The day began tentatively, three seasoned river guides meeting up with six city folk in a small-town cafe. But by the time drift boats were launched and gracefully nosing their way beyond the early morning mist rising off the north fork of Oregon’s Umpqua River, it was clear water below, blue skies above and friends all around.
Our guides, Corvallis-based Stan Steele, Dan Justus from Eugene, and Steve Schaefers, who lives near Vida along the McKenzie River, weren’t promising we’d come away with steelhead for the grill or even any new fish stories. Lack of rain meant that expectations were as low as river levels. But our group was looking to beat the odds.
My brother, Don, had booked Steele weeks before, based on Don’s plans to be in Corvallis in early March with his wife, Sue, and their good friends, Peter and Patty Nedwick,. Don and Sue’s youngest son, Greg, came to town, too. He’d fished the north fork of the Santiam last year with Steele and knew what he’d be missing if he didn’t make it to town for the weekend, fish or no fish.
It was a win-win situation for me, too. Unlike my companions, I was sporting a camera instead of a rod. And the photo ops along this gorgeous stretch of river about 30 miles northwest of Roseburg are plentiful. From wily mink to loafing geese and flustered turkeys, there was plenty of behavior to focus on besides that of this pack of hopeful Californians.
Now, if fish were to be found, these three guides likely had the knowledge and instinct to find them. They represented three lifetimes of river experience. Steele and Schaefers grew up together on the McKenzie and come from guiding families. Schaefers has been a licensed guide for 33 years, and his wife and business partner, Debbie Helfrich Schaefers, also came from river-guiding stock.
Before starting up his own river guiding business in 1998, Steele spent 25 years with the Oregon State Police, retiring as a senior Fish and Wildlife trooper. Steele’s father, Keith Steele, was a master craftsman who built more than 3,000 drift boats in his life and is well known for his early contributions to the development of the McKenzie drift boat, the standard for all Oregon River fishing guides due to its maneuverability and durability. Two of his boats, The Portola One and The Portola Two, were built for Disney Corp. and became the first McKenzie drift boats to successfully float the Colorado.
Justus has been guiding commercially for 16 years. Although not from a guiding family, he’s been living the outdoor life since his childhood years in Baker City in eastern Oregon.
These men represent an elite corps of Oregon river guides who know, respect and support each other’s strengths. Yet, competition is keen and there are limits. As Justus observed: “These are guys I’ve known for 20 years – and they won’t tell me where they caught their last salmon!”
Fortunately, that mentality seems to end at the water’s edge, so to speak. When it comes to stream-bank cooking, these guys are all about cooperation. At noon we pulled up to a flat, rocky spot on shore, where Schaefers laid out some foil and poured on a pile of charcoal. Steele followed behind with charcoal lighter and a match.
As the lively flames licked up over the coals, Schaefers started in on his Dutch oven biscuits. Three kinds of flour were poured from a plastic bag into a metal bowl, along with some baking soda, salt and bit of sugar. Going by look and feel, Schaefers poured on buttermilk from the carton with his right hand and lightly mixed it into the flour with his left. After a few turns of the dough, he gently scooped the mixture out onto a lightly floured sheet of waxed paper and patted the lumpy-sticky dough into a 1 1/2-inch high round, which he attacked with his biscuit cutter.
Schaefers arranged the poofy discs of dough in his well-seasoned Dutch oven, covered it with the lid and placed it on the ground next to the pile of hot coals. With a sturdy pair of tongs, he layered a couple of dozen coals on top of the lid, then he nestled the whole arrangement down onto the bed of coals.
Meanwhile, Justus and Steele created a small campfire from a box of wood they’d hauled ashore. Once burning reliably, Justus returned to a small camp table where he’d laid out everything he’d need to prepare the salmon.
First he sprinkled some Santa Maria Seasoning – a highfalutin form of seasoned salt – into a plastic bag full of flour. Steele then dropped in a few salmon fillets which Justus dredged in the flour before removing them to a plate. Justus plopped two cubes of butter and a small glob of margarine into his heavy-duty iron skillet that he’d retrofitted with a 3-foot long handle (“I got real tired of singed arm hairs,” he explained). He swung the pan over the fire and held it there until the butter was melted and foaming. Off the heat he and Steele loaded the pan with some of the floured fish then set it back over the glowing embers.
Satisfied that the fish and biscuits were moving forward, Steele put a plastic bag of fresh and colorful salad greens into a large bowl and set out a collection of dressings. A second bottle of wine was uncorked before the salmon fillets were ready to be flipped.
As Steele and Justus doted over the gold and crusty salmon, Schaefers kept an eye on his biscuits. Every now and then he’d lift the lid to check the progress, gently prodding the edges for a peek at their undersides. Burnt bottoms were not an option. Finally, Schaefers lifted the covered oven from the coals to remove the heat source from the bottom of the biscuits. He left the coal-filled lid on a few more minutes so the biscuit tops could attain the exact shade of rich caramel brown he was after.
For dessert – just in case anyone still had a speck of hunger to contend with – a fresh-baked berry pie was cut and passed around. A chorus of groans translated into a five-star rating for this out-of-the-way restaurant.
Then it was back to the boats.
In the end, the steelhead survived. But there’s more than one kind of limit to be had on the river. We got ours at noon. Yummm.
Schaefers Dutch oven biscuits and cornbread
14-inch Dutch oven
5 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup cracked wheat
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon dry buttermilk
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup shortening
3 to 4 cups buttermilk
In large bowl, combine the all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cracked wheat, sugar, dry buttermilk, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut in the shortening. Add about 3 cups of the buttermilk and lightly mix/fold into the flour mixture with a large spoon (or your hand), adding additional buttermilk as needed just until a lumpy dough forms. Do not overmix the dough.
Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat into 1 1/2-inch thick round. With biscuit cutter, cut out biscuits.
Add some oil to a well-seasoned Dutch oven that you have tilted slightly so the oil can pool at one end. Place the cut biscuits into the pan by first rolling them one at a time in the oil and then placing them next to each other on uphill side of the Dutch oven. The biscuits will fill the pan.
Replace the lid and with a pair of tongs, add a layer of hot coals to the top part of the lid. Now place the oven on a bed of coals (Steve says, “go easy on the bottom coals.”). To check the progress, you’ll need to lift the lid occasionally to make sure the bottoms of the biscuits aren’t getting too brown. When the bottoms seem to be almost done, remove the Dutch oven from the coals, but leave the top lid with coals on top. Continue cooking until the biscuits are a beautiful golden brown.
For corn bread: Use 3 cups all purpose flour and 3 cups corn meal. Serve with jam, honey or maple syrup.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail email@example.com.