THIS TIME OF YEAR–MID TO LATE SUMMER, is the season when many folks find their thoughts turning to campsites, campfires, and canoe trips, the calling of loons, the easy comfort of the trail. As an old canoe guide, I find my paddling muscles getting itchy, and as the memories come flooding back, I recall many great trips, from the Fond du Lac to the Churchill River. One of the MOST important ingredients on any trip is the morning coffee. But, of course, it must be prepared properly, with attention to detail and tradition. Here is a meditation from my book “Deep Woods, Wild Waters”… perhaps you can even smell the campfire smoke and hear the song of the white-throated sparrows and the clanking of the pots…
“SWINGING THE COFFEE”
It is first light. Well, actually it’s past first light. The white throats are singing their high, pure flute-song, “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada,” over and over from the deep woods. A morning blessing if ever there was one. It is time to crawl out of the bag, step out of the tent, and start the day. All the camp will be up soon, and we have breakfast to make, canoes to load, miles to go, adventures to share.
At the fire ring, deep under the ashes, a few coals still glow from last night– and with a scrap of birch bark, a few twigs, and a bit of blowing, the morning fire is kindled to life and is soon blazing merrily. As the woodsmoke rises and pots and pans begin to clank with the breakfast “chimes,” we hear stirring among the other tents. Soon, uncertain footsteps begin stumbling toward the kitchen, and the guide looks up to see a semi-awake face, the last vestiges of sleep being rubbed from blinking eyes.
“Good morning, Bourgeois”. *
“Good morning, how are you?”
“Uhh, good I think. Is the coffee ready yet?”
And thus the day is begun, the priorities of life reestablished. As the camp comes to life, morning chores must be completed, and many needs addressed. But it has been ascertained by many a guide through long experience that nothing trumps a pot of hot coffee.
Morning coffee is one of a few rare things that is more than itself. It is more than its warmth, more than its flavor, more than the sound of a pot coming to a boil, more than even its aroma. Morning coffee is a sacrament, a symbol, and as such is a matter of attentive consideration.
To be sure, I have known trippers who simply felt a primal physical need for that first cup, even one or two who refused to come out of the tent until it arrived. The zipper would open just a few inches, a disembodied arm would extend, the hand opened plaintively like a baby bird awaiting the morning worm. No conversation, a mumble or two at the most. The arm would retreat, the zipper close, and as if by magic a few minutes later an entire human being would emerge. Well, nearly human. A second cup would usually do the trick.
But such dependency is rare. Far more common is another kind of need, a psychological, even spiritual need to start the day in a way that is warm, reassuring, comforting, energizing, and predictable. No matter the situation, no matter the weather or the trials before us, if we can start with a cup of hot coffee, all will be well. Like the campfire itself, a simple pot of coffee is an emblem of shared endeavor, of the courage and cohesion of a small group in the midst of a great, wild world, and of the shared bonds that hold us together.
For some coffee is an elixir, a magic potion that somehow makes all of life a little more tenable, a little more worth living. My old friend Jim Fitzpatrick, co-leader on so many expeditions over the years, is a world-class coffee hound. Jim could begin the day without a cup of coffee, certainly. He could do it on mere willpower and gumption alone. But why would he want to? And more to the point, why would anyone else want him to? We want the real Jim, the happy, cheerful, indomitable Jim. The Jim that can double-pack any portage, with a canoe. Not some other, lesser, “almost” sort of Jim.
One of my fondest recollections, an image still in my mind’s eye and one of the most memorable scenes of coffee-making I have witnessed, was Jim in the stern of his canoe after a brief stop at a Hudson’s Bay post in the far north. We were near the halfway point of our trip, and had stopped in to purchase a few essentials. We had somehow run low on coffee and had brewed none that morning. This situation was remedied at the post. As we continued on, I paddled alongside Jim, who was cruising easily. I noticed he had spread a newspaper he had purchased across the Duluth pack ahead of him, held down with a rock and a tennis shoe. He perused the baseball standings. Drawing closer I could see that in the bottom of the canoe, on the floor between his feet, was our small camp stove, lit, and on it simmered a pot of coffee. Jim was smiling.
Don’t we all have something we love, some small thing of no earth-shaking importance, but without which life just isn’t quite right, depleted or cheapened in some significant way? For some, particularly on a wilderness trip, it can be a simple cup of coffee, a symbol of sustenance and sensibilities both mundane and sublime.
But such thoughts are not readily apparent around the average early morning fire. There is only, “Good morning. Uhhh… is the coffee ready yet?”
And it soon will be.
There exist any number of ways to make traditional “cowboy coffee,” or, as some of us prefer to call it, camp coffee, or canoe coffee, or most preferably, guide coffee. Generally, it begins with a pot full of lake water. It is best if the pot has a few dings and abrasions and a weathered patina. Though such aesthetics may add little to the taste of the coffee, they add certain intangible values, like authenticity, to the overall experience. The pot should also have a spout and a carrying handle. In other words, we want something resembling a coffee pot.
Now the real preparations begin. The grounds are measured out slowly, precisely, and with an abundance of care. Generally I dump in about two handfuls. The water is brought, for just a few moments, to a boil. Boiling too long brings out more of the unwanted bitterness in the flavor. This means that the pot is indeed “watched,” old adages and injunctions to the contrary. Now, with a forked “coffee stick,” often speckled alder from the shoreline, selected and cut with much thought and ceremony, the handle is lifted and the pot removed from the fire. It is then placed on a flat “cooling rock,” also designated, with appropriate pomp and circumstance, as such.
It is at this point that variations in technique and preparation become apparent. Most campers, even the easygoing sorts, tend to react negatively to straining coffee grounds through their teeth. Therefore the settling of the grounds is of paramount importance. Some accomplish this end by pouring a small amount of cold water into the pot. Others drop in a raw egg. If the lid is lifted for a few moments, the cool fresh air will have the desired effect. Or, simply sitting around staring at the pot for awhile can accomplish the coveted outcome. Sort of.
Any of these methods may work, but all have the same flaw. None contain any element of drama. An effective ritual, to have its full impact, must include a certain measure of theatricality or showmanship. And making camp coffee is nothing if not a ritual. A crucial one.
For a long time, I leaned toward the “magic spoon” technique, in which a spoon, a particular spoon selected carefully from the camp kit, would be tapped lightly three times, and only three times, against the side of the pot. Certain incantations and mid-air hand motions, similar to a conductor leading an invisible orchestra, seemed helpful in creating the desired result of settling the grounds.
My old friend Denny Olson, The Critterman, a fine naturalist, teacher, and master of the theatrical arts, was particularly adept in the arcana of the magic spoon. Often, after watching for several days, a camper would work up the courage to ask, “Can I tap the coffee with the magic spoon?” Such temerity usually resulted in a low and ominous growl from the preoccupied Critterman, and further queries were suitably discouraged. In any case, the taps against the side of the pot, executed with precision and timed to the millisecond, would—theoretically—set up a harmonic vibration of the brew within, causing the grounds to drift to the bottom. This was the theory, and again, questions and skepticisms were not encouraged.
But eventually I discovered another, a better, and in many ways the perfect method for settling coffee grounds, a technique I have since used nearly exclusively for years. It is called “swinging the coffee.” In swinging the coffee, one retrieves the coffee pot from the cooling rock. The handle is then grasped lightly but firmly in one hand, feet set at shoulder width, an open space prudently established at about an eight-foot diameter, with no one directly ahead or behind. Then, with an appropriate invocation—something along the lines of “Watch out!”—the coffee is swung in the manner of a softball pitcher performing a vigorous wind-up, but without releasing the projectile. (That last point is important.) Five or six swift revolutions, maybe ten, will generally suffice, with centrifugal force driving the grounds to the bottom of the pot. The hot, speeding coffee pot must then be slowed carefully, gradually, with several partial revolutions, each one growing progressively smaller… and slower… until… there, the pot hangs motionless at the swinger’s side. The result—a perfectly clear and delicious pot of coffee.
The first time this process is performed, the effect on campers can be arresting. Often there are expressions of awe at the skill and daring of the coffee-swinger. Praise abounds, and is, of course, humbly dismissed. Sometimes questions arise, which are firmly discouraged. But, on a long trip, after many days of careful observation and rumination, eventually comes the query, “Can I swing the coffee?”
At this time we are about to cross a Rubicon, a point at which a certain level of comfort, of trust, has been established, but after which the aura of the guide, and of “guide coffee” itself, is never quite recovered. The Critterman might growl. Jim would just pour a cup and pass the pot, without ceremony. But this is a significant moment, an occasion to be recognized. And so I say, solemnly, pausing for effect… “Yeah, go ahead.”
The mysteries and sacraments of authority cannot be forever maintained. Rituals are meant to be shared, passed ceremoniously to worthy acolytes. And anyway, maybe tomorrow morning I can stay in the bag just a few minutes longer, enjoy the hymns of white throats and the incense of woodsmoke, listen for the bell chimes of pots in the kitchen. And wait for someone to bring me a cup of coffee.
For more stories, check out my book, “Deep Wood, Wild Waters – A Memoir”.