Tires slipped on steep wet gravel track peppered with the leaves of golden yellow poplars. Pedals churned and our breath became visible in the air of a raw autumn day on a Northern Montana trail as we pushed our bodies and bikes up the days most arduous ascent. Henry and I were near the remote little pine tree town of Polebridge, and we were looking forward to our dehydrated dinner that evening.
Normally we would also be preparing for an evening of stoving to heat up our camping cuisine, but this time there would be no such thing due to our conscious lack of preparedness. In the late hours the night before, after conquering a 6 hour drive from one side of the vast and glorious state of Montana to the other, a consequential decision was presented: Either wake up early and proceed to continue driving from our camping spot into town to search for fuel for our depleted stoves, or simply... don’t.
What’s Hot, Is Cool.
Through all of the marketing involved with the modern stove and it’s companion brands and products, an industry of dry food has flourished remarkably. Rehydrating is cool. Pouring steaming water from a compact and sleek piece of camping gear into a colorful bag of crunchy goodies is simply “hot” right now, and undoubtedly for good reason. Though as we as an outdoor culture continue to invest in better and lighter technology, the line between “camping” and “glamping” continues to get finer and finer and even a little blurred. So when it comes to challenging oneself, which is perhaps the foundation of so much of an outdoor lifestyle, maybe we could take the opportunity now and again to just leave the stoves at home, or in our case, in the car.
In the early hours we awoke to a crisp mist of Montana morning air. We parked the Subaru in the safe haven of bike adventure- The Whitefish Bike Packer Hostel, and we began our route’s preparation.
Be Bold, Soak Cold.
Bear mace- Check. Headlamps- Check. Sleeping quilt- Check. Toilet paper- Check. Flask of the good stuff- Check. Food for the Sole- Check. One by one we loaded gear piece by piece into the compact bags of our bikes. The sounds of zipping and unzipping, tearing of Velcro and clicks of buckles all came together to perform a symphony of send. Though as we continued to check off items on our not-so-lengthy list there was one thing in particular that simply didn’t make the cut- Jetboil. No gas. No problem. Unlike isobutane, dehydrated food is an invention that has been around for most of human eating history. There is certainly no evidence that a jet flame was needed to prepare our ancestors food. In fact on this particular trip we planned on foregoing a flame altogether. Strictly cold soak.
Bold idea? Maybe to some, but Henry and I were confident that as much as stoves do indeed accelerate the hydration process (and are perhaps necessary to fully hydrate certain ingredients), they are not required to produce edible delectables. We even had a conversation about omitting water altogether, concluding with confidence that the same caloric benefits are available when eating dehydrated food in their crunchy condition. However, after imagining ourselves swallowing hard and chewy bits of veggies following a 10 hour bike ride along a river, we also concluded with confidence that for us to not use water on our trip would in fact be a bold idea.
Our dehydrated food shook like a maraca of munch in our dry bags as we shoved them into the last remaining cargo spaces of our pedal powered pack mules. Turning heads and turning tires, we rolled on a long and early stretch of highway as locals drove past with curious looks upon our fully loaded mountain bikes. Frame bags, handlebar bags, seat post bags, tank bags. Wherever there was seemingly any space on a bike to store a piece of gear there was a bag made to fit there and we had almost all of them on our personal vessels of adventure. As we finally rolled off the pavement and entered the secluded and intriguing gravel roads of Northern Montana, a sense of freedom set deeply into our psyche. It appeared the feeling was mutual among the leaves as they released their long bond with their branches and relinquished themselves to the swirl of wind around us, falling to the gravel at our tires. Woods opened to vast lakes, where the trail followed old railroad tracks into small rural towns and then back to the highway where we counted every minute, eagerly awaiting the transition from humming rubber on road to the crunchy sound of dirt beneath us.
Rounding a corner of old hand cut rail fencing, we passed through open meadows and began to look up at a wall of mountains that projected out of the distant rigid landscape. After having a short debate as to whether or not we would end our day of cycling early to avoid a late evening hill climb, we decided that we would rather sweat and suffer up a mountain ascent than to sit around in camp wishing we were still biking in the gracious remaining light of dusk. Several hours later, legs screaming and sweat indeed streaming, we rounded the top of a very remote forest road overlooking the setting sun behind the pointed peaks of the greater Glacier National Park territory. We were at the summit of the evening and we wouldn’t make it to Polebridge until the next day, which meant it was first time to eat.
A Little Zest…
Feeling blessed to have come across a fair campground in such wilderness, Henry and I were able to snag some water in a nearby creak and mix it up with our well earned nourishment. It was getting cold and no doubt it would have been nothing short of marvelous to have had a warm meal to treat ourselves to, but no stove meant cold creek temperature food. As cold as it was, this meal did have the extra benefit of being extremely easy and straightforward, and that can be a beautiful thing when all you want in the world is simply not to be hungry anymore. We watered up some Coconut Rice and Cuban Black Beans and let it soak as we set up camp in the dark. With white breath illuminated by our headlamps in the frigid night, we pitched a tent and tore apart our perfectly situated bikes into a vomit pile of gear surrounding ourselves. After unrolling bags and beds, we still had some time before eating so we cut up some cheese and broke out some tortillas to roll up our soaking ingredients.
For reference, a cold soak meal like the Triple Peanut Slaw that is designed to be rehydrated without hot water takes about 10 minutes, 15 minutes at most. Something a little denser like Coconut Rice and Cuban Black Beans or Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Kale and Quinoa would need a little more time to fully hydrate (especially the potatoes) and would perhaps deserve at least a solid 20 to 25 minutes of soak time before being at peak level of deliciousness. For us on our bike trip, we were perfectly content eating a burrito with our black beans and rice slightly al dente and we were beyond happy to have added a little cheese and hot sauce on top to give it that little extra camping zest.
In the morning, we started off by waking up a little wet from some early morning condensation. Being that we were quick to break down camp and strategically consolidate our mess of gear back onto our bikes like a twisted game of Tetris, all we had left to do before mounting our transport was to throw some water into our packets of Coconut Mango Macadamia Oats and stow them in our jackets for later. We hit the cold creek one last time for travel water, then we were off to a frosty but thrilling 8 mile downhill to start the day. At the bottom of our decent, we took out our breakfast oats which had soaked to perfection and consumed it fast and even a little savagely like two hungry vegetarian lions who had developed a wild taste for oats and cinnamon. While we ate, a light rain began to fall on us as we watched a thick charcoal butt of atmosphere curl over the high and jagged Rocky Mountain range.
Is Cold Cool?
Whether on bike or on a hike, the desire for lightweight luxury rings strong in the sole that is exhausted and famished. Lightweight stoves, dehydrated food, down coats, compact sleeping gear, whiskey- the list goes on of things that people bring into the wilderness to give them that little extra edge of packable comfort. It goes without saying that food is more than a luxury, it’s a true necessity. However the ways a person prepares food can be experimented with to a degree. For Henry and I on our bikes in Montana, we decided that the comfort of having dehydrated food was enough, and that a stove is not always a required item for eating when the chow is prepped in other ways. A little water and time (and cheese and tortillas didn’t hurt) was all that was necessary to prepare our pre-prepared food. It is true that our stop in the town of Polebridge headed some much desired hot coffee for the rest of that day’s soaking wet and rainy two wheel adventure, making it hard to say with total honesty that a stove outweighs its own benefits on those most challenging of times. However when rolling back into Whitefish Bike Packer Hostel, gear soaking and bodies beat and broken, I don’t think either Henry nor I felt any regret for remembering to forget our stoves. We ate well and we were happy to have the energy to get us through the ups and downs of going where the going gets tough. We decided that having cold food for three meals a day makes returning to civilization (and maybe even a hot pizza) go from being a simple goal to an experience of adventure all on its own.
SEAN DRONIA * DECEMBER 6, 2020
For more from author and photographer Sean Dronia, head over to his website at: https://www.seandronia.com/