Thursday, January 28, 2016

The evolution of (campfire) coffee

"Campfire and coffee, from a tin cup in my hand,
Sure warms the fingers when it's cold."
- from the song, "God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart," by Dan Seals, © 1983

We've come a long way from the days when "cowboy" coffee was a camper's only choice. While an occasional tin cup of that strong but gritty brew is fine, today's coffee-quaffing campers have almost as many choices on the trail as do city-dwelling caffeine hounds.
Cappuccinos up!

Cowboy coffee pots

While it might be considered "retro", you can still use this old method of throwing grounds in boiling water, then drinking (and often chewing!) the results. All you need are a black enamel pot, a campfire and ground coffee

There are different schools of thought about the best way to brew campfire or cowboy coffee. Add a handful of fresh grounds to a pot of cold water and boil it; or, boil it then add the grounds (my preferred method). Some campfire chefs throw in crushed eggshells - or even a whole egg! -  to help the grounds settle, but I've never subscribed to that.

Whichever method you choose, when the grounds sink, the coffee is ready.

Coffee, percolator style

When my regular camping partner tired (very quickly!) of my cowboy coffee on our early trips together, we switched to a percolator to keep the grounds out of the water.
The coffee is a-brewin'...

I remember this as the preferred method on all our family camping trips. Of course, my dad wasn't a cowboy and the cappuccino craze hadn't hit North America, then. The first percolators were made in 1825, so it is a tried-and-true method of coffee brewing.

The method is simple: fill the basket with coffee, the pot with water, boil it then percolate it until the coffee is as strong as you like it. You'll need to experiment to determine how long to percolate it to reach the desired strength.

Campers can "espresso" themselves

These hit the market in the early 1990s.  My partner still wasn't crazy about my camp coffee, so I bought this little device for her birthday one year. (She's never complained about my coffee since - or about any birthday present, either.)

Brewing with this set-up is similar to using a percolator: fill a basket with espresso-grind, fill the pot with water, then heat it until the coffee is forced up through the upper chamber and nozzle into your waiting cups. Once the brew is out, there is still enough steam coming from the nozzle to froth milk if you want to turn your espresso into cappuccino.
Who's up for camp espresso?

 This works best over a portable stove, or a Coleman stove, than a campfire. Place a cup (metal!) on the lid to catch the coffee before it starts coming out, because when it is ready, it comes out very fast!

Press-ing on to new coffee frontiers

So-called "French presses" or plunger pots became all the rage in homes about the same time campfire cappuccinos became available. Now they are available for camping, either as plunger pots or press/cup combinations, in which the press/plunger doubles as a lid.

The method is very simple: boil water, add it to grounds in the pot/mug, steep to the desired strength, then press the plunger down. Pour it into a mug, and voila! - a strong cup of java without grounds. Aficionados claim it is closer to a "true" coffee taste, although having chewed a few chocolate-covered coffee beans in my time, I can vouch it still doesn’t compare to the taste (or kick!) of a few of those caffeine-packed goodies.

Whatever method you choose, a drop or two of Bailey's always seems to make it go down even better.

To put you in the mood, I'll leave you with this music video by Jerry Vandiver, dedicated to those of us who really appreciate their coffee in camp.

It's tough to beat the scenery and ambiance of coffee enjoyed in the outdoors.

(A slightly different version of this was originally published in Coast Magazine, July 2001, B.C. edition)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Hit the road! Thoughts on road trips, ideas for good ones

Road trip!
Time to hit the road. Even if you're not Jack.

Those two simple words can send all kinds of emotions running through your brain. Depending on your own experience with road trips, those thoughts and emotions can be anywhere from ecstatic to fearful - with everything in-between.

I'm sure most of us have had road trips that could be best described by an old Clint Eastwood movie - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

If you look it up in Google, you'll find all kinds of references - to best road trip movies, best 10 road trip lists, road trip music, great drives, and so on. You don't find a definition right away - and that's not surprising. The phrase "road trip" can mean different things to different people.

When you look up "road trip definition," this is what you'll find:
1. a journey made by car, bus, etc.
 (North American) in sports, a series of games played away from home

The first I heard the phrase used was in a sporting context, as in, "the Toronto Maple Leafs are on a western road trip, around the NHL's expansion teams."

One of the first "road" trips I ever took was a combination of the two. Broadcasting varsity sports contests in the Maritimes on student radio at UNB always involved travelling to a distant location, so we had to take a "road trip" to get there. I have some amazing memories - most of them good, and even a few not so good - from those trips.

Sometimes, you hit the road to see sports.
Probably my first really long road trip involved a journey from Westlock, Alberta (an hour north of Edmonton) to Seattle, Washington - and back - in the space of three days. My buddy Peter Kilburn and I wanted to go see an NFL game, so we headed off first thing Saturday morning and drove all the way to Abbotsford, B.C. in his new Trans Am. Well, he drove; I was in charge of making sure we always had music. The next day, we drove to Seattle, watched the Seahawks play the Kansas City Chiefs, drove back to Hope, B.C. after the game, slept there, then hit the highway back to Edmonton the next day.

 Pretty whirlwind. But lots of fun.

That wasn't the longest road trip, I ever made, though. Many years later, I drove from Fort St. John, B.C. to Toronto in the space of a week (with a five-day layover to do a canoe trip in Algonquin Park), camping in national, provincial, and private parks along the way.

Ten days later, we made the return trip.

Most of the trips I've described above involve travel to get somewhere or do something. But there are many road trips that involve travel just for travel's sake, with no end destination in sight. That's why circle tours have become a popular facet of travel that tourism boards and operators promote to draw tourists and travellers to spend time in their areas.

Still, that has a bit of an element of "destination" to it. Sometimes, people just need to get away - and it doesn't matter where, they just need to "get gone" anywhere but where they are. Think, Thelma and Louise.

Now I could list my top favourite road trips (you've had a glance at a few of them), or list the top road trip tunes (I burned a whole CD of "road music" once, songs that ALL focus on the road - but everyone has different tastes), or any manner of "great drives" - but instead I'm going to give you an idea of what I think the most important five elements that go into any successful road trip. Of course, that excludes obvious elements like a car that works, money for gas, a valid drivers' licence, etc. which are no-brainers and would be included on a more comprehensive list.

1. Good company. This may seem like another no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people ignore this -and at their own peril. Spending days on end in a confined space like a car even with someone you love can sometimes get testy. So if you're neutral about the person, you might not survive the road trip. (Or your travelling companion might not, if you murder him/her).

Make sure to pack food - so you don't have to rely on roadkill.
 2. Great tunes. The importance of this cannot be overstated. A road trip without tunes can be boring - and dangerous. If you run out of things to talk about and don't have music, you might end up in scenario like described in No. 1. Or, if you get into a heated debate, music may save you from killing your partner, like No. 1, again. Best to try to have something everyone on the trip enjoys, too. Just don't include anything that's going to put the drive to sleep. The Travelling Wilburys or Blue Rodeo almost always trump anything "New Age."

3. A map (and a route plan). In this day of GPS and mobile map apps, it's still a good idea to have a real paper map. Your device my die; you may be out of any kind of reception in some areas. So take a road map. It also helps if you look up your route online and print it out to complement the map. It also helps to have a rough idea of where you're going to stay and what hotels are available. You may even want to pre-book hotel rooms, too. You could substitute guidebook for this, as many of them have maps included, and give you an idea of what there is to do, where to sleep, eat, etc. in the area you're visiting.

4. A charger for your device. See No. 4 above. Even if you have printed maps, a cellphone can come in handy for emergencies, etc. Plus you'll probably want to take photos and videos of the trip, and most people do that with their phones before.

5. Food and drink. Although you will be able to eat on the road, it helps to have plenty of pre-packed snacks and beverages so you're not ruled by the dictates of your stomach. Or lack of good dining options along the way. Water, juice, soft drinks and some fresh food as well as packaged food can at least take the edge off. So you don't get too hangry and ... you know, do a No. 1.

Okay, that's my take. Now get ready to hit the road.

And remember what Tom Cochrane said.