In the summer of 1982 my friend Joey from my Freshman dorm asked me to go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) with him. He told me just enough for me to understand that it was a camping trip involving canoeing, but not enough for me to really understand where I was going. The Boundary Waters is a true protected backcountry Wilderness area of over one million acres that touches more than 150 miles off the Canada – Minnesota border. That massive green area on a map of Minnesota? That.
It pains me to tell you this, but the first time I went I actually took a suit case. Sorry mom, you did take us camping, but a different kind of camping. All you take into this wilderness is what you can fit in a canoe and what you are willing to carry (“portage”) over rugged trails between the lakes. No motors, very few people, real solitude and real darkness.
I’ve spent about 200 days of my life in the Boundary Waters and Quetico, the adjoining Canadian wilderness area that’s even bigger. It’s become a very special place for me. I’ve been in a group as big as the maximum, 9, and I’ve been alone, which was a real trip (not trip like vacation, the other kind). My favorite though, by far is to go with one other person.
This year I was blessed to go on a week-long trip with my beautiful 16 year old daughter, Carly. As the summer approached I realized that we had a real dilemma on our hands. We were going to be in the Boundary Waters on Toppers’ 25th anniversary. There is no way I wasn’t going to eat a Toppers Pizza on August 9, and there was no way I was going to cancel or shorten the trip. We were going to have to figure out how to make Toppers Pizza in the wilderness.
As you know by now, we make our dough from scratch with love. Each dough ball slowly rises and becomes more and more flavorful and voluminous until that perfect time where it is made into a pizza crust. The timing and temperature of making this crust is critical to creating the textures, volume, and flavor that make our handmade pizza crusts so awesome. It is not a no-brainer to take fresh dough into the woods and use it 4 days later, which is what we were going to have to do.
First, we froze our prized dough ball in our freezer before we left. I know I make a big deal about not freezing our dough and cheese, but you gotta do what you gotta do when your commitment to eat the world’s greatest food is on the line. On the day we left we put the frozen dough on 2 pounds of dry ice in a small cooler with wet ice on top, and we put that cooler in another cooler with ice on it! We took frozen cheese, pepperoni, and our awesome pizza sauce in a separate small cooler.
I never take ice into the boundary waters. I go dry food the whole way, though there are some people who are big camping cooks; I take more the sustenance approach myself. Taking the pizza goods into the park added a fair bit of weight and bulk onto my normal fairly minimalist pack and approach. On August 8, the day before we were going to hopefully have pizza, the cooler was still so cold the food next to it was frozen to it. Dry ice is the real deal.
On August 9 we travelled from Shell Lake to Lynx Lake, where we set up camp. Toppers Pizza turned 25 today and most of Toppers Nation was working in a store because of our 25c pizza deal we ran to celebrate the day with our customers! Carly works in the Whitewater, WI store, so she was thinking about the crew getting their asses kicked. Anyhow, we had our own pizza rush to get to.
We stoked up a nice big fire. We were lucky that a previous visitor had built up a great stone surround around the fire pit, and we pulled two big logs across the top of them to create our REAL wood fired oven. You know it’s a real wood fired oven when the oven catches on fire, which it did.
The moment of truth was upon us. We pulled the cooler out of the bottom of the pack. It was warm and wet. No ice. The dough was probably blown (over risen or over proofed to the point of not being good anymore). We carefully pulled out the dough, which could no longer be called a “ball”; more like a doughblob. Carly inspected it and declared that it smelled great, was not blown, and that we were definitely making a Toppers Pizza!
Well, we made that bad boy. Raw, it looked awesome. We figured out how to get it on the fire mostly wrapped up in Aluminum Foil, and after a few minutes we spun it around so that it would cook evenly. We couldn’t help but keep peeking at it, and eventually the cheese and sauce was bubbling and the crust was turning brown. In 30 odd years, I’d never put so much thought and time and energy into a single pizza.
The photos will attest to the beauty of the pizza, but it can’t do justice to the experience of eating it. Even though it was pretty burned on one side, it was an incredible pizza, hot and flavorful. Toppers Pizza in the Boundary Waters with Carly. Three of my absolute favorite things!
Toppers Pizza and the Boundary Waters has been a part of my family’s life for a long time. It was truly special to celebrate our 25th anniversary with Carly. That night the sky was clear with a quarter moon hanging over a glassy lake. As the dense stars revealed themselves in the darkness, Carly and I pushed our canoe off into the still water. Soon we were in the middle of the lake where we stopped paddling and just sat together, silent and small.