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.

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?