I had three big pieces of bass. And it tasted good. Damn the fish ghosts.
But as we huddled in our tents that night in below-freezing temperatures, it was impossible for me not to think that the bear hunters wouldn’t have been too impressed.
I’d volunteered my brother and myself for kitchen duty the second day, and had been planning it for a week. I’d bought five rib eye steaks and frozen them solid at home, and was carrying them in a double-wrapped plastic bag along with six potatoes, bacon scraps, a pound of dried cannellini beans, maple syrup, a U.S. Army MRE Andrew had brought from Texas, and a handful of other ingredients. After only two hours of canoeing and a 90-minute uphill-downhill portage, we set up camp, and the steaks were completely thawed.
While everyone else either fished (in vain) or foraged for firewood, I soaked the beans and started the fire. (By the way, someone had told me that Cheetos make great fire starter. They didn’t.) One of the crew fiddled with the handheld radio and found the only clear station, which played country songs that sounded like truck commercials, and truck commercials that were indistinguishable from country songs. We finished off the rest of the beer.
Using the beans, bacon, maple syrup, and some sugar and “table syrup” I found in the Meal Ready-to-Eat, I started a pot of beans on the camp stove, while Andrew tossed the foil-wrapped potatoes into the embers. He and Tater jerry-rigged a reasonably level grilling surface over some of the ashed-over coals, and I seasoned the rib eyes with salt and pepper. When I set the steaks on the grill, they sizzled like sparklers on the Fourth of July—there are few more satisfying sounds in the world.
Andrew even taught us a military recipe made entirely of ingredients scavenged from MREs, called Ranger Pudding: graham crackers, cocoa powder, and just enough boiled water to bind it together, all mashed together into a camp mug. It wasn’t half bad.
And here’s the thing I learned about grilling rib eyes on a campfire: Some people just want their steaks burned to pure carbon. (I removed them from the flame when they were perfectly cooked, but David B. kept looking at his steak suspiciously and dropping it back in the fire. He ended up leaving it directly over an open flame for about half an hour, and it came out charred to a blackened crisp—he apparently loved it that way.)
By the time we sat down to the full meal around the campfire, the beans admittedly still had some bite but were undeniably tasty, the baked potatoes were perfect, and we were four New York guys (and one Texas soldier) having steaks 300 miles from Peter Luger. It wasn’t bear stew, but it was good.
We canoed to our final destination—and the ride to our cars—the next day at noon. But it turned out I hadn’t seen the last of the bear hunters.
Before we paddled to our pickup spot, the canoe Andrew, Tater, and I were in lagged behind Dave C. and David B.’s, and we leisurely explored a sandy-shored peninsula. Tied up to a tree jutting into the river were several motorboats, including one covered in a camouflage tarp.
I wandered up the bank and came across a permanent lean-to with six or seven men leaning back in camp chairs and listening to ’80s rock on the radio. Among them were the bear hunters. Their rifles were still tied in a bundle, evidently untouched, but a heap of beer cans was growing at their feet. There wasn’t a bear carcass anywhere in sight.
The bear hunters hollered hello, gave a friendly wave, and hoisted up their beer cans in greeting.
I got it. Turns out they were man-camping, too.
Brooklyn–based Michael Y. Park has written for The New York Times, the New York Post, and the Toronto Globe and Mail, and he is a regular contributor to Epicurious. Park has feasted at a picnic with the king and queen of Malaysia, and dined on roadside kebabs while disguised as a Hazara tribesman in Afghanistan. His most recent article for Gourmet Live was “Eating Camel in Mauritania.”