The Lost Coast: trail meals in elk country

There it was, camouflaged, undisputed, and majestically regal, watching over his harem while taking the opportunity to nourish himself before the next inevitable encounter with a young and fearless buck. 

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Suddenly, the bull changed focus onto the narrow trail that my friend Tracy and I were on, looking for berry shrubs. It is late August and the beginning of rutting season for the Roosevelt elk, which meant that Tracy and I had to take extra precaution when coming upon these beautiful beasts. We waited patiently until it moved onwards up the hill, but somehow I was stuck between the bull and Tracy as the elk was making his way to regroup with its herd. From time to time it would turn and inch towards me causing me to backtrack slowly, before heading back in the opposite direction. This was not a good spot to be in, but eventually the bull moved on. 

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For this trip I traveled back to my old home of San Francisco to meet up with Tracy before hitting the road on our way to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. The Lost Cast trail was our second backpacking excursion together, and it feels like we are definitely hitting a stride in preparation and stamina, but also as backpacking partners. Not unlike a traveling companion, when it comes to backpacking, you know that you have each other’s back in case of any scenario so the more you get out there together, the better prepared one will be in the long run. It goes without saying that I look forward to many future backpacking adventures alongside this old sailor.

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As the trip was closing in, I took time to plan and create some great meals to cook while settling in at camp. I’m not going to lie, there were hits and misses while experimenting with various options, but in the end it all turned out better than originally expected.
There is something to say about having a well-deserved meal after a full day’s hike. Even flavored peanuts would seem like a god-send, but in our case we went the distance with the food and it certainly paid off.

The Lost Coast Trail

The hike itself was serene and chockfull with wildlife sightseeing. The views were incredible from any direction, with ethereal landscapes where sea mist met the old forest, and ranging in diversity with the ever fluctuating elevation. 

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We parked the car at Needle Rock and started heading south towards our first destination, Bear Harbor. In our 3 and a quarter day excursion we covered 18 miles to our furthest point and back. 
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Elevation points along the entire trail.

The roosevelt elk were ubiquitous during our hike, and as of this post, out of around 87 elk accounted for in the park, we must’ve brushed by close to forty something elk, including cows, calves and a total of four bulls.

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One of many cows we encountered along the way.
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The fourth bull we saw on our last day on the trail.

I bought a dehydrator for the purpose of preparing our food for the trip. Constantly experimenting with a few different types of proteins, leathers, and vegetables, before settling on the final meals, which included a succulent gumbo, grilled tandoori chicken with mung dal lentils, and raviolini pasta. All meals were high on carbohydrates to provide sufficient energy and comfort after our challenging hikes. 

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1: Cajun chicken and shrimp gumbo. 2: Tandoori chicken with mung lentils and pilaf rice. 3: Pecorino raviolinis with herbed porchetta tomato sauce. All vacuum-sealed to maintain freshness and reduce bulkiness while packing. As a precaution we were careful to pack the food in bear canisters every night and far enough away from our tents.

Fresh water for days

While we brought some water with us in our Nalgene bottles, and my detached Camelback bladder (as in I removed the pouch from my Camelback to use as a stand-alone reservoir), we had to collect, filtrate, and purify water along the trail, which was readily available, especially at this time of year. 

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Here I am collecting water from one of the many creeks and brooks. On the right Tracy is using my incredibly handy Steripen to purify water in less than a minute. While iodine pills and purifying drops do a decent job, there is nothing like the Steripen as it is flavorless and takes no time to get the job done. In fact, I travel abroad with it all the time to purify tap water.

Our last fresh meal

The last night before hitting the trail, we stayed at Standish Hickey recreation area in Humboldt county. Before arriving to the camp site we grabbed some quick supplies to cook on the fire.

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A few ribeyes, shishito peppers, zucchinis, Belgian endives, and a couple of portabellos.
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After some time on the fire, our meal was ready to be cut up and placed into tortillas.

First meal: Cajun chicken & shrimp gumbo

The gumbo took the most time to make, with a few steps in the process, but the meal itself was so worth the effort. One can also do it over a period of a few days, which is what I did in this case.

Serves 3. The vegetables in the gumbo included the following:

  • 2 bell peppers
  • 1 sweet corn
  • 1 large jalapeño
  • 1 small leek
  • A handful of green beans
  • ¼ lb. of okra
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1 large carrot
  • 3 green onions
  • 1 small onion

Additional ingredients in the gumbo:

  • ⅓ cup of all-purpose flour
  • Andouille sausage oil, chorizo oil, or olive oil
  • 2 dry bay leaves
  • 1 box of instant rice
  • ½ tsp chile powder
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • ½ tsp filé powder
  • ⅓ tsp dried oregano
  • ⅓ tsp dried thyme
  • ⅓ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ⅓ tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • Salt and pepper to taste. Add the salt after the bouillon cube has dissolved as it also contains salinity.

Instead of separately adding all the spices listed above, to save time one can also use a blend of Cajun seasoning.

Step 1

I dehydrated regular store-bought tomato sauce at 135° for about eight hours until it reduced to a leather. You can also use marinara sauce for additional flavor. 

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Once the sauce is done dehydrating, you are indeed left with what appears to be a leather texture, and thus the name. The process takes some time, reducing the sauce to about six or more times of its original weight, which makes it ideal to carry on the trail due to the minimum space it takes up. The leather is also versatile enough to be used in a variety of dishes.

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Step 2

Typically gumbos and/or jambalayas require you to boil the chicken in a stock, while using it in the preparation of the sauce. In this case I decided to infuse as much flavor into the meats upfront by using a crab boil mix since I didn’t have the luxury to bring stock on the backpacking trip. It just would’ve added unnecessary weight into my pack, so instead I brought a chicken bouillon cube to drop in the water while cooking at our camp site.

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Left: boiled chicken an shrimp for the gumbo. Right: Grilled and shredded tandoori chicken for a separate dish.

When the chicken and shrimp were done, I shredded and cut it into smaller pieces before going into the dehydrator overnight. It’s important to cut it before dehydrating as it would be really hard to chop up afterwards. 

Step 3

As the dehydrator was occupied to dry out the tomato leather and proteins, I slow roasted all the veggies right in the oven. First, I quickly blanched some of the veggies including the bell peppers, green beans, jalapeño, and corn in some hot water. I cooked the corn for a bit longer to about half way, knowing that the dehydration process and simmering at camp would help to cook it throughly. 

I then cut up all the vegetables into small enough chunks before putting them in the oven. Bear in mind that the vegetables reduce in size quite considerably so make sure to cut them in bigger chunks than what you’d normally use if cooking at home. I placed the vegetables in a few cooking sheets lined with baking paper, not wax paper. The vegetables cooked for close to 12 hours at a low 140° F. Arrange the vegetables on separate oven racks and wedge the oven door with a metal object (in my case a ladle) to allow for a one inch opening to let moisture escape. This isn’t necessary with a gas oven.

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Left: dehydrated bell peppers and jalapeño. Right: Green onions, carrots, onion, and celery. The corn (not pictured here) tends to brown if placed in the dehydrator, but in the oven it keeps its color decently well.  

Step 4

Once the items are done, vacuum-seal the vegetables separately from the protein. It actually doesn’t really matter if you mix them while vacuum-sealing, but it makes it easier to gauge cooking time while at camp. 

Step 5

Upon arriving to the camping spot and after settling in, we got my MSR and Tracy’s Markill stove to alternate between cooking the rice and the gumbo stew. While Tracy cooked the rice separately on his own before setting it aside, I cooked the rest of the meal in my MSR.

I started making the roux by mixing the flour with the heated mix of half andouille and chorizo oil (that I’ve been saving in the freezer at home for some time), which I had brought in a small container. The roux should start to form into a paste in no time, stirring often, until it starts to brown, then I added some purified and filtrated water to mix with the roux. Once the water started to boil, I added the bouillon cube and the chicken.

After about 10 minutes at medium-high heat, we poured in the vegetables into the mix as they cook relatively fast. The veggies were packed in with the Cajun seasoning and pepper, as well as the bay leaves, ready to be stirred in the pot. At this point I reduced the flame to about medium heat.

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Step 6

Soon after the vegetables were added, we dropped in the tomato leather with some additional water. At this point everything is in the meal simmering together until the tomato leather blended into the sauce. I tasted the sauce from time to time and added salt if necessary since the bouillon cube already contains some salt.

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Step 7

Finally, when the gumbo is done, about 20+ minutes from the time we started the roux, we mixed it with the rice which was previously cooked on the side. 

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About to take the first bite of our gumbo with my handy Eat’N Tool spork. We brought enough propane canisters on the trip and we had just enough fuel left by the time we headed out.

Lessons learned

The gumbo was perfectly hearty and delicious; however, I did end up adding a bit too much rice, as traditionally its consistency should be more like a thick soup over rice. Considering it was a trail meal I didn’t mind it as much as we needed some carbs. 

Another thing we noticed was that the chicken was a bit tough to chew even if it was cooked for longer. During the dehydration process the texture of the meat hardens, which is hard to avoid. With that said, I have heard that you can pressure-cook chicken before dehydrating it, which could help in this case, but since I haven’t tried it myself I’m not able to vouch for it at the moment. Since it’s sustenance you are looking at the end of the day (without sacrificing flavor) the next time I’ll try one of the following:

  • Mince the protein into tiny pieces, then dehydrate. With this method you’ll retain some of the texture of the meat.
  • Alternatively, dehydrate and pulverize with a grinder. With this method you won’t have the meat texture, but at least it’ll be incorporated into the meal.
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At times along the trail, we hiked along the coast before going back inland.

At one point during our second day hike, we came across this shrine at the highest point along the coast. It was out of place, but it felt right, and without a doubt it must have a story behind it, but possibly not. We took this opportunity to rest and make our lunch before pushing forward. 

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Upon arriving to our second spot, Wheeler, following the day’s hike, we found a fire ring and an excess log that must have been used to build a small bridge or an outhouse. It looked like it had been laying around for some time so I chopped some of it up to cook with. Since this is a protected area one can only cook in designated areas as in this case with this site. 

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As far as breakfast and lunch were concerned we either cooked up some packaged meals that we picked up at REI or any outdoors retailer, or made some light yet satisfying oatmeal. Since we came across a plethora of huckleberry and blackberry shrubs throughout our hike, we took the opportunity to harvest some of the berries to add into the oatmeal. Of course, it goes without saying that one should only forage berries that have been properly identified via personal experience.

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Second meal: Tandoori chicken with mung dal

I started running out of time leading up to the trip so I opted for some store-bought mung dal to bring with us on the hike. However, one can easily make this ahead of time at home, and for next time I’ll cook the dal until the sauce thickens quite a bit, then blend it all together before going into the dehydrator to make as a leather. And just like the tomato leather, the lentils can be used in the same manner while rehydrating when simmering with water.
As an alternative, if you want to keep the shape and consistency of the lentils, you don’t have to blend them, but instead you’ll just have to drain once cooked, and then dehydrate separately. I prefer the blended method as you retain the precious liquids in with the leather, just as long as you reduce the lentils sauce for a longer time. If the sauce is too thin then it won’t dehydrate properly as a leather.

Step 1

I marinated and grilled the Tandoori ahead of time before placing into the dehydrator. I followed this go-to recipe, which turned out great. One thing that I never use in any Tandoori dishes is the addition of food coloring that is always available in versions you see at restaurants. I just don’t see the point in adding it since the meat already has a great golden coat, with no need to enhance it to an artificial looking red. I’ve even heard that the cayenne causes the pigmentation, but that is definitely not the case as cayenne does not contain such coloring properties.

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Preparing the marinade.

Step 2

When the chicken is done, shred and chop up into small pieces before placing in the dehydrator.

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Step 3

We cooked the instant rice pilaf separately and set aside. The dal was simmered with some boiled water, then I added some dehydrated cilantro and two curry leaves that I brought with us.

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Since I learned my lesson about the chewiness in the chicken from the night before, I ended up taking the vacuum-sealed chicken bag and pounded it for a long while with the back of my Tops Tahoma field knife. It reduced the chunks to tiny pieces before we cooked with it.

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Third meal: Raviolinis with porchetta tomato vodka sauce

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For our third and final night, we camped just far enough away from the beach at Little Jackass. Our spot was incredible with the sound of the waves in the backdrop, and as with most nights, the sky was blanketed by stars with plenty of opportunities to spot shooting stars. These spots are first come first served and this time of the year most areas were available for us to camp in. In fact, for a labor day weekend we hardly encountered any hikers on the trail, which was strange given the fantastic weather conditions. 

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By far the easiest meal to prepare during our trip, the pasta was a nice departure in flavor from the previous nights’ meals. Instead of using one of our propane stoves, I opted to experiment with the Emberlit titanium stove I brought just in case we ran out of fuel. The emberlit proved to be quite useful as it only uses twigs and small pieces of wood that you keep on feeding to maintain the flame.

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Our spot had a fire ring, which we used to place the stove in.

Step 1

On a previous camping trip before this one I made a pork porchetta, which was cooked as sousvide in a cooler (with no circulator). Once done I grilled it on the hot embers.

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Sousvide porchetta from a previous car camping trip.

Since I had some left over porchetta, I ended up saving a good chunk of it in a well-insulated cooler before freezing once we got home. When it came time to prepping the pasta before the Lost Coast trip, I made sure to remove as much of the fat as possible from the pork before cutting into tiny pieces prior to dehydration. This is very important to note for dehydrating purposes since you want to select lean protein as fat has a tendency of making the dry meat rancid over time.

The porchetta was a good choice since it already had a ton of flavor, especially with the herbs that I used when rolling it up. 

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I wanted a Bolognese-like consistency with the meat, which actually ended up working out well given my previous experience with larger pieces of meat. 

Step 2

The tomato sauce leather was made with a store-bought Lucini vodka sauce, which was delicious. 

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Step 3

We mixed the tomato leather in boiled water and the prochetta until the sauce was mixed properly. I let the sauce cook for about 20 minutes and while it was simmering we cooked the pasta in a separate stove so they both came out at around the same time. I also added one bay leaf and some dry basil leaves I dried up for this meal.

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The pecorino-filled raviolinis were done when they started to float towards the top, about 10 minutes from when they went in the boiled and salted water. 

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Step 4

Once the pasta was ready I drizzled it with a bit of EV olive oil I had packed into a tiny container before topping it off with some parmigiano reggiano shavings before serving.

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In the end, Tracy and I came out unscathed, relaxed and with a deeper appreciation towards the California coast. The weather, sightseeing, and wildlife was unlike any other backpacking trip I’ve ever done and as such I would definitely come back here in a heartbeat.

:Jaime

 

4 comments

  • Very thorough and inspiring post! I think I’ll hunt for a deal on a dehydrator this Black Friday so I can make healthier and more flavorful trail-meals like yours.

    • Jaime

      Thanks, Craig, it was great to experience and write about. I’d definitely recommend a dehydrator with a timer and temperature adjustment if you can find one. To make the gumbo a bit healthier you can refrain from using the roux base to end up with something more along the lines of a jambalaya. Happy trails.

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