Cooking Old School In The New Year

Souzz and I often spend New Year’s Eve in the backcountry or in a cabin, and we traditionally make risotto (along with some other fancy dish). The standard bearer of New Year’s absurdity was probably the year that we made risotto with lobster in a five burner kitchen while camping in the snow. We didn’t quite reach that level of absurdity this year, but we at least thought about it.

Anyway, with cold rain in the 2019 forecast, we decided to head to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Dawson Cabin in Pennsylvania, about two hours drive from our home in Virginia. Dawson is one of the lesser visited cabins in the PATC system, maybe because the hike to the cabin is straight uphill. But the hike is short, and Dawson is a hidden gem that is worth the visit! The cabin is well appointed and very well maintained, and it has southern exposure and a beautiful view.

For our planned risotto and filet mignon feast, we hauled in a lot of cookware, as well as a five pound canister of propane and a two-burner camp stove. Utility wagons are a great tool for getting bulky gear into walk-in PATC cabins—but dragging them uphill through the mud and over tree roots in the rain might be an acquired taste.

When we reached the cabin, we learned that the camp stove and propane were basically flammable barbells. It turned out that there was a problem with the stove’s regulator that was beyond what I could field-repair, and fiddling with high-pressure gas connections is exciting in any circumstance—but especially so in a remote wood-framed structure. I’m also kind of fond of my eyebrows.

As a consolation, at least we had some good appetizers…

With appetizers gone and still five hours to New Year’s, we had a new twist: how to make risotto without a modern camp stove. But there was a perfectly serviceable wood stove sitting right at our feet, so how hard could this be?

Tending a wood stove is always important in a PATC cabin in winter, although the goal is usually just heating the place. But now we had to figure out a way to keep the heat somewhat constant.

Ok, so I get that wood stoves have been around for generations, and my friends in bush Alaska are probably rolling their eyes by now (well, at least Ruby is…but in my defense, I don’t remember seeing a lot of risotto on “Life Below Zero“).

It took a little fiddling to maintain the level of heat on the cooktop, and there were times when we had to cool things off by lifting the pan onto a hastily made wire trivet (using a piece from a broken dartboard that we found in the cabin).

But we figured it out, and the risotto was quite good. And the keys to good risotto are the same whether on a modern range or on a wood stove: using homemade stock (way less salty), heating the stock quite a bit before adding, and cooking the risotto at high heat (ideally enough heat to finish the job in less than 20 minutes). With too little heat, things take a long time and the risotto gets sticky.

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We paired the risotto with filet mignon, which we grilled over wood fire coals. And note Souzz’s thumb print in the steak. I guess that’s how real chefs figure out if it’s done.

Lastly, our stove challenge gave us the chance to puzzle over why we go to primitive cabins and then haul in hundreds of pounds of fancy gear. It seems about as logical as getting turbo in a Ford Fiesta. So maybe simplifying things should be our New Year’s Resolution? Well, that and preserving my eyebrows.

A Recipe To Remember

Back in 2005, we had the opportunity to travel to Italy with my parents and sister and brother-in-law on a pleasure trip that was also a mission of sorts. We went in part to visit Tuscany, but our primary purpose was to visit the site of a World War II memorial near the northern Italian city of Mantova.

In October of 1944, four aviators from my dad’s unit, the 319th Bomb Group, were lost on a mission to take out a rail bridge in Mantova. Two of those lost, Don Treadwell and Joe Prebil, were close friends of my dad, who was a pilot in another B26 bomber on that mission. My dad was able to return to his base in Corsica that day, but that mission clearly was a defining moment in his life.

The idea of our 2005 trip started when I learned about the memorial that the village of Redondesco had recently built to the four lost aviators. I’d learned about it by chance through my brother-in-law—a history professor fluent in Italian who had read about it in the Mantova newspaper. I was only half-serious when I announced later at a family gathering that I was going to visit. My dad surprised me when he immediately asked “can I come with you?”

A few months later, my parents, Souzz, me, my sister and her husband headed off to northern Italy on a trip that we’d never even imagined. We set things up entirely through email using web-based language translation programs (I think this internet fad might be here to stay).

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Once in Mantova, we were met by the Mayor of Redondesco along with a very knowledgeable Mantova historian and a volunteer translator from Redondesco. The three of them proceeded to take us on a guided tour of targets and crash sites, a tour that was simply amazing.

During our tour, we met a local farmer that witnessed the 1944 crash as a young boy, and he shared his emotional story as if it had happened yesterday. Later we were joined at the memorial by a huge group from the village of Redondesco—a group that waited for us for quite some time, undeterred by steady rain. We then closed our visit with a remarkable meal at the Mayor’s family farmhouse.

Calling our experience at the farmhouse a “meal” understates things quite a bit, as it was more like a commemoration and a celebration of friendship–and it was also the most amazing cultural experience that I’ve ever had. Lunch lasted five full hours, and there were seven courses, all hand-prepared over the previous two full days. Wave after wave of food came out while gregarious townspeople chatted away in Italian. Several times, our new friends did their best (in English) to thank my dad and the US for helping to bring Italy its freedom in World War II (and “their best” was pretty great, just perfect).

At the center of the meal was a regional favorite called tortelli di zucca, a pumpkin-stuffed pasta that is a Mantova specialty.

After we returned home to Virginia, our new friend Ivano (our translator on the trip, one of several new friends with whom we are still in touch, some 14 years later) generously shared his tortelli recipe. Since then, tortelli has become one of our favorite dishes. We’ve made it twice in just the last few months, and it’s always a crowd pleaser. And perhaps best of all, it is both a meal and a story.

 

Like any food experience, the memories of our meal in Redondesco are shaped by the context―the people, the situation and the emotions involved. Lunch that day in 2005 offered us a chance to connect with people from another country and to acknowledge a sacrifice that should never be forgotten—and we had the opportunity to share that experience with my parents and my sister and brother-in-law, pretty special.

And through my dad’s stories, our trip also offered a glimpse into what our troops did for us in 1944–and what they continue to do for us today.

Each time we make tortelli di zucca, we raise a glass to Don and Joe, and to all of the others that never made it home. As I’ve learned time and again, food can be a meal, an experience, a memory, a connector, or even a tribute. Sometimes it’s all five.

 

A Multi-Layered Place

A formula for at least some of our trips goes like this: never been there before + don’t know anybody that’s been there = adventure. In the case of our recent trip to Smith Island, there was an added multiplier: we had never heard of it until a few days before.

We stumbled upon Smith Island as a potential destination while we were looking into a possible trip to Tangier Island, which is Smith’s neighbor to the south. Once we “discovered” Smith and researched a bit, it looked to be quaint, off the beaten path (in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay), and somewhat unknown to us—in other words, a perfect weekend adventure.

Smith Island is worth knowing about! The island is a collection of small watermen’s communities that aren’t really set up for tourists, but that’s part of what makes this place so charming. Services are limited, but there are a handful of B&Bs and there is regular ferry service from Crisfield, Maryland. And getting to Smith is part of the adventure. It was about four hours door-to-door from Northern Virginia (including the ferry ride).

We were joined on the ferry by Smith residents that were bringing in groceries, supplies, and building materials, as pretty much everything but seafood and cake generally comes from the mainland (more about cake later). We mirrored the locals and brought along picnic-style meals ourselves (although there is a restaurant in-season that is generally open for lunch).

The island was first charted by Captain John Smith in 1608 and later named after Henry Smith, an early landowner. It was settled in the late 1600s by English farmers John Evans and John Tyler, and the 250 or so current residents live across three communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Tradition runs deep here, as crabbing, fishing, and harvesting oysters have been a way of life for generations.

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A crabber keeps his live catch in a wooden crab float, 1945. Photo credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Families on Smith today still appear to share a lot of connections (the names Evans and Tyler remain heavily represented on the island). Smith Islanders also share a dialect, sometimes called a Tidewater or Elizabethan accent, which was different enough to make us listen closely at times.

During our visit, we rode bikes, checked out the marshes and bird life, visited the Bayside Inn restaurant (great seafood, no surprise), and stopped by the local art gallery in Ewell. We also had a lovely chat with the friendly caretaker at the Smith Island Cultural Center. A lot has happened—and is happening—at Smith, ranging from Revolutionary War history to the current threat posed by erosion (the island has lost 1200 acres over the past 100 years).

We closed out the day back at our lovely B&B, the Smith Island Inn, where we watched a sunset that seemed to take a full hour.

What struck me the most about our visit was the evening quiet. Maybe it’s because watermen’s communities are ‘early to bed’ kinds of places—or maybe I’m imagining that—but the stunning quiet was something I was glad I got to hear (can you hear quiet?).

There are clearly a lot of layers to Smith, with history and nature mixed in with a dash of tourism—all on a working watermen’s island. A friend from the Eastern Shore told us recently that Smith Islanders look forward to getting their first skiff at age 14 or so, much like city kids might look forward to cars and drivers licenses. That makes sense when you are in a place where a trip to school involves a boat ride. Life clearly revolves around the bay when you are living in the middle of the bay.

And speaking of layers, we also took the opportunity to enjoy Smith’s trademark dish, Smith Island Cake. It’s typically a yellow cake with eight or more thin layers of fudge frosting that is an island specialty. Smith Island Cake dates to at least the 1800s, when it was made to take along on the autumn oyster harvest.

When we got back home, we of course were inspired to make our own version of Smith Island Cake, complete with a taste test against the real thing (by our visiting niece, who was a good sport!). I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the eight cake pans that I bought just for this recipe, but souvenirs are a part of the travel experience, right?

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Our niece was a good sport and did a taste test…and the real Smith Island Cake won, of course!

 

Getting Closer

We just visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—commonly called “the U.P.” by all but the most uninformed tourists—and absolutely loved everything about it. Our U.P. trip was a short one, but we crammed in quite a few adventures. We kayaked at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, mountain biked on Grand Island, and stopped by Mackinac Island for an overnight on the way home.

Mackinac (pronounced “Makinaw”) is a tiny little island (two miles long) out in Lake Huron, and visiting is like time travel—no cars, lots of horse-drawn carriages, and buildings and hotels dating to the 1800s.

The U.P. seems largely about the fantastic (ok, Great) lakes and the beautiful northern forests, but it’s also about the food—and you tend to see and hear a lot about pasties, perhaps the most well-known regional treat.

But there’s so much more to food in the U.P., in particular the seafood. Coming from the East Coast, I didn’t really associate seafood with Michigan, and yet there is amazing fresh Great Lakes seafood all over the U.P..

On our trip, we fell in love with the local market in the town of Munising, VanLandschoot and Sons. It’s been around for more than 100 years, and it has an amazing selection of whitefish, salmon, trout, fish dip, and smoked fish.

Like a lot of U.P. businesses, VanLandschoot and Sons is a family affair. It was founded in 1914 by a Belgian immigrant named Philip VanLandschoot who initially set up shop on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1942, he and his family shifted operations to Munising, a town of about 2,500 on Lake Superior. He fished all summer by boat, and then ice-fished all winter—moving his gear around by horse and sleigh. Those were no doubt different times.

In addition to running an amazing market, VanLandschoot and Sons has also been at the forefront of sustainable fishing practices. In the 1960s, they pioneered the use of trapnets, which are a more responsible way to fish than gillnets. With a trapnet, fish are caught live and any fish that are not being targeted (“bycatch”) can be released. In contrast, gillnets typically kill anything that they catch. The use of trapnets are one of many innovations over the years that have help maintain Lake Superior as a very health commercial fishery.

There are 88 species of fish in Lake Superior, including whitefish. They are near the lake bottom in terms of habitat, but clearly near the top in terms of popularity—comprising almost 90% of the commercial harvest. Whitefish owes its popularity in part to its mild flavor, which means that even people who don’t like fish seem to like whitefish (illogical much?).

 

VanLandschoot and Sons is located in a building next to their docks on the edge of town, and there’s nothing fancy about it. But you can see the boats when you are standing in front of their cold case, so I’m thinking you are getting pretty fresh stuff. They also process, filet and smoke everything right on site, with a friendly staff and prices that would make Whole Foods blush.

Back at our spacious and lovely AirBnB rental in Munising (we splurged a bit), we pan-fried our whitefish with a little paprika, olive oil, pepper, and lemon juice, and we also made a smoked whitefish dip with green onions and cream cheese. That’s a lot of whitefish, but it was definitely a Superior meal.

It’s funny to think that time spent together in the kitchen was one of the highlights of our vacation. But there’s something special about supporting a local (and responsible) business, eating what’s in season, preparing your meals from the freshest of ingredients, and doing it right near the source. A lot of people go on vacation to get away, but sometimes it’s fun to get closer.

Sweet Memories

A few weeks ago, I asked my 94-year-old dad if he had a favorite drink–thinking he might say something like a Manhattan or a Whiskey Sour. He looked skyward for what seemed like a long time, and then he finally announced, “probably cane juice.”

Huh? Cane juice? I guess I’m still learning things about my dad—and learning things from my dad, too. This lesson was about a great memory from his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, which was apparently overflowing with a sugary natural drink that I’d never even heard of.

 

Cane juice is made by crushing sugarcane stalks, and it is quite popular across the South, as well as throughout Latin America and in Southeast Asia. People have been enjoying this stuff for generations wherever sugarcane is grown (who knew?). Oh, and cane juice can also be aged to make rum (patience is an even greater virtue than I thought).

 

Whenever my dad had money in his pocket as a kid, he would stop for cane juice at roadside stands in and around Savannah. He also shared that there were a lot of stands in nearby Guyton, where his Aunt Beth lived on what we’d nowadays probably call a farm (she kept chickens and pigs out back). In the old days, the juice was sometimes made by mules that walked in a circle to power a cane crusher.

 

Fresh cane juice had to either be consumed or refrigerated right away, which wasn’t a hard choice for a thirsty kid (and there wasn’t much refrigeration in those days, anyway).

 

With my dad’s re-kindled interest in cane juice, my sister found a place close to where he lives in Florida that serves it in much the same way as the stands across Savannah in the 1930s. The community of Bokeelia, on Pine Island, is only about 40 minutes from my folks’ home in Fort Myers, but it feels lost in time. Pine Island still has general stores, motels that advertise in-room color TV, endless fruit groves–and a place called Fruitscapes that sells amazing fruit as well as fresh-pressed cane juice.

 

We stopped into Fruitscapes for a visit this week, and were delighted to find fresh juice—along with pomelos, bananas, persimmons, dried mangos, and a super friendly staff. During our visit, our new friend Cecelia gave us a little education along with a glass of the prized juice. Just as in the old days, she threaded several stalks of sugarcane through a press, and then folded the partially flattened canes in half and did it again. The whole press contraption looked like it was made in 1930, so maybe that’s why the juice tasted so familiar to my dad.

 

So, for four dollars, we got a demonstration, a drink, and a chance to hear stories about Savannah in the 1930s. I’m not sure I’d say that I like cane juice better than a Manhattan. But you probably have to drink six Manhattans to take a trip through time, and it only takes one cup of cane juice.

Awesome Sauce

So what’s a camping trip without a mole? And by mole, I mean the pepper-based sauce from Mexico and not the burrowing beady-eyed critter. Mole (pronounced mo-lay) tastes amazing over fish, chicken, or basically any kind of meat (except over mole meat, which is disgusting).

Mole is an ancient Spanish word that loosely translates to “mix.” The recipe has its roots in the Mexican town of Oaxaca, about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City. Popular legend has it that nuns were rushing to prepare for a visit from the archbishop and they just made up a sauce out of what they had on hand.

Souzz visited Oaxaca last month on a business trip, and she managed to squeeze in a mole-making class during her visit (I guess the margarita-chugging class was fully booked).

Souzz raved about her class (and her trip) when she got home. So when we started planning a menu for a backpacking trip with our good friends Lou and Kay, mole-making became an obvious choice (with margarita chugging as a backup). Our destination was Racer Camp Hollow, a favorite of ours in the Blue Ridge mountains near Wardensville, West Virginia.

We made a mole verde that used tomatillos, which are smallish green Mexican tomatoes. Our mole recipe also used pumpkin seeds, jalapenos, onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a little bit of chicken stock.

The whole trick to backcountry mole–besides a penchant for cooking the absurd–is to carry a hand-crank food processor. Our new little toy worked out great, and it weighed less than a pound.

It turns out there are actually several makes and models of hand-crank food processors, which had me wondering how many lunatic foodie backpackers there could possibly be? Or maybe people want to cook fancy during power outages? But mostly I wondered if this thing could be used to make margaritas.

The absurdity of our meal planning came into sharper focus when we decided to include fresh doughnuts for breakfast. We always use a paper bag to shake and coat the doughnuts, which naturally prompted a text exchange ahead of the trip about cow pies.

In any case, dinner was delightful, and we served the mole over rice and some fresh grouper that we had hand-carried from Florida a few weeks back. We followed the main course with Kay’s apple tart for dessert, which made for a pretty elegant backcountry meal.

Camping with Lou and Kay is a lot of fun under any circumstance, but in particular when you team up for a five star meal at a five star campsite. It’s great to be with folks that know both the outdoors and food…and it’s a total bonus when they also know Heather Locklear trivia (don’t ask).

 

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A Grape Idea

I was driving north last week towards Canandaigua, in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, when a purple awning caught my eye. The awning belonged to the storefront of Monica’s Pies, a shop where just about everything is purple—awnings, signs, milk jugs, jars, t-shirts, carpets, flower pots…even the port-a-potty out back. Monica’s Pies is in Naples, a town of 2,500 that claims to be the grape pie capital of the world.

I always thought that I knew a lot about purple—including preserves, juice, wine, Bubble Yum, Pez, and even the Williams College Purple Cow (thanks to my in-laws).

But I’d never had a purple-flavored pie before (and if orange can be a color, then purple can certainly be a flavor).

Monica’s Pies dates back to 1983, and it is one of four shops in Naples that feature grape pies. Back in the day, owner Monica Schenk was looking for a way to use a surplus of Concord grapes—a style of grape that had fallen out of favor with local vintners–and she started making grape pies. She sold the pies only in the Fall season, and most of her sales were by the honor system (an unattended box of pies sat out front, along with a money slot).

Then and now, her grape pies are very sweet, thick like jello, and come topped with a crumb crust that adds a lot of texture. Souzz said each bite was “like eating really good grape jelly, back when you were a kid.” Huh?

Nowadays, Monica’s Pies is open year round and offers a variety of pies, jams, baked goods, and other treats. The shop has been featured in the New York Times and on the Food Network, and her grape pie sales alone top more than 10,000 a year. There’s no reason to wine with sales like that.

When I got back home, I shared the story of my new discovery with my Williams-educated purple cow-loving brother-in-law Steve, who is quite the foodie. “I love those grape pies,” he said. “Concord grapes suck for wine, but grape pies rule.” Those Williams kids sure have a way with words.

A Swell Time

Our recent trip to great state of Utah featured a lot of variety: a four day backpack on the historic Boulder Mail Trail, a day of canyoneering in Capitol Reef, downhill skiing at Brighton, and mountain biking in the central part of the state. We also caught up with our cousin Brian and our nephew Pat, so we got in some good family time, too.

Over the course of the week, we traveled by plane, bus, car, foot, rope, ski, and bike—not bad for a couple of flatlanders from the east. And we capped off the week with bear watching (ok, so the bear was the mascot at a Utah Grizzlies hockey game).

Part of our trip was spent around the town of Price, a coal-mining community of about 8,000 that at first glance doesn’t look like much of an outdoor playground. But there are some great mountain bike trails on the plateau just outside of town, and friendly locals told us about a nearby must-see area called the Little Grand Canyon in “The Swell.” After getting some vague directions, we poured over our maps and found what they were talking about—a BLM recreation area in the heart the San Rafael Swell.

To get to the Little Grand Canyon required about 20 miles of driving on a dirt road…but “it’s a good dirt road where you can go 60 miles an hour,” to quote one of our new friends in Price. We were a little slower than that, but the road was in great shape. There was a BLM visitor center kiosk along the way that provided some information as well as a few good area maps.

The locals were right that it’s a spectacular place, with cliffs and canyons as far as we could see. The Little Grand Canyon itself is not as grand as its larger namesake, but there are stunning vistas, petroglyphs, an old (1937) bridge, primitive campgrounds, and an abundance of hiking and biking trails. And what is plenty grand about this place is what’s missing: people, concessionaires, streams of vehicles, and the suffocating infrastructure that can be somewhat common in larger parks. This place is definitely a hidden gem.

As we were leaving Price earlier in the day to head towards the Swell, the guy at the local convenience mart asked where we were going. “Aaaah, yes, the Swell, you’ll love it,” he said. “It’s exactly like the Grand Canyon, only way better. And who wants to drive all the way to Arizona anyway?”

Stepping In Old Footprints

My last post was about the Adirondacks, a place that I’ve visited over and over through the last several decades. There are only a few destinations like that for me, with Alaska leading the pack—but Alaska is such a huge geography that it doesn’t really count (are you really going to the same place when your trips are hundreds of miles apart?).

Another regular stop for me is the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a whitewater paddling school in Western North Carolina. NOC was founded in 1972, which happened to be the same year that the movie Deliverance hit the theaters–with its dueling banjos, twisted locals, and scenic paddling on the nearby Chatooga River. NOC’s timing was perfect, as the movie sparked a huge increase in whitewater recreation. And it did so in spite of its dark plot, like a bump in cruise traffic after seeing Titanic.

My first visit to NOC was way back in 1988 for a kayaking class, and I returned the next year for a four-day clinic in whitewater open canoe. I’ve been back maybe ten times since, mostly to brush up on various hardboating skills (learning to roll, river rescue, tandem paddling, playboating, etc.), and have introduced a few friends to the place along the way.

I was at NOC this past weekend for some more paddling instruction, this time in an ultralight Alpacka packraft. Alpackas weigh in at six pounds and stow easily, which makes them perfect for fly-in or carry-in trips. We were roadside for this trip, but there are trips further afield down the road.

My instructor for my clinic was Will Norris, and I shared with Will that I wanted to get more comfortable in this boat so that I can do more remote trips. On a more general level, I shared that my goals were to have fun and push myself. I didn’t mention to him that those two pursuits are often the same thing for me (although I think he figured it out).

NOC has changed a lot in 30 years, maybe even more than I have. This used to be a sleepy little place, and now there’s a big gear store, a full service restaurant, a tourist train stop, and permanent slalom racing gates across a lower section of the river. And the facilities are much improved, with the old hostel lodging mostly replaced with fancy cabins.

Most noticeable is that there are a lot more people around, and especially more rafters. The raft crowd doesn’t always get a lot of respect from hardboaters, but rafters create the market that makes for good gear and dam-release whitewater. I’m glad they’re here.

Over the course of the weekend, we paddled three different rivers, the Nantahala (an easy warm-up), the Chatooga (a nice class III), and the French Broad (some bigger water). I refined some strokes, tried some new moves in harder water, and had a chance to revisit some of my motivations for paddling.

Will asked me how I got into paddling, and I shared that I’ve always been drawn to things that I was told I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do. I’m also drawn to places that are “off limits” because of skills barriers (harder whitewater, glacier travel,  requiring avalanche knowledge, etc.). I’ve been fortunate to do some of those things (and fall short at others), and to see at least a few off-limits places. I hope there are more to come.

As I look back on another trip to NOC, I find myself wondering why someone with an explorer’s mentality has “go-to” destinations in the first place. Psychologists talk about “place attachment,” but adventure travel seems like just the opposite. My favorite place is often the new destination that I’m planning to visit, and once it’s discovered I usually don’t have much interest in going back.

And yet there are a few places–like NOC–that keep me coming back. Maybe I come back because I get to experience myself more than experiencing a place. Maybe it’s harder to reflect if my mind is busy taking in a new view. Maybe the unknown of a familiar place is me?

Highs and Lowes

Souzz and I generally prefer to be guide-less on our outdoor adventures. And by that I mean that we like to try to do things on our own, at the mercy of our own skills and decision-making (and sometimes at the mercy of our own mistakes). That approach has worked very well in whitewater, pretty well in the backcountry, and mostly well on technical rock climbs. It hasn’t worked as well around the breakfast table, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our guide-less adventure limits, putting our skill on ice has long been a mismatch. So we rope up with a professional guide when we climb ice. And for the past 25+ years, our outfitter of choice has been Adirondack Rock and River in Keene, New York. They opened for business in 1988, and climbing with those guys has always felt like visiting old friends (assuming, of course, that your old friends can safely lead you up frozen waterfalls).

The guides at Rock and River—experts like Ed, Matt, Don, Chad, Bill, and Mark–are highly skilled in their craft. And they are also interesting people, as quick with a story or a quip as they are with a taut rope. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen one of them shivering on a stance chirping out encouragement while waiting for an out-of-shape client to finish a pitch. Sometimes I’ve seen that dynamic up close, like real close.

Our most recent trip north featured a lot of what the Adirondacks are known for—varied climbing, easy approaches (ten minutes walk gets you to the base of a lot of area classics), cold weather (17 below one morning), the skill and charm of Rock and River guides, lots of fat ice, and at least one fat climber.

We spent our time around Chapel Pond, an area with classic routes like Chouinard’s Gully, Power Play, and Big Brother (the latter route’s first ascent was on New Year’s Day 1984). Area guidebooks, including one written by Don Mellor, list more than 1500 routes in the Adirondacks, so there’s a lot to choose from.

Back in the day, the ‘dacks was a somewhat overlooked climbing destination. But then some high profile visitors and a 1995 Climbing Magazine feature kind of blew the cover off of the place. That article, combined with a winter festival called Mountainfest, established the area as a regular stop for both weekenders and visiting stars. Generational talents like Jeff Lowe, Alex Lowe, Will Gadd, and Mark Synnott all have spent time around Keene, and you never know whom you might see on the cliffs.

The visiting stars have put up some visionary routes, but the R&R crew has put up its share of routes, too. An Underwood Canyon Matt Horner classic called “CFD” comes to mind. There’s also an aptly named (but otherwise unremarkable) Don Mellor route at Chapel Pond called “Full Court Press.”

One morning back in the mid-1990s, I sat at the Rock and River breakfast table next to a 40-something guy and confidently waded into a debate about avalanche safety. While I was making what I thought was a key point, I noticed that my new friend’s knuckles were red and swollen–a telltale sign of a serious climber (back before tools with curved shafts). At some point I realized that I was basically arguing with Jeff Lowe, perhaps the best alpinist of his generation.

If I’d climbed a new route that day, I’d have wanted to call it “Unguided Breakfast.”