Buttermilk On River-Right

river rafting trip

Seafood enchiladas with Jud Wiebe

by Maple Andrew Taylor

We aren’t far from the evening’s takeout. For the last half hour I have kept the raft in the main channel and pushed on the oars to increase our speed. There are six guests on this trip down the wild and remote Gunnison River just below the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Two are serious fishermen, and so we stopped numerous times throughout the day so that they could get out of the boat and flycast their nymphs, while the others, including a non-paying guest of one of the other guides, sat sunning themselves on rocks or took short hikes up the side canyons.  We’ve only had a few miles to cover today to get to our last overnight camp on this three-day, two-night trip; and I am almost tempted to say it has been a lazy day. Truth is, for the river guide, there are no lazy days.

A river guide’s day goes like this. Awaken at first light. Potty. Get the coffee going on the gas stove. Wash the face and clean the body a little in the (cold!) river. Start breakfast, which some days entails getting a batch of coals lit in the firepan and slicing potatoes, dicing and chopping onions and peppers, and whisking a bowl of eggs for a dutch oven breakfast casserole. On some mornings we might whip up some batter for pancakes or make biscuits from scratch. Serve the meal. Clean up the dishes and pots and pans, including the ashy dutch ovens. Repack the kitchen. Knock down all the tents and pack them up. Stage all of the gear at the boat for meticulous loading, including the very heavy food boxes and ice chests. Carefully pack up the communal potty can. Tie everything down doubly secure. Climb in and push off and navigate the heavy raft through the sharp rocks and booming water.

It sounds like a lot already, but this is only one-third of the day. There will be a pullover for lunch and the preparation thereof, then cleanup and repacking once again. After more miles down the river there will be the final pullout for the night’s camp, which, of course, will include unpacking everything from the boats, setting up the clients’ tents, our own tents, the kitchen, and then cooking and cleaning up after a formal meal and dessert for nine people.

This morning’s menu: biscuits, eggs to order, patty sausage, gravy with the leavings, chunked grapefruit with a sprinkle of sugar. Coffee of course, and more coffee after that.

For the dutch oven biscuits, cut the lard into the flour, pat-out on a floured bandanna on the top of an ice chest. Tin can with the bottom cut out to make the rounds. Line the greased dutch with them.

Flour, butter, salt and pepper, and canned milk in the sausage grease for some simple and good gravy. Spoon a quick taste; add more pepper and butter, then even more butter.

The other two boatmen and I are constantly doing. Not in angst and not frenetically, but steady as she goes. After working together for a dozen trips this summer, we have each gravitated to our strengths with little effort or even discussion. Sometimes we enlist a guest to help. Mr. Michael! Do you have any aptitude at peeling potatoes? Miss Cheryl, can you cube these peppers and onions for me?

Buttermilk on river-right is our destination. There is an informal system of reserving a “campsite” down in this remote and wild canyon, which is to say a flat, sandy spot big enough for a few tents and a couple of small kitchen tables and maybe a tree or two for a little shade and the illusion of shelter. The commercial guides keep track of each other and the rule is the first boats on the water get the best campsites. Tradition has it that the other boats must take a less desirable site, regardless of who actually gets there first. It’s first on the water, not first at the site. But non-commercial trips, of which there are only a few, do not abide by this protocol, nor would any backpackers who occasionally descend into the canyon to camp along the river’s edge—so the campsite you are counting on could still be occupied when you get there.

I crane my neck on this last bend in the river before the long approach to our river-right campsite near Buttermilk Rapid, a raging sluice river-left up against a big wall, guarded river-right by rocky shallows. And, yes! Buttermilk’s broad, sandy bench tucked into the trees is unoccupied. The commercial group that passed us while we were fishing stuck to the protocol most honorably, and camped around the corner downriver in a cramped, treeless little spot.

Empty of people and dunnage, tied securely and oars shipped, our three boats, diagonal in the river’s infernal push, are a perfectly matched flotilla.  The two fisherman fish. The others sip beer or wine that has been chilling in the water. They sit and visit and watch the waters. Some with their toes snug in the sand, warm and comforting now that the sun has sunk below the canyon’s rim. Buttermilk, now, in shadow.

Seafood enchiladas tonight. Sopapillas for dessert; from scratch of course, and there’s a honey bear to pass around. I speak with a fellow, Jud, who has been riding in one of the other boats as a guest of one of the other boatmen.  He is quiet and unassuming; those traits seem to be born out of something between confidence and contentedness instead of any kind of shyness. He’s of average size, wiry but muscular. Although he has spoken very little and has done nothing to bring any attention to himself, Jud complements the group and is an indispensable part of this little community. He takes in this evening, this place, like a sponge. Quietly, he tells me this is his first time down this river. Tells me it’s remarkable and he can’t believe he’s waited so long to float it. 

The dough is made for the sopapillas. One of the other guides has long since started the charcoals in the fire pan where we will place the dutch oven to bake the enchiladas. Blue-orange flame roils between the charcoals, ash white and ready.

I make a sauce of garlic, butter, cilantro, cumin, tomatillo, green chilies, and shallots. I add cream. Grate a small mountain of Monterey jack and put to the side a handful of freshly chopped cilantro. Salt and liberally squeeze lime on canned crab and whitefish, then plop it into the sauce.  After lining the dutch with corn tortillas, I dump in half of the sauce; then after some cheese and another layer of tortilla, add the other half, then a final layer of cheese and tortilla. I take the tongs and place enough coals to cover the entire lid of the dutch, then put just five on the fire pan and place the dutch on top of them. The oven gets turned a quarter of a turn every ten minutes or so to prevent the bottom coals from scorching.

In a city so far from this wild and virtually inaccessible river it may as well have been on the backside of the moon, I once attended a world-class symphony where I was struck by this one thought not long into the very first piece: Even though there were many instruments in the orchestra, I did not hear any one instrument per se. I heard the symphonic whole and absolutely none of its instrument parts. I heard music!  Like the aroma is to a good pot of ham hocks and beans, or cornbread when it’s ready for the toothpick test. Ingredients lose their individual selves, alloy, meld, bleed into one another like finely tuned instruments, and become something beyond the mere sum of their parts. Horns of all shapes and sizes: ham hock, bean, brown sugar, and onion. Strings the same: cornmeal, flour, baking powder, milk, oil, and honey. No less than music when the heat’s next to perfect and the proportions are right and no one ingredient overwhelms another.

Interestingly, an old river guide—my mentor on all things river, in fact—told me that you know to take the oven off the coals when your nose can tell exactly what’s cooking. When deep-dish pepperoni and Italian sausage pizza begins to smell like deep-dish pepperoni and Italian sausage pizza, then it’s time to take the dutch off the coals. If camp starts to smell like apple cobbler, then it’s time to take the apple cobbler off the coals. In this case, camp was smelling a lot like seafood enchiladas, so I took the coals off the dutch and the dutch off the coals and readied the sour cream and then chopped up some sprigs of cilantro. Each serving of enchilada gets a dollop and a sprinkle, and a few cherry tomatoes.

There was a silence. He had spoken badly, and was merely repeating something that people like to say around the campfire. If we were eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, maybe so. A can of Vienna sausages or hotdogs on willow sticks, okay. But not this meal. Not this evening. Not on this river and not with the things as yet unknown to me.

(—Photos by Melissa Plantz)

Her toes are buried in the sand, a bottle of Pacifico scrunched down beside her. Her fork freezes in front of her lips. Eyes closed, she says, “These … are … amazing….” To which her boyfriend sitting next to her replies, “Food always tastes better when you are camping.”

There was a silence. He had spoken badly, and was merely repeating something that people like to say around the campfire. If we were eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, maybe so. A can of Vienna sausages or hotdogs on willow sticks, okay. But not this meal. Not this evening. Not on this river and not with the things as yet unknown to me.

Then Jud, with whom I had been visiting earlier, turns to me and breaks the silence in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “These enchiladas are better than Sofios’.” (Sofios, back then, was one of the most popular restaurants in Telluride; their seafood enchiladas were superb, and I ordered them along with a cold bottle of Pacifico every time I went there.) 

Jud finishes the enchiladas; I take his plate and serve him a fresh, puffy sopapilla, fried in a deep pot to a honey brown by one of the other boatmen. I sit, and we visit again for a while in the gathering dusk. When asked, he tells me he works for the U.S. Forest Service in southwestern Colorado, and his area of expertise is public recreation. Placing his plate on the sand beside him and looking most calmly out onto the darkening waters of Buttermilk, he doesn’t volunteer much, but when he does, he speaks only of this evening, this river, this meal, this now.

The waters lazily, almost imperceptibly, funnel down from a huge quiet pool, flecked here and there by the evening’s last trout, constricting along a dark, glassy tongue, then dropping, whitening into fast peaks and troughs, sluicing madly along that wall on river-left. Beneath that fast and dark roil of narrowing waters a secret: Jud, still in his thirties, is dying of cancer and would in fact be gone from this world within a couple of short months.

I did not learn of this for a very long time. Of course, I had no way of knowing the U.S. Forest Service, years later, would name a most spectacular trail after him: the Jud Wiebe Trail. The trail was Jud’s vision to provide those visiting and living in Telluride access to extraordinarily wild public lands, right from town proper. The trail was a tribute to him, his good work, and his passion for the outdoors. 

All I knew was that I was in the presence of a human being who looked very much at peace with himself, those around him, and with the inexorable pull of this very river. I knew this too: I knew those enchiladas hit some remarkably high and fine notes. It was a meal commensurate not only with that one magnificent evening shared by us handful of souls at a place called Buttermilk, but with the secrets that must accompany every meal shared on the waters, and off.

Judson Baird Wiebe loved those enchiladas. That was almost thirty years ago now, and as one thing has led to another, and then another, I haven’t made them since.