Last Camping Trip of Fall
by Dennis Weaver
The road along western Wyoming's Greys River seems to go forever...
We had gotten away from home late and it was dark. In the headlights, the road seemed even longer. Finally, the road narrowed from a wide two-lane gravel road to something not much wider than a single lane and we started looking for camping spots. A promising road, not much more than a double track trail, led toward the river in the dark and we turned down it. When it narrowed, we stopped the van, not wanting to back out with a trailer and got out to walk the last couple hundred yards.
The crisp, high-mountain air hit like a cold splash of water, and we quickly zipped up our coats. The outside temperature reader in the van said that it was 22 degrees, but it felt much colder. Maybe this would be our last camping trip of the season.
Away from the headlights, we turned off our flashlights. We could see by moonlight to walk along the little road. In the open meadow, the moonlight was bright enough to make out the landscape, but the pines along the river formed a black strip and the ridge above a dark curtain. Even with the moonlight, the sky above was dusted with stars that were much brighter and seemingly much closer than those at home. The Milky Way stretched across the sky to disappear behind the ridge. We hunched down in our coats as the cold seeped through the seams and continued toward the river.
In the trees, we turned our flashlights back on. There were two great summer camping places, but both were nestled deeply in the trees. The summer had been dry, and fire restrictions had not yet been lifted. The mornings would be sharply cold, and with neither the morning sun to find its way through the trees nor a campfire, the sites would be cold. We kept looking.
The next site was perfect. It was not far from the river, open on one side to catch the morning sun and well off the road for seclusion. We hung a lantern in a tree and put up a tent. We loaded a ton of bedding into the tent and went to bed.
The sun found the campsite early. It was a beautiful fall morning in the mountains. It was as cold as expected but before midday it would be shirtsleeve weather. I walked down to the river, my breath creating puffs of steam with each step. The mountain behind the river that was dark last night was now bright with the morning sun and I looked for elk and deer along the edges of the scattered aspen.
The river, with transparently clear water, rushed over smooth stones. Rim ice crusted the edges of the stream and glazed the half submerged rocks. In this stretch it was too straight and fast to harbor many native cutthroat trout.
It was a lazy camp that morning and I tinkered around waiting for the rest of the family to stir. When no one did, I wandered down the canyon to a hunting camp to introduce myself. Only the grandfather was there; the rest were searching the high country on horseback for elk. The man was from Cody, Wyoming, and had been coming there for years with his sons. Now they were bringing their sons. "We won't find many elk," he said, "but it's good to get together." After chatting, I excused myself and went back to camp.
Maybe if I make breakfast that will get things rolling, I thought. I set up the stove and pulled eggs and bacon from a cooler. I broke out a Dutch oven. In my years of camping, including river and trail trips where I was the camp cook, I had rarely baked in a Dutch oven. Instead, I had two old, light weight pans that I could fit in a backpack. To bake, I would clip these two pans together, place my baking pans inside, set the contraption over hot coals, and stack more hot coals on top. With heat from both the top and the bottom, I could bake a cake or a loaf of bread-welcome food on a remote camping trip. I had viewed a Dutch oven as too heavy and too bulky for these trips.
Before I left home, I packed some bread and scone mixes. I pulled out a mix for Cinnamon Crusted Scones, not quite sure how I was going to do this without a fire from which to stack hot coals upon the rimmed Dutch oven.
I mixed up the scones and positioned them in a cake pan. I heated up the Dutch oven on the camp stove element. When it was hot, I took off the lid and placed three stones on the bottom of the Dutch oven. Then I set my pan of scones on the stones and replaced the lid. With the heavy lid, I hoped there would be enough captured and radiant heat to bake the scones from above. I set a frying pan on the other element and started the bacon cooking.
The smell of bacon worked wonders and sleepy-eyed campers emerged from the tents. When the eggs were done, I checked on the scones.
The scones didn't turn out the way scones should but they got eaten anyway -- chill mountain air makes everything passable. They were cake-like, not flaky with buttery layers. I concluded that placing the scones in the Dutch oven was like placing them in an oven before it was hot. The dough had heated too slowly and the melting butter had soaked through the slowly rising scones. Unless I could get more heat in the Dutch oven, scones were not going to work over a stove element. Breads and cakes would work just fine using this technique. Muffins and scones needed higher initial heat.