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?

Paddles, Pies (almost), and Parades

With a kayaking trip planned to the mountains this weekend, we decided we’d stop through Petersburg, West Virginia, to catch their 4th of July parade on the ride back home. Petersburg is a town of about 2500 in the Potomac Highlands and we figured it was the kind of place that knows how to put on a good parade. Last year on the 4th of July, we had a lot of fun at a parade in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, so we thought we’d go for two years in a row.

But first, we were off to paddle. So on Saturday morning we met up with our good friends Scott and Denise, who were on a road trip through West Virginia. The four of us paddled one of my favorite runs, the Cheat Narrows, in the north central part of the state. Souzz and I were in our Alpacka packrafts–in part because these boats are lot of fun, and in part to get ready for an upcoming trip out west. Ultralight packrafts are capable of running very technical whitewater despite weighing just six pounds each (although my packraft likely weighs more when I am in it).

The Cheat Narrows is pretty easy, probably low class III, but it is splashy and fun and it runs through a beautiful valley below Cheat Mountain.

From there, Scott and Denise headed north while Souzz and I drove over the Allegheny Front to a cabin that we had rented for the weekend. Spruce Mountain Cabins are right on the road to Spruce Knob (the highest point in West Virginia), and these cabins are a great little place to stop over. Our cabin (#3) was simple, just a main room/kitchenette and a bedroom, but with a covered porch, a comfortable bed, and power and water.

Once at the cabin, we had planned on cooking some fancy meals and making an apple pie (hey, what’s 4th of July without apple pie?). But it turned out that the cabin had no oven, so the pie will have to wait (and it turns out that a 4th without pie is still just fine). We did manage to make a few fun meals, though, including slow-cooked ribs on Sunday. And we’d highly recommend these cabins!

In between meals, we mixed in a hike on Spruce Knob as well as some mountain biking, so it was a good full weekend of adventure.

On Monday the 4th, we woke up to steady rain, so we figured that the parade would be washed out–but we decided to pass through Petersburg anyway. Stopping for gas on the edge of town, we overheard someone say to the cashier “hey, a little rain can’t keep me from a parade for the good ole U.S. of A.”

Sure enough, we entered town and found the streets lined with people holding umbrellas and wearing red, white, and blue. A bunch of folks were on covered porches at houses that faced the parade route, while others chose to sit on their back bumpers under their car’s back hatch (very clever). We drove over to the east side of town, where the crowds weren’t quite as thick–but were still plenty enthusiastic.

Moments later, the color guard rounded the corner and led the Petersburg High School Band as it played The Stars and Stripes Forever. Following was a long procession of fire trucks, old cars, new cars, bands, golf carts, floats, motorcycles, and a few horses. Many in the parade carried signs thanking veterans, and there were several veterans riding along. A number of floats and cars were throwing out candy, most of which seemed to land in deep puddles of rainwater (which didn’t discourage the kids, of course!).

There was a lot for an outsider to take in, and it is easy for me to forget that scenes like this are repeated across the country every year (and I’m guessing the parade in Wessington Springs, South Dakota, looked much like the photo below from last year).

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As for Petersburg, it was great to see so many people come out–especially in the rain. It was also nice to see the strong theme around supporting veterans. Petersburg has lost a number of its citizens dating back to at least World War I, and there are several native sons and daughters serving now. I happened to stand next to the parent of one of them on the parade route, which offered great perspective about what (and why) we were celebrating.

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Souzz steals candy…ok, jumps in to help a youngster with a ripped candy bag

Closing out the parade were the Shriners, who came down the route wearing red fezzes and driving miniature cars in tight figure eights at what seemed like 40 miles per hour. Based on the looks on the drivers’ faces as they cranked along, nobody was having more fun. I learned later that most Shriners have a “Parade Unit” that does some variation of this display in parades across the country.

I have no idea how tiny replica cars powered by lawn mower engines have anything to do with veterans, the American Revolution, or our country’s independence. But then I imagine how disappointed those Shriners would be if the US had never separated from Britain, and I wonder when the next parade is going to start.

Happy Fourth of July!

Burning Dessert

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Sara enjoying dessert

A few years back, Souzz and I made flaming Baked Alaska on a packrafting trip in West Virginia with our good friend Sara. The trip was Sara’s Bon Voyage before she moved to Alaska, and we wanted to send her off in style.

Naturally we chose a backcountry meal that required dry ice, a dutch oven, and a hand-crank mixer. It may have been our most outrageous camping meal ever, and to this day it serves as proof that even the stupidest and most futile gesture can yield a good meal. It also gave us a taste for more.

Baked Alaska supposedly was created as a novelty dessert to celebrate the Alaska Purchase way back in 1867. A combination of ice cream, cake, and meringue, it appeared in fancy restaurants off and on for the next 100 years or so before peaking in popularity during the 1960s as a dinner party treat.

That was of course a time when flaming dishes like bananas foster, crepes suzette, and cherries jubilee burst on the scene…and probably a time when a lot of drapes were accidentally lit on fire by careless hosts while people sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes at the dinner table.

Since then, the dish has slowly faded into obscurity, with cruise ship mass-marketed dessert menus perhaps the lone holdover (along with packboat campouts). But when it is done well, it is still a worthy dish, and one with a lot of interesting variations. For instance, there is a “reversed” version called Frozen Florida (warm liqueur inside, cold meringue outside), and there is a sponge cake version popular in Hong Kong called Flame on the Iceberg.

A more contemporary adaptation comes by way of the restaurant at Aleyska, a ski resort in Alaska (of course), just south of Anchorage. The pastry chef at Alyeska, Chef Scott Fausz, uses mousse (two different kinds) instead of ice cream, which makes for a lighter dessert that is much more more popular with today’s crowd. Baked Alyeska also includes a layer of ganache under the meringue. As you might imagine, putting it together requires a bit of a time commitment (suggestion: wear comfortable shoes and bring a bag lunch).

Alyeska’s recipe actually spans two days, as we soon learned, although much of that time is spent watching the freezer. The mousses (one chocolate, one raspberry) and layers of chocolate cake are assembled and frozen before the ganache and meringue are added (the mousse/cake step alone took us a solid two hours).

The entire recipe is a bit unusual, calling for gelatin sheets (I didn’t even know what those were) and meringue powder (we couldn’t find that locally, so we just made a regular meringue). Oh, and the gelatin sheets must be bloomed” before using, which turns out to be just a fancy culinary term for “soaking them in water.”

Once the dome of mousse and cake was frozen, we drizzled on the ganache and then coated the whole assembly thoroughly with meringue. We then browned the almost-finished product with a torch and let it sit for a few hours.

Afterwards, we both agreed that making this dish in the backcountry would be completely absurd, as even doing it in our home kitchen was a challenge. Sara is on her own on this one.

 

Baked-alaska.paradeMost of what makes this dish fun is the mix of textures and the interesting flavor combinations. Add in 150 years of history, including a bizarre cruise ship tradition called a Baked Alaska Parade, and you have a dessert, a story, and a trip through time–all rolled into one.

It was almost enough to have me searching for a Manhattan and a pack of smokes.

Weighing In

We just wrapped up a double-dip in Alaska: a sea kayaking adventure in Glacier Bay followed by a week-long float of the Kobuk River in the Arctic. Both trips created packing challenges, as our usual kitchen either wouldn’t fit in our tandem kayak or wouldn’t stay below the weight limits for our bush plane. So we stripped things down to what we thought was the bare minimum–not to be confused with the bear minimum–and off we went.

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It’s tough to stay ultralight and still have variety, but we mixed in enough pepperoni, cheese, and fresh veggies to keep things interesting, and we foraged a bit along the way for lowbush cranberries and wild blueberries. We also caught a lot of fish on the Kobuk, which helped round things out and gave us a cushion of food in case our bush plane was delayed due to weather (it was). In Glacier Bay, our portions were so big that we didn’t really need our kayak sprayskirts by the end of the week. And on the Kobuk River, we gorged on fresh grayling almost every night.P1010241

To prepare the grayling, our buddy Steve favors wrapping a cleaned fish–head and all–in tin foil and then baking over an open fire. No scaling, no fuss, no muss, and you just peel off the skin to eat it. Adding salt and pepper helps, but the fish basically seasons itself when it cooks. Clean up involved burning out the foil in the fire (we were in brown bear country, after all) and then packing out the burnt foil. It took fifteen minutes from stream to table for a delicious mild white meat that is healthy for you (reportedly high in Omega 3s, which may even help your mood—prompting me to immediately begin sneaking grayling into our companions’ coffee).

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Despite our weight and space limits for this trip, we did bring some fresh herbs and vegetables (carrots and celery), and they added quite a bit of texture and interest to what would otherwise have been pretty standard one-pot meals. Storing the herbs in a wet paper towel and the vegetables in a brown paper bag kept them going for the better part of a week, even as temperatures in the usually cool Arctic soared to close to 80 degrees. You can add them to just about any dish, and while it’s not exactly Alyeska, it wasn’t Hardees, either.

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For our dehydrated meals, Mary Jane’s Farm generally outperformed Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry. In particular we liked the black bean hummus and the burritos. The Mountain House spaghetti wasn’t bad, but the Chicken Teriyaki with Rice was bland and pasty, probably the most forgettable entrée of the week. For desserts, tops was the Backpacker’s Pantry Crème Brulee. And seeing moose was way more fun than eating mousse, which basically tasted like watery pudding. Rounding out desserts was our usual complement of chocolate bars, which I insisted were excellent sources of antioxidants (even though I’m not sure what antioxidants are).

If there was a lesson from this trip, it’s that you can’t really have enough antioxidants. Or Scotch.

Fish Sticks

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We are just back from a week-long float on the Jennings River and Teslin Lake in far northern British Columbia. Since weight wasn’t a huge factor on the trip, this was a good time to push the limits on some backcountry cooking. Over the course of the week, we had steaks, enchiladas, quesadillas, antipasto, baked brie, eggs/bacon, pancakes, frittatas, hash browns, cinnamon rolls, etc. By the time the plane came to pick us up, our river clothes fit like sausage casings. That’s normal, right?

Day three’s enchiladas won the coveted golden spoon award, cementing its hold as our most consistent crowd pleaser. We used Frontera sauce enchilada sauce(comes in green and red), Zatarain’s beans and rice, chicken in abeans and rice foil bag, no-refrigerate flour tortillas, and shredded Monterey jack. After 45 minutes in the frybake (eight coals on the bottom and ten on top), we had ourselves a bubbling hot restaurant-quality meal (assuming that the restaurant has a lot of mosquitoes and an occasional light drizzle).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also experimented with a new thing (for us)—cooking a big fish over a fire on a green stick–which worked great, until it didn’t work at all. Eventually, the fish cooked enough for the meat to become flakey (desirable) and then nearly dropped off the stick and into the fire (not desirable). We hooked it a second time, though, and a few minutes later we were all enjoying fresh grayling. Next time we’ll forget about the Survivorman-style theatrics and just cut it in half and fry it.

As for the river, the Jennings is a beautiful romp through an untouched canyon (it only gets run about once every two or three years, according to our pilot). We ran some big rapids, saw a ton of wildlife (moose, bears, wolves, and caribou), found enough camping to get by, and tried to imagine what it must have been like to travel in this amazing region during the Klondike era.

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Lastly, from the desk of Captain Obvious: a big lesson from the trip was that measuring cups are pretty handy (I claimed that I left them behind because Canada is on the metric system). I’m not sure what I was thinking when I ruined the instant hummus, the pancake mix, and the dried mashed potatoes, but what I should have been thinking was “where are those damned measuring cups?”

I bet you’re thinking that measuring cups aren’t what you’d expect to be reading about on a cleverly written foodie blog–which illustrates yet another point.