Known Firsts

Before the COVID-19 quarantines started some weeks back, Souzz and I snuck in an overnight paddling trip to Hopeville Canyon in West Virginia. We’d run that stretch on day trips several times before, so a packrafting camping trip was a new twist in a familiar place (and a socially distant twist at that).

On the drive up, Souzz asked if I knew anyone that had camped in the canyon before. I answered that I didn’t know anybody, that the run was a “known first.” This little fun fact added to the anticipation for me, but it made Souzz a bit anxious. She remembered plenty of those kinds of trips in the past, like the time when an escaped cow wandered through our camp, or the time when daylight revealed a giant pile of trash next to our late night bivouac.

Her reaction was an amusing contrast in our partnership: one of us balances adventure with sensibility, and the other unwittingly camps next to garbage dumps.

Even with all of the sunshine, it was a pretty raw day, and my hands were freezing as I biked the shuttle back from the takeout (after dropping off the car).

An hour after launching, we were sitting streamside next to a roaring fire—staying plenty warm despite a brisk wind and temps in the high 30s.

As for our camp, the shoreline was a bit rocky, the tent wasn’t quite level, and the wind was pulsing…but this place was all ours, away from the city and the lights and the people and the tension. We shared a pasta dinner as we enjoyed the sounds from the rush of the river and some passing mergansers.

We were in an area that doesn’t get much use (we didn’t see a single footprint, a rarity in the East), so wood was plentiful. We fiddled with the fire well into the night–moving a stick here and a log there—and we found ourselves wondering if this might be the last time that we camped for a while.

The backcountry has a tendency to re-order one’s priorities, and this trip was no exception. With so much happening in the world, it was great to focus on staying warm, finding our way downriver, and pulling together a few meals. Thankfully, we also managed to avoid errant cows and heaps of garbage.

As we drove home, we enjoyed reminiscing about past trips and I let my mind wander a bit…until Souzz pointed out that we were almost out of gas. But this time our reactions were in sync, perhaps because our running out of gas is not a “known first.”

Biting Cold

With the country–and the world–locked down with the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, I caught myself thinking back to simpler times earlier this year. It was just a few months ago that I found myself with an extra day on a multi-sport trip to Alaska, when the local ski resort was closed due to bitter cold (in this case, 30 below).

Searching for something to do in those temps, ice fishing met a lot of my adventure criteria: I’d never done it, I didn’t know much about it, and it was a new twist on a familiar sport (it’s always fun when I can add a totally unknown element to something I’ve done before). Ice fishing is also an activity where the weather doesn’t really matter–because the whole thing happens indoors (well, sort of).

A 30 minute drive from Fairbanks took me to Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service‘s ice fishing hut at Chena Lakes Recreation Area. I’d booked an afternoon outing…although perhaps it shouldn’t be called an outing if it happens indoors?

When I got to the hut, I met up with our guide and joined a few other folks from out of state (well, I’m from out of state, too…or from “Outside,” as Alaskans call the rest of us). So here I was, someone from Outside sitting inside alongside new friends and trying to bring some fish topside (please resist the urge to strike me broadside).

Over the next few hours, there was enough action to keep things interesting (I could’ve said there was a lot of upside, but I wanted you to keep reading). Our guide, Aaron, was excellent, explaining the right way to jig (small upward tugs every second or two) and coaching the first timers (like me). We all caught on quickly, as did the fish–and we had a ton of bites and dozens of fish over the next few hours, using tiny shrimp for bait.

In some ways, fishing is the same no matter the season…but there were certainly differences. For instance:

  • Watch your step: Holes are everywhere, so be careful where you walk…and watch your gloves, and your phone, and anything else that you want to keep off of the lake bottom. The only thing coming up from one of those holes is a fish.
  • Catching up: Since you aren’t moving around looking for the best spot, ice fishing feels like you’re sitting at the bar with friends. In between jigs, there’s plenty of time to explore heady topics, like where your new buddy got that ‘My Little Pony’ iphone case (really).
  • Endless summer: It was 30 below outside, and 70 above inside. A 100 degree temperature swing might fog your glasses, but it makes for a shiver-free day.
  • A perfect cast: Each cast involves nothing more than letting the bait drop and sink to the bottom. So there’s no more catching your line in tree limbs–and if your friend hits you with an errant hook, you know he did it on purpose.
  • If fish could talk: Imagine swimming around in 33-degree water, getting jerked into somebody’s toasty warm living room, being passed around for some photos, and then heading back into the deep—like the trout equivalent of a Kardashian marriage. Now that’s a fish with a story.

While there are clearly seasonal differences to fishing, one thing that’s the same is that fresh fish tastes very good. We kept a few (king salmon, char, and trout), and Aaron cooked them up to perfection in tin foil with butter and lemon pepper on top of the wood stove. His recipe was simple, easy, and delicious.

If you’ve not gone ice fishing, I highly recommend it. If you’ve gone before, you should do it again. It’s a tiny bit adventurous, a super bit social, and ends in a terrific meal.

My afternoon at Chena Lakes is a great memory that has me thinking ahead to the promise of simpler times again. Next winter, if I’m staying inside and worrying about catching something, let’s hope it’s a fish.

“How’d You Get Involved in That?”

I’m back in Alaska after heading up from Virginia yesterday. I came here to volunteer at the Yukon Quest dogsled race, which is an unusual hobby for a Virginia kid, I know.

To answer a question that I hear a lot when I tell folks that I’m heading north, I got involved with mushing through a trip that I took for fun back in 2011 with Bush Alaska Expeditions. That was the start of a friendship with Wayne and Scarlett Hall, and their son Matt, and we’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve been back to mush, but also to volunteer and to learn more about the unique culture up here.

It’s fair to say that mushing is not super popular in Virginia. I may be the only person in the state that owns a mushing parka–although two friends from the Quest trail are from rural Virginia, so maybe there are three of us?

I hadn’t heard of the Yukon Quest 1000 mile race before my 2011 trip. Since then, I’ve worked at the checkpoint in the community of Eagle a handful of times and helped out Matt (a Quest competitor and former champion) along the trail a few times. It’s very rewarding work, and I always come away inspired by the dogs, the mushers, the people around the race, and the communities.

It’s not glamorous work, but it’s work that has to happen for the race to go.

Another thing that people probably think (but usually don’t ask) is “so why would you want to do that?” It’s an understandable question, as there is a lot of intensely cold weather, catching sleep whenever (and wherever) you can, and working mostly in the dark (there are only about five or six hours of sun this time of year). But there’s an authenticity to this experience that’s hard to explain. Choices matter, feedback on those choices is immediate, and teamwork jumps a lot of traditional boundaries.

Mushing is the way the world used to be up here (and still is, at least for some), and coming up to the Yukon is a fantastic opportunity to get a glimpse into that. If I missed getting up here, I’d really miss it.

All of that said, it’ll be 21 below at the race start on Saturday, so I’m kind of glad I own that parka.

Winging It South

Last week a co-worker of mine asked the question “so how did Buffalo Wings get their name?” If you’re from Western New York (or married to someone who is), you probably know that the classic wings recipe was invented at the Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo in 1964. That’s a fun fact that I know only because of Souzz (I was born in Japan myself, so most of my food factoids revolve around wasabi).

The timing of my co-worker’s question was perfect, as Souzz and I were visiting her hometown this weekend and we decided to bring back a few wings. The idea was to have a taste test for my office (read: a good excuse to take a long lunch). We stopped by three of the better-known places, Duffs, Bar Bill Tavern, and the Anchor Bar, and we picked up some sauce, too.

We got a “double” from each place (a double is 20 wings, for those of you that don’t speak Buffalo), and I did all of my driving during a snow squall. Nothing says Buffalo like plowing through snow to get wings–especially when you are bringing them back to a town that shuts down at the first flake.

The locals say that an authentic Buffalo Wing starts with Frank’s hot sauce, butter, celery salt, and black pepper–but each place seems to add their own twist. Duffs are on the spicy (!) side, Bar Bill has a decidedly sweeter sauce, and the Anchor Bar’s wings are milder and maybe a little larger. All of these places (and many more) are pretty popular–and they emerged from a crowded field based on an empirical sampling of five in-laws. So you know they must be good.

The stakes were then lowered a bit when my brother-in-law Fred announced that “just about any corner bar with a 716 area code will have better wings than the best place in Virginia.”

In any case, Buffalo’s wings all got back to Virginia intact, where they made for a very interesting lunch at my office.

Our tasting criteria included appearance, sauce, crispiness, texture, flavor, and aroma. The various sauces were also hotly debated, as you might expect. And all three floors of the office building smelled like wings, which might not have been what our landlord (and co-tenant) had in mind.

After much (ok, a little) fanfare, Duffs was crowned the unofficial Virginia winner, with a complicated scoring system that would have made my in-laws shake their heads (again).

When I shared the results of our taste test, my brother-in-law Steve said “you really need to do this under more typical conditions, like late at night after a few Genny Creme Ales.”

I’m not sure our landlord would have gone for that.

Good Waves

A few years back, we planned a trip to the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands off of Florida’s Key West. But bad weather scuttled our trip, so we decided to try again this year—and once again the winds and waves were way too big for a seaplane flight. Oh, well. As the saying goes, sometimes the adventure has you.

With our trip cancelled, we had an extra day to spend in the Keys…and no plan. But there are a lot of things to do in the Keys—even in bad weather–so we had a new plan pretty quickly. Our destination of (second) choice was the Turtle Hospital in nearby Marathon.

The Turtle Hospital was started in 1980 by a VW repairman from New Jersey named Richie Moretti. Richie bought a foreclosed motel, fixed it up, and then promptly stocked the property’s saltwater pool with tropical fish. Guests could then experience easy-access snorkeling as (some form of) nature with no fuss…which is the kind of quirky business that seems almost common in the Keys (think underwater hotel rooms, feeding tarpons at Robbies, or undersea music festivals).

In the mid-1980s, a few years after Richie’s snorkel/motel destination was opened, the cartoon/movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started capturing the attention of local school children—many of whom were learning about fish through Richie’s pool. “Where are the turtles?” they would ask. But Florida law says that turtles can only be kept in captivity if they are being rehabilitated, which makes total sense. So, in 1986, an idea–and a hospital–were born.

Richie’s idea benefited both turtles and tourists, and the motel’s profits were able to fund the Turtle Hospital for the next 20 years or so. But that all changed when Hurricane Wilma tracked very close to Marathon in 2005. Thankfully, the turtles (and people) survived, as Richie and his team had constructed saltwater enclosures designed to withstand a hurricane. But the other structures weren’t so lucky, and there was only enough money to re-open either the motel or the hospital.

Richie chose turtles, and we’re glad that he did (as are a lot of turtles, whether they know it or not). Today the Turtle Hospital is a non-profit with a dedicated team that rescues, rehabilitates and releases about 200 turtles a year. It has released more than 1500 turtles since 1986.

As we toured the hospital, we heard a lot about marine debris. Entanglements are common, and nearly every rescued turtle has a large amount of undigested plastic in its stomach–especially grocery bags, which are often mistaken by turtles as one of their favorite foods: jellyfish. One of the hospital’s volunteers said to us that “these are creatures that have been here since the dinosaurs, and they are disappearing. And it’s mostly because of us.”

A few days after our visit, a 140-pound Loggerhead named Jack-O-Lantern was scheduled to be released on Sombrero Beach (also in Marathon). We decided to drive down from where we were staying in Key Largo, thinking we’d join a crowd made up of hospital staff and volunteers and may be a few dozen like-minded tourists.

When we arrived at Sombrero Beach, the place looked more like a rock concert than a turtle release. There were hundreds of people crowding around a path to the water, all very excited to see what the hospital staff describe as the most rewarding part of their jobs.

When Jack-O-Lantern swam out into the Atlantic, there were huge cheers. As the crowd waved goodbye, I felt a wave of hope–and I don’t think I was the only one.

While there’s no guaranteeing how Jack O’Lantern will fare (many of the same threats to turtles are still out there), the vets and volunteers gave him excellent care and he was healthy and raring to go. The Turtle Hospital is also working with a lot of organizations in support of clean oceans, helping on both ends of the challenge.

For us, what started out as a cancelled trip to the Dry Tortugas–islands named for turtles–somehow led to visiting a hospital full of turtles. We learned a lot, we gained an understanding of how each of us can help (maybe start by keeping trash out of the ocean and supporting organizations like the Turtle Hospital), and we met a group of very dedicated people that are making a difference.

The Turtle Hospital is out there creating more good waves every day, and we are thankful that we got a glimpse of their important work. I’m sure there were some mixed emotions when Jack-O-Lantern disappeared into the blue, but in some ways it would truly be a happy day if we never saw another Jack-O-Lantern.

Jack-O-Lantern is out there somewhere!

Smooth, Best Ever!

It’s fun to share holiday traditions–although I suppose not all of them are worth sharing. For instance, Souzz could probably have done without the hanging bell that plays Jingle Bells for about two hours every time I pull the string, or my family’s spinning Christmas tree heat lamp that eventually caught fire.

But one holiday tradition that is squarely in the shareable category is Souzz’s family egg nog. The nog tradition has its roots at the historic Buffalo Club in Buffalo, New York. In the 1920s, Souzz’s grandfather and his friends often enjoyed freshly made nog in the club’s elegant dining room, perhaps after a long day at work.

The nog recipe was soon brought home for the family’s annual New Year’s Eve party, and it eventually found its way on to the next generation(s). Making (and enjoying) the nog is now one of their biggest annual holiday traditions (well, that and spontaneously breaking into Christmas carols, which ironically makes me want to drink more nog).

The nog recipe is pretty straightforward: eggs, sugar, cream, nutmeg, a little brandy, a little rum–and roughly a cask of bourbon. But what really makes it special is how it is assembled. When the time comes, at least eight to ten folks across several generations crowd around a big antique (1920s) crock that seems to have its own magnetic pull. Hands swoop in and out adding ingredients and stirring, like an eight-armed mixologist (ok, so I need to work on my metaphors).

Some of the family take the same roles from year to year, while others move into whatever needs to be done–but lively conversation and laughter are a constant, and the process can never be rushed.

Back in the day, young nieces and nephews wandered in and out of the kitchen puzzling over what could possibly be so amusing–and now they have grown into full-fledged participants. A few of the in-laws generally stand to the side and make snarky comments—while secretly wishing that they had a family tradition as cool as this one.

After the nog is assembled, the crock is topped with an old cookie sheet and put outside in the snow, where it blends a little more each day. Souzz’s dad would always ladle out a cup the next morning and declare that year’s batch as “smooth, best ever!” It was something that he said–and meant–every single year.

There are some classic nog memories from over the years–like when Aunt Connie got engaged over a glass, or when Maggie (the family Labrador) over-served herself on some leftovers. And then there was the year that I opened the door to find the mailman helping himself to a cup (no wonder my Christmas cards were late).

Once again this year, the nog crock will be squarely at the center of the holiday for a few amazing hours–an enduring tradition that finds its place in the middle of the hustle and bustle of modern-day Christmas. It’s a ritual that feels like holiday magic–and especially so in a time where things can be so fleeting.

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Souzz’s parents are no longer with us, something that we feel even more during this time of year. But the making of the nog will always be a symbol of their grace, their love of life, and their love of family. They were the best.

When I raise my first glass of nog this year, I’ll be sure to say out loud that this year’s batch is “smooth, best ever!”

1999 12 Christmas in Buffalo

Exactly the Same and Totally Different

Unlike my usual musings about food and travel, today I want to share a trip down memory lane…on skates. I played in the Virginia Tech Ice Hockey alumni game last weekend, and it was an experience that triggered some great memories for me (along with a few bruises).

It’s amazing what the Tech program has become, especially in light of its very humble beginnings. The team was started in 1984 with a few flyers tacked to bulletin boards around campus. There were also a couple of short articles in the Tech newspaper, the Collegiate Times, mostly intended as an appeal for players. A classmate from Boston, Dave Keery, was the visionary.

I was on Tech’s inaugural team, and it was a great group of guys with a decent skill level. We had a lot of fun, in spite of the fact that our games were late at night and an hour’s drive from campus–pretty much guaranteeing that the only people watching would be on our bench. But it was a heart and soul group of kids who really loved the game.

Our home games were at the LancerLot in Vinton (a Roanoke suburb) against the likes of Liberty, W&L, and Roanoke College. In those first years, there were just a handful of nearby colleges with teams—mostly schools with lacrosse programs that drew students from the northeast.

2019 Lancerlot

The LancerLot in Vinton, where we played in 1984-86 (and where the team still plays)

We took a few road trips, too, including a memorable one to the University of Tennessee. That trip was college budget travel at its finest; we fueled ourselves on camp stove hot dogs before sleeping on the floor of a friend’s fraternity house. We also brought back souvenirs in the form of oddly patterned bruises from the chain link fence at the Ice Chalet, the dusty old rink in Knoxville.

1987 VT Hockey Year 2 Team Pic

Team photo from 1987, compliments of Dave Keery

Not everything gets better with age, but Tech’s hockey club certainly has. Today’s team bears little resemblance to the ragtag bunch that skated in those first years. They (we?) now play in the Atlantic Coast Conference Hockey League against pretty stiff competition and they’ve won several championships. They also have a full-time coach with some highly skilled players, and are one of the strongest programs in the mid-south.

I came away very impressed with this year’s team–as both players and people. Those guys certainly had game, but they also showed a lot of class with the old-timers. They were curious about our stories, they took it easy on us in the corners, and they involved us in the play even when we routinely mishandled the puck (well, at least when I did). Thankfully, there was no checking, although I did accidentally crack helmets with one of the current players (it actually felt good to make a little contact, even by mistake).