Cooking in the Woods

Why do we go camping?
To spend restless nights on uncomfortable air-mattresses and wake up with sore hips and shoulders; to use bushes as toilets at three in the morning because the toilet is too far to walk at that hour; to wash dishes, hands, faces and teeth with unforgivably cold water. Maybe we go camping to have an uninterrupted visit with nature, with the cruising moose and the curious bear. To build a fire, to cook dinner, and hold warm cups with gloves and hats on, and to stare at the endless sparkles of the night skies.

I was introduced to camping by Scott, who is as enthusiastic for the outdoors as a Labrador puppy is for a tennis ball. Camping and I had a rough start in Utah where walls of wind carried sand into everything in its path: our tent, our cloths, the plate of food I was eating and the cup of coffee I was drinking. I banned camping from our lives for a couple of years after that, but after fifteen years married I have learned to compromise, so I go camping once in a while with two conditions: the campsite must be near civilization, and there must be a bathroom with walls, a door, and a roof. I used to have third condition: no camping in Colorado where there are bears, moose, and mountain lions, but after a few times camping on the Pacific Coast I decided to let my guard down. Silly me.

A few weeks ago we ventured to Winter Park, CO, for a weekend with nature.
I was looking forward to cooking on the fire, strolling around with Mr. Miles and lazily reading by the Fraser river. We found a site neatly secluded behind tall pine trees and bushes near the river,  we promptly sat up the tent, unloaded the food and wine, and Scott went to get wood from the camp host while I made a quick lunch of pork-black bean nachos with salsa verde and peach-corn salsa. He came back, wood in hand, staring at me,
“Don’t freak out,” he said 
“Why? what happened?” I asked, wondering if something had happened to our families, the world, a bomb? who knew?
“The host told me that there’s a small bear roaming around, to be careful,” he replied.

There are always bears roaming around Winter Park and the Frasier valley, when we lived there we saw them often, in the woods, trash containers, or by the river, and I knew they must have been watching us, waiting for us to make a mistake and leave food out so they can have a clean alibi when they break in. So, I keep going with my day, always with one eye on the bushes for good measure.

The first night, once Scott lid the fire, we heated the cast iron skilled on the grill over the flames. Because the heat was inconsistent and arbitrary we had to make sure the skilled was nice and hot to get a sear or a good sauté and avoid the meat or vegetables from stewing before browning. Meanwhile we started to boil potatoes on the camp stove. Boiled potatoes is something I’ve been cooking since I was ten or eleven years old when I was in charge of dinner while mother worked. In Colombia, we add a hefty sprinkle of salt to the freshly cooked potatoes, or make an ahogado – a mixture of onions, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, paprika, turmeric, and salt – and cover the potatoes with it. I dressed these potatoes with salt, pepper and spoonfuls of salsa verde {I brought one jar and used it on almost every meal}.

As the night cooled, the warmth from the fire made cooking the main attraction. We added the marinated chicken to the hot skillet, after a little oil, and rejoiced at the instant sizzle and waking aromas of spices and mustard. We stood near the fire with our plastic cups of rosé watching the night take over the day, like white hairs on an aging dog’s face. With the skillet at such temperature, the chicken cooked in less than ten minutes, and we sat near the fire, cup of wine in one hand, food in the other, and quickly ate our meal before it got too cold.

The next morning I used leftover potatoes with sautéed zucchini, onions, and mushrooms to make a frittata, Scott cooked bacon on the skilled over the fire, and made me two Moka pots of coffee to help me warm up. It was a beautiful day, sunny, like Colorado can be, so blue and bright, perfect for a walk in Grand Lake – and an ice cream.

Later in the afternoon, after a much deserved nap, we started getting ready for dinner. Scott had gathered and chopped some fallen tree branches to help fuel the fire, and I had pulled out the cooking utensils and vegetables to start prepping dinner. The dog was tired from the day’s work and crashed comfortably on his bed near the fire.

I began cutting vegetables and separating them into bowls for easy cooking once it was time, then I looked up from the picnic table and near our car between a few pine trees and our main ‘living quarters’ there was a 6-foot tall moose with a rack the size of a queen bed pillow. My heart pounding, I hissed at Scott, “The dog!” it was all I could say. He looked up and saw the moose and immediately grabbed Mr. Miles by the collar, who was unaware of the visitor. Frozen for what felt like hours, I stood there waiting for the moose to make a move. He looked around and kept moving toward the bushes away from us. I ran and hid behind another set of pine trees, while Scott stood there, holding the dog and his camera phone.

The moose continue his walk toward the river, chomping on tall grasses, uninterested about our presence. My legs had lost all life, no response, like a baby in a diaper learning to walk. I held on to the trees for a little while to regain strength, then walked toward Scott,
“It didn’t record!” he said,
“What?” I replied,
“i didn’t press record!” he lamented
The evidence is all gone. All we have left is the minuscule feeling of ourselves near his presence. I felt tiny, insignificant and vulnerable. At the same time, I felt a majestic, almost magical presence, his grandiosity, the universal power of nature encapsulated in this beautifully terrifying creature. My heart still raises when I think of him, I almost doubt it was real, did I really see him?

After our adrenaline high subsided, we went back to our chores. Scott helped me cooked dinner sautéing the onions and mushrooms first until tender, then we added sliced sausage, diced summer squash and minced garlic, seasoned it all with salt and pepper, and cooked it all, stirring from time to time, until the squash was fork tender.

Next, we added white beans I had cooked at home, together with their cooking liquid, and let the mixture simmer for a few minutes until throughly warm. Scott toasted the bread over the fire and added a couple of tablespoons of salsa verde to the bean and vegetable stew right before serving.


We set up one of our coolers near the fire, placed several towels and a couple of wood pieces to hold the hot skilled, and open a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir. The night was slowly falling as we sat to indulge on dinner. A couple of bites in, I looked deep into the trees and saw a black bear rummaging.
“Fuck, no!” I said,
“What?” Scott asked
“A bear, there’s a bear!” I said as I jumped from my chair, grabbed my plate, my wine, and with tears in my eyes ran to the car.

Scott came behind me dragging the dog, who once again was unaware of the situation, then he walked back toward the trees and pulled his camera phone, again, this time to film the bear, making sure not to miss on the action. I waited a few minutes to calm down, then ran back to the fire, took the skilled to the car {hoping Mr. Miles didn’t eat all of the food}, put the cooler and other food related items in the bear proof container, and ran back to the car.

The bear left and took with him my desire to hang out in the dark outside the tent, so I promptly changed into my pjs, brushed my teeth, and went to the toilet, where there were signs advising on what to do in case of a wildlife sighting – I didn’t see any place that said pull out your phone and video, but I could be wrong. I did read that wolfs are the moose predators so a moose could turn violent in the presence of an aggressive, barking dog; lucky for us Mr. Miles was too busy sleeping.

The next morning I was primed for some safe, loud and dirty civilization. As we were packing and getting ready to leave Scott asked, “when are we doing this again?” I guess we’ll go back next year.

~ Paula

2 thoughts on “Cooking in the Woods”

    1. I’m working the idea of ‘glamping’ on my husband’s head and see if we can compromised even more. it’s hard to give up the idea of sharing time with nature, however when nature and the wild get so close i think twice about it. Luckily camping weather is over for this year so i have a while before my next ‘adventure’.

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