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Dining at Domke Lake

I was very fortunate to grow up with a father who loved the outdoors. Before he took on three young children he had quite a reputation as an angler and hunter. When we were old enough to hold a rod we were introduced to fishing and later on the fun of hiking and camping outdoors. These trips are some of my fondest memories and our trip to Domke Lake above Lake Chelan is one story our family still likes to hear when we get together.

Domke Lake is a trout fishing Mecca in North Central Washington. It’s just a three-mile hike from the shores of Lake Chelan, but the trailhead is reached either via the Lady of the Lake, which at that time this story took place, was a hundred foot, wooden-hull cruiser. The other option of reaching Domke was by floatplane. The Lady made daily trips from the town of Chelan to the small communities of Holden Village and Stehekin at the very top end of Chelan, which is over a 100-mile round trip.

Domke was known for large cutthroat and rainbow trout and many fathers and sons had made pilgrimages here to enjoy the spectacular scenery and fishing. One of the fascinating features of Domke Lake was Gordon Stewart. He was as much a part of the scenery and allure of the lake as the view of the high Cascades. Gordon had lived at the lake for over 40 years when I first met him, and he had only left to fight the Huns and make the occasional trip to town for supplies that couldn’t be delivered to his satisfaction by the Lady of Lake. He was close to a hermit as anyone I’d ever met.

We learned about all of this on the way up lake from my Dad. There were four of us in the party. Dad, my brother Rick, my friend Doug from Seattle and myself. The stories he told of past trips to the lake fueled our interest to get there. The Lady just wasn’t getting there fast enough for us. We finally hit the dock at Holden Village, slung our packs on our backs and hit the trail.

The hike was an easy one, with a great view of the lake and the glacier peaks of the North Cascade Mountains above Stehekin. Even stopping for photographs and making our way at an unhurried pace we knew we would arrive with enough time to get in a great evening’s fishing.

The procedure when arriving at Domke was to check in with Gordon Stuwart. He scrutinized everyone who arrived at the lake. He told us not to pet the dog that was wiggling around our legs and licking our hands, and would tell us what campsites were open and if he had any boats to rent. He had a contract with the Park Service to maintain a few cabins, rent boats and keep an eye on things along the lake’s shore. If you rented a cabin or a boat or were looking for an open camping spot Gordon was the one to see.

To the delight of my brother and I, Gordon remembered my Dad from a trip he had made there some 20 years previously. Seems my Dad’s party had run out of beer and they had paid handsomely for Gordon to ride his horse down to the tavern at Lucerne to pick up a case or two. Boy, was Dad embarrassed, but pretty impressed with Gordon’s mental capacity.

After arranging for a couple of row boats, we packed our gear aboard and headed for a particular point that offered plenty of room for the four of us, a great view of the lake and pretty good fishing off the shore. We rowed to the point, and finding it vacant, hauled our stuff ashore and set up camp. All this was done in hurried anticipation of getting out on the water and catching some fish.

When everything was set up, we piled into the two boats and proceeded to catch a nice mess of fish before we headed back to camp for our first meal to be cooked over an open fire. We all were drooling with anticipation. There is something about dining outdoors. Appetites are peaked and flavors seem to be enhanced by the mix of clean air and wood smoke. Steaks were on the menu, as well as home fried potatoes, corn and other treats. We couldn’t wait.

We got a hot-coal cooking fire going, got everything set out, and when I was about to get a pan ready to fry the T-bones, Dad, as he often will, made a suggestion. He presented an augment in the manner with which I was about to fry the steaks. Seems that he had seen one of the coastal tribes cooking salmon over a fire and they had a very clever way of doing it. They had taken green saplings and had made a sort of tennis racket out of it. This secured the fish and provided a handle for turning it over the fire.

“No kidding?” we all exclaimed. “What a cool way to cook our steaks!” We all scrambled into the woods to cut our samplings and fell to creating our steak cookers. We had a kind of competition going for the best looking “racquets”, and in no time at all were ready to put them to use.

We all eagerly bent over the coals and began to roast our slabs of meat. The aroma of searing T-bone was driving us mad with hunger. There is nothing like the appetite that comes with an outdoor fishing trip and we had become ravenous carnivores.

Lots of ideas sound great, but prove to be disastrous. This was one of them.

Just as the heat of the fire reached the right temperature to sizzle our steaks it also ignited our sampling racquets. One by one the cleverly woven twigs smoked and then with an inaudible “SPRANG” our T-bones flopped onto the coals. One by one we each screeched and then scrambled for something to salvage our steak from the fire. Given the poor light, the time of night and prospect of four large men jabbing and jostling for position over a pretty small fire pit we retrieved our dinners pretty quickly. Not, of course, before each slab had welded onto it several chunks of burning coal and a large portion of ash.

With burning fingers we all juggled steak until I could find the pan I had originally intended for cooking. I piled the blackened slabs into it and got the show back on the road. Waiting for the pan to heat seemed to take forever. Our appetites had been further whetted from licking juice from our singed fingers and we were now ravenous to the point of pain. I’m glad this event took place prior to the advent of small, portable video camera. The sight of the four of us shaking singed, greasy fingers and cursing through blackened lips and chins would have put anyone off their feed for a while.

While the steaks started to re-kindle I got out the second component of our main course. We were looking forward to fried potatoes as much as the steaks. My Mom had precooked the spuds, adding a bit of onion and all I had to do was fry them in butter until they were nice and brown and add a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Heck, half the work was already done. I just had to brown ‘em up.

Sounds easy huh. Sounds like a done deal huh. Well,…

The spuds were just starting to sizzle away and I was about to turn them and see that nice golden brown, and decided to add a bit of good old pepper that Mom had packed. I grabbed the shaker and shook. And I shook. And nothing happened. I could tell by the light of the fire that nothing was coming out. So I shook harder. And disaster struck for the second time in the same meal.

What I didn’t see by the light of the campfire was just how carefully Mom had packed the pepper. Not wanting the pepper to spill in our pack, she had placed a square of waxed paper under the lid and lightly turned it down. The lid was on tight enough to jam it onto the shaker, but it was loose enough that if someone shook it hard it would come off. And come off it did. POOSH! Right in the middle of the frying pan went the whole shaker load of pepper.

Words I had never dared to say in the presence of my father were screamed loud enough not only for him to hear, but probably woke Gordon Stewart from a sound sleep a quarter-mile away.

Quick as I could, I pulled the spuds from the fire and tried to scrape the pepper off my treasured potatoes. Nothin’ doin’. They were black with the stuff. While the rest of my party laughed around chunks of blackend, crunchy steak I sweated a few mouthfuls of spuds down and gave up.

I could barely taste my steak after that.

We retired soon after our attempt at our vision of a great camp meal, and the balance of the trip came off pretty well. We caught a bunch of fish, returned our boat and left our extra supplies to Gordon (such was the tradition), and hiked to the boat dock without mishap.

All in all it was one great weekend. This was a fishing trip that I will never forget. I made a couple of other trips to Domkey Lake, and my cooking skills improved. I even cooked a whole turkey in a campfire there once. But this was a trip to remember.

Oh. The corn turned out fine.