Friday, July 27, 2012

A Weekend At The Top Of California - Loon Lake, CA

Hectic work schedules and a frantic early summer full of birthdays, anniversaries & graduations had both Kathy and I at the end of our collective rope. We needed a getaway, and badly at that, but didn't want to hassle with the 4th of July weekend crowds so on the following weekend we loaded up and headed to Loon Lake.

Resting at ~6350' above sea level Loon Lake is a bit of anomaly in large Sierra lakes in that there's always been a lake in the valley in which it resides. The valley once housed Loon & Pleasant lakes and the two were joined into one much larger lake by the 1963 erection of the Loon Lake Dam across the Gerle Creek outflow.

The name of the lake is a bit of a mystery. There are in fact Loons in California but not of the type associated with the Wilderness in Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Those are the "Arctic Loon" who's range does not extend this far South. You can find "Pacific Loon" along the California coast feeding in "near-shore" areas, bays and estuaries but they don't appear in the Sierras.... Perhaps someone just thought it a good name for a lake.

We arrived early in the day on Friday intent on paddling to the NE corner of the Pleasant Lake end of the reservoir and a dedicated "boat-in" camping area that is inaccessible except by boat or backpack. The wind had kicked up rather early and made the crossing a bit of a challenge. As luck would have it though this led us to a campsite that turned out to be much more private and I think a bit nicer due to far less use than the one we'd originally intended.

By noon we'd found a place to spend the remainder of our weekend, set up our camp and commenced to enjoy the view a bit and relax. To that end, I'd brought along one of Kathy's favorite white wines, some nice cheeses and charcuterie. We've done a number of these types of trips now as chronicled on this blog. As you know we like to bring along great food and drink on our trips. It does complicate things a bit but honestly, would you rather sit beside a remote alpine lake eating a fine french cheese with a glass of California wine or beef jerky and Bud Light? Yeah, me too.

So along with the wine & cheese "happy hour" we had some really nice meals. (recipes at the end of this post) Of course, presentation suffers in this environment but flavor doesn't have to. It's easy to prepare groups of ingredients and seasonings together ahead of time and 1.5 cups of chopped vegetables takes up a lot less space in a pack or cooler than a bell pepper, an onion, celery stalks etc. Some things just have to be brought along whole, an avocado for instance, but hard vegetables, spices etc are fine. I know it looks like I've got a horrific pile of stuff going on in my "Camp Kitchen" but very little of this is related to the meal. In bear country you have to pack everything up at night and get it up a tree. Consequently it has to go in small containers which make things difficult to access during the day. I just left anything that didn't have to be on ice out during the day so I only had to pack & unpack once per day.

Dinner on our first night was  Roasted Jerk Chicken Wings with a Mango Dirty Rice garnished with fresh cilantro, fresh avocado and a squeeze of lime.

Breakfast on our second day was the dish I was really looking forward to. Kathy and I both love the cuisine of New Orleans and she had been enduring a serious "Jones" for Shrimp & Grits. Since there is nothing I like better than doing something that makes her smile I made sure she had it. Again, the presentation is not so hot, but holy mother-of-god this stuff came out just "SLAP-YO-MOMMA" good!

Since we had a bit of a "New Orleans" theme going for the days meals, I finished us off with my Jambalaya for dinner ( Recipe found HERE ). It was dark by the time this was ready and frankly, Jambalaya is not particularly photogenic so I skipped that. I will say though that I edited this a bit. First for volume, I cut the recipe to 1/3 of the size as written. Additionally, I omitted the shrimp for simplicity and went with a finer dice on the veg for ease of packing. Other than that, it's the same great recipe.

I may do an entire blog post on this topic at a later date but I want to take a second to point out what I think is among the coolest things to happen to those who like to eat & drink WELL in the outdoors in ages and that is: GOOD BEER IN CANS!!!!

Photo courtesy of my good friend Randy January
There are a number of excellent breweries across the country that are now producing their wares in cans. Why is this important? Because cans have a number of features that make them ideal for bringing beer into the backcountry:
  • Their size & shape lends to tighter packing in a cooler 
  • Cans are lighter than glass which makes your cooler lighter
  • They chill faster
  • They don't break (broken glass in a remote campsite just sucks)
  • They crush and take up minimal space to pack out and weigh next to nothing
Among my favorites is San Francisco's 21's Amendment Brewery. The "Brew Free Or Die IPA" shown above is a robust 7% alcohol, they make a much easier drinking variety called "Bitter American" at 4.4% that I really enjoy and which lends itself to consumption in higher quantity without falling in the lake. Sierra Nevada opened up a canning line in the last year as well. Here's a link ( Good Beer In Cans ) see if your favorite is available in a can.

A new element to all of this though was the inclusion of our new dog Guinness. We were VERY nervous about how it would go despite having taken him for a successful test run on the previous weekend. His psychological "condition" makes him very nervous about new situations and new places. Add to that the dynamics of a moving canoe, wildlife and a mastiff breed near water (hint: they usually don't like it) and you have a recipe for a weekend gone horribly wrong. Except for his snoring, which may be a good thing in terms of keeping the bears away, and a brief disagreement at bedtime as to whom is the owner of the sleeping bags it could not have gone better.

On our "test run" I had to lift him into the canoe by the handle on his RuffWear "K9 Float Coat" but this time out Kathy walked him to the waters edge once I'd loaded the canoe and he climbed in, on his own, as if he'd been doing it his entire life! This poor dog has had an awfully rough life ( Read More Here ) and to see him not just comfortable but happy in such a new environment brought me to tears.

He really seemed to enjoy the entire weekend. He explored the area around our campsite and came back each time he was called. He romped around on the beach in front of our campsite with Kathy. Though he never fully "got in" the lake, never going in any deeper than about 8", he would barely stay out of the water. It must have appeared to him to be "The Worlds Most Awesome Water Bowl". And, at the end of the day he rested quietly and comfortably by Kathy's side. I'm tearing up again.

We got completely skunked on the fishing. Despite having done well on my last trip to Lake McCloud ( HERE ) I tried everything I know and came up empty. I need to do a little more research before our next Sierra trip. I'd love to catch/cook/eat some fresh Trout with Kathy the next time out. But outside of that we had a great trip and a beautiful paddle back across the lake to our car. I'll close with a few more photos and the recipes for the Shrimp & Grits, Jerk Chicken & Mango Dirty Rice.

Kathy caught me not paddling!

Jerk Chicken & Mango Dirty Rice

For the Jerk Chicken:
  • 12 Wings
  • 2tbsp oil
  • 2tbsp Jerk Seasoning
  • Cilantro
  • Lime

Form two cooking packets of heavy duty foil (double layer) and place 6 wings and 1ea tbsp of oil and seasoning in each then seal tightly and refrigerate until your trip. If you aren't bringing a cooler, freeze them, they'll stay quite cold for up to 2 days if well insulated in the center of a pack. To cook, toss the packets (thawed if you froze them) onto a hot bed of coals in your fire for ~25min turning frequently for even cooking.

For the Mango Dirty Rice:
  • 1/2lb Pork Sausage
  • 1/2lb Chopped Chicken Livers
  • 1/2c Onion
  • 1/4c Celery (finely chopped)
  • 1/4c Green Bell Pepper (finely chopped)
  • 1.5c Long Grain White Rice (finely chopped)
  • 1c Chopped Fresh Mango (1/2" cubes)
  • 3c Water
  • 1 Whole Avocado
  • Salt & Pepper

Place the Sausage & Chicken Livers into a ziplock and refrigerate or freeze. Combine the chopped Onion, Celery, Bell Pepper into a ziplock and refrigerate. Place your Rice & Mango into a ziplock and refrigerate. To cook, begin by frying the sausage & livers in your camp cookpot until the livers are firm. Drain excess sausage grease into the fire but leave a bit for flavor. Dump in the bag of veg and cook until the onions are nearly translucent. Then toss in the rice and mango along with the water and cook until the rice is done. Season to taste with Salt & Pepper.

To serve, spoon out a bit of the rice into each bowl, carefully extract the wings from the foil and place atop the rice. Sprinkle a bit of freshly chopped cilantro on top, add a few wedges of avocado and a healthy squeeze of lime.

Shrimp & Grits

For the Grits:
  • 1c "Fast Cooking" Grits (Albers)
  • 3c Cream or Half-And-Half
  • 1c Water
  • 2Tbsp Butter
  • 1/2c Shredded Cheddar
  • Salt & Pepper

Put the grits into something that will keep them dry. Put the cream and water in a container and keep cold. Combine the cheese & butter in one container and keep cold. To cook, bring your liquid to a light boil then stir in the grits and put your campstove on it's lowest setting. Keep an eye on this and stir often as it's easy to burn. You may have to add a bit more water. Once the Grits are cooked, stir in the cheese & butter, season with salt & pepper to taste and set aside. 

For the Shrimp:
  • 4 Strips Bacon
  • 3 Green Onions (sliced thin)
  • 1tbsp Crushed Garlic
  • 1/4 Cup Chopped Herbs (Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Basil)
  • Pinch of Crushed Red Pepper
  • 2tbsp butter
  • 1c White Wine (reserved from yesterday evenings "happy hour")
  • 1doz Shrimp (peeled & de-veined)

Put the bacon & shrimp into a ziplock and refrigerate or freeze. Combine the onion, garlic, herbs, butter & red pepper into a ziplock. To cook, fry the bacon until crisp, let it cool a bit, crumble it and set aside. Drain off most of the grease and toss in the veg, herbs, butter & red pepper and cook for 5min. Pour in the wine and continue to cook until it has reduced by 1/2. Stir in the crumbled bacon and pop the shrimp into the liquid. Cook for a few min until pink & firm.

To serve, spoon a healthy portion of grits into a bowl, then spoon in the shrimp & sauce. Easy & awesome!

Looking for information about Canoeing in Northern California? Visit:

RuffWear K9 Float Coat ( Dog Life Jacket )

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