On January 23rd 2014, I flew into LA International airport wearing a purple sundress and carrying an aqua blue down-filled winter coat. I had spent much of the last days before departing Montana for the Spokane airport, sorting, stacking, packing, un-packing, re-prioritizing and re-packing. Chef coat and pants for the Sinaloa Winter Food Festival workshops, along with Summer cloths for 80 degree days touring Los Mochis, Topolobampo Bay, and El Fuerte. If I put my bulky, yet light-weight winter coat for the 6,000 ft 50 degree temps. at the top of the Cooper Canyon in the large suitcase to be checked, I would be out of space long before I reached the fifty pound weight limit. I decided to leave the 20 degree bone-chilling cold of Spokane wearing the only sundress I was taking along to keep it as wrinkle-free as possible, and carry my down-filled jacket.
On my way to baggage claim in the Los Angeles airport, I called William, the quick-witted free-lance writer for Phil Freedman Outdoors, to let him know I had arrived. “I will be the 6 foot blonde in a purple sundress, carrying a blue coat” I said. “I doubt I will have any problem spotting you in the Los Angeles airport” he replied with a chuckle. From our Facebook chats, I felt we would be fast friends, and it wasn’t long before we were bouncing jokes off of one another. Soon, we met up with Phillip Friedman and his cameraman Bob to drive to San Diego, then across the border to the Tijuana Airport.
While on the plane, I thought back to 2009, walking through the door of a Spokane fly shop, to ask the shop owner about the minimal equipment I would need to get started on my new hobby. During our conversation, I mentioned I had owned a restaurant and catering business. The owner said “Have you ever thought about working as a chef in fly-fishing lodges?” ” No.”, I replied, “I know nothing about fly-fishing lodges.” He went on to tell me about a friend who learned to fly-fish while working as a chef. He became so proficient at fly-fishing that Orvis hired him to travel to fly-fishing lodges to teach workshops. The lodge owners learned that he was a chef, and asked if he would combine cooking workshops with fly-fishing clinics.
As cooking has always been my passion, and I have loved the out of doors and fishing since I was a child, I immediately offered up a silent prayer. “Please God, being a chef in fly-fishing lodges is what I want to do.” I was not aware at the time, the amazing path this simple prayer would take me down. I just thought it a romantic notion. Now, only four short years had passed, and I was on my way, to Los Mochis Sinaloa, the “gateway to the sea of Cortes”, sponsored by the Secretary of Tourism, and Mexico Land Tours, to teach cooking workshops, to culinary students from all over Mexico.
As we dropped down for a landing in Culiacan (the capital city of Sinaloa), as far as my eyes could see in every direction, were variegated green patchwork quilts of crops. Our very personable, tour guide, slash driver, slash translator, was there to pick us up at the airport in a Mercedes van. After a wonderful lunch, we started out on the two and a half hour drive to Los Mochis. We drove along the freeway passing vegetable fields, and fruit orchards, extending to the horizon towards the Sea of Cortes, and to the Sierra Modre mountains off in the distance to the East. This truly was as described, “the bread basket of Northwestern Mexico. One-hundred and fifty miles of nothing but futile farmlands, naturally irrigated by rivers flowing out of the Copper Canyon into the El Fuerte River Valley.
In late 2012, I was contacted by the owner of Millennium Custom Rods. “I love your photo fly-fishing in a sundress and I would like to build a fly rod for you”. “You need only pay for components and have your photo taken fishing with the rod” he said. So began one of David Norton’s “Labor of Love” custom rods.
A perfectionist with his art of custom rod building,David was not satisfied with his work until he felt the wraps, Uschi and artwork came together perfectly, which took well over a month to complete.
I chose the name Siren’s Song to be put on the pink wrapped shaft of the rod. Water Sirens from Greek Mythology were Daughters of the river God Achelous. Sometimes referred to as Water Nymphs, which fit perfectly with hand-tied water nymphs used in fly-fishing.
I took Siren’s Song first to the headwaters of the Missouri River where with the help and guidance of a friend and seasoned river guide and one of his special hand-tied flies, I was shortly rewarded with a fat twenty-three inch trophy Brown trout. That catch and release trout was by all means Millennium Custom Rod photo-worthy in and of itself, yet a much grandeur tribute to Siren’s Song was soon to follow.
In late summer, I had the idea to set up my Siren’s Song rod for a photo in front of Grave Creek, a pretty little stream just a few miles from home. I did a little wade-fishing, then set my rod up against a rock and took several photos.
I picked up my fishing bag and without breaking down my rod, started back along the trail to my vehicle. I had walked but a few yards, when I decided to exchange my wading boots for tennis shoes. I had no sooner sat Siren’s Song down, when five small butterflies came fluttering over, landing on my fishing bag and rod. I watched them as they seemed to dance on my fishing bag appraising Siren’s Song. While snapping photos, I put my hand out expecting the delicate orange and black butterflies to fly off. Amazingly, they landed on my fingers moving from one to another. I felt a moment of absolute joy and delight as these bright and beautiful gifts of nature danced from one finger to another, leaving my fingers briefly to light on my rod, and then back to my fingers again. After a few minutes, they fluttered away to land on some bright yellow wild daisies nearby. At this point I figured the party was over, gathered up my gear, and finished my walk down the trail.
When I returned home, I up-loaded the creek side photos. I was intrigued by the last photo in particular, and cropped it in tight. The butterfly seemed to be captivated by the bright colors of the Uschi in the rod handle. Every time I look at this photo, I re-live the joy of the moments I was blessed to be a part of..
It can take caterpillars two years or longer to mature before spinning a cocoon in which they miraculously transform from an insignificant insect into the graceful and colorful creatures that inspired folklore and fairy tales. Some butterflies live only hours, or a few days. Just long enough to mate, lay their eggs and die. Recently, I did a search on the symbolism of Butterflies. I found Christian cultures believed Butterflies represented Guardian Angles being near, while the North American Indians thought butterflies to be messengers from the spirit world. Butterflies are representative of happiness. The more you chase happiness the more it eludes you. When you finally realize true happiness comes from within, and is found in how you choose to view life, it finds you. Perhaps if human beings were only given a few days to live, they would better appriciate the beauty of all we are blessed to be a part of in this glorious world.
I cropped in closer, and turned the photo upside-down. To me the design on the wings looked much like stained glass angel wings.
David Norton puts his heart and soul into the “works of art” rods he builds (as testified to me by five Guardian Angel Butterflies), which I had the great pleasure of spending a few precious minutes with out of their brief flights of freedom).
The movie “A River Runs through It” which started the migration to the Siren singing wild trout rivers and streams of Northwestern Montana, is a wash-out compared to the show I was privy to while working as a chef in fishing lodges. Quite a few of the guides I had the pleasure of working around, had very personable and enthusiastic “A” type personalities. It just goes with the territory for, as I jokingly call them…..Catch and release, “Used Fish Salesmen”. I could picture in my mind’s eye, these river reeler-dealers in front of their drift boats pitching the phrase “What will it take to get you into some used fish today!”
Even after eight to ten hours of rowing, my jovial band of river brothers, upon returning to the lodge, could easily be auditioning to play parts in a screen play entitled “Montana Robin and his band of merry river bank robbers”. It was really quite the show listening to guides poking harmless fun at clients, or trying to out-brag each other on the day’s trophy trout or fish count. The guides antics kept me well entertained during the five months at a time, I was shackled to the kitchen. While busy prepping, or cooking, with my back turned towards the guides, I would often be rolling my eyes, or snickering at the daily catch and release chest thumping and good-natured barb tossing going on.
Fishing guides really love what they do, and they demonstrated it every day with their enthusiastic attitude no matter what the weather. A fishing guide’s day does not begin when they launch on the river, nor end after delivering clients back to the lodge. They must clean out their boat and vehicle, check equipment, prepare, or pick up river lunches, and “match the days hatch” from their stash of hand-tied flies.
Fishing guides are the ultimate multi-taskers. For their client’s safety, they must be experts at rowing and reading ever-changing water conditions. They often spend a good part of the day rowing against the current to re visit fish pod “honey holes”, dodging back cast hooks, switching out flies, and untangling bird nests of leader tangled by novice or weekend fly-fishers.
My days as a chef were equally long and filled with culinary multi-tasking from dawn until well past dark. It was my job to wow guests with my culinary talents. This I did more for the pleasure of pleasing than for the money. Most lodge clients spent more for their once or twice yearly fly-fishing vacations than I made in an entire five month season. At this time in my life however, I find doing what I love to do for a living, rather than working just to make a living, to be “really living”!
One of the perks I had working as a lodge chef was being able to socialize with fly-fishing clients during cocktail hour. With a plate of appetite simulators in my hand, I held an open invitation to join in fishing conversations or use as a free license to ease-drop. Many of the guests were on a first name only basis with staff, other guests, and sometimes even the owners. After all, the elite returned year after year knowing that whatever level of anonymity they want to maintain, while enjoying the great fishing and beauty of Montana, would be strictly honored.
I can truly say, even a six foot blonde in a sundress can go virtually unnoticed in the midst of a group of wealthy surgeons, lawyers, and CEOs when they are intently engrossed in conversations about their destination hopping “catch and release” fly-fishing exploits.
Aguacate Diablo (Deviled Avocado)
This recipe is another twist on an old classic, and always brought me rave reviews from clients and river guides. It is very healthy, and may be served as an appetizer, salad, or in a river lunch. The chopped hard-boiled egg whites imparts the taste of deviled eggs without the cholesterol. Mashed avocado mimics the texture of egg yokes, and the shells of avocados are a perfect serving vessel.
4 medium ripe, yet firm avocados
1 Tablespoon lime or lemon juice
4 hard-boiled eggs (yokes removed)
¼ cup olive oil or light mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons chipotle mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon finely chopped onion
1 Tablespoon finely chopped celery
¼ teaspoon salt
1 to 2 Tablespoons finely chopped hot peppers (jalapeno, Serrano, or habenaro) optional
Ground cayenne pepper or smoked paprika for garnish
Run a knife around the center of avocados and remove pits. Checkerboard score each avocado half, and using a tablespoon, spoon out the meat into a small mixing bowl. Leave 1/16 inch of avocado meat in the shells. Sprinkle avocado chunks with lime or lemon juice, and mash.
In a small bowl, mix together mayonnaise, mustard, onion, salt, and peppers. Add the chopped egg whites. Stir to mix well. Stuff avocado shells with filling and dust with cayenne or paprika. These pretty salads may be topped with additional garnishes as desired.
The Elk River is famous for some of the best dry fly fishing in North America. Fly-fishers come from all over the world to cast a line in this largely undiscovered river as it flows through the majestic Canadian Rockies from melting glacial ice high above Elk Lakes Provincial Park some 90 miles North of Fernie British Columbia.
The Elk River and its tributaries are home to native wild Westslope Cutthroat and Bull Trout. Large numbers of Kamloops Rainbows can also be found in streams flowing into the Elk, and are considered to be the highest jumping trout in the world.
The Elk has great hatches, so a day’s Cutthroat fish count can be high on dries. Often the excitement of reeling in a fifteen inch wild Cut can end up your “fish tale” to take back home, as often times a huge Bull will seemingly come out of nowhere to swallow your trout whole, and you have an entirely different fight on your hands. Bull Trout are roving predators of clear, cold water lakes and rivers of the Northwestern United States and Canada. That orange gill wild Cutthroat jumping on end of your line, is a carrot on a stick to one of these fresh water sharks, which can reach lengths of over three feet.
Growing up in a little Montana town just eight miles south of the Canadian border, I made many trips with my parents, to the picturesque alpine style village of Fernie BC. Most often these trips were made to visit the dentist. Dental work was, and still is, much less expensive in Canada than in the states. Now, the weekly allowance I invested in those two-for-a-penny bags of candy of my youth, has matured into a two-for-the-price-of-one root canal. So decades later, on a gorgeous Indian summer day in early October 2012, I am on my way to Fernie, driving past boats of fly-fishers as they drift lazily along the Elk River, casting to greedy West Slope Cuts through clouds of caddis flies. I can’t help thinking, the two hours of torture I am paying big bucks for in the dentist chair; is almost equivalent to the cost of two full days in a drift boat.
The sun is almost dead-center in a clear cobalt blue sky as I walk out of the dentist office dabbing drool from the corner of lips that feel the size of baseball gloves. Since I had to drive back over the border, I was required to wait in Fernie until the Novocain wore off. Lunch was out, so I decide to drive down to a nearby river access to watch fly-fishers drift by.
I walked through a parking lot and down to the river’s edge. The Elk is quite shallow here with nature’s cobbled freestone rock bed clearly visible from where I stood. The pleasant aroma of vanilla pipe tobacco came to me first, drifting on the ever so slight crisp fall breeze, before I spotted the pipe-smoking fly-fisher, almost knee deep in gin clear water halfway off shore. The fisherman with the pipe clenched firmly in his mouth, was watching for the slightest rise, with a relaxed yet intent focus. This scene combined for what I thought would be the perfect subject for an Elk River blog page, and I excitedly pulled my camera out of my shoulder bag.
My subject had a concerted clench on his pipe, while at the same time ever so softly and perfectly presenting a dry fly up-stream. I did not want to interrupt his concentration to ask consent for a photo, and started snapping shots. He remained totally unaware of my presence as I followed him along the river bank. Suddenly, I was startled by a woman’s rather blunt questioning voice coming from off my left shoulder. The question “are you stalking my husband?” caught me completely off guard, and I turned around to stare speechless for a few seconds. Through still numb swollen lips, I apologized and went on to explain that I really was not a stalker, just an amateur photographer, who works as a chef, booking fly-fishers into a lodge just south of the border.
She smiled, and told me she and her husband lived in Georgia, and as he was an avid fly-fisher, many of their vacations were planned around fly-fishing destinations. She would spend her time while he was fishing, shopping in nearby towns, or as on this day, reading in the shade. We talked for several minutes, then she asked me to follow her, and took me down to the river’s edge, where she cupped her hands to her mouth, and yelled at her husband “Rick, catch a fish for this lady, she would like to take your photo!”
I took another series of photos, yet now, as somewhat posed for; they did not turn out as well as my previous “stalking” shots. After a half dozen casts resulting in a nice cutthroat, the fly-fisher reeled in, took the pipe out of his mouth, and with a pleasant smile on his face, waded out. He chuckled when made aware of his wife’s and my confrontation on the river bank, and then when shown the results of my unintentionally illicit photos, requested copies to be sent to his email address. His email username “The Fish Whisperer” became the perfect theme name for my Elk River fly-fisher, so intently and serenely, involved in guiltless “catch and release” stalking of his own. We exchanged contact information and parted with the promise to connect the next time they visited the Northwest.
Before heading back across the border, I had one stop to make. Although cringing a little at the thought of anything sweet, now that my Novocain had worn off, I made a stop at the duty-free store, to purchase a bottle of 100 percent pure French Canadian maple syrup. A sweet guilty pleasure, that to me, although expensive, there is no substitute for.
For 6am breakfasts at fishing lodges, I came up with inventive ways to save time by prepping the night before. My loaf pan pre-made “slice and grill” method of making French toast, added an extra half an hour of time to my seasonally sleep- deprived, internal clock.
“A Piece of Cake” French Canadian Toast
This French toast loaf may also be served still warm out of the oven as a coffee cake.
4 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Saigon cinnamon
1 Tablespoon butter or margarine
18 slices day-old bread (be sure the slices are the same width as your loaf pan). Slices from a standard loaf of bread fit perfectly, or you may trim larger bread slices to fit.
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup melted butter
1/4 cup sliced almonds or pine nuts (optional)
Cooking time: 40 to 45 minutes
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
- Beat eggs well. Whisk in cream. Add brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla beating until the batter is smooth and lump free.
- Spray the bottom of a 9 inch by 5 inch loaf pan with non-stick vegetable spray. Cut parchment paper to fit (bottom only). Butter or spray the bottom and sides of pan.
- Dip slices of bread in French toast batter, one or two at a time (coating well). Do not saturate the slices until soggy. If you do not have slightly dried out bread, you may dry it out in a 200 degree oven for 15 minutes. Stack bread slices in prepared loaf pan (as illustrated). Depending on the thickness of your bread slices, you may need fewer slices to tightly fill the pan.
- Mix brown sugar and cinnamon topping together and sprinkle over cake. Drizzle on butter. Top with sliced almonds or pine nuts.
- Cover with aluminum foil and bake for twenty minutes. Remove foil, and bake an additional 20 to 25 minutes. Test the center of cake with a knife. The knife should come out clean.
Let the loaf of French toast cake cool in the pan to room temperature. Invert on a cooling rack and remove paper. Wrap the loaf and refrigerate. This loaf may be kept for two to three days in the refrigerator. After it has cooled in the refrigerator, it may also be sliced, wrapped, and frozen for later use.
When ready to serve, brown cake slices in a lightly sprayed skillet or grill on medium high heat. Serve hot with butter, real maple syrup, and if desired, fresh seasonal fruit.