We asked Rob Crandell, lover of winter picnics and proprietor of the Elk Rapids Wine Shop (now Cellar 152), to share recipes, tips and even a little life philosophy for tasty, warm interludes on snowy days outdoors.

Time was when Rob Crandell roamed the nation selling wine, and though he lived in Northern Michigan’s Williamsburg, he was away a lot, 20 weeks a year or more, traveling throughout Michigan and later to 19 states as a national sales rep. But then his wife, Mary Sawyer, retired from teaching in Traverse City schools, and the couple decided two important things. They wanted to do a venture together, and they wanted Rob to travel less. The solution was buying the Elk Rapids Wine Shop, which they took command of on August 1, 2011.

Today, Crandell lives a life many dream of, a little store in a Great Lakes harbor town, and within walking distance, a boat in the marina, where he, his wife and their dog live in the warm months. “I put about a hundred miles on my car all summer,” Crandell says.

It’s easy to see the joys of life Up North when it’s balmy and blue, but Crandell sees the joys of winter too. He grew up near Gaylord, a place steeped in the white stuff. “As a kid, we’d put on snowshoes or skis and be gone all day rabbit hunting,” he says. He developed an early and deep-down understanding of how good food is when you are out in the snow all day. Of course, that was long before Crandell owned a gourmet food shop, and the lunches his dad packed for him were 1970s simple: a bratwurst sandwich, maybe a homemade brownie, things like that.

These days, for Crandell, the importance of food in the winter outdoors goes beyond taste and sustenance. The actual act of stopping to share food along the trail or at the trailhead is about quality of life, balance and connecting. “When we get a day where we can go out, experience the outdoors with just ourselves or with friends, that is very important,” Crandell says. “So it’s seldom that we’d put on the skis and go bang out a bunch of miles. For us, this is time to reconnect, and that is difficult to do if you don’t stop, take off the skis and snowshoes and catch up.” That means stopping to build a small fire, warming up some food and gathering ’round. Crandell prefers setting up out in the woods, but pulling out the grill for a tailgate at the trailhead is memorable too. “We unwind, look each other in the eye and relate,” he says. “You know, like, what’s been going on in your world in the past month?”

How to Build a Trail-Side Fire at the Drop of a Hat

Getting a little fire going is easy, and the toe- and soul-warming result is totally worth the effort, says Crandell. Here are his tips:

  • As you are on your outing, keep an eye out for a good fire spot: something in a little valley, protected by the wind.
  • Look for a spot that has a readily available wood source, like a dead and dried fallen tree with lots of small branches that can be easily snapped off and broken into campfire size.
  • Pack a little fire-starter kit: waterproof matches, a lighter, a little cube of paraffin to light like a candle and keep the flame on the kindling.
  • Bring a little space blanket or lightweight tarp, which can be tied up for additional wind protection or used as a nice dry surface to sit on.
  • Dig down in the snow and build your fire on the ground. When done, dismantle the fire, dispersing the burnt (but cooled from snow you use to douse it) pieces into the woods.
  • Before you strike a match, make certain fires are allowed, and don’t pick a spot
right beside popular groomed trails.

Featured in the February 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski