Trials and Tribulations of a Bush Cook (1)

Earlier this year in my kitchen notebook I wrote the following:

Remember what you hankered for last year in the bush- Good, hot, honest food. Coming off the block wet, tired, aching, regretful, anxiously clamoring at the bus window to read the “What’s on Tonight” blackboard. A misplaced specials board outside a blue school bus in the Hearst Forest. The only creature comfort you’re afforded, a high point at the end of a long day. Jubilant psychedelic nights in a tent that’s too yellow, abandoned hot dogs and chocolate pudding smeared phosphorescent faces. Fortifying for the day with hot toasty grilled cheese and gritty strong coffee, angling the carafe to drain the last dregs, full of grounds. Snow’s falling in may and only canvas separates you from the prolonged winter, but in the mess tent there’s hot soup and a diesel heater and ginger and lemon tea steaming in the carafe.”

This is followed up by a list of breakfast ideas, including ambitious projects like Spanish tortillas, ‘shrooms and toast, polenta, zucchini latkes… Lunch treats like samosas and sausage rolls and cinnamon buns. Chicken and biscuits with gravy, fried chicken, tandoori rice, chicken cacciatore, ginger beef, pirogi (we don’t talk about pirogi anymore, after ‘5 pirogi night’ goes down in infamy.)

This is not what happened. I did not bolster morale with treats made with the love of my heart and a genius work-around of an insufficient budget. I did not transform simple Sysco ingredients into transcendent experiences. I did not inspire love and tears of joy at the end of a long day on the block. Contemplatively, I crouch to pee beside a diesel generator at 4:00 in the morning. The engine turns over crankily, but the ten centimeters of snow that fell the day before have frozen the water, despite all precautions taken, and, just as an extra kick in the ass, the propane lines too. There is no coffee that morning, but we somehow make breakfast. I think that ends up being Belgian Waffle Day. Unfortunately, when I had done my initial order, I did not have access to a catalog with prices and product sizes, and Belgian Waffle Day eats up a significant portion of the $11.50 per planter per day budget that I am provided with. A budget that hasn’t been raised since 2012, despite exponentially rising food prices. A budget to feed tree planters, who burn, and thus consume, three times as many calories as the average person during the on season. To phrase it in a way that can not be contested, a miserably inadequate budget.

Here’s the thing about camp cooking. You’re in the middle of the bush with no Wi-Fi or cell service. Sysco only delivers to your small North Ontario town two days a week, so you must plan around that. You have to use a finicky sat-phone to place your orders, climbing on top of the school bus and stretching out to try to get service. The sat-phone regularly cuts out and you have to call back four times to finish placing an order. You are running off of a generator that isn’t on 24/7, so your refrigeration is stop-gap. In the first half of the season, this is rarely problematic, as the weather in Northern Ontario remains so frigid that the dry storage trailer acts as a walk-in cooler. You may have to drive anywhere from 2-4 hours from your four different camp locations to load and pick up your food order from home base (let alone the fact that due to a snafu with scheduling bus driver’s tests, your camp boss isn’t available to run day time chores, leaving only yours truly). Oh, a lack of vehicles due to equipment damage? A crew cab stuck in black muck and the diesel truck needed by the assessor?

One tries to order logically, to have enough in dry storage to prepare an emergency meal, to cover a day. Shit happens, though. A camp move conflicts with placing a food order and you reluctantly push it off for three days, fear gnawing at your belly as you watch the ravenous planters deplete your store of apples and oranges and peanut butter and jelly. Sysco knows you’re so far in the bush that you can’t complain about the shoddy quality of produce they send you, so you get the boxes of half moldy oranges and bruised apples. Again, without a catalog, you have no idea of prices of product sizes, and are surprised with juice-carton sized packages of almond milk instead of the 1L tetra packs. You are surprised, too, when you are only sent two boxes of pirogis, instead of four. You’ve told your rep that there are two camps this year and two orders being placed, come up with a system to tell the orders apart, and yet, they consistently arrive on the truck mixed together. Two invoices- one big clusterfuck of an order that you have to sort through. This is how you end up with 80lbs of popcorn kernels and no graham crackers. This is how the other camp ends up with all of the sugar and you end up with all of the pancake mix.

In the eleventh hour it is revealed to you that your camp will be the one making the pilgrimage to Manitouwadge, to a new forest, to a dry run of a new contract. Three and a half fucking hours away from Hearst. Nobody has thought to check ahead of time if Sysco delivers to Manitouwadge. (Spoiler alert- they don’t.) Nobody has put a system in place of how to deliver a food order to the camp in the Big Pic Forest, but don’t worry. Food isn’t an essential item in a bush camp. Surely you can pull meals for 50 people out of thin air, right? I force my camp-boss to tell the planters what has happened. I will not be held accountable for the fact that there is only oatmeal for breakfast and PB&J sandwiches for lunch. (I completely forgot about the kid with the peanut allergy until we were rehashing this clusterfuck months later, when my boss tells me he gave him a bag of chips for lunch that day.)

We wake up one morning on Pitopiko, cook breakfast, pack up camp, drive the three and a half hours to Manitouwadge, unpack the full bus, hook up a generator, fill it with diesel, bury the grounding plate, plug in the birdhouse, plug in the bus, unload and pack away the boxes of bread, fruit, pasta, canned goods, bags of flour, pancake mix, sugar, boxes of eggs, all the staples of the kitchen. While this is on-going, I allow myself a ten minute break. I run down to the lake that somebody has told me is there and hurriedly undress and fling myself into the lake, forgetting even to remove my glasses. Whatever- they’re gone. This is all I have time for before running back to light the pilots, start water boiling and cooking dinner. A case of eggs I forgot to remove to the safety of a truck has smashed all over the inside of the fridge. The counter, caulked to the wall, caulked to the sink, then caulked to another counter, has shifted disconcertingly several inches into the aisleway of the bus. Reports reach me that a planter is grumbling about me having time to swim, so where the fuck is supper? I am sure steam comes out of my ears and I start throwing things viciously out the door of the bus, swearing. This is my day off. My last day off was spent on a hungover scramble in Hearst, scouring the town for three hundred feet of 1″ PVC tubing for a water pump that ended up being useless, resulting in carting huge stock pots of water up from the river, through the bush to the bus to boil for cooking, cleaning and drinking water. My best friends pull together, helping grate cheese and brown hamburger, clean cupboards and organize dry storage.

Coming back from Manitouwadge, Laura and I leave early. We are cranky and sleep deprived. I am running on forty-five minutes of sleep and have, once again, cooked breakfast and packed up camp.  Now, she and I convoy the dry bus and the kitchen bus out the logging roads, heading back toward home base. We have to leave earlier than the rest of the camp because the ancient buses overheat, are cranky and finicky. Driving them is a negotiation, a conversation of terms and cajoling. We reach the highway after fishtailing through wet exposed clay for hours and turn on. I am jubilant- the bus, ol’Bertha, ol’Dolly, is attaining speeds of 110km an hour without overheating! Normally, driving her is a white-knuckling endeavor, silently apologizing to the line of traffic accumulating behind me on the Trans-Canada as the ol’girl rumbles along at 80, maybe 90, kilometers per hour. Laura stays behind me- an assurance that if anything happens, she, with the slightly more reliable dry bus, will at least be there. As I am cheering on the bus and patting the dashboard with something akin to love, I feel something go wrong. I lose all power in the accelerator. She rolls forward on the power of previous momentum. Confounded, I pull over onto the shoulder. It is a narrow, soft shoulder edging a steep ditch, but I am able to pull over safely. Of course the hazard lights don’t work- why would they? Laura pulls over the dry bus behind me.

I open the door to her holding out the last cigarette in a Ziploc baggie. We sit in the ditch in the drizzle smoking it. There is no cell service and nothing to be done until the rest of the convoy catches up. We put out the safety triangles and wait. The first to come is a red van owned by a crew boss and driven by a planter who pulls over so abruptly at the sight of us on the side of the road that the van gets stuck in the soft shoulder, tilted precariously toward the precipice of the ditch. Oh well. We have our own problems. Luckily (context is everything) the problem is simply a corroded throttle cable that pops off of its housing with too much jostling. The problem is fixed and does not, this time, reoccur. The next camp move requires two stops, coasting gently onto the shoulder of the highway, popping the hood, running around, climbing in and reattaching the cable. My bus companion, a young mechanic seated in a folding chair in the crowded bus aisle, grows weary of this. We dig behind the stacked boxes and manage to pull the ‘junk’ drawer open enough to get to the Gorilla tape. “There,” he says, triumphantly, glancing over the frayed belt and rusted edges to where the Gorilla Tape holds the throttle cable tenuously in place. “That should do.” And it does.

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