JOHN HOLYOKE

Holiday weekend a favorite of outdoors enthusiasts

Posted May 27, 2011, at 1:16 p.m.

Memorial Day is, first and foremost, a time to pay tribute to the men and women who have given their lives to defend our country. It’s important that we not forget the reason for the holiday.

With that said, Memorial Day weekend is also a time when families make special plans to spend time together and observe traditions that often have little to do with the holiday’s stated definition.

Some of us break out the steaks and burgers and hot dogs and fire up the grill. Some of us make a point of watching the Indy 500.

And some of us head into the woods to paddle. Or fish. Or just get away.

Memorial Day weekend falls at a perfect time, you see. After our six months of “rough sledding,” the weekend serves as a bookend — along with Labor Day — that neatly defines our more-or-less summer season.

Yes, our rough sledding is over. It’s not going to snow again until at least September — if we’re lucky. And outdoor opportunities abound.

So, you’ve got a weekend in front of you and no set agenda. What do you do? I’ve got a couple of ideas you might want to consider.

First up: Hit the water.

Find a pond. A lake. A stream. A river. And just go fishing.

Many avid anglers plan yearly fishing trips for Memorial Day for a simple reason: They’re quite certain that the fish will be biting come the end of May.

The age-old maxim works here: Trout fishing gets good when alder leaves are as large as a mouse’s ear. True, our alder leaves are now likely as big as cat ears. But it’s still not too late to enjoy some great fishing.

Insects are hatching. Fish are feeding on those creepie-crawlies. It’s just a perfect time to think about hitting your favorite piece of water.

On Thursday I spoke to an avid fly fisherman who told me he enjoyed the best trout fishing of his life just a week ago, catching and releasing 30 fish in about 15 minutes. Of course, that was last week — and this week might be different.

Then again, it might not be much different. And you’ll never know unless you get out there and put in some effort.

If you’re looking for an activity that the whole family can enjoy, you may want to head to Prospect for a special event at the Fort Knox State Historic Site.

As you might have heard, the fort’s “bake house” was fired up last summer for the first time in 112 years, and visitors were enthralled.

This weekend the monstrous oven will be back in operation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.

So, it’s an oven, you say. No big deal, you say.

Not so fast.

This is not your grammy’s Amana. Fort Knox boasts a massive fire-fueled oven that was designed to, as the Maine Department of Conservation points out in a press release, feed an army.

The oven is 15 feet deep, 10 feet wide and 19 inches high in the center. If you wanted to, you could bake 400 loaves of bread in it — at the same time.

And this weekend, you’ll get the chance to see it in operation. More important, you’ll get the chance to sample some of the baked goods that it will produce.

The DOC release says that similar ovens were common in forts across the country, but the 148-year-old Fort Knox model is the only one still in use in its original condition.

“The basic technology dates back to the ancient Romans,” Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands historian Tom Desjardin said in the release. “Every home had a smaller version of it in the 1700s and early 1800s.”

The DOC says that army manuals at the time required the post baker to light a “violent fire” each morning at about 4 a.m., and to continue stoking it and feeding it until the brick inside the oven was sufficiently heated. At that point — by about 9 a.m. — the hot coals were to be raked out. The oven then remained hot enough for baking for as many as eight hours.

The coolest part of this weekend’s event: Visitors are welcome to bring their own to-be-baked item from home, leave it in the oven, and pick it back up after it’s finished.

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