile of firewood. "If something's not cooking fast enough, you just add a few more briquettes. If it's cooking too fast, you take a few away. Instead of turning a dial on the stove, you're adding or subtracting coals."
As the title of Welch's book suggests, he is a huge advocate of the Dutch oven, a cast-iron pot with a lid and handle that dates back to colonial times. (A good one will run you about $25 to $50.) In it, he'll typically whip up a "mountain man" breakfast: omelets, bacon, hashed-brown potatoes, etc. Come dinnertime, he's keen on making enchiladas. Welch also claims that "a Dutch oven does about as good a pot roast as you can do. Put some potatoes, onions, carrots and celery in there with the roast. You really can cook anything in a Dutch oven."
With breakfast and dinner easily prepared over (and sometimes in) the fire, that leaves lunch. Even diehard gourmands often admit that they're never sure what quality foods to pack for the midday meal, since it's spent on the river and half in the bag. But there are easy, drunk-proof suggestions. Both Eggebrecht and Welch advocate pita bread (white or wheat) over sandwich slices for its versatility; it pairs well with anything from hummus to cold cuts to peanut butter and jelly. Speaking of peanut butter and jelly, a friend of mine, Karl, inadvertently invented a float-friendly, sassier-than-Smuckers version of the classic PB&J last summer: peanut butter and Jell-O shot. "I didn't put in enough gelatin when making the Jell-O shots at home," he explains, "so they were more the consistency of jelly." Needless to say, none of us were disappointed with the results, and neither were all the fast friends we made on the spot who were tempted by Karl's saucy sandwiches.
Along those lines, one other handy piece of advice bound to make you some new river buddies comes courtesy of Welch. Most folks use bagged ice or frozen bottles of water to keep coolers cool. Instead, try freezing cans of beer. (They don't explode when frozen like soda cans do.) "Frozen beer will stay frozen for a long time," says Welch, "five or six days if you keep the cooler shut and taped." And if you don't? "Come late afternoon, people in other boats will pay dearly for one of your ice-cold beers."
Take Me to the River:
Try these top Missouri picks.
Current River (near Rector). Part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The see-and-be-seen hotspot for summer floating; perfect for first-time floaters. Crowded as hell on weekends, but you're bound to come away with a half-dozen crazy stories. The Current's best-kept secret? It's also great for winter floating.
Jacks Fork River (near Eminence). A tributary of the Current and widely considered one of the country's best floating and fishing spots. Compared to the party-hopping Current, it's relatively unpopulated by drunken hoosiers screaming "Show us your tits!" Best scenery, hands down.
Courtois and Huzzah Creeks (near Steelville). A quick 100 miles west of St. Louis, these sister streams are well-suited for daytrips. Renowned for their clear, gem-like waters. Don't pronounce their names phonetically; locals say Core-ta-way and Who-zall.
Eleven Point River (near Thomasville). Way, way down near the Arkansas border flows this National Scenic River, where hardcore floaters go to get away from it all. Enjoy cold, spring-fed waters and canopies of shade provided by near-ancient sycamores.
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