The pair of men with scraggly beards, trucker caps, and logger shirts tossed their bundle of thirty-aught-six rifles into their camo-covered motorboat before telling us what they were hoping to dine on in a couple of days.
Suffice it to say that we—mostly citified white-collar types—were intimidated. Even my brother, the fifth member of our camping crew and an army major who’d served three tours in Iraq, raised his eyebrows in a silent “wow.” Despite autumn’s crisp blue skies and flame-colored trees, the Adirondacks instantly transformed from Thoreau’s Walden Pond to Friday the 13th’s Crystal Lake.
Bear meat, the local hunters told us, is too greasy to make steaks from. It would be much better as stew. Bear stew. Their boat was filled with their weapons and a conglomeration of unrecognizable contraptions that manly men presumably use to turn 800-pound killing machines into cubed chuck.
Set right on top of the heap of supplies in one of our two canoes, on the other hand, was the cheery blue box of Oreos—the kind with the easy-open wrapper. And Pop-Tarts, in two berrytastic flavors. And two cases of cheap beer.
Still, by the time we slid out into the cool waters of Long Lake in upstate New York, we were in high spirits. We’d been planning this long weekend for months, leaving our wives, girlfriends, babies, e-mail, and warm beds behind for the wild beauty of the Adirondack Mountains: campfires, flame-charred meat, and survival in freezing temperatures by dint of our wits and testosterone.
This was man-camping.
Of course, it took us only 20 minutes of canoeing before we called for a floating break of Oreos and Labatt’s. David B. already had weeping blisters on his hands.
It took us another 30 minutes before Tater discovered, to our relief, that it’s possible to pee out of a canoe without tipping it over.
By the time we found a place to camp on a tree-covered peninsula—after several hours of pushing through the choppy water by arm power—we were ravenous and ready to get dinner started. After we set up our tents and cleared out the mess left by some previous campers (Chinese takeout, clothing catalogs, and condoms), Dave C. set out downstream in a canoe with his fishing rod while the rest of us either worked on starting the campfire or did our best to fertilize a hollow tree with empty beer cans. (And yes, we took all our trash out with us.)
Surprisingly quickly, Dave pulled up a five-pound smallmouth bass. Everyone gathered round his canoe as he navigated toward camp with his left hand and held up his prize with his right. We took pictures. We joked about how we were going to eat it. And then, when someone asked who was going to clean it, everyone suddenly had a chore to do somewhere else that couldn’t wait.
Naturally, that’s when one of the guys helpfully mentioned the basic cooking class I’d taken at the Culinary Institute of America a couple months before, the one after which I’d come home bragging about how I’d learned to dress a trout. I was stuck.
Here’s the thing I discovered about smallmouth bass: They’re really attached to being alive. Even when the fire was raging and the sun had long said good-bye to the horizon, the bass was still thrashing around on the ground, and the campers were grumbling—Tater’s bratwursts had been consumed, and everyone had a hankering for fresh fish.
I recruited my brother, Andrew, to help me, and we approached the five-pound bass as if we were finishing off a wounded but dangerous predator. He held it down as I tried—and failed—to hack its head off with a small knife by dim lantern light. Then I filleted it, saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” the entire time. It stopped moving only after turning its head directly toward me and giving me one last accusing glare before flopping lifeless into the grass.
“That fish just gave you the death stare,” Andrew said.
Riddled with guilt but embarrassed to say so, I mentally swore I wouldn’t have any of the fish meat, which Dave C. sautéed up over an MSR camp stove and served over risotto, which he made from scratch in his camp pot. Then I smelled it, and told myself I’d just have one small piece.