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A Rich Entree Into the Wild Salmon

The rough edges of a rafting trip are smoothed with meals by a star chef.

July 15, 2001|DAVID E. GILBERT | David E. Gilbert lives in the Bay Area and writes about food. He can be reached by e-mail at Gastrognome@Home.com

SALMON, Idaho — "How would you like to retrace the route of Lewis and Clark?" I asked my wife as we sat landlocked in commuter traffic.

Kimi, who was driving, didn't look at me. She was intent on the bumper in front of us. "Oh, sure," she said, "as long as it's civilized."

I was reading a vintage National Geographic featuring a harrowing 1935 river journey that attempted to re-create the 1804 expedition of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on its 130th anniversary.

A once hardy trailblazer who has mellowed recently, Kimi now demands such amenities as beds, clean linen and hot showers. And great food.

That's how we found ourselves a few months later in a school bus traversing a dusty washboard road on the way to the headwaters of the Salmon River in central Idaho.

During the next six days, our four-raft expedition would negotiate 80 miles of deep evergreen recesses through the mountainous 2.4-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness--the largest untamed wild country in the Lower 48. An adventure in advance of, but in tune with, the expedition's bicentenary, but one cushioned with fine cuisine crafted by a prominent Bay Area chef.

Salmon River Outfitters founder Steven Shephard has spent 30 years coordinating ambitious river runs and coaxing prominent chefs, winemakers, storytellers and musicians to come along. He offers his customers a choice of civilized adventures with accommodations in lodges, which afford the guest chef access to kitchens, or camping trips, where the campfire is the chef's challenge. We went civilized, of course, sleeping at lodges with real beds and, mostly, with bathrooms with hot and cold running water.

While we assembled our gear with 14 other adventurers outside the town of Salmon, I spied the chef of our gastronomic voyage: Lynn Sheehan.

Years ago I had a memorable meal at a San Francisco restaurant called Mecca, where I became enamored of Sheehan's lusty California cuisine. An honors graduate of the California Culinary Academy, she had cooked for the celebrated restaurants Masa's, Postrio and Stars before opening Rubicon, Mecca and ultimately Vertigo.

Sheehan prides herself on foraging (in the wild and in local farmers markets) for fresh seasonal ingredients.

A cold call from Shephard had found Sheehan embroiled in her latest undertaking--transforming Sand Rock Farm, a turn-of-the century winery just south of Santa Cruz, into a bed-and-breakfast inn. Needing a break from months of construction, she signed on for our trip.

I figured it would not hurt to fraternize with the chef, reasoning that if the going got tough, she might slip me an extra provision of foie gras. I asked how her trip from the Bay Area had been.

Brutal, Sheehan replied, in good spirits considering her ordeal getting to Idaho. She and her 60-pound coolers (10 of them, enough to feed the 16 guests, herself and four crew members five dinners on the river) had missed the flight out of SFO. On her own, she went down to San Jose, caught another flight to Boise, then squeezed her cache onto a bush "taxi" for the flight into the wilderness.

Soon we were donning life vests and dividing into foursomes. Because we got a late start, the first day's journey was only a short shuttle across the river to the Salmon River Lodge, a looming new A-frame where we would spend our first night.

Sheehan made short work of winning over her raft mates. In the waning sunlight on the redwood deck overlooking the roaring Salmon River, she cranked out an appetizer that would have done Mecca proud: home-cured gravlax topped with a tiny dollop of Cowgirl Creamery creme fraiche and accented with enticing river-green, wasabi-infused flying-fish roe. We downed it with a bone-dry Washington state Riesling.

When darkness descended and the temperature plummeted at least 20 degrees into the high 50s, we went into the lodge's cathedral-ceilinged dining room, where the crew served up Sheehan's inaugural menu: vine leaf-and bacon-wrapped quail on sweet corn polenta, fresh peach cobbler with crystallized ginger and more of that irresistible (and this time clove-infused) creme fraiche . The meal set the standard for the trip.

When nearly a dozen bottles of wine had been drained and the dishes done, I asked Sheehan how the preparations had differed from those in her own kitchen.

"An obvious challenge was how to menu plan for five days of lovely food with marginal refrigeration," Sheehan said. By the end of the week, she added, she'd be relying heavily on braised and preserved items.

I had thought that by Day 5 we might be subsisting on the same foodstuffs the Lewis and Clark expedition had. Bear, for instance. But to my surprise, the quality and creativity of the meals were sustained the whole week.

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