Alimentary, My Dear
Putting Something By for a Rainy Day
By Tamia Nelson
July 18, 2006
It's an old joke, and it goes something like
this: Three men are shipwrecked on a desert island. One is an engineer. The
second, an archaeologist. And the third is an economist. Just as their hunger
pangs are becoming unbearable, however, the forlorn castaways find a
restaurant-size can of corned beef among the tide wrack on the beach. It's a
little rusty, but it looks to be intact. The castaways rejoice. But their joy
turns to despair almost immediately. What's the problem? They don't have a can
The engineer is the first to react, grabbing the can and climbing to the top
of a towering palm. From this lofty perch he drops his burden, hoping to smash
it open. But the sand beneath the palm is soft and deep, and when his
companions rush up to gather in the harvest, they discover that the can isn't
even dented. The same can't be said for the engineer, unfortunately. In
climbing down, he falls from the palm and sprains his ankle.
Now it's the archaeologist's turn to have a brainstorm. He grubs frantically
in the scrubland surrounding an abandoned native shelter, certain that he'll
find a discarded knife or other sharp tool to use in lieu of a can opener. But
after half an hour of digging, he has only the blisters on his fingers to show
for his trouble.
That's when the economist gets up from the shady spring hole where he's been
lounging while the archaeologist wore himself out scratching in the earth. The
economist smiles a carefree smile and clears his throat. The engineer and the
archaeologist wait for him to speak, but he doesn't seem to be in much of a
hurry. The tension grows greater by the minute.
"I have the solution," the economist suddenly announces, breaking the
silence. His tone is confident, and the engineer's and archaeologist's spirits
immediately soar, the pain of their injuries momentarily forgotten.
Then the economist continues, choosing his words with great care: "First,"
he says, "let's assume we have a can opener.
If only it were this easy to deal with a food crisis in the backcountry. But
it isn't. And the problem can't be assumed away. No matter how carefully
canoeists and kayakers plan, unanticipated delays and unforeseen setbacks
aren't exactly rare. Even good paddlers have been known to swamp or capsize,
requiring extended stays in camp to repair boats and salvage gear. Nature
sometimes throws a curve, too. A siege of bad weather can force a party to lay
up for days at a time. (These are only a few of the reasons why leaving a "float plan"
with a trusted friend or relative is a Very Good Idea.) Of course, not all
delays are the result of bad luck. Fortune sometimes smiles like the
times when a campsite is simply too near perfection to
abandon after only one night. Whether such exigencies are the work of Nemesis
or Fortune, though, they can hit the camp cook particularly hard. There are no
HyperMarts in the backcountry.
And hold-ups aren't the cook's only problem. A torrential downpour in the
night can breach all but the best waterproofing, turning
the food in one or more packs into a sodden, unappetizing mass. Uninvited
guests can also take their toll, as can spoilage. The result? Short rations
at best. Missed meals at worst. Luckily, there's a simple way to avoid either
Give Yourself Some Slack
There's a lot to be said for going light, but whatever you do, don't skimp
on food. If the prospect of an extended stay in a gale-whipped camp without
your copy of the Oxford Book of
English Verse seems unendurable, imagine how much worse you'd feel if
you didn't have three meals a day to look forward to. Thinking about living off
the land? Think again. Not only is foraging for food often illegal, but it's
usually mighty hard work into the bargain. And the reward for your labor can be
pretty skimpy hunters and gatherers can't always count on eating regular
meals. Moreover, we paddlers are guests in the backcountry, and it's bad
manners for guests to snatch food from their hosts' mouths. After all, the
wildlife who live where we play can't run down to the corner store when we
empty their pantry, can they?
In short, if you don't like missing meals, you have to plan for the times
when things don't go according to plan. My rule of thumb? It's a sliding scale.
On a day trip, I carry enough food to see me through an overnight bivouac in
comfort, increasing this to a full day's worth of extra rations on weekend
adventures. Longer trips demand still more, of course, so I budget an extra
20 percent for exigencies, whether of whim or nature. This means that I
pack six day's food on a five-day trip, twelve day's food on a ten-day trip,
and so on. True, I often curse the added weight on the portages but I
bless my foresight whenever the weather turns against me. I think the trade-off
is worth it.
Now only one question remains:
What to Take?
But there's no single, simple answer. To begin with, everyone has her own
list of favorite foods, and most of us can think of at least one dish we
wouldn't eat under any circumstances short of outright
starvation. Vegetarians won't thank the camp cook if he makes beef jerky
the mainstay of the menus, for example, while meat-and-potatoes types will
almost certainly find tofu a bit hard to stomach. So if you're the cook,
take the time to get to know your companions' likes and dislikes long before
you head for the put-in. That job done, steer the best course you can through
the shoal waters of meal planning. You probably won't keep everybody happy all
of the time, but at least you'll know there's something for everyone at every
Then, once you have a tentative menu, it's time to consider your own
convenience. If you prize ease of preparation and good keeping qualities, and
if price is no object, big outfitters like Campmor stock a wide range of
"no-cook" or "quick-cook" freeze-dried and dehydrated meals. These make good
exigency stores they're the backcountry counterpart to the TV dinner. It
pays to taste-test your choices at home or on short trips before relying on
them for a three-month-long expedition, however. The same is true of MREs
(Meals Ready to Eat), the modern military quartermaster's response to
Napoleon's famous observation that all armies travel on their stomachs. Widely
available from outfitters and surplus
stores, MREs are undoubtedly an improvement over the C-rations that
preceded them, but they're far from perfect. MREs are heavier than freeze-dried
meals, for one thing, and they're no less costly. Still, they can be eaten as
is, hot or cold, with no more preparation than opening the pouch. Or not
eaten. And that's the rub. While hunger is reputedly the best of sauces, MREs
aren't everyone's idea of a happy meal. Be sure you try a few before you order
a case lot and just to be safe, invite your paddling buddies to dinner
when you do.
Is the easy option too limiting? Too institutional? Too costly? No problem.
There are plenty of economical alternatives for creative cooks, and you'll find
them as close as the shelves of your local HyperMart. Examples abound. Instant
couscous only needs to be stirred into boiling water, covered, removed from
the flame, and allowed to sit for a few minutes before it's ready to eat.
Measure dry couscous out into portion-sized quantities, store in doubled
plastic bags, and you've got the start of many a filling meal. Add flavor by
stirring instant soup mix or bouillon cubes into the water as it comes to a
boil, just before you add the couscous. Then beef it up with jerky, or add
precooked chicken or beef from retort packets. Want a vegetarian alternative?
Look for TVP (texturized vegetable protein) and freeze-dried or dehydrated
veggies in food co-ops and health-food stores. (Add these to the water at the
start, however before you put the pot on the fire.)
Want something that's really easy to prepare? Don't overlook
concentrated, calorie-rich foods like hardtack, cereal bars,
hard candies, dried fruits,
and chocolate. (A
hint: Chocolate chips and semisweet baker's chocolate keep better than most
chocolate bars.) Individual packets of instant oatmeal are worth considering,
too. They're not just for breakfast. In
fact, Farwell eats oatmeal for lunch all winter. Oatmeal fuels his engine for
the long, cold, bicycle ride from his St. Lawrence valley office back into
the Adirondack foothills. One packet probably won't be enough for a hungry
paddler, though. Farwell suggests a minimum of two per meal. This sort of thing
isn't gourmet fare, of course, but it gives you just the boost you need when
you're exhausted, or when the weather is simply too foul to permit elaborate
Beverages are also important. Remember Jerome K. Jerome's words in
Three Men in a Boat? Pack "only what you need
enough to eat
and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a
dangerous thing." This is very good advice. Instant cocoa was once a staple
food on polar expeditions. It's still a welcome addition to exigency stores.
And while neither tea nor
contributes any calories to your diet, many paddlers find that these old
favorites banish fatigue and lift spirits. I, for one, am not fit company if I
don't have my breakfast java, and that's no jive. Fruit-flavored drink powders
have their fans, as well. Since they're not made with boiling water,
however, and since you probably won't want to drink the stuff you're paddling
in, you'd better be sure you have a way to disinfect
what's under your keel. In any case, it's not always easy to build a fire
to "bile the kettle," especially when the wind is blowing a gale and the rain
is lashing down.
OK. Once you've assembled your chosen foods and stripped them of any excess
packaging, only one job remains. You have to
It's not a bad idea to segregate your exigency stores in doubled, heavy-duty
plastic bags, or in one or more vinyl and fabric dry bags, if regular
food-storage bags aren't large enough. Mark these bags clearly to discourage
anyone who might be tempted to "borrow" from the emergency rations under way.
It's no fun to find the cupboard bare just when you most need a meal, is it?
Now relax. You've planned for the times when things don't go according to
plan. Putting it another way, you've made your own luck. Enjoy!
Assuming that you have a can opener or anything else only
works for economists. (And not very well, at that.) Canoeists and kayakers
just can't conjure up extra food from nowhere, whether or not they have real
can openers in their packs, not even if they're economists during the workweek.
The remedy? Expect exigencies and be ready for them. Put extra food by for a
rainy day, a second night in that perfect campsite you didn't expect to find,
or a short stay on a desert island you simply can't resist exploring. You won't
be sorry that you did.
Copyright © 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights