They say everything’s bigger in Texas. That’s best not said in Minnesota or Alaska, however.
After all, Minnesota mosquitoes are so big that they’re dubbed the unofficial Minnesota state bird. And let’s not forget Minnesota’s legendary giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, and his huge blue ox “Babe,” plus Minnesota’s 10,000 natural lakes compared to one sort of natural lake in Texas.
Alaska is so big that it could easily absorb two Texases and still have room left over.
And when the topic is big hummingbirds, Alaska wins hands down. Alaskan hummingbirds are larger than any in Texas or elsewhere, no contest — so say the boys at Camp Lincoln, a camp near Nisswa, Minn., with a sister camp across the lake called Camp Lake Hubert.
I’m attracted to meat fires like flying insects are attracted to objects that glow in the dark. So it was last week when Henry Krause, our early teen grandson, arrived for a three-week adventure at Camp Lincoln. Henry calls Camp Lincoln “my second home.” He’s a third-year camper, or a “pioneer” in camp jargon.
As we walked a trail from Henry’s assigned cabin to the camp health center for his mandatory routine camper check-up, I smelled the heavenly aroma of a meat fire. Upon arriving at the source, I saw three nude birds skewered on a Jerry-rigged, steel-pipe spit resting in wooden post notches.
The birds, mopped with a tomato/vinegar base sauce, roasted above flaming white oak firewood. They looked like young Tom turkeys or large chickens. The aroma shouted “Delicious!”
But my Tom turkey/yard bird perception was altered upon spying a sign that read “Genuine Alaskan Humming Bird.”
It turns out that almost every year since 1943, it has been a tradition to treat campers to some barbecue early in the first week of camp. Camp counselor Felix Shular, a World War II veteran from Kansas, is credited with starting the “Firewatch” tradition.
Shular learned Hawaiian-style imu pit barbecue when he was stationed in Hawaii during the war. Buck Bethel, another 1943 camp staffer, suggested doing a pig roast in conjunction with Firewatch.
The three key elements besides meat are a hole in the ground, hot coals and hot stones. At Camp Lincoln, the stones are heated all night in a pit fire tended by campers from each cabin in 45-minute Firewatch shifts. Stories are told and camp songs are sung in the spirit of camaraderie and bonding.
Beef brisket is cooked in the imu pit at Camp Lincoln. Pork shoulder is cooked at Camp Lake Hubert.
The morning after Firewatch, a select group of camp counselors bury the meat, cover the imu pit and chant,
The fire has burned throughout the night
To heat the rocks and sand just right
The meat will cook, the corn will stew
Tonight we’ll have a barbecue!
The pig roast was eventually replaced with the Alaskan hummingbird tradition, which is exclusive to Camp Lincoln. Stories about the birds vary by storyteller, one constant being how the birds are caught and harvested.
Since Alaskan hummingbirds love the famously delicious Camp Lincoln grilled cheese sandwiches, freshly grilled sandwiches are nailed to tree trunks in the camp to attract the birds during their spring migration to Alaska. When a bird sticks its bill in a sandwich, it is immediately dispatched and prepared for roasting before it can pull loose from the sandwich.
Last week’s new arrival campers were treated to a tasty sample of fire-roasted Alaskan hummingbird on the first day of camp. The birds were tended by a rotating crew of senior Level 2 Leadership Training campers.
In charge when we stopped by was Nolan Kelly from Houston, Texas. André Brewer, camp director, sat nearby, monitoring Nolan’s progress. André told me the birds are temperature-checked before serving and are finished, if necessary, in a commissary oven until fully cooked.
Although Nolan’s mopping sauce was missing one secret ingredient that isn’t stocked in the commissary spice cabinet, the birds looked fine without it.
The birds weren’t done by the time we had to leave, so we didn’t get a bite. Henry’s older brother and former Camp Lincoln camper Zachary told us that as he recalls, they “taste like somewhere between chicken and turkey.”
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. He is author/co-author of 11 published barbecue books and is a 2016 inductee into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.