A cold, cloudy drizzle shrouded the John Day River Canyon. The river ran low, cold and clear in its gravel bed. It was early November in eastern Oregon and we were hunting steelhead. Our team of eight was tucked in for the night under the massive skirt of a large western juniper, sheltered from the winds and wet that swept down the canyon on the doorstep of winter.
The same old tree provided enough dead wood to lay onto a small fire, making a cozy epicenter. Here we whiled away the long dark hours this side of sleep, making occasional forays by headlamp across a rain-soaked sagebrush flat to tents, boats and the groover. Lanterns, raincoats and gear hung on stout branches nestled out of the elements and we sipped our scotch and beer and ate from our cook’s magic oven.
Dawn Rachel wouldn’t have stumbled into our ranks if not for her passion for fly fishing. We had a full agenda on our river trips—fly fishing, upland bird hunting, and the photography to accompany stories to various magazines—so we rolled with a cook. Over the years we’d had some fair fare but nothing earth shaking.
Enter The Dutchess. Figuring that if she could fish and fly for free and get to make culinary art with her Dutch ovens to boot, it was a no-brainer. Between laying out some early coffee and breakfast, fishing, kayaking, rafting or canoeing and assembling dinner, the woman literally lived in her waders. She put them on in the dark and took them off in the dark. For the rest of us, after an exhausting day fishing or hunting the game bird of some remote river canyon, we walked into camp each night to a veritable outdoor restaurant. We had to remember not to squeeze the cook!
We pay a cook on these float-fishing expeditions a stipend and cover most expenses. After years of guiding on the Deschutes where every measure is taken to maximize a client’s time on the water, it seemed foolish to do otherwise when on our own. In these high desert rivers the fish will rise to a fly when slung across the surface more often in the early morning and evening. If you’re tied up scrambling eggs or flipping burgers, you certainly won’t be catching fish. We’ve had half a dozen different cooks over the years, but more often than not, Dawn Rachel, our Dutch Oven Diva, grabs the job as soon as it comes up.
D, as I call her, is a spark plug. She turned 50 recently and retains a fiery, animated beauty. Short and buxom with a fashion sense somewhere between Carhartt and Xtratuf, she sings lead vocals in a popular island band; she landscapes and paints houses to make ends meet. I remember her on the Deschutes when all the guys were doing their best mahout impressions atop the big 14-foot rafts, and Dawn dominated our little Riot and tore up the river. D just gets after it, doesn’t sit back; fiery is definitely the word.
I watched her fussing with her Dutch oven. We’d finished supper an hour ago, a savory meal of roast partridge, wild rice and veggies—this must be dessert. She took off the lid, shone her headlamp inside, turned to us and cracked a smile.
Damn. How much better could it get? I drained my beer and switched on my headlamp, found my plate and got in line. I shone my lamp in the pot, smiled and shook my head. Huckleberry Dump Cake. “Say that three times fast,” she said and laughed.
She laughs a lot, this woman, great booming laughs with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks. Hot, delicious dessert eaten in such conditions is a thing of near embarrassing pleasure. We all tuck into our bowls and say no more than mumbling accolades in Dawn’s direction. I’ve known Dawn for 20 years and she’s been on more than a few fishing trips with me. She’s a damn good cook and likes to fish. What more could you ask for?
Plates were soon scraped clean, crumbs gathered from coats and laps and placed reverentially in mouths. Sated, I lit my pipe and sat back feeling as content as a bear in a blueberry patch. A couple of the guys were playing their mbiras, the melodic rhythms of the metallic thumb pianos blending with the river’s murmur, the snap of the fire and the whistle of the first winter wind in the boughs overhead. Steelhead were discussed and plans laid for early morning strikes to favorite runs. Dawn and her helper for the day had already cleaned up and closed down the kitchen.
I noticed she was still up, sitting alone just beyond the canopy and I walked over. The rain had stopped, the clouds had disappeared and the stars were starting to shine. The wind had died down, making it an almost pleasant night, given it was below freezing.
“It feels so good to be out here again,” she said. “ It’s weird. I got back from Alaska nearly a month ago and I’ve been jonesin’ to get back on the river. I’ve loaded up my rig and driven over to the river every day for the last couple of weeks to fish, but I don’t.”
“I stand and look. I see all the anglers with their dogs and coolers. The water is deep and fast and dark. I’m scared of slipping and disappearing. No one knows where I am and there’s no one around to report me missing. Maybe I’m just the friendly type, but fishing seems a lot more fun when you can share it with someone. If I were a dude I would just go hang out alone and fish. I wouldn’t feel weird out there alone. I guess what I love most about all these trips we’ve taken is the feeling of solitude and independence—love running my own boat—yet plenty of buds to hook up with when I get to camp. That sound crazy?”
“Not at all, best of both worlds. I wouldn’t think of coming out here alone,”I replied. “Canyons are better with friends. Frankly, these river trips always remind me of what I would imagine a gazelle or zebra hunting party must feel like on the African plain. When we come up empty-handed we can commiserate with one another, and when we succeed there is no finer celebration than around a fire out here with your buds.”
“Right on,” she says with a big grin, and reaches out to bump my fist. “Be cool to roast some gazelle in the Dutchie.”
We laugh. We’ve had these conversations a lot, Dawn and me. Just the two of us, after the rest of the party has tucked away in sleeping bags. She’s easy to chat with and, through the years, we’ve really gotten to know one another.
Dawn grew up loving to cook, and she especially enjoyed baking. The Williams and Sonoma catalog was her Bible. For the past few years she’s been cooking on fishing boats in Southeast Alaska. Now she aspires to be in a charge of a kitchen in the canyon.
Dawn has been a master of the Dutchie for a quite a few years. It all began with an impromptu pit stop off of Highway 2, on the way home from her “Many Rivers to Cross” tour of Montana. A “Sportman’s Show” sign in a rural town led her to the cook tent of C.W. “Butch” Welch, aka CeeDub, renowned Dutch oven cook and storyteller. She credits CeeDub with her first inspiration. After meeting him she bought and borrowed her way through every Dutch oven cookbook, asking former river guides and friends for tips. She learned the best method to pack a cooler, and which kind of ingredients fare best in standard recipes. Her first Dutch kitchen was her front yard, where she spent hours practicing and perfecting the Dutchie.
“I don’t want to brag,” she told me one night while the embers died down in the post-dinner fire, “but a good intelligent cook, is like a good expedition leader—it’s precious.” Dawn likes the responsibility of keeping the group’s energy on an even keel. She pays keen attention to our hydration, blood sugar and, well, pleasure. “Sometimes a hot, beautiful meal is all you have to look forward to. To simply eat can change everything,” she said, and busted out a hearty laugh.
“We’re lucky on most of these trips, big rafts and all,” I said. “We don’t go without much, but that won’t be the case on the Owyhee.”
The guys and I were planning a self-support trip for the next fall on the Owyhee running at 150 cfs. We’d be paddling IKs, so food and the kitchen would be a major reduction. I asked if she’d come cook what we could manage to catch or shoot.
“Seriously? We can’t bring rice and veggies, coffee and beer and…”
“Staples, yeah, but for protein, we eat what we drag into camp.”
“Sounds like a challenge. Lots of smallies though, right?”
“Yeah, but they put the small in smally; rarely do you hook a big one. We eat mostly from upland: quail, chukar. We had jackrabbit last time,” I said. “Four hours in the Dutchie and it tastes like chicken.”
”Everything tastes like chicken. Bet I can make it taste like Jack!”
Through years of these post-dinner-scotch-by-the-embers discussions, I’ve learned a lot from D. Here’s the basic dirt from the Diva herself on getting started, planning meals, and digging deep for deliciousness:
Buy Some Quality Ovens: Critical to easy food prep on the river is a good set of anodized aluminum ovens. GSI makes some great ones. When she says set, she’s talking two nesting units that stack and pack nicely together. The 10” fits inside the 12” with its lid upside down, then they both pack into the 12” case. They make great dish pans and the anodized aluminum cleans up really easily—you’ll appreciate that. You never have to season anodized aluminum as opposed to cast iron. They dissipate the heat so well, they make a great trivet for setting other hot things upon. Basically, you can do all frying, boiling, sautéing, roasting and baking with Dutchies and never need to carry another pan. (Although a griddle is a good thing to have for pancakes and steaks.) Dawn takes a 14” along with the other two for big trips. With the handy carry case, that GSI makes, you can pack various needed utensils like a lighter stick and welding gloves right in the ovens so “the kit’’ is all together and ready to go when you land.
Success is in the Reps: Find your Guinea pig and get cookin’. You can cook on the range if you have to, but try and use briquettes so you can learn to regulate your heat and cooking time with them. Pretty soon you’ll be thinking of that roast chicken in terms of a 10 briquette/twice meal. When you’re cooking with a Dutch oven you can tease the heat by adding or subtracting coals as you go. This is nice, especially when cooking something as delicate as game birds, a Dutch can ensure the meat won’t overcook. With practice comes knowing how long dishes take to cook and learning how many briquettes to use.
Smart Planning: A notebook is a must for preplanning, refining the menu and grocery shopping. It helps to start with a smaller, pack sized notebook so you don’t have to transcribe your notes at the put-in. You can keep notes of what you were going to cook, what you actually cooked, what worked or didn’t, and quantities you may have misjudged. It’s good to plan ahead for whatever spontaneous menu items may arise, like a birthday cake. It’s hard to rob from the precisely measured amounts of other meals. And you’re sure to leave something out.
Go Deep with Your Menu: Dawn has cooked pork roast with potatoes in a special onion-cherry-chutney sauce that could challenge your grandmother’s family recipe. She’s baked mango-upside down cake, warm pasta salad, Spanish rice and beans with marinated chicken. You name it, she can make it. She can make a standard campfire Ribeye taste gourmet with brown beer bread to sop up the juices. The point is, all those fancy recipes you dust off to impress the new neighbors or your picky in-laws during the holidays can be rendered to work in the Dutch. Gone are the days of canned chili and PB&Js at camp. Dawn the days with wild salmon and game birds, sweet potatoes and wild rice.
Let everyone make their own Gorp: Dawn has one dry bag dedicated to Self Actualization Gorp: large bags of almonds, walnuts, pecans, dried bananas, cranberries, raisins, coconut, chocolate, sunflower seeds and a box of zip-locks. Every morning Dawn rises early, gets the coffee brewing, spreads all the Gorp ingredients out and goes fishin’. Even if you aren’t a fisherman, keeping a couple meals simple, leaves room for complexity where it matters.
“I’d like to refine my technique for cooking game birds in the Dutchie,” Dawn said. “I’m thinking more fat, bacon wrapped, using fewer coals. I guess I can get my practice in on the Owyhee.” Dawn chuckled, a hearty chuckle.
She sat back, took a swig of her beer. “If one dish could embody mastery,” she said, “it would be the pizza I made that day after we froze our asses off fighting 15 miles of headwind. You remember that?”
“My God, yes woman,” I said and drew on my pipe. “That was manna from heaven!”