Saturday, July 18, 2009

Yosemite Back-Country Food

To begin this post, I need to set the stage.

First, I love to eat. As part of that love, I like to try different kinds of food and familiar foods cooked in different ways or in different combinations. I generally like things spicy, I like things wet and I like lots of different ingredients.

Second, I love to spend time in the outdoors, but I have developed a nasty trend toward getting altitude sickness at high altitudes. When I get altitude sickness I get nauseous, and when it gets bad enough, I can't keep anything down. Because I am generally on a backpacking trip when I am at high altitude, and thus eating freeze-dried food, I have developed a Pavlovian association between nausea and freeze-dried food. When I get altitude sickness, I tend to quit eating and have a hard time drinking, even water. I lose strength and have to get out of the high-country.

Last summer, in preparation for a week-long Redlands Stake backpacking trip to Mount Whitney, I was involved in setting up several taste-testing evenings where we tried different foods, mostly freeze-dried, to determine which ones tasted best. In this way, I hoped to find items I really liked and thus help me to overcome my Pavlovian assocation with freeze dried food to make my backpacking trip easier.

Below is my own ranking of various types of food. The ratings are from 1 (worst) to 5 (best). I figured that a high 3 was worth considering for inclusion on a backpacking trip.

Non-Freeze Dried Foods Worth Taking:

Beach Cliff Fish Steaks in Soybean Oil with Hot Green Chilies [5]
Crown Prince Kipper Snacks [5]
Beach Cliff Sardines in Louisiana Hot Sauce [4]
Geisha Fancy Smoked Oysters in Cottonseed Oil [4]
Divine Bovine Gourmet Beef Jerky - Wild Honey Teriyaki [5]
Poore Brothers Olde English Salt & Vinegar Kettle Cooked Potato Chips [5]
Poore Brothers Jalapeno Kettle Cooked Potato Chips [5]
Poore Brothers Habanero Kettle Cooked Potato Chips [5]
Philippine Brand Dried Mangoes [5]
Hadley Roasted & Salted Traditional Trail Mix mixed with Hadley Gourmet Fiesta Fruit Mix [4]
Judy Cannon's home-made peanut butter granola [4]

Freeze Dried Foods Worth Taking:

Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce [5]
Backpacker's Pantry Jamaican BBQ Chicken [5]
Mountain House Beef Stroganoff [4]
Backpacer's Pantry Kung Pao Chicken [4]
Backpacker’s Pantry Fetuccini Alfredo with Turkey [4]
Mountain House Chicken Teryaki with Rice [4]
Natural High Caribbean Black Beans and Rice [add tuna] [4]
Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese [3+]
Richmoor Stroganoff [3+]
Mountain House Scrambled Egg with Ham & Red and Green Peppers [3+]
Backpacker's Pantry Louisiana Red Beans and Rice [w/hot sauce and added salmon] [3+]
Natural High Vegetable Curry and Rice [3+]
Mountain House Corn [3]
Mountain House Green Beans [3]

Freeze Dried Foods I Won't Take:

Backpacker’s Pantry Sweet & Sour Chicken [3]
Richmoor Chicken and Rice [3]
Backpacker’s Pantry Beef Stroganoff [3]
Mountain House Beef Stew [3]
Mountain House Chicken a la King with Noodles [3]
Natural High Cheese Enchilada Ranchero [2+]
Backpacker’s Pantry Lasagna [2]
Backpacker’s Pantry Chicken and Rice [2]
Mountain House Potato and Beef with Onions [2]
Natural High Chicken Enchilada [1]
Natural High Mandarin Orange Chicken [1]

You'll note that some of these items are bulky or heavy. I include them because I like them. The problem is, on a Sierra hike where a bear cannister is required, space restrictions impact how much you can carry on a long trip. Last summer, after starting out fine, doing 14,000+ foot Mt. Langley, I got altitude sickness and had to bail out over Trail Crest without doing the summit of Mt. Whitney.

This summer I planned a trip farther north in the Sierras than I'd ever been. Part of the strategy was to go to sections of the trail that did not get as high in elevation and reduce the likelihood of my getting altitude sickness. The trip was from Agnew Meadows, outside of Mammoth, to Happy Isles in the Yosemite Valley. The highest point on the trail was Donohue Pass, about 11,050 feet.

The trip is now over and the strategy partly worked. I was able to complete the entire trip. A big plus. I did get nauseous one evening, after going over Donohue Pass, but I did not lose my proverbial lunch. Another plus. I did feel very green that evening and had to force myself to eat. I had some Mountain House mashed potatoes, gravy and beef and some Mountain House chocholate moca mousse. Both were relatively smoothing to my stomach, but I had to consciously force them down. That was the only freeze dried food I had the entire trip, despite a number of other freeze dried items in my bear cannister.
What did save me was the fabulous Yosemite back-country food, the subject of this blog.

Tuolumne Meadows Grill:

After doing Donohue Pass, we camped in Lyell Canyon a short way past the Kuna Creek waterfall which cascades into the valley. The next morning, we hiked about 7 1/2 miles into Tuolumne Meadows. There, with access to Hwy 120, is a Grill which offered me some back-country relief. For lunch, about noon, I had a wonderful double cheese, double burger, with lettuce, tomato, dill pickle and onion, with as much mayonnaise, catsup and mustard as I wanted to put on it. It was a great quality burger, without even considering where we were, and the circumstances made it even better. I also had some potato salad. The Grill closed at 5:00, so I went back at 4:45 and got another hamburger, this time just a single beef and single cheese patty. It was even better, as the lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle were not overwhelmed by the meat and cheese. Wow, that was a wonderful pick-me-up and gave me some calories to sustain the next day's hiking.

Sunrise High Sierra Camp:

The next day, we hiked about 8.6 miles to Sunrise, a high Sierra camp. We found that it contained small huts, with beds, stoves, a centralized shower and pit-toilets, and best of all, a dining hall. We found that guests paid about $150.00 to $200.00 a night to stay there, but they also had a backpackers camp where we could stay for free and still get the benefit of the pit-toilet and piped-in water. I enquired if I could pay to enjoy the evening meal with the rest of the guests and found out that they had two spots open. I signed on.

That evening, I joined about 40 other guests in a crowded dining hall. I sat at a table with a family from Dallas, the parents, twin 14 year old boys and a 17 year old girl. All of the food has to be packed in from Tuolumne Meadows by mule. In fact, on our way in, we had to move over for a mule-train carrying food to the camp. We started out with home-made, thick, heavy bread, which I dipped in creamy broccoli soup, which was very thick with big chunks of broccoli. Wonderful rib-sticking food. It was followed by a nice salmon steak, cooked pretty well (a little over-done, but in that spot and setting, no complaints), with wonderful cooked vegetables, mostly large chunks of zucchini and bell peppers and basmati rice. I'm not sure how they cooked the vegetables, but they were fabulous. I suspect they were fried, at least for a little while, in oil or butter. Finally, for dessert, a chocolate cake with white frosting, cooked in a pie tin. Yosemite has these trail camps all over the park. I'm a convert. I'm fine with hiking and sleeping in a tent and sleeping bag, but let them make the food, the wonderful food. Forget the freeze dried stuff.

Yosemite Valley Refreshment Stand:

The following day I hiked the rest of the way out to the Yosemite Valley, about 13 1/2 miles. I dropped about 5,000 feet and was dying in the 100+ degree Yosemite Valley heat. At the Happy Isles Trailhead, I found a refreshment stand and purchased a 32 oz. cup of Mountain Dew and ice. I was completely drenched in sweat and my mouth was parched. I didn't know any refreshment could taste so good. I have always been a fan of ice-cold Squirt after a long hike. The grapefruit taste and carbonation cannot be beat, except for possibly by ice-cold Mountain Dew. I was otherwise horrified by the Disneyland type crowds in the Yosemite Valley, but I'll forgive them for the refreshment stand.

Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining:

In the Yosemite Valley, I caught a Yarts bus for Mammoth, to pick up my car. I was going to come back the next morning to pick up Mark and Steve Wicks, who were coming out the next day. Outside Yosemite, where Hwy 120 meets Hwy 395 at Lee Vining and Mono Lake, the bus driver stopped for a break at the Mobil gas station. There were hordes of people milling about, eating barbecue, listening to a band. Inside, there were lines waiting to order and buy food. The bus driver said the restaurant was very popular and drew people from all over. I determined the next day to stop and eat there.

The next morning I stopped for gas and breakfast. I asked the clerk if Yosemite would take a credit card for the entrance fee. He said they only took cash. After I explained I could not access an ATM and had no cash, the clerk offered to loan me $20.00, and told me to pay him back when I could. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I took him up on the loan and was able to repay him later in the day after borrowing money from Steve.

For breakfast I had steak and eggs. This was not the typical breakfast steak, like the paper thin steak served at Denny's. It was a full-sized, full-thickness ribeye, cooked perfectly rare, as I'd ordered it. It was accompanied by two eggs, over easy, sour dough bread and fried potatoes. The steak was fantastic. The breakfast menu is below:
After picking up Mark and Steve in Yosemite Valley, we returned at about noon for lunch and so I could repay the clerk his $20.00. I had my eye on the buffalo meatloaf and it did not disappoint. It was a little thicker than traditional beef meatloaf and had the wonderful buffalo signature taste. It came with garlic mashed potatoes, that were more like garlic potato salad, only semi-warm, but good, and what appeared to be spaghetti squash. It was excellent.
I also ordered a garden salad, which came with different kinds of greens and I believe some mango and rasberries and vinaigrette. I would have preferred a little stronger flavored dressing, but it was good.
Steve and Mark both got fish tacos. One taco came with a mango salso
and one came with a cabbage-type topping. The plate also had black beans. They said the tacos were wonderful.
The menus, including other items, are below.

I have been on-line and looked at comments on Yelp. Most are very positive. Some reflect negatively on the price and on using ingredients not typical to the area, such as lobster. For me, it was an absolute winner. Where the most common meal is a hamburger or steak, which is just fine, because I love them, it is so wonderful to have a creative and varied menu. If ever I am back in that area, the Whoa Nellie Deli will be on my agenda.

Judy often comments that trips for me are all about the food. That may be the case in visiting Spain or France, but rarely while backpacking. While I can't say that this trip was all about the food, because the back-country was absolutely spectacular, the food, for once, did add substantially to it.

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