Cold Waves, Hot Ramen: Wherein the Boundary Waters sets its hook in the soul of a Minnesota chef

Illustration by Michael Jacob Iverson

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

This is the debut of Off the Map, a column by chef J.D. Fratzke. It appears monthly at growlermag.com and occasionally in print.

Wells was stripped to his skivvies and running in place, every inch of his skin the color of raspberry bubble gum. Though it couldn’t have been more than a 30-yard swim to shore, he’d been back-stroking in a lake only slightly warmer than the average daiquiri. It was mid-May, and the winter of Y2K had been long and brutal and lingered like an overfed houseguest.  

Somehow his paddle had stayed afloat, so we retrieved that with our canoe first, then his backpack and tent. Water came with them, much to Atlan’s chagrin, as she nervously shifted her furry, ivory-colored bulk closer to Eric’s feet, rocking us and sending my adrenaline pine-high.

“Easy, girl. Sit. Don’t you dump us too,” Eric grunted, reaching for the prow of the swamped canoe floating, barely, toward ours.

Ten minutes earlier, we had finished up our Powerbar-and-coffee breakfast, broke our non-designated campsite at the portage to Parent Lake, and shoved off in two canoes laden with gear and a dog apiece.

It was my first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a Minnesota birthright I hadn’t yet discovered having grown up a contented creek and river kid from the Driftless corner of our North Star State. Wells and Eric, two fellow fresh-air fiends, who worked with me at an Uptown food and drink emporium (my first sous chef job), commandeered five days of my life as an introduction to what they considered a spiritual necessity.

The trip began innocent, optimistic, and ominous at the put-in on Snowbank Lake. Our late start and five-hour drive from South Minneapolis had us eyeing whitecaps whipped up by a stiff west wind as the afternoon shadows began to grow long. We were a camp cup of Franzia “Chillable Red” apiece into the decision-making process of weighing whether or not, against these waves, we could make the first designated campsite three islands and an 80-rod portage away by nightfall.

Eric, who had spent time in Alaska as a fishing guide, tipped his mug back to the spigot of the five-liter boxed vino bungeed to his expedition pack and looked up at me with one of the most reassuring grins in the Northern Hemisphere. 

“I’ve seen worse,” he said. “We’ll be fine.”

Three hours, four false portages, and a forgotten life jacket later, I had begun to prep dinner by headlamp while Atlan, or ‘Attie’ (Eric’s robust whitish husky mix), kept vigil. Eric and Wells had paddled back to “lost-in-the-dark” stop number two to retrieve the aforementioned PFD. When they returned, stowed the canoe, and sat down, exhausted, I handed them improvised bowls of curry beans, rice, and chopped Slim Jims. But while my back was turned as I chopped onions, the luscious pound of garlic sausage Eric and I had selected from the butcher case at Zup’s in downtown Ely was stealth gorged by Atlan in three wolfish gulps. 

Met with judgmental stares from the lot of us, she blinked without compunction: “Sorry, boys. You snooze you lose. Good choice, though. Nice texture, not too heavy on the allspice. That shit was dope. I’m gonna sleep like a CHAMP tonight.”

She yawned, turned slowly, and trotted off to curl up next to Eric’s pack. We performed a vanishing act of our own on the bowls of ad hoc beans and rice, made a scullery of the lake, and slept out in just our bags, the night’s chill making our breath plume in the beams of our headlamps.

The following morning was bluebird and crisp, a postcard day when we pushed out into Parent Lake. I was in the prow, Atlan with our gear, Eric steering. Wells and his pooch Cassie were a stone’s throw aft of us in a 14-foot fiberglass canoe with a kayak paddle when we heard him shout, “Cassie, NO!!!”

“Oh, dude, he went down!” Eric barked. We wheeled around and convinced Wells to head for shore rather than tip us by trying to get into our boat. We grabbed the waterlogged gear, saddled the tipped canoe over our gunwale, and beached where our frigid, ruddy pal was jogging in place like some kind of streaking mime. I draped my wool army surplus blanket over him and handed him my rain gear.

As providence would have it, we were less than 50 yards from an unoccupied, designated campsite. 

I got a fire going while Eric strung up parachute cord between three trees and hung Wells’ lake laundry out to dry. By noon I had a campfire and kitchen-sink ramen going and we were sipping from a Nalgene of Bushmills. Wells, still wrapped in a blanket and wearing three layers of mismatched sweaters, long johns, socks, and sandals pillaged from our dry gear, stared into the fire like a shaman and deadpanned, “Well, I guess we got that out of the way…”

We laughed for half an hour before Eric managed, “So, J.D., what do you think of the Boundary Waters so far?”

■ ■ ■

I’ll never say I’ve seen it all, which is one of the reasons I keep wanting to go back. And despite further misadventures, which I’ll share here in the future, dear reader, the majesty, vastness, and peace of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its utter uniqueness, how unlike any other place it is—especially the braying cacophony of city life—is a hook that was set deeply in me on that spring trip, just after ice-out, 22 years ago.

Recipe for Shore Lunch Ramen

Serves 2–4

Calling this recipe ramen will likely find a bloodthirsty John Ng chasing me down Washington Avenue with a yo-deba next time I darken the doorway of Zen Box Izakaya, but so be it. 

But to those of you who tell me grocery store ramen is an abomination, I say pish-posh. Over a campfire and with proper augmentation, it can be a banquet, a bacchanal, an al fresco work of art partaken of in good cheer and gratitude with the company of fellow voyageurs.

Whether I’m traveling solo or in tandem with friends, I always bring flavors along in my meal kit. You should, too (unless you’re coming with me, in which case I’ve got that shit covered, yo). Thus, little packages of soy sauce and hot mustard; small vials of curry powder, salt, pepper, and Montreal seasoning; little bottles of sriracha; and a quarter cup of instant dashi always make their way into my dry bag. Bacon fat is always a good idea, too, especially if you’ve packed your fly rod. 

Ingredients

3 packages grocery store ramen noodles, chicken or seafood flavor (you know the ones)
1.5 quarts water
1 cup potatoes, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled, clipped, and smashed
1 small yellow onion, minced
2 tablespoons bacon fat
½ teaspoon curry powder
3 packages soy sauce
1 teaspoon dashi powder
1 sheet nori, torn into pieces
4 ounces smoked salmon or fresh fish (boned and sliced into thin strips)

Directions

  1. Discard potato, onion, and garlic peels in campfire—not in the lake or in the brush where they can attract critters.
  2. In a campfire soup pot or dutch oven, melt bacon fat over direct heat from hot coals and add onion, garlic, and potatoes.
  3. When onions are translucent, add curry powder. Toast until aromatic, then add water, soy, dashi, nori, and seasoning from packaged ramen. Bring to a boil.
  4. Add ramen noodle bricks and fish. Pull to a slightly cooler spot and simmer for five minutes or until noodles are cooked through.
  5. Season to taste with salt, pepper, or chili sauce as desired. If you brought fresh lemon or lime, that’s good, too.