Think again before eating bland trail food |

Think again before eating bland trail food

A protein bar and a packet of freeze-dried food (just add water) don’t cut it when you work in the wilderness for a living.

Five wilderness rangers proved yesterday that you don’t have to make a culinary sacrifice to go backpacking. With dueling propane-powered backpacker stoves and camping cookware they squared off in the Backcountry Cook-off during the Wilderness Ranger Academy hosted in Aspen.

The annual conference attracts wilderness rangers from throughout the West to discuss issues they are facing while managing public lands. A few fun activities, like the cook-off and a cross-cut sawing competition, are sprinkled in.

The four rangers from Colorado and one from South Africa were instructed to use ingredients that are practical to drag along on a one- or two-day backpacking trip.

All of them came up with tasty concoctions that would stick to your ribs after a hard day on the trail.

“When you get off work in the backcountry you don’t want to be messing around with supper very much,” said contestant Nate Benton, a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in the Columbine Ranger District in Durango.

He prepared a “quick and light” dish he calls Tomatoellini which he’s field tested many a time. He added sundried tomato pesto, roasted red peppers and a dash of chili pepper to tortellini.

Twenty-five or so wilderness rangers tested the meals and cast secret ballots for their favorites. Enlightened taste testers said the cook coming out on top was Eduard Goosen, a ranger in Drakensberg Park in South Africa. He was a special guest brought to the academy this year to talk about wilderness in his country.

Goosen made a fabulous dish called potjieskos, which he said is a staple on the trail in South Africa. “We see it as our pride and joy,” he said.

Goosen browned mutton in a bit of vinegar then added mushrooms, potatoes, carrots and dried peaches along with salt and pepper, mixed herbs and cream. It was as good as the stew that everyone’s grandma seems to have made.

The audience also favored a bit of the exotic by selecting Anne Dal Vera’s Peruvian Special as the second-place dish. Dal Vera, who has been a wilderness ranger for 20 years in the Columbine Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest surrounding Durango, made a dish that featured quinoa, a grain grown in Peru and other parts of South America.

Backpackers who don’t want to carb-load the entire trip would especially appreciate the Peruvian Special.

The quinoa and red lentils “make it pure protein,” she said. Her recipe also called for green pepper, snow peas and sun-dried tomatoes. The grains of quinoa were cooked in boiling water and sauce until little tails popped out.

Dal Vera was the only contestant who had participated previously in the Backcountry Cook-off. She said she won one year with cous-cous cake.

Placing third was David Chavez and his Heat and Eat dish. Chavez, a ranger with the National Park Service at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, went for filling over fancy. He mixed a can of green beans with a can of mixed vegetables, threw in summer sausage and brought it to a boil. Usually, he said, he mixes in elk sausage to make it special.

Lin Denham, a Forest Service wilderness ranger in the Clear Creek District in Idaho Springs, served Great Gaspacho along with bread topped with brie and cucumbers. She served the gaspacho cold since yesterday was so warm.

All five cooks proved that the critical ingredients for preparing dishes on the trail are a dash of creativity.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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