by Torch Nebor
Chain and Bubba return to Camp Sapphire to smoke catfish for the times of low water.
|Back to Camp Sapphire and the Days of Smoke
Chain Golden lifted the heavy tarp and pulled the large ice chest towards her with both hands. The ice chest contained fresh catfish and a large gaspergoo she had caught earlier that morning in a river several hours north of Camp Sapphire, her favorite camp site. Bubba sat on the green peeling paint covered picnic table and watched her drag the chest over to him and set it on top of a couple of concrete blocks at her sturdy cleaning table.
"There we go, boy. I won't have to lean over so far to get the fish as I clean them." Chain spoke a little breathless. She was nearing sixty-five years old and though strong for someone her age, she wasn't a girl anymore. The nearly forty pounds of weight was right at her physical limit. An arthritic knee began to whimper the longer she dragged the ice chest across the camp site. Chain ignored it. If it got to bothering her again, she would brew a cup of pine needle tea along with willow bark and sip it all day. Her medicines suited her and doctors were hard to find anyway. "I'm wearing out, Bubba. You'll have to start helping out more, boy." She looked affectionately at her gray tom cat. He was so old now. Going bald and his eyes were dim and watery.
Bubba stretched out flat on the picnic table under the shade of the tall cedars and oaks and closed his eyes. He had been promised a fish, his favorite fish. A gaspergoo. Trash fish to some. A delicacy to Bubba. Oily and rich in fish flavor, he waited as Chain opened the flap to her tipi and tied it back. She entered the small tipi and disappeared for a moment behind the canvas wall. He could hear her move around the tipi and wondered what was taking so long. Her fish cleaning supplies were in a deer hide parfleche tied to the wall nearest the door, so why was she at the back of the tipi?
Bubba looked at the ice chest through the gaps in the planks of the picnic table painted a turquoise green. In a rich anticipation, he kneaded his paws against the wood of the table. C'mon, Chain. Be quick, woman. His belly growled. Nether he nor her had eaten much the past day. But, they were use to hunger. A day or two without food wasn't that uncommon anymore. Made the supplies last longer when winter came.
Chain exited the tipi carrying a canvas and nylon bundle wrapped around her cleaning gear. She placed it on the picnic table next to Bubba and opened the loosely tied knot and unrolled it to reveal a cleaning knife, a fillet knife, a pair of catfish skinning pliers, and a fish cleaning glove she wore on occasion when a fish was particularly slippery. A couple of clean rags were wrapped up into tubes and padded the knives from nicking each other.
"Okay, boy," she said, standing up straight to ease a strained back muscle. "I've got to get the smoke box ready, but first... Hmmm. Limme see...got my tools out, get the pails ready, get the... now where is the cutting board? Oh, there it is hanging right in front of me." Chain took the cutting board off the peg of a sawed-off cedar branch and laid it on the table. "Now let's get some pails of water. One for cleaning the mud and grit off the fish and one for cleaning the fillets. Got to get my white enamel pan ready, too. Got the rags to cover the fillets right here. Don't want the ground bees to bother us too bad. Can't kill 'em, you know. The ground bees. They pollinate flowers and such. With the regular bees dying out, we have to be careful with their cousins like wasps and such. They can pollinate the blackberries, too."
Bubba listened to the mental list naming off all that she needed and wondered when she would mention the gaspergoo. He grew a little impatient and thumped his tail down hard a couple of times. His personal method of communicating LOOK AT ME.
"Oh, I know. Get the gaspergoo ready for Bubba." Chain leaned over Bubba and caressed the side of his face. "Just for Bubba. No one else." Bubba briefly closed his eyes and then looked at the ice chest. "I know. Get fish. Get fish now."
Expert hands cleaned the gaspergoo and placed the cubes of oily white meat on the chilled aluminum pie pan. She placed his silver plate before him lovingly then resumed her work.
When Chain had moved semi-permanently to Camp Sapphire, she had brought her smoking box with her. A small box that was made and used by her for smoking meat, vegetables, and salt. After the box had been placed in the corner of her camp, Chain made and maintained an earth oven for baking bread next to it. It had been trial and error in learning to smoke catfish and bass, but she had created a successful formula in preserving the meat for many months even in the hottest of summers. She would make baked recipes with the fish in the small earth oven. Some of their best memories were snuggling before the fire in the tipi eating a catfish gumbo with vegetables from her garden.
Flint, Steel, and Charcloth
As the catfish soaked in cool well water, Chain knelt before the small wooden smoker box. A tunnel six feet long barely below the ground joined a small fire pit to the smoker. What Chain needed was a continuous source of dry heat with little smoke to dehydrate the fish. This took several days, so Chain had tall piles of firewood stacked around the smoker.
Chain used a mix of white oak and hickory to create the heat and smoke.
"I'll keep those small cats in one piece and fillet real thin those big cats." Chain sat at her workbench and picked up her knives and skinning pliers. "It's all here, Bubba."
Bubba closed his eyes as he ate the promised meal. The cool flesh nearly melted in his mouth as he savored it before swallowing. That's nice, he would have replied nonchalantly.
"Okay, let's get the fire going first. As the coals burn down to an even heat, we'll add the fish."
With flint, steel, and char cloth, Chain ignited her tinder bundle and placed it beneath a tipi of dried twigs and leaves. A few moments of fanning the dried pile of kindling with her hand caused the flames from the tinder bundle to lick eagerly upward. A small fire had begun the several Days of Smoke as Bubba referred to them.
"And we're off, Bubba."
Bubba had completed his meal and sat at the edge of the table licking his paw. A little grooming was in order now. Bubba was an ancient cat, but that was no excuse for matted fur.
Bubba turned and looked at her and then the growing flames of the smoker. I'll know where we're going to be for the next few days. Right here. Even if it rains, she will keep that fire going. That's why she put the smoker on the slight rise in the corner of this camp.
"If it rains, I'll put a tarp over the fire pit. Being on the rise like this, the fire won't go out."
Chain sat on the ground beside the small fire and watched it burn crushed pine cones, dried hardwood sticks, and small pieces of hardwood she had cut last winter just for this occasion. She felt like a kid again. Something about cooking outdoors always made her feel young. Rising to stand reminded her of her age.
She ignored the stiff legs and washed the catfish in the cooler before putting them into the white plastic 5-gallon bucket with the ice for skinning and cleaning. Bubba watched somewhat interested. He would get the belly fat off the large catfish. She would hand it to him with respect and love and he would graciously accept it carefully.
She cleaned catfish and kept the small fire going. Get up and stoke the fire then set down to clean the fish. Gray smoke rose from the smoker port and she could tell by the heat of the walls, the time was getting close. "A few more minutes, Bubba. Just a few more. Need to keep the temperature around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, in case you are taking notes. A long, steady soak in the heat will pull the moisture right out of the fish and dry them hard and tan."
"When winter comes on or if we have a drought this summer, we'll make it. Like about five years ago when we had the two-year drought. We did a lot better than others. We fished, we dried the meat, and though we had a few rough times, we made it. Some folks committed suicide, times got so hard. One man killed his whole family. So sad. Wish I had known him. I could have taught him what we know, Bubba."
Bubba remembered the dry heat of nine months with no rain. She had showed him how to drill water out of a sycamore tree. He didn't like it at first. Kind of sweet, but thirst pushed him to drink the sappy fluid. At his age, he couldn't afford kidney stones. She would cut bull head thistles and crush the fluid out of them for moisture. It tasted better than sycamore sap. She filtered water from stagnant sources and boiled it. Made gallons of tea with pine needles or goldenrod flowers and leaves to off set the unpleasant taste. She had done this and they survived well. The goldenrod tea flushed their system of gravel, as some called it. No stones blocked them and the intense suffering that goes with a blocked kidney stone.
They ate little in the last four months of the intense drought. Eating food used fluids in the body that it could use better someplace else. It was better to just nibble and wash it down. They lost weight like they had done after The Blast, but they survived. Bubba remembered and hoped he would never see another drought like that one.
Chain placed the catfish on the racks and left a half an inch around each piece, so the heat and smoke could do it's job. She opened the door of the small smoke house and turned her head as a buildup of smoke flowed out the door. The warm air greeted her hands and arms as she slid the trays in and closed the door.
"Now, Bubba," she said, she sat down beside him, "we just keep the fire going. Small and low. Just keep it going and the meat will dry out and you and me will be okay.
Bubba got off the table with a little help from Chain and they went to the hammock across from the smoker box. Together they rocked gently back and forth and watched the leaves in the trees rustle as a spring breeze blew overhead. Chain wouldn't let herself think of nothing else except the drying fish and Bubba only thought of how comfortable he was as he dozed briefly. Every so often Chain added wood to the fire while holding Bubba who would be half-asleep in her arms.
The sun set in a fiery red sunset and in the gloaming, Chain lit an oil lamp and put it on the table. She couldn't let the fire go out or the meat would be ruined. Bubba looked at the light and smelled the odor that drove mosquitoes away. Light breezes blew all night as she monitored the fire and held Bubba close. Would it rain soon? It had been a blessing with the rain they had enjoyed last week. Even Bubba had stayed out in it letting his fur dampen and feeling the cool effect in his body.
Four days passed and the fish dried hard and brown. Chain wrapped the dried meat in newspapers and put them into metal ammo boxes and buried them, so the meat wouldn't spoil.
One more summer passed and as winter's chill began to interrupt their sleep at night, they enjoyed the fruit of the labors of the Days of Smoke.