Evolution By Les Palmer

“Evolution” was published in the Outdoor section of the Peninsula Clarion, a Kenai, Alaska, daily newspaper, on Aug. 25, 2006.

When camping in the late 1940s, I slept — or tried to sleep — on the ground in an army-surplus sleeping bag under a “2-man” army-surplus pup tent. “Cooking” was done over a smoky campfire with army-surplus utensils. The meals either stuck around for days, or went right through without pause. I was having the time of my life.

By the 1970s, things had vastly improved. I was sleeping on an air mattress in a decadently roomy, down-filled sleeping bag inside a 4-man umbrella tent. Meals, such as they were, were cooked over a Coleman white-gas stove on aluminum “camp ware,” served on paper plates and eaten with plastic knives, forks and spoons. The tent served honorably until the night it was flattened by a howling gale off Skilak Lake, sending me whimpering into the sheltering forest, dragging the sodden thing in my wake. But life in general was good, or so I thought.

Twenty ago, I had “moved on up” to camping in a cabin. The bunk bed sagged and creaked, squirrels sometimes sneaked in, and the woodstove more than once almost burned the place down. But the cabin was comfortable and didn’t have to be carried from place to place. The ’60s vintage Coleman stove continued to work, but the pots and pans had evolved to castoffs from home; the plates, to Melmac; and the eating utensils, to stainless steel. The food had improved, although it remained a crap shoot. But what is life without a little risk and the occasional tragedy?

For some reason, I’m now more picky about where I set up camp. Indoor plumbing with flush toilets and hot and cold running water is a “must.” I’ll sleep in a sleeping bag, if it’s big enough and on something resembling a real bed. I’ll tolerate something less than thermostically controlled heat, if the fishing is hot. Eating the food must not cause calls to 911. By following these simple rules, I’m getting more pleasure and less pain from camping.

For example, in early July, I was in the Wasilla area to fish the midnight king salmon opener at Willow Creek. I could’ve stayed at the State Parks campground at the creek, where the wannabe Neanderthals were trying to sleep through the noise of hyper kids, barking dogs, obnoxious drunks and whining mosquitoes. Instead, I slept soundly in a quiet, comfortable room at the Windbreak Hotel in Wasilla. The next morning, I walked downstairs and had breakfast at Trout’s Place, in the same building.

If there’s a place in heaven for fishermen, Trout’s Place holds a lease there. Devoid of pretensions, it’s a seat-yourself kind of place, where every table sports bottles of Tabasco sauce — both red and green — and where mounted dream-sized fish hang on every wall. The waitresses — no “waitpersons” or “servers” here — wear genuine smiles and vests decorated with regiments of little trout. The customers dress and act as if they were stuck in the ’50s. At any moment, you expect to see an “I Like Ike” pin. The only things “in” are there purely by accident, such as long sideburns.

No sooner had I sat down when a smiling waitress handed me a menu and poured coffee for me like she had read my mind that I wanted it. A few minutes later, she set a steaming platter of delicious-smelling food in front of me and said, “Here ya go, Darlin’.”

I dug in. The eggs were “over easy,” perfect in every way. The thick slices of whole-wheat toast were fresh and flavorful. The four thick slices of crispy bacon brought tears of joy. The hash browns — I consider hash browns one of the better delivery systems for my favorite sauce, ketchup — were worth fighting wars over.

Looking around, I saw a room full of happy people eating ham, bacon, eggs, toast, hash browns, stacks of pancakes, and biscuits and gravy. I just sat there, chewing, grinning and idly wondering how the folks were doing at the campground. If I had died then and there, it would’ve been OK with me.

Les Palmer, a writer who lives in Sterling, Alaska, has written weekly outdoor columns for the Clarion since 1987.

© Les Palmer 2006