One of the best courses I ever took was a Spanish Film Studies course, about four years ago. Film is an art, and like most great art, there are persistent themes across decades and languages and styles. In film, the forest is often used as a liminal space, an ethereal transition zone between the surreal and the real.
The transitional state of Tim’s tree farm in Deerfield, MA was immediately transparent; the weather finally turned around from deep winter to deep spring, giving New Englanders whiplash and sunburns at the same time. Many of us were in kind of the same place; transitioning into and out of higher education, new jobs, and new homes. Jimmy just moved to Boston, Kelley is starting her Master’s, and I’m about to embark on a PhD. We’re all growing up so fast… it brings a tear to my eye.
So, naturally, we had to revert back a few years of maturity and throw a party in the woods.
Jimmy had the right idea from the start; no cooking unless it’s over a campfire. That’s pretty much how the weekend played out. Tim’s land is a sprawling, sustainably harvested tree farm with plenty of space for us to relax and stretch our muscles and, of course, cook over an endless supply of firewood.
We started at Pekarski’s Sausage, just about 1,000 feet away from Tim’s front door. There, we went in to buy a couple of sausages, and left with an entire smoked duck. The 5lb. duck was visibly juicy and pre-cooked to seal in a bunch of the flavor from the smoking process. We had our butcher slice the duck in half lengthwise to encourage even cooking over a campfire. I think, at the time, we assumed we’d be using a grill…
Tim knows every species of tree on his property, and can give you a rough estimate of species count, estimated value, and average DBH while he’s at it. He’s so good at what he does, his tree farm was designated as the most sustainable tree farm in Massachusetts by the National Forest Service. They’re going to Nationals this spring.
Unfortunately, his hemlocks are starting to take a hit from the Wooly Adelgid, a small invasive insect that has slowly migrated northward with the warming seasonal temperatures associated with climate change.
See those tiny white dots along the twig? Those are the offending bastards. If you have a hemlock in your yard, you can treat the tree to stave off inevitable death, but Tim has several hundred hemlocks scattered across his property. Like all ecosystems, the best choice for his forest is to adapt with the slowly shifting climate.
So, we repurposed a hemlock for our duck-cooking apparatus. And-how!
Tim got his bushcraft on, and built a tripod for string-turning the duck over the fire. He first built the tripod and lashed together the trunk sections from the hemlock, forming a sort of tipi. Next, he cut a boat-anchor looking apparatus for hanging the ducks, and tied that off about ten feet away to wind the rope.
All those years in boy scouts gave Tim the knowledge and the ability to teach others. He can gut a fish, kill a deer, make a shelter, and cook ducks over the fire (and he’s also never without a bottle opener and a knife. Scout’s honor).
Once we had the duck going, most of us broke off from the group to set up our camps. I found a really swell spot down by the confluence of a few meandering streams; this was the one flat area without 6 inches of thick, viscous mud. It turned out to be the perfect camp spot, hereafter referred to as Camp Max. The babbling brook talks next to you all night, soothing you to sleep.
I’m sleeping in this gorgeous abode, an Exped Orion II, a new 4-season tent born and bred in European Highlands, where the world’s most grizzled mountaineers likely scoff at the idea of camping in a sun-drenched temperate forest in the Happy Valley of western Massachusetts. That said, I am definitely an all-weather camper, and can’t wait to put this tent through its paces in as many thunderstorms and hurricanes as I can find this summer. It might weigh about as much as my last bargain-busting 2-person tent, but it’s ultralight for a 4-season, strong enough to stave off high winds, high snow, and endless torrents of rain and hail. I’ll have a first-look out a little later in the season.
There’s a particular reason Exped and I are partnering up, so check in later this summer for the super-secret 2016 Bike Tour…
Speaking of biking, Kelley stopped by for the afternoon and evening with our mountain bikes, so we had the chance to tear it up around the miles and miles of singletrack and doubletrack criss-crossing Tim’s land. My mountain biking exploits in this particular forest are probably getting old to anyone who checks in here regularly; you know I love this area, and you know I love any time I spend sitting on a bike.
And who wouldn’t? Now is a great time to bike around the Northeast; most of the mud is all dried up after such a nice weekend, and the bugs aren’t out yet. Wear orange to make sure you don’t get hunted (if your friend doesn’t own the woods you’re in), get outside, and get off-road!
We headed back to camp and started food prep. Our menu consisted of a garden’s worth of root vegetables, namely carrots and potatoes, along with a few huge mushrooms and tons of liquid bread. As the beer started flowing, new acquaintances became old friends. For Sarah and her boyfriend Tim (different Tim), Aaron, and Maurizio, this was their first time at the land, and they could not have asked for a nicer evening.
We had everything cooking up nicely in a very low-maintenance setup. The duck turned itself, and the vegetables roasted away with only the occasional flip. A couple of hours and a little too much country music later, it’s all done!
Oh man. Don’t spoil your next meal with my description of how everything tasted. Just get yourself into the woods with food and tin foil, and build a fire.
And that duck! It came out smoked, juicy, and delicious. Duck is usually a little greasy, but the smoking process really helped pull out some of the fat before we got started. The meat was rich, and even the fatty areas had a pretty great taste. I’m always looking for more calories to offset all the biking I do, so I was chewing down fat and skin like a hungry coyote.
Good stuff, Tim!
Since we started cooking at 3:00 and drinking at 4:00, we partied for hours and hours and still managed to get to bed by about midnight-thirty. This is adulthood; you can go nuts, let loose, and have a great time, so long as you can meet your bedtime and not screw up the rest of your weekend. I never thought I’d be so happy to not stay up all night. What a great evening.
In the morning, we still had about eight potatoes, four portobellos, a good skillet-full of root vegetables, a package of hot dogs, and a dozen eggs. Alyssa, Ian, Sarah, Tim (the other Tim), and Kelly (different Kelly) whipped up a beautiful breakfast at Tim’s house. It had to be one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, with the smoky flavor of the campfire embedded in everything from the night before. About a year ago, Jimmy carefully wrapped and placed a dozen potatoes into dying campfire embers at 2AM, right before going to bed, and ever since it’s been a common practice to pre-bake our potatoes in the fire for breakfast the next day.
Tim (the other Tim, Sarah’s boyfriend. Keeping track?) is a naturalist by training, and knows a ton about local flora, local birds, and the character of a New England forest. We went on a nature walk in the morning, and spotted all kinds of spring ephemerals, like this beautiful Bloodroot bloom in a drainage ditch on the side of the trail. Tim also brought his birdwatching binoculars and picked out a Sapsucker. it was wicked seeing the drilling action up close. That bird is powerful!
That’s it. The meltwaters are receding, the first buds are lining up on every branch, and the wind and rain of early spring are superseded by 70ºF temps and endless sun. Spring is here, winter is over, and I’m ready to transition with it.