Appetites: Eating well in the BWCA a worthwhile challenge

Canoeists paddle through the Boundary Waters in northeastern Minnesota.
Courtesy James Norton

Every year, tens of thousands of Minnesotans camp amid the lakes and woods of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the northern part of the state. And while paddling, portaging, hiking, and appreciating natural beauty is what it's all about, good food is also a critical part of the equation.

James Norton, editor of, joined MPR News' All Things Considered to talk about what to pack and how to cook it.

Click the audio player above to hear the conversation, and read Norton's thoughts below.

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James Norton on how to eat well in the BWCA

I love challenges like cooking and eating with limited utensils and food. It's like any kind of art: when you restrict the creator's freedom, he or she is actually liberated from choice, and the act of creation becomes a lot more enjoyable. There's an added benefit that everyone is basically starving at all times, and the ancient proverb "hunger is the best sauce" is right on the money. As long as there's something to eat, everyone's happy, and if you can do better than that, it's a festival.

Frying bacon
Always bring bacon to the Boundary Waters -- both because it's delicious by itself and the grease is great to fry with.
Courtesy James Norton

Find room in the pack for flavor

The more I canoe, the more I appreciate little things that bring a pile of flavor to the hearty soups or beans and rice that make up the bulk of what we end up eating. A spicy but also multidimensional hot sauce, like Tapatio or Frank's Red Hot is absolutely critical. Salt and pepper. Garlic. A whole onion. Jalapeno peppers. A lime or two. Real Spanish chorizo. Always, always bring bacon -- not just because it's delicious by itself or in just about any other dish, but because you can fry with the bacon grease.

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You haven't lived until you've hiked or canoed for eight hours and then eaten a rich creamy potato soup enriched with summer sausage fried in bacon grease. Nutella is a great thing to have on hand. Actual ground coffee -- the brewing takes a bit of time, but it's well worth it. I'm never going back to instant. And couscous, as a base for other things, is brilliant. We made ours with chopped apricots and chorizo, and it was great.

Walleye can make for great fish tacos when you're on the trail.
Courtesy James Norton

It's always a good idea to supplement your packed food with fish. On a recent trip, we ultimately managed to snag a decent sized walleye and a smallmouth bass. While that doesn't sound like a pile of food, once they were filleted, coated in Shore Lunch batter and sauteed in a bit of bacon grease, they actually were the makings of some very delicious fish tacos.

Pack well

For Christmas this year, my parents gave me a folding chef's knife with real heft to it. I debated about whether to bring it, but it turned out to be worth its weight in gold -- having a knife with some weight to it makes a big difference when you're prepping an onion or jalapeno or a fish, for that matter.

I also tried out this triangular plastic meal set called Light My Fire -- essentially a wickedly useful triangular cutting board and strainer, a triangular bowl, a spork, and two nesting bowl-cup things that turned out to be killer useful in terms of prepping meals. Again, I thought I might be over packing, but it was great in the field. And if you're canoe camping and can therefore tote some weight with you, a good solid camp stove with two burners makes a huge difference -- it's a lot more versatile and great for feeding a group of four or more in a hurry.

Don't forget dessert

I don't know if good bourbon or single malt Scotch counts as a dessert, but quite a few canteens joined us on this trip -- I toted in Ardbeg 10. Other than that, I've played with fancy foil-packaged reconstituted camp desserts, but nothing stacks up to an old-fashioned s'more made with Hershey's chocolate, the chocolate equivalent of the Kraft American cheese single. Whatever Hershey's lacks in depth of flavor or, you know, actual chocolate, it totally makes up for with its plastic-like melting characteristics. It's all about texture and blending with the marshmallow. Whenever I've tried better stuff in the past, I've regretted it.

Back to civilization

On our way out, we hit Fitger's Brewhouse in Duluth, kind of the quintessential pre- or post-wilderness spot in my opinion. Great beer, great atmosphere, and they're now doing these burgers with the option of local Scottish highland beef finished with spent grain from Fitger's brewing process, which everyone but me ordered. As a Wisconsinite, I felt like I had to get the cheese-and-onion smothered bratwurst, which was as incredible as it sounds. Our resident tall, skinny serious eater Kevin ordered a slice of carrot cake for dessert, and not only was it delicious, it was roughly the size of a canoe paddle, and actually managed to make it all the way around our table of seven guys before being demolished.