by Gerald Rowan
I was working on a big item from my bucket list. A summer off and spent on a grand tour of hiking, camping, backpacking, and fly fishing. The idea was to hook up my travel trailer in late May and not return home until after Labor Day. I left on a Monday morning in early June from my home in the Lehigh Valley, traveling north into the Poconos for a few days’ stopover at Tobyhanna State Park. I took time to visit the nearby State Game Lands 127 to access Brady’s Lake and hike behind the lake. One of the largest and longest-surviving beaver dams in the state is there. Every few years I make a pilgrimage back to the beaver dam, where I’ll often sit along the shore to enjoy the placid setting—listening to the sounds of the woods and noting the wildlife gathering to take advantage of the pond.
My plan was to move every week to a new campground. Leaving the Poconos, I headed north into upstate New York, traveling through the Catskills and farther still into the Adirondacks. Then I headed southwest for a stop in the Finger Lakes region. The Corning Museum was on my list for another visit. From the Finger Lakes I traveled west to Presque Isle State Park, where I spent a week hiking and fishing. I used 2-man kayak—truck-topped during my travels—to fish the lake for bass. This was an old standby kayak—big and clunky yet stable on the water, with enough room for fishing tackle.
I had an overall plan but no schedule. Early each week I’d pack up the trailer and move on. Once in place, I followed my whims and the weather—doing day hikes, overnighters, kayaking, and fishing as the situation presented itself. I also explored any towns I happened to travel through—sampling the local fare, shopping for food and camping necessities, and occasionally having a meal at an interesting restaurant.
I had planned this trip many times in my mind. Made a list of camping gear: tent, instant-up awning, cooking gear, sleeping bag, and the like. Carefully planning to keep the weight as low as possible. Everything would be packed into the truck cab with enough room for a large cooler. This was specifically geared up for the trip to Boundary Waters wilderness of Minnesota. I could part the trailer and head off into the Quetico wilderness.
This trip was among the big items on my bucket list—2 weeks canoe-camping and fishing at Boundary Waters. I arrived in Ely in the middle of my second month out, where I installed the trailer in a campground, picked up my canoeing permit, and rented an expedition canoe. My kayak couldn’t hold enough gear for a 2-week trip. I shopped for supplies and arranged for a tow service to get up the lake in a hurry for the first 9 miles, kick-starting my trip. I followed my “flight plan” and stuck to the suggested schedule, moving on each day to the next campsite. That worked well. If you stay on schedule, you’re unlikely to overrun or be overrun by other canoe-campers. It feels like you’re alone in the woods, even though campers are in front of and behind you doing the same thing.
All in all, the trip was much better than I’d expected. Definitely a double or triple star on my bucket list. That long, slow paddle back down the lake on the last day was a sad trip. But it was time to move on. I skirted Lake Michigan and Chicago and headed into southwest Ohio. My destination was Barkcamp State Park, where the woods, streams, and landscape really made me feel I was home. I found the same mix of trees in the woods, as well as the same plants, flowers, and wildlife, as in Pennsylvania.
I spent a week there; then I headed east into my home state to Ohiopyle and the state park there. I was pleasantly surprised to find my campground site wooded, with plenty of shade. I had to skirt the town since the drive out of town up to the campground was too steep to haul a trailer. I unhooked from the truck, leveled the trailer, dropped the outriggers, hooked up the electric, rolled out the awning, and I was set. By this time in my trip, I could do a setup in about 20 minutes. Now it was time to explore the town and do some food shopping.
The town and state park were the crown jewels of this trip. The Youghiogheny River; the Laurel Highlands; the hiking trails, whitewater rafting, and kayaking; the Baughman Rocks and Ferncliff Peninsula Natural Area; the stores and restaurants; the Frank Lloyd Wright houses of Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob—who could ask for more?
Where to start? Go on a whim, or make a plan? It made sense to do a little thinking. Crowds of people would seek whitewater rafting and kayaking, as well as the Wright houses, on weekends. So I made those activities weekday-only events and made hiking, fishing, and other activities weekend events. Local restaurants were lunch-only destinations—no crowded dinner scenes for me.
Every state park in the area seems to have the term Laurel in its name. You’ll find names like Laurel Summit, Laurel Hill, Laurel Mountain, and Laurel Ridge on maps, and meandering through the area is the Laurel Highlands Trail. Naturally, the state flower—mountain laurel—is abundant in the area. In fact, there’s a lot of both laurel and rhododendron in the forests there. I was too late to see the explosion of color from the laurel in bloom, but from the dried flower buds I could see that the display had been beautiful. I made a mental note to get back there in July when the rhodies were blooming.
The Laurel Highlands hike was a 4-day event—2 days out, 2 days back. It was late summer, and the days were hot and the nights cool. I was living on freeze-dried meals, turkey jerky, and trail mix. The trail was bristling with other hikers who were also determined to take advantage of a few final days in the woods before Labor Day. It was 2 days to the Grindle Ridge Shelter Area, then another 2 days back to Ohiopyle. The weather was pretty good, with only a single heavy shower in the late afternoon of the first day.
Sitting in camp one morning, waiting for the coffee pot to start bubbling, I hatched a plan. I’d kayak down the Youghiogheny to its confluence with Bear Run, pull my boat into the woods and chain it to a tree, and then hike upstream to Fallingwater. I bought a kayaking permit and paid to be ferried back to Ohiopyle from Connellsville. By calculating the time I’d need to reach Bear Run and then reach Connellsville, where I’d connect with the last ferry of the day, I saw that I had 4 hours or so for a stopover at Fallingwater. A bit tighter than I wanted, but I could make it work.
The plan was to sneak up on the house and see it in the setting it was meant to relate to. Bear Run meanders through woods and rhododendrons downhill to the river. The stream has cut its way into the bedrock over the millennia. What is just a mile by direct flight ends up being somewhere between a mile and a half to 2 miles of walking—much of it bushwhacking through the woods and around ledges carved by the stream. I crisscrossed the stream, picking the best route I could, and worked my way upstream. Soon I got my first view of the house.
There it was! Magnificent, light-colored slabs of concrete glowing in the midday sun. As I continued working my way upstream to the house, I navigated many ledges and other rock outcroppings. All were in a horizontal plane, and many were cantilevered out over the stream. Now here was a house. An extension of the landscape, it seemed. Discerning where the house started and the rock ended was difficult. The masterpiece of a long and distinguished career as one of America’s most influential architects. It was the perfect way to see it—first from the ledges along Bear Run, then from the leaf cover of the woods. Coming upon the house while hiking upstream puts the house above eye level, with the stream and falls an evident part of the experience. It all had the exotic feel of a religious experience.
I sat on a flat rock outcropping, absorbing the experience for a good 30 minutes, before moving on upstream and crossing over a small bridge to tour the house. It had just been recently reopened after a major restoration. The structure had been reengineered, and the paint was new and fresh. It looked pretty much as I imagined it would when the Kaufmanns owned it. I still remember emerging from the shade of the woods into the brilliance of a late-summer midday, with Fallingwater shining in front of me and the sound of water splashing over the falls.
During my 3 months of travel, I evolved a strategy. Mondays would be my travel days, with few people in the campgrounds, lighter traffic, and no line at the dump station. On Sunday nights, I’d make a big pot of soup and bake a loaf of soda bread in a Dutch oven. That would be dinner, with enough left over for lunch and dinner the next day. Breakfast would be coffee and toasted soda bread with butter and jam. If I were feeling particularly Irish, breakfast would be toasted soda bread and butter, a slice of cheese, and a Branston pickle. That way I would not have to cook on travel days. I had many lunches of soup and soda bread in rest stops; I’d pull in and park near a picnic table, where I’d sit eating lunch and watch the world go by.
When backpacking, I’ve taken to freezing soup in Ziploc bags, wrapping the bags in a camp towel, and packing them away in my backpack. When they thaw, they become dinner. Depending on the season, this means fresh soup for a day or so into the hike. Add in griddle cakes or Hoppin’ John, and you’ll have a substantial meal.
Recipe for Camp Vegetable Soup
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered then sliced
1 large leek, well washed and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Single 14-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped with can liquid
Single 14-ounce can tomato sauce or 2/3 cup tomato puree
2 quarts small-sized pasta, any variety
8 ounces chicken or vegetable stock
8 ounces spinach, well washed and drained
¼ cup basil, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon oregano flakes, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cooked rice, Parmesan cheese for garnish; hot pepper flakes on the side
Add the olive oil and onion slices to a soup pot and bring to a sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium low and sauté for 8 to 12 minutes or until the onion slices are lightly browned. Add the oregano, leek, garlic, celery, and carrots; then continue sautéing for an additional 4 to 5 minutes. Add the plum tomatoes, tomato sauce or puree, and chicken or vegetable stock. Bring back to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Add the pasta and return to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, stir in the spinach, and adjust the seasoning. Simmer until the spinach is wilted and the pasta is tender; then stir in the basil. Place a scoop of rice in a bowl and ladle the soup over it. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and serve.
Substitutions: Single 4-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry.
Additions: 3 to 4 heaping tablespoons tomato paste added with the plum tomatoes; single 14-ounce can white or cannellini beans, rinsed.
Variations: Add chunks of any mild white fish along with the spinach; drizzle a teaspoon of extra-virgin olive or Asian chili oil over the soup in the bowls.
Recipe for Camp Chili Soup
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into ½-inch dices
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup tomato paste
Single 14-ounce can fire-roasted, diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 or 3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 bay leaf
1 or 2 tablespoons masa harina
2 quarts chicken stock
Add the olive oil to a Dutch oven and heat to hot. Add the chicken and sauté until lightly browned. Add the onion and garlic and continue sautéing until the onion is translucent. Make a well in the center of the chicken mixture; add the tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, and paprika; sauté for several minutes; and stir into the chicken mixture. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well. Bring to a low simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Remove the bay leaf and serve.
Substitutions: Turkey (dark meat); beef, pork, or goat for the chicken; lard or bacon fat for the olive oil; sweet or hot paprika for the smoked paprika; corn flour for the masa harina; water, beef, or vegetable stock for the chicken stock.
Additions: Single 4-ounce can green chilies with liquid; single 14-ounce can white or yellow hominy, drained; single 14-ounce can red kidney beans.
Garnishes: Bottled hot sauce; sliced, pitted black olives; crumbled fresh cheese; chopped cilantro, tomato, green or red bell pepper, or hard-boiled egg; salsa.
Camp Friendly: Add the spices and masa harina to a small Ziploc bag at home. Substitute 2 bouillon cubes and 2 quarts water for the chicken stock (follow manufacturer’s directions).
Recipe for Camp Mac and Cheese
Single 14-ounce package macaroni and cheese dinner
Single 12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 quarts chicken stock
2 cups cooked ham, diced
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed (optional)
2 stalks celery, diced
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups shredded cheese (cheddar, colby, pepper jack, Monterey jack, or Swiss)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Add the butter, onion, and celery to a large soup pot and sauté until the onion is translucent. If you add garlic, do so now and sauté for an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a rolling boil. Add the pasta from the macaroni and cheese dinner, stir, and reduce the heat to medium; then cook for 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except the shredded cheese; then bring back to a simmer. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Add in the shredded cheese, stirring well; adjust the seasoning; and serve. Serve with a bottle of hot sauce on the side.
Substitutions: Water for the chicken stock; smoked chicken, turkey, or Spam for the ham; bacon fat for the butter; 12 ounces elbow macaroni and 8 ounces processed cheese food for the macaroni and cheese dinner.
Additions: ½ to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper; 1 teaspoon thyme; ¼ cup chopped parsley or cilantro; single 4-ounce can roasted chilies; 1 to 1½ cups salsa stirred in at the end of the cooking process.