Author’s note: This is part two of a three part column series about my fall elk hunt to Colorado.
Over the years, in pursuit of elk, my sons and I have made a number of backpacking hunts into the Routt National Forest in western Colorado.
There is a lot of careful preparation for trips of this sort. The central challenge, as you might guess, is to keep the pack weights manageable without leaving behind critical gear.
Food selection is always a packing event. Elk hunting is hard physical work and that, combined with calorie-consuming mountain temperatures, means that food choices can spell the difference between calorie deprivation and adequate nourishment. The window of food choice is narrow because of the weight issue. A pound of bacon and a dozen eggs, along with a pound of hot dogs and some nice deli meats, would put any five-day pack over the top.
So, in most cases, freeze-dried meals that are activated by hot water and mac n’ cheese seem to be meals of choice for many. Most Appalachian Trail hikers, whom I have sought out for advice, rely exclusively on mac n’ cheese, meal after meal, day after day.
For me there is only one problem: I loathe mac n’ cheese, and those freeze-dried meals are generally so overwhelmingly salt-loaded that they trigger my gag reflex. Frankly, I have fed more of my freeze-dried meals to the mountain squirrels than I have actually eaten.
So, in desperation, I try different things, food-wise, conjuring up some food innovations at home in hopes that they will get me by. For some reason, perhaps the altitude, the sleep deprivation and other factors, it is hard to know from the comfort of your kitchen at home what is going to click with you come mountain meal time.
Each year, we all experiment and field-test our food ideas. Often, the food choices you least expect taste the best. This year, for the first time, at Diane’s insistence, I carried dried mixed fruit, dried blueberries and a syrupy fruit cup from a government-issued MRE. They all hit the spot.
The number two treat for me was six strips of pre-cooked Oscar Mayer bacon that Diane vacuum-sealed ahead of time in a plastic Foodsaver bag. Each morning, I heated in the fry pan a couple pieces of that pre-cooked bacon. It, along with some sprinkled dry blueberries, really took the curse off the instant oatmeal. Truly, just the aroma of that bacon drifting about the campsite was a morale builder.
Of course, when it comes to a pick-me-up for any calorie-challenged elk hunters nothing — not even bacon in the pan — compares with elk quarters on the pole and pan-fried innerloin medallions. This we did during the second night at camp. It has been our tradition to always taste test our kill as a celebratory undertaking, and the first man to put an elk on the pole is made much of by his campmates.
Oh yes, we came to really relish one other totally unexpected improvisational dish. On the next to the last day, one of our hunters returned, not with an elk story, but an armful of five large sweet onions that he found on the horse trail. (A bad packing job by some outfitter, or perhaps an unruly pack mule?)
Their loss was our gain. We sliced those lovely onions in big rings and pan-fried them in olive oil along with some cut chunks of beef jerky. Talk about rave reviews! Nothing, not even the elk loins, stirred such gustatory delight and expressions of appreciation from all hungry elk hunters.
Like I said, you just never know what will tickle your taste buds way up there in the high country amid the sweet grass, golden aspens and dark timber.
Just as long as it’s not mac n’ cheese.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]