Alimentary, My Dear
By Tamia Nelson
Tired of winter? So am I. Are you impatient for spring? Me, too. Winter's beauty is starting to pall. To make matters worse, I've gotten bored with fighting the battle of the bulge on a stationary bike and rowing machine. Swaddling myself in puffy layers and donning Yaktrax to pick up the mail have also lost their novelty. Luckily, there's a hint of change in the air. The days are noticeably longer, and the winter stillness is yielding to the quickening cacophony of spring. Woodpeckers are already hammering away, staking their claims to territories, while chickadees are singing the fee‑bee song with ever‑increasing vigor. And the squirrels have shaken off their winter lethargy at last. Now they're chasing each other round and round the trunks of the tallest pines, chattering furiously as they leap from branch to branch.
There's renewed activity on the home front, too. Many Canoe Country paddlers are taking their drysuits out of the closet and trying them on, hoping against hope that they haven't "shrunk" over the winter. Why? That's easy. In less than two weeks, the first club outings of the new year will bring scores of eager, shivering boaters to muddy put‑ins along New York's and New England's south‑flowing rivers. Of course, if you live a bit closer to the equator, you've probably been on the water already. But even if there's no thaw in prospect where you are — and if none is likely for another month or two — I'll bet you haven't been idle. There's nothing like longer days to get paddlers thinking about Big Trips to come. And food's always an important part of our trip preparations.
That's no surprise, is it? Whatever your fancy — whether it's chasing the run‑off down mountain torrents swollen with snow‑melt, taking laid‑back day trips on Golden Pond, or embarking on summer‑long sojourns as far from "sivilization" as your paddle can take you — this is a good time to ponder how you'll keep your motor running between meals. There's no such thing as passive paddling, after all. When you're the only engine in the boat, you have to keep fuel in your tank. And what happens if you ignore your body's warnings that you're running on fumes? Simple. Your engine will sputter to a stop. Marathon runners call this unhappy state of affairs "hitting the wall." North American cyclists call it "bonking" (and get giggles from any Brit within earshot). Whatever you call it, it's no fun. Luckily, though, bonking isn't inevitable. To avoid it, just snack frequently, keep your water bottle handy, and take short rest breaks every hour or so. Better yet, lay the foundation for every day by eating a hearty breakfast. But breakfast is only the beginning. The prudent paddler is…
A Constant Eater
Take a leaf out of the endurance athletes' playbook: eat before you're hungry. Don't scoff down just any old thing, though. Choose carefully. Everyone has his or her own favorites, obviously, but the best choices are foods that pack a lot of calories into a nutritious package. I call these high‑energy, high‑quality snacks "bonk‑busters." The criteria for inclusion are pretty straightforward. Bonk‑busters have to survive the rough‑and‑tumble of transport in PFD pocket and day bag, while also being easy to eat on the go. Balance is important, too. You're looking for lots of carbs — with a mix of simple sugars for quick energy and complex carbohydrates for staying power — along with modest amounts of fat and protein. (Extra vitamins and minerals? They're not really necessary in a bonk‑buster. That's what your main meals are for.) If you like to buy your snacks ready‑made you'll have plenty of choices. But convenience comes at a price, and I'm not just talking dollars and cents here. Few of the commercial energy bars and gels that I've come across could be described as tasty treats, and some of them are pretty grim fare, indeed. Then again, you can't ignore dollars and cents altogether. (Well, I can't, anyway.) Store‑bought "fitness" snacks don't come cheap. Even on a short weekend getaway you'll find the cost mounting up.
The alternative? "Real" food, of course. The sort of snacks you like to eat at home. Go with what you know. Let your local HyperMart be your outfitter, in other words. This is my shopping list:
- Hard candies (not sugar‑free ones)
- Fresh and dried fruit
- Bread, bagels, crackers, and pretzels
- Granola bars
- Sports drinks (liquid or powdered)
- Honey, jellies, and fruit preserves
But don't think for a minute that you're limited to what you can find on the shelves. Here are a few ideas for bonk‑busters you can make at home and take with you:
- Cookies, brownies, and fruit bars
- Quick breads
- Journey cakes
- Baked potatoes (No, this isn't a joke)
- Rice cakes
- That old standby, the peanut‑butter‑and‑jelly sandwich
- Jam sandwiches (Split a roll or mini‑bagel and spread with preserves)
- Newt Nectar or similar homemade sports drink
I suppose it's no secret that I prefer homemade to store‑bought, given the choice. While commercial quick breads are fine in a pinch, they aren't hard to make at home, and you can add just the nuts and dried fruits you like. The texture's usually better, too. Farwell swears by my Hundred‑Mile Oatmeal Bars. That's a plate of them on the right, waiting to be tucked into plastic bags for the trail. They're hearty, healthy, and delicious. They're also easy to bake and stockpile. Just freeze them and thaw as needed.
You may have been startled that I included baked potatoes in my inventory of homemade bonk‑busters. They're not on most folks' checklists of snack foods, I admit. But maybe they should be. Look at the facts: Baked potatoes are loaded with complex carbs, they're easy to prepare, they travel well, and they make a welcome change of pace from sweets. In fact, they were standard fare for itinerant laborers well into the twentieth century, and I suppose paddling could be described as recreational itinerant labor. So there's no reason why twenty‑first‑century canoeists and kayakers shouldn't take advantage of this inexpensive treat, is there? I eat them like I eat an apple. Give it a try. You won't be disappointed.
Or maybe you like the idea of eating out of hand, but you don't care for spuds. Then how about the Eastern counterpart to the laborer's baked potato: the rice ball or rice cake? Mini‑bannocks and other journey cakes are also good choices. They can even be baked fresh each day in camp, if you want.
And then there's our old friend, the sandwich. Make up a batch at home, bag 'em, and nibble as needed. Peanut butter and jelly is on nearly everyone's list of favorite things. (Except for folks with peanut allergies, obviously.) Hearty white bread from a so‑called sandwich loaf works fine, though I prefer mini‑bagels for mine. Farwell carries the sandwich idea to its logical (or illogical) conclusion, tucking a small plastic squeeze bottle of honey and a hunk of cheese into a cyclist's musette bag, along with a stock of pre‑cut mini‑bagels. Then he makes his sandwiches to order while under way. There's just one problem: Though he's mastered the art of sandwich making on a bike — he can assemble a sandwich and eat it without missing a single spin of the pedals — he hasn't learned the trick of doing it while paddling. But then it's pretty hard to do anything in a canoe or kayak without first putting your paddle down, isn't it? Even eating while paddling is well‑nigh impossible. The best you can do is suck sugary sports drink through a hydration‑pack hose. This is fine for them as likes it, I suppose, but it doesn't work for me. I crave solid food. That said, sports drinks certainly have their place. They're a great pick‑me‑up on sweaty summer days, for instance, and while there's nothing wrong with Gatorade and other store‑bought drinks, I prefer to make my own, using real fruit juice.
Even my enthusiasm for DIY snacks has limits, however. I've never succeeded in reproducing the Fig Newton. Indeed, I've never wanted to try. Fig Newtons seem to be perfect traveling fare. They're just the right size, they offer a good balance of nutrients and salt, and they taste delicious. The only downside? They're not cheap. But Farwell thinks he's solved this problem, too. He buys the cheapest store‑brand Fig Newton look‑alikes he can find, and he swears that they taste better than the real thing. I have to say I'm not convinced, but…
Oh, yes, Fig Newtons (and their imitators) have one other drawback. They're made from figs, right? So if you eat too many in the course of a long day, you'll probably find that you're…how shall I put this?…adding more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere than is usually your wont. Farwell once ate nothing but Fig Newtons on a hundred‑mile bike ride, and while he insists that the ten‑mile‑long climb at the end was made easier by a fig‑fueled "jet assist," it's not an experiment he wants to repeat. The upshot? He's switched to Hundred‑Mile Bars.
You've been warned.
Back on the DIY front, I see I've omitted a classic. Or maybe it's the classic — the urbonk‑buster, so to speak. I'm thinking of gorp, of course. Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts have been sustaining self‑powered travelers for decades. But I'm not one of its fans. I find raisins cloying, not to mention adhesive. They have an unnerving ability to pluck fillings from my teeth. And I'm not a big peanut eater, either. Farwell gobbles them down by the handful. Not me. I regard peanuts as a garnish, to be consumed sparingly and infrequently. So when I crave gorp, I resort to…
Updating a Classic
Don't get me wrong. I love nuts. Some nuts, anyway. And I love dried fruit. Some dried fruit. Moreover, I'm fond of M&M's, both the dark chocolate ones and the chocolate‑covered‑almond variety. Some years back, while scouting a long and particularly nasty drop, I went through a whole pound in one go. (I was sick afterward, but whether it was overeating or just fear is open to argument.) In any case, I'm older and I hope wiser now, so I no longer eat M&M's by the pound. And I assemble my own peanut‑ and raisin‑free gorp. Call it gooo, if you must. That stands for "good old other‑fruit and other‑nuts." Sometimes I mix the ingredients together. Sometimes I keep them apart. The only certainty? I can eat gooo hour after hour, day after day. And it keeps my motor turning over nicely, even on the hardest slogs. Here are some of the ingredients that go into my moveable feast:
Fig Newtons to start. My decision to include these in gooo is a judgment call, to be sure, but since they can be crammed whole into a hungry paddler's mouth, I figure they make the cut. They mix well with others, too. Next, moving clockwise, we have dried cranberries (sometimes called craisins), pepitas (pumpkin seeds), roasted soy nuts, and edamame (steamed green soybeans). And the centerpiece? A tasty collage of dark chocolate and almond M&M's. Yes, I know that neither soy nuts, nor edamame, nor pepitas are honest‑to‑goodness nuts. But then, peanuts aren't true nuts either. They're legumes, just like soybeans. In any case, my gooo sometimes includes shelled pistachios, crushed hazelnuts, and cashews, as well — and all of these are the real deal. But they're for special, as my mother used to say. The ingredients you see on the plate are what goes into my everyday gooo. For now, anyway. The list is always evolving.
A final word about ready‑made: Not long ago, at the end of a trying day, I stopped at my local HyperMart and spotted a prepackaged green salad on sale. Since I was in a hurry and the hour was already late, I quelled any nascent self‑reproach and bought it, along with one of the deli department's roasted chickens. Back home, when I opened the bag containing my newly purchased "salad kit," I discovered (among other things) a packet of dried cranberries and chopped hazelnuts — a perfect ready‑made bonk‑buster, just the right size to stick in my rucksack as a high‑energy emergency ration. So that's what I did. Sometimes you just get lucky. Call it serendipity.
It won't be long now before Canoe Country waterways start shedding their icy winter mantle. Which means that canoeists and kayakers will soon be swapping ski poles for paddles. But one thing won't change with the seasons, and that's the need to keep fuel in our fireboxes. So be prepared. Always bring enough high‑energy snacks to keep your motor turning over during the long hours between meals. Pick foods you like, and be sure to take more than you think you'll need. Where bonk‑busters are concerned, you really can't have too much of a good thing.
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