Along the right shore, a side creek enters the river as a sixty-foot waterfall. Rather than a sheer drop, the white veil of water pours over the steep rock face, diverging and converging again like delicate lace.
Waterfalls and wildflowers, the inspiration for pictures and poems, songs and sentimental hearts, these muses are all about us. Tributaries, swollen from spring rains, cascade into the river. The delicate blossoms of dogwood, silver bell, and black locust hang over the water, dropping petals into the current like children launching toy sailboats on a pond.
My wife and I are rafting Sections II and Section III of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, covering 20 miles at a pace that will give us lots of time for relaxing at camp. The majority of the river along these sections is class II/III dispersed with technical shoals. Instead of a large raft with frame and oars, we are sitting across from each other, paddling our 12-foot raft from the middle compartment with three days worth of camping gear stuffed into the bow and stern.
At camp the low angle sun skips across the water’s surface, bathing our beach in subdued light. The heat from the coals radiates off my face as I tend to the Dutch oven. When I lift the lid, a puff of steam rises. The aroma is more like a taste than a smell. My mouth waters with anticipation.
The Dutch oven is a classic camp cooking device comprised of a heavy metal pot for containing and cooking the food and a lid that can maintain an even heat for baking. It’s a link to the days when explorers lacked rubber boats, synthetic underwear, waterproof layers, and bottled fuel like us modern adventurers. Most camp chefs have a favorite Dutch oven meal. For this trip, I included one of mine.
This marinara sauce is simple enough that you can make it on the river, or you can prepare it at home and bring it in the cooler. You can also substitute your favorite spaghetti sauce, be it store-bought or homemade. Just remember to add a little extra water to the sauce (1-2 cups), so the ravioli cooks as the whole dish bakes.
- 2 Tbsp of olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 red pepper, chopped
- 1 lb ground meat
- 6 cloves of Garlic
- 1 tsp thyme
- 1 tsp oregano
- 2 tsp basil
- 2 tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- 1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
- 1 14.5 oz can tomato sauce
- 1½ cups of water
To make the sauce, over a gas stove, heat olive oil in your Dutch oven and sauté the cut vegetables. Stir for about a minute and then add the ground meat. For our sauce, I used ground venison, though beef, turkey, or imitation meat all work. Or you keep it vegetarian.
Add the salt, pepper, and dried spices stirring frequently to prevent the herbs from burning. Once the meat has browned and the veggies are tender, stir in the garlic for a minute to toast but not burn. Pour in the tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and water. Let the sauce simmer as you light the coals. The 1½ cup of measurement of water is an approximation. If you let it simmer for a long time, then you may need to add another ½ cup.
Fresh/uncooked ravioli can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section of most grocery stores. If you opt for fresh, I recommend making this for one of your first dinners. For longer trips, opt for frozen Ravioli, which will give you a little more time to cook it.
- Marinara sauce
- 18 ounces Ravioli noodles
- 2 cups of Cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
When coals are close to ready, pour most of the sauce into a separate pot, leaving a thin layer on the bottom of the Dutch oven. Lay out a single layer of ravioli in the base of the Dutch, keeping space between each noodle. Cover the ravioli with sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Add another layer of ravioli, sauce, and cheese and repeat until you’re out of ravioli and/or space in the Dutch. Depending on the size of your Dutch oven, you will end up with two-three layers. Make sure to put a heavy coating of sauce and cheese on the top.
If you were using a conventional oven at home, you would cook the ravioli at 400 degrees. To reach this temperature with a 10-inch Dutch oven, space out 8 coals on the bottom of the fire pan and place the Dutch oven on top. Position 17-18 more coals on the lid in a checkerboard spacing. Off to the side, mix a few fresh charcoal briquettes with some left-over coals. These briquettes will peak in about 20 minutes when you need to freshen up the old coals to brown the top.
The meal usually cooks in 40 minutes. Every ten minutes, spin the base of the Dutch oven counterclockwise a quarter turn and spin the lid clockwise a quarter turn to help the dish cook evenly. After 30 minutes, add 5-10 new coals to the lid to refresh the old coals and provide the extra heat needed to brown the cheese on top of the ravioli.
Even after it is cooked, the ravioli may seem a little soupy. Remove the Dutch oven from the coals and let it sit for about ten minutes to reach serving temperature and absorb the juices.
No self-respecting camp chef serves an Italian dinner without garlic bread.
- 1 loaf French bread
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ stick of butter
While the sauce is simmering and the coals are smoldering, cut a loaf of French bread into slices. Spread butter on each slice and sprinkle with garlic and salt. Wrap the bread in parchment paper and foil. When you start cooking the ravioli, place the bread on the lid with a few of coals on top and flip it every time you spin the Dutch oven. Check the bread every ten minutes to keep it from burning. It will usually be done in 15-20 minutes.
This recipe makes enough for three to four people, especially when served with bread and a salad. We had lots of leftovers for lunch the next day.
Although it’s scenic along the river, my wife and I know there are other treasures hidden in the dense canopies and dotted light of the forest. On the last morning, we pull over to look at a small waterfall coming into the river. Then we hike up the creek that forms it, looking for other drops while trying not to step on the polygala and trillium accenting the banks.
We arrive at a large, multi-tiered waterfall, just as the sun is rising above the ridge. The spray misting from the drop sprinkles the surrounding foliage with gems of morning light. As we gaze upon it, I’m reminded that an enjoyable experience, rather it be a beautiful river trip or a tasty meal, is best when you can share it with others.
Editor’s Note: Want more culinary inspiration? Check out Andy’s Sweet and Savory Grilled Pork and Potato Steaks recipe.