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Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders

A John Gierach Fly-Fishing Treasury
By John Gierach

Read an Excerpt

Camp Coffee

I use a common American brand of coffee that you can get in big, three-pound cans. It can be found on the shelves of stores, large and small, throughout the West. On road trips I carry a pound of it. In my backpack I carry some in a four-ounce tin that once contained tea grown in India and packaged in England. It's enough for several days out and the tin fits neatly inside the coffeepot. The pot, in turn, goes in a heavy plastic bag to keep carbon smudges off my clothes and other gear. Tidy, efficient.

A few years ago I experimented with some exotic -- and expensive -- kinds of coffee for fish-camping but found them unacceptable for a number of reasons. For one thing, the cost was prohibitive. Not long ago I spent three-hundred dollars on a fly rod, but an extra seventy-five cents for a pound of coffee still rubs me the wrong way. Once established, priorities must be maintained.

There was also the extra care and attention that brewing up a pot of some strange blend required in the field. The coffeepot is the hook from which a good, comfortable, homey camp hangs, but it should be as thoughtless as a rusty nail, not a big production.

And then there were the aesthetics of the situation. My gear, with some notable exceptions at both ends of the scale, is largely of moderate quality -- serviceable, but not extravagant -- and my camps are cozy, but far from posh. Espresso seemed out of place.

For me, coffee has always had at least a hint of the woods and rivers about it because I started drinking the stuff on fishing trips at what many would consider a too-tender age. I had my first cup in the kitchen of my Aunt Dora and Uncle Leonard's farmhouse before dawn on the morning of a bass fishing trip -- or maybe it was a pheasant hunt. That's not the part I remember so well. What I recall is the oilcloth on the table, the straightbacked wooden chairs, Agnes the pet raccoon scratching at the back door, the whole no-nonsense atmosphere of the familiar, working Midwestern farm kitchen, the darkness outside the windows, and the morning chill. The cold is what makes me think it might have been pheasant season.

Bass or pheasants, it doesn't matter. I remember the coffee, in a chipped, heavy, well-used cup, as one of the early rites of manhood. There were others that have not served me as well.

That first cup (and many thereafter) was brewed by Aunt Dora. Though I paid no attention to the brand or the method used, I've judged all coffee since then by that standard, in the same way I've judged my own conduct in the field, and that of others, by the relaxed, competent, unhurried, droll example set by Uncle Leonard.

I especially remember the teen-age years when things like girls and fast cars were more on my mind than shotguns and fishing rods, but when fishing and hunting became what they remain for me today -- a way out of, a way back from, a world that's faster, more complicated, and more ruthless than it needs to be -- there was always a pot of coffee simmering in the coals of the campfire or nuzzling around in the mysterious depths of a thermos bottle.

Between then and now I've consumed many more cups of coffee in civilized settings than out in the woods, but the aroma of the stuff is so inexorably tied to flushing birds, rising trout, giggling loons, drifting woodsmoke, and so on that they cannot be separated, even when the cup is made of styrofoam.

There was a time when I carried instant coffee in the field for the sake of speed and convenience. It worked for a while. In those days I was somewhat younger and more eager for the kill. Drives, hikes, camps -- they were nothing but means to an end. I was very businesslike and something of a guerrilla. Now that I think about it, I was also wet, cold, hungry, and/or lost more often than I am now and not as successful. I was in the process of proving something then that has now, apparently, been proven and forgotten. Going through a stage, they call it.

I think I started brewing real coffee in camp about the same time I began releasing all but a brace of trout because they're best fresh and because two is enough. "Enough" is a useful concept for the sportsman, especially the young one. I used the small aluminum percolator that saw me through college, when my main goals in life were to mess up my brains, get girls, and overthrow the government, not necessarily in that order. It did an adequate job.

It took A.K. to teach me how to make real camp coffee: bring one pot of lake or river water to a rolling boil, add two palmfuls of generic coffee, and remove the pot to the edge of the coals. If it's the breakfast pot, throw in the eggshells. When it's done (five to ten minutes), add a splash of cold water to settle the grounds.

Like whiskey, it should be drunk from a tin cup.

A.K.'s coffeepot goes back a long way. It sat on the banks of trout streams in Michigan for many years before it came to the Rocky Mountains and is now in its third stage of its evolution as a camp utensil. First it was clean and enameled in some color that is now lost to memory. Then it got all black and stayed that way for a long time. Now the accumulated black gunk is flaking off, exposing the battleship gray of the bare metal. Someday the bottom will drop out and an era will have ended.

A.K. and I have drunk from this pot around countless fires across several western states, but it has now become almost synonymous with winter trout fishing in Cheesman Canyon. That's a stretch of the South Platte River, one of those tailwaters that stays open and more or less fishable throughout the year. It's famous water and almost too crowded to fish in the summer, but still nice and lonely on most days between Christmas and, say, the end of March.

We've built coffee fires in several spots, but there's one place that has seen the majority of them. It's where trout are often rising to sparse midge hatches -- slow, hard, technical fishing. Sometimes we'll take turns on a pod of risers, one guy tending the fire, sipping coffee, the other casting and slowly freezing in the cold water. It was there that I hooked and landed my one-and-only good-sized trout on a #28 fly and 8x tippet.

We use dead, dry willow twigs, and it recently occurred to me that the few of us who build fires there have been inadvertently pruning the little bankside brush patch, keeping it healthy enough to provide the modest amounts of firewood we need -- a delicate and accidental balance.

A few years ago I made a comment in a magazine article about A.K.'s bankside boiled coffee, something to the effect that it was okay when you were cold and wet but that if you got a cup of it in a cafe -- too strong, with pine needles and nymph shucks floating in it -- you'd refuse to pay.

It wasn't more than a few weeks after the article appeared that we ended up in the Canyon again. It was February, cold, blustery, bitter, with drifts of snow right down to the water. Sensitive to the early signs of hypothermia, I had left the river when I began to shiver a little and headed upstream towards the slightly bluish curl of smoke that told me A.K. had the coffee on. I rummaged through my pack for my tin coffee cup, finding that, amazingly, I'd left it at home. A.K. was delighted, saying it didn't matter anyway, since the coffee was no good. There was a lot of good-natured hell to pay before I could get my hands on his cup, all of which I deserved. Best damned cup of coffee I ever had, strong and black.

I can drink good coffee black, but I prefer it with cream. In a full camp I use real milk, but when working from a pack I vacillate between evaporated milk and that powdered, "non-dairy creamer." The powdered stuff is the most efficient, but I remain suspicious of it.

Coffee is okay on warm mornings when the wool shirt is shed while the bacon sizzles, but it's best on cold, winter trout streams, or during claustrophobic storms when the almost painful sting of its heat telegraphed through the thin walls of a tin cup seems like the center of the universe, a very real element of basic survival.

My first wife used a sterile-looking glass pot -- more of a carafe, actually -- and the coffee dripped with agonizing slowness through paper filters. It was always cold before it was ready to drink. My second wife used a tall, elegant electric percolator with a spout as long and graceful as the neck of a Canada goose. The noise it made while working was vaguely industrial. Once she gave up coffee entirely in the belief that it wasn't healthy. Of course it's not healthy; what is anymore? As Aunt Dora used to say, "Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening."

The coffeepot I've carried and camped with for more seasons than I've kept track of is of the old style: sturdy, heavy, enameled in the classic midnight blue under specks of white that are now fire-singed to a mellow brown around the slowly growing black patch under the spout -- midway through evolutionary stage two. I bought it for pocket change at a yard sale and discarded the guts as soon as I got it home. It has been rinsed thousands of times but has never really been "washed."

Once I drop-kicked it twenty yards across a mountain meadow in Colorado (for reasons I won't go into here). When I retrieved it, the mineral deposits that had built up inside it rattled out like flakes of shale. The small dent it bears from that incident still shames me sometimes. Uncle Leonard would never have kicked the coffeepot.

For years that pot reposed with the rest of my camping gear and was brought out, along with sleeping bags, waders, fly rods, shotguns, etc., for what amounted to special occasions. Now it sits proudly on the stove in the kitchen as a symbol of freedom and simplicity. Why would anyone need more than one coffeepot?

At home I use tap water, but otherwise the coffee is made the same way as in the field. The glass knob in the lid of the pot disappeared long ago (in that meadow, maybe?), and just glancing into the kitchen I can tell the coffee is ready by the curl of steam coming from the hole it left.

Copyright © 2000 by John Gierach



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