Our eyes lock. My presence doesn’t seem to disturb the great blue heron, typically a skittish bird. No doubt it has become accustomed to campers in its kitchen. It is twelve feet away from our tent, hunting a tidal inlet connecting the Gulf to an inland lagoon. The heron jerks its head from side to side, scanning for crabs and stranded fish while progressing in slow deliberate steps, a stride so exaggerated it appears cartoonish.
My wife and I are camping on Rabbit Key, an island off the coast of Florida that is part of Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. When most people hear about a trip in the Everglades, they envision swamps and alligators. And while a majority of the park is thick vegetation and narrow waterways, its southwest border is comprised of sporadic islands, many of them small and isolated from each other by miles of ocean.
This is the area of the Everglades where my wife and I like to visit, preferring the large tropical beaches to the confined camps in the swamp. After picking up our permits from the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City, we head out of the brackish bay and navigate tight passes until the horizons open into the Gulf.
Though the mangrove forests, sunsets, and sandy beaches are picturesque, the scenery in the Everglades can be somewhat repetitious. Especially when you can see your destination an hour or more in advance. What makes Ten Thousand Islands special is the variety of flora and fauna.
The Everglades is unusual among the National Parks in that its protection doesn’t derive from interesting geological features but the ecosystems it encompasses. The mangroves, reptiles, fish, birds, and insects are to the Everglades, what waterfalls, geysers, and mountains are to Yosemite and Yellowstone. Out on the islands, we don’t encounter the snakes and alligators so often associated with the park, but we do see osprey and eagles, dolphins and sharks, horseshoe crabs and ornate mollusks.
I continue to watch the heron as I set up the kitchen near a small cluster of vegetation. Where yesterday my wife and I were hunting shade from the sun, today we are seeking shelter from the wind. Mosquitoes are not an issue tonight as we are berated with 20-mile-an-hour gusts. And even if insects could fly in this weather, they would have a hard time biting through our puffy coats and thermals. These are not the conditions I wanted in a Florida vacation; however, at least the wind and cooler temperatures are keeping away the No-See-Ums that chewed on us this morning.
But that is how trips can be down here. Yesterday was breezy, sunny and in the 80s. This morning was stagnate and buggy. Now it’s cloudy and cold. One of things we have learned from kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands over the years is to prepare for anything and keep our mileage short. If the weather, waves, and tide are favorable, then we have plenty of time to explore the islands or read a book on the beach. If conditions make things hard, or the bugs are unbearable, we want to grab some food before dark and retreat to our tent.
So, our meals have to be simple and fast. This trip came together last minute, and dehydrating any foods beforehand was not an option. Besides, when you have to pack all the water you need for cooking, dehydrated and freeze-dried options are not always lighter. Thus, the meals for this trip are all easy to prepare and made from ingredients purchased at our local grocery store.
Here are a couple of good recipes that we enjoyed on our trip.
Every good camp meal starts with an appetizer. It’s nice to just sit back, relax and snack before digging into the dinner prep. When space and freshwater are at a premium, you can’t go wrong with crackers, cheese and canned sardines. (Unless you don’t like sardines…)
Creamy Pesto Chicken Tortellini
You can find the ingredients for Creamy Chicken Pesto Tortellini at most grocery stores. Especially when water is scarce, use the water or broth from the canned chicken to boil the noodles and then use the starchy pasta water to make the sauce.
- 2 cups tortellini (shelf-stable)
- 3 5 oz cans chicken
- 1 package of Knorr Creamy Pesto
- 6 Tbsp dry milk
- ½ cup parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup or 4 Tbsp olive oil
- 6 dried mushrooms (optional)
Drain the liquid, whether it is broth or water, from the cans of chicken into a pot of tortellini and add 1 1/4 cup of water. If you’re also using dried mushrooms, add them at this point with an extra splash of water. Bring the water and pasta to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and continue to cook four or five minutes until the tortellini becomes tender. Stir in the powdered milk, creamy pesto mix, and chicken. Cook on low for another three minutes.
If the sauce seems dry or too thick, add more water. If it appears a little heavy on water, you can cook it for another minute. Once you take the pot off the heat and add the cheese it will continue to thicken.
Top with parmesan cheese and serve. Shelf-stable parm works best for longer trips, but refrigerated parmesan will last a few days in moderate temperatures. For extra flavor, flare, and calories, you can also add a tablespoon of pine nuts, crushed cashews, or sunflower seeds.
Sundried Tomato and Summer Sausage Grits
First off, polenta and grits are not the same things. Grits are made from white corn and are derived from the heart of the kernel, while polenta is akin to straight cornmeal from yellow corn. However, they’re similar enough that what tastes good with one, usually works well with the other. In higher-end grocery stores, you can find instant polenta or the shelf-stable polenta tube that you can cut up and pan fry. But in the South, instant grits are more widely available.
- 1 summer sausage (7 oz)
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 cups instant grits (is 6 1 oz packages)
- 5-6 dried mushrooms
- 1 tsp dehydrated minced garlic
- 1 Tbsp dehydrated minced onion
- 3 oz Sundried tomatoes (dried or packed in oil)
- ½ cup parmesan cheese
- Italian spices to taste
Heat the recommended amount of water for the grits according to the package, plus an extra splash for rehydrating the mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, onions and garlic. Once it starts to boil pour the water into a container or Ziploc with all the dried items.
Slice up summer sausage and brown in a little olive oil. (If you don’t mind your meal weighing a little more and dealing with extra chopping, you can substitute fresh onion and garlic for the dried minced versions and brown them with the sausage.) Although the summer sausage is already cooked, browning it is worth the effort—trust me. Brown the sausage for 2-3 minutes and then add the mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and water back into the pot. Stir in grits and spices. Top with Parmesan cheese and serve.
Packing for multiday kayak trips allows for some creativity. Small boats just don’t have the room to accommodate large coolers and bulky items. When it comes to food, sea kayaking is like backpacking in the same way raft camping is like car camping. But just because you have limited space doesn’t mean you have to be restricted to expensive prepackaged meals. With a little imagination, you can make your own entrees that are just as suitable and more fun to put together.