Clamped to the kitchen counter in the historic cabin sits a neglected strange device that stares reproachfully at me every time I pass. It has been at least 30 years since it has been put to
use. Visitors often ask what it is. In response I ask them to guess.
“A meat grinder?” “A coffee grinder?” “A juicer?” Nope.
Rarely someone recognizes it as a device to clamp and seal the lids onto cans of fruit, vegetables, and meat prepared by far more proficient homemakers of the past. Under the counter a box of empty cans still awaits their destiny.
When you live in a roadless wild place surrounded by 4 million acres of wilderness, people have questions. One of the common questions is how we get our food. William Campbell first came here in 1897 for the purpose of answering that question for folks who worked in the mines in the surrounding mountains. Since the mines were in the high country the seasons were too short to grow most crops. William had hiked down into the river corridor looking for a spot to farm…a low, open, flat area with tillable soil, sun and good access to water. On a bench above the Salmon River he found what he wanted, a place that later became known as Campbell’s Ferry. His crops were transported to his customers by horses and mules or sold to folks who were passing through the area.
It is simpler problem today than it was in past but it definitely takes thought and planning, as well as getting dirt on the knees of your jeans. Where William Campbell had extensive fields we have a small garden growing vegetables and berries. Since we are typically feeding just the two of us for the six to seven months we are in residence, it is enough. Unlike the few spots along the river where people live year round, I do not have to can, freeze and dry food supplies for the winter months when travel in and out of the canyon is risky or impossible. Year-round residents not only have larger gardens but also green houses where they can give their plants a head start in the early spring. The strange canning device at Campbell’s Ferry will remain idle during this woman’s residency.
We arrive in April but the danger of frost keeps us from planting seeds until the snow melts from the tops of the surrounding mountains, usually mid-May to early June. As I have mentioned in earlier writings, our neighbor Barbara (twelve miles down river) always sends us some of her extra baby plants to jump start our garden. Her husband Heinz drops them off on one of his passing jet boat trips. Although people have been growing crops here for nearly 120 years the soil is not particularly rich so each year the garden soil is augmented before planting. As those of you who garden know, it is a lot of physical, dirty work but it has rewards. The two moments I love most are seeing the tender new plants emerging and harvesting the first crop.
I hate the weeding. My mother always kept a garden when we were growing up on Yankee Farm in Santa Barbara. I did not mind picking things from the garden so much but despised the weeding chores.
“Mom! Why can’t we just buy our food at the store like normal people?”
I vowed I would never have a garden. Look at me now, growing lettuce, arugula, cilantro, basil, kale, chives, garlic, rosemary, oregano, dill, string beans, peas, potatoes, peppers, chilies, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, and strawberries.
In addition to the vegetable garden we have an orchard of apple, pear, peach, walnut and cherry trees. The first pioneers planted a variety of apple trees some time before the first homestead report was done by the newly formed Forest Service in 1906. That means over a century of conditioning for the local wildlife to think of Campbell’s Ferry as a food source. Local bears have become accustomed to gorging themselves on the apples each fall. The sows bring their cubs, teaching them when the apples are ripe, so each generation of bears learns in turn. We have counted up to 8 bears in the orchard at the same time. If the Ferry humans want any apples we have to be quick and we don’t argue with bears.
The pears and peaches are also at risk. We planted dwarf peach, cherry and pear trees six years ago that produce beautiful fruit but the trees’ delicate size makes them vulnerable to being destroyed by the bears. The moment we spot the first sign of bear we take the defensive tactic of harvesting all the peaches and pears, fully ripe or not. The bears have not caught on that the cherries ripen earlier so we only share cherries with the birds, so far. Each of the fruit varieties ripens all at once, an avalanche of each particular fruit. Since we cannot keep up with the fresh fruit, the overflow peaches and cherries are pitted, stuffed into baggies and consigned to the freezer. The pears don’t freeze well so the excess is baked into cakes, pies, and breads. Last spring we planted dwarf apricot and plum seedlings but it will be another year or two before they are producing.
The huge beautiful walnut tree next to the historic cabin was just a seedling when it was planted in 1963, a wedding gift to Frances Coyle Zaunmiller (who lived at the Ferry 1940 until her death in 1987) from her third husband, Vern Wisner. Its off shoots are found at many of the homesteads up and down the river. The size and strength of this original tree allow it to withstand marauding bears. The walnuts are particularly attractive to the packrats that secure them in their winter vaults. The historic cabin is not rat-proof, so it is not uncommon for us to return to the Ferry and find hordes of walnuts stuffed into the attic, drawers or our mucking boots.
There are some wonderful old photographs of earlier Ferry residents with their fishing catch or hunting trophies but we don’t do much of either. My brother and our grandsons have caught fish on each of their visits. As one might expect Trout can be found at the mouth of Trout Creek where it enters the Main River. And there is a well-known hole below the bridge on the big river that migrating steelhead visit every fall. Smallmouth bass and whitefish are common, too. In season Doug will take the dogs bird hunting for grouse, chukar and quail but it makes up only a small portion of our diet.
We do our hunting in April before we come into the Ferry. Our hunting ground is the Boise CostCo where we venture forth armed with our six-month shop list and credit cards. Suffice to say, we are almost guaranteed to win “The Most Stuff Bought Award” for the day, probably for the month, and maybe even a contender for the year. You don’t want to be behind us in line.
We descend on the home of our partners Patricia and Brad Janoush with our harvest in tow where we package the various meat, chicken and fish products into meal-sized portions and stuff all the baggies into the Janoush’s freezer. There are also some frozen vegetables for the weeks before and after the garden is producing. On the morning that we make the hour and a half drive to Cascade for the flight into the Ferry we rise early. The frozen goods are quickly packed and sealed into ten cardboard cartons designed to hold approximately two-weeks worth of meals. Once we arrive at the air taxi service, nine cartons are stashed in their walk-in freezer and the tenth one stuffed into the plane along with our gear, the dogs, and, of course, us for the forty-five minute flight into the Ferry. Arnold Aviation (the air taxi service) brings the mail into the canyon every Wednesday, weather permitting, and will bring us a new box on request. They will also go to their local grocer and add 10% to the bill for fresh items like milk. Food and anything else that can fit in the plane can come to the Ferry for $.33 per pound. It is a great bargain!
Once we are in residence our neighbors six miles up river at Yellow Pine Bar send down four “loaner chickens” to Campbell’s Ferry Summer Camp to supply us with eggs. One of our simple joys is watching the free-range chickens scurrying about the premises. This summer, however, a family of foxes took up residence, helping themselves to a chicken dinner without an invitation. As a result the remaining three chickens were restricted to the chicken coop for the duration of their visit. When we leave in the fall, the chickens are sent back up river for the winter.
Not long after we arrive each spring another hunting season is on…for wild morel mushrooms and asparagus. The season is short and both are elusive but we delight in the search, rather like an Easter egg hunt for grown-ups. The morels in particular are tricky, expert at hiding in the under-growth of the forest. Some years are better than others but we have found two hundred plus morels in a season. Naturally we cannot eat so many while they are fresh so I freeze some for later, like the peaches and cherries. We have also tried drying but find that we like the frozen method better.
Not being able to run to the neighborhood grocery store for last minute forgotten items forces careful planning and, when that fails, creativity. But we have had few, if any, “meal disasters” in the past ten years and we have never gone to bed hungry. While it is much easier for us to eat well than it was for previous residents, the work involved gives us insight and respect for the challenges they faced. The canning device, however, remains in retirement.