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The art of cooking on the river

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By Kate Wollney Explore Big Sky Contributor

My first introduction to my colleague Adam’s cooking skills was during an O.A.R.S. guide-training trip on California’s Lower Klamath River. He prepared a lunch platter that included mangled apple chunks of all sizes, many still containing seeds or stems. Months later, after he learned the importance of presentation, I told him about my first impressions of his river-kitchen skills.

“It looked like you just threw the apple through a whirling fan blade,” I said.

Cooking is a big part of river guiding and every guide starts at a different place. Adam, still a college student in the dorms, had never cooked – not even for himself. But by the end of the season, he knew two ways to slice apples “correctly,” as well has how to grill salmon and asparagus, make buttery garlic and basil mashed potatoes, and brown French toast to perfection.

Training guides is the most important step to creating fabulous meals on the river. Yet the part the client sees – guides cooking on the river and making sure timing and flavors are just right – is a comparatively small step in a complex process. Before that comes meal planning, choosing and buying the food, packing the coolers and dry boxes, and ensuring all the correct cookware made it on the trip.

Meal planning for group wilderness trips continues to get more complicated. An average roster of 20 clients includes at least three dietary restrictions: vegetarian, kosher, lactose intolerant, nut allergies, gluten free, allergic to the nightshade family. The list goes on.

The first step is sorting out what these things really mean. On many trips, the “vegetarians” eat all the bacon when none was actually packed for them.

Once we’ve decided what and how much to pack, we must carefully select our products. The best ingredients are what make the best meals, but a budget must be considered. So we sort out cost-effective sources for local, organic, fresh products as best we can, sometimes in extremely rural locations.

“How do you keep so much fresh produce for the whole trip?” clients often ask.

“[With] 24 blocks of ice,” I often say. But in reality, packing coolers and boxes is an art. Safe handling of more temperature sensitive items like meat; the order in which we eat the food; and the Tetris-like puzzle of making it all fit on the boats are some key factors.

Finally, kitchen equipment must be organized. Again, we try to fit as much as we can into compact spaces. We avoid breakables, but strive to use containers that will share the quality of the food we are serving. Although it’s heavy, cast-iron cookware continues to be a favorite on the river.

On post-trip evaluations, clients often highlight how great the food was. Perhaps this is because we have taken all the correct steps. Or, perhaps, it’s because “hunger is the best chef,” and nothing works up an appetite like a day on the river.

Kate Wollney works primarily on the Rogue River and is the Oregon Area Manager for California-based adventure outfitter O.A.R.S. She started guiding in 1993 and has worked in Oregon, Alaska, the Grand Canyon, Utah, Idaho and California.

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