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.

More Bottle, Less Beer

Belize has a lot of coastline, and a lot of beaches–and we learned on our visit that it also has a lot of beer. But Belize is decidedly not the land of craft IPAs, as almost all of the beer here is much lighter (except perhaps one newcomer, Hobbs). For the most part, tap handles in local bars tell a singular story–about Belikin, the national beer (think Budweiser, but with an accent).

Belikin offers several different brews, and all are light and relatively low-alcohol—perfect for enjoying on the beach and/or in the heat.

Belikin is a Mayan word that means “Land Facing the Sea,” and some say that it’s the origin of the name Belize–although we also heard that Belize means “muddy waters” in the Maya language. That story seems more plausible than a country named after a beer (although Souzz’s favorite beer, Oberon, would be a great name for a country, just sayin’).

Beer in Belize is served with a napkin artfully wrapped around the neck of the bottle–like a drinkable version of Woody from Toy Story. The napkin seems like a nice little piece of flair, but it’s there so that you have something to wipe the rust from the cap away from the mouth of the bottle.

The majority of glass bottles in Belize are washed and re-used, so drinking beer here means you are basically sharing a bottle–and hopefully it wasn’t with that guy at the next table last night that was eating ceviche like it was a bowl of soup…which made me want to have three more Belikins.

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There are other brews, although most are from Belikin’s brewery or at least are a similar style.

In stores, beer is sold as singles and each beer generally runs about two dollars (US), although bars sell “six packs” in buckets on ice (for about $15 dollars US, hard to pass up). And when a server brings you a bucket of beer, it feels like there’s some purpose to the activity of beer drinking. With that in mind, we’ve accomplished a lot on our trip.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Belikin is served in bottles that are smaller than those in the US, a little more than nine ounces. We didn’t notice at first because the weight of the glass gives you the sense that you’re holding a “regular” bottle of beer…but the end of the beer comes more quickly (and isn’t that always the way?).

As for the bottle size, there’s apparently a running joke here: “Belikin – more bottle, less beer.” That seems about right…or, as they say in Belize, “Yaaa, man!”

Stone Woman

Yesterday in Belize we visited Xunantunich, a Maya archeological site near the Guatemala border (about three hours drive from our AirBnb in Placencia). Humans have been at this site going back at least to 3000 B.C., and the structures date to around 700 A.D. Most of the excavation at Xunantunich occurred between 1890 and 1960, but archeologists are still discovering things—including a previously untouched burial chamber that was found in 2016.

 

While historians have no idea what this site was called in ancient times, the modern name of Xunantunich means “Stone Woman.” It gets its name from a ghost that was first reported in 1892. A local hunter said he had encountered a woman dressed completely in white with fire-red glowing eyes at the base of a pyramid-shaped structure called “El Castillo” (The Castle). As the legend goes, she ascended the stairs and disappeared into a stone wall.

 

Versions of that story have been repeated many times since, most recently by a tour group from Canada that claimed to have seen her just after sundown. Some believers think that she formerly lived within the city in ancient times, while others think that she was a human sacrifice victim that re-lives her last moments time and time again.

Ghost stories aside, Xunantunich is a World Heritage site–and for good reason. There are six courtyards and more than 26 structures across about a square mile. El Castillo, at the heart of the old city, is the second tallest man-made structure in Belize at 150 feet. Adventurous visitors (including us) can climb to the top through a series of steps, with wild exposure that is not for the faint of heart. Apparently three tourists have fallen here in the past few years, “but they had nothing more than broken legs,” a local told us cheerfully (if not reassuringly).

 

There is great significance in how Xunantunich is laid out against the “axis mundi,” which is the intersection of the two cardinal lines of the old city. And all of the features (stairs, openings, etc.) are prime numbers. The Mayans were quite good with geometry and math, among other things.

We didn’t see any ghosts, but we still enjoyed our time walking through the courtyards and climbing the three main structures. It’s easy to see why this location was chosen by the Mayans, as there are commanding views in all directions.

 

I’m not sure I believe in the Stone Woman, although Souzz does sometimes have fire-red eyes and occasionally disappears—but usually just into the beer tent.

 

Elegantly Simple

Snorkeling and cooking may be an odd pairing, but odd pairings have never stopped us before. So with odd pairings (and snorkeling) in mind, we headed out of Placencia in southern Belize by boat to Lark Caye, and then hit a reef at Bugel Caye on the way back. Placencia Eagle Ray Tours was our outfitter of choice–and Rene and Dido knew their stuff, and also seemed to genuinely enjoy their work. Lark Caye was only about a 40 minute boat ride from Placencia, so it set up well for our trip.

Souzz and I had never been snorkeling before, so we had a few things to learn. For starters, it’s important to sense when waves are overtopping your snorkel and you are getting ready to inhale saltwater…and a few gulps of saltwater is its own kind of motivation to figure that out. There are also a some dangers to be aware of–coral that can sting, jellyfish that “would ruin your whole day,” the occasional stingray, and of course sunburn–so it’s not a “check your brain at the door” kind of activity.

But once we got going, there were amazing colors of coral and fish, a whole world below us that I had never really thought much about before. I can totally see how people get into snorkeling and diving, and we are already plotting our next trip.

We followed our time snorkeling with some beach time and then we went to a cooking class in town that we set up through a company called Taste Belize. Chef Radiance generously shared her home with us and together we made a conch dish with rice, peppers, and zucchini.

In addition to our lovely conversation with Chef Radiance–which touched on a range of topics that included Belize’s independence from Great Britain in 1981, changes brought by tourism, Hurricane Iris, traditional Mayan cooking, and Anthony Bourdain–we learned a lot about how to prepare Belizian cuisine. We squeezed out coconut milk from the pulp (very hands-on), enjoyed cooking with traditionally made coconut oil (a much different taste than what you get at a store in the US), and learned about a new (to us) Belizian spice/condiment called recado.

Recado is a deep red-colored paste made from seeds of the achiote tree (which is native to the tropics). We smeared the conch meat with it before cooking, which gave it a bit of color and also a bit of a nutty and peppery flavor. For our dish, we also used lime, salt, turmeric, Italian spices, garlic powder, and hot sauce.

There were lots of flavors going on in Chef Radiance’s kitchen, but yet everything seemed elegantly simple.

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Aaaah, yes, elegantly simple. Snorkeling and traditional dinners are both elegantly simple in their own way, and they are two more things that are helping us fall more in love with Belize with every passing day.

Panti Rippas

Souzz and I had so much fun in Scotland and the Faroes this summer that we decided we needed another trip abroad this year. With limited vacation time, we had to look for a place that was “relatively” close. We considered Canada and Mexico, but we wanted to go a little further afield.

Enter Belize, a country of 375,000 that is just 1600 miles away–which is closer to us than Las Vegas. Further enticing us was the promise of warm weather, 240 miles of coastline, Mayan ruins, barrier reefs, and a very interesting culture. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s a coconut rum-based drink in Belize called a Panti Rippa.

We arrived in Belize City this afternoon and took a short 25 minute flight in a Cessna Caravan to the village of Placencia (which would have been about four hours by road, wow). Placencia has a population of about 3500, a blossoming adventure travel scene, and a friendly small town feel.

We’re staying at a lovely Airbnb right on the beach, and first impressions are pretty great. There’s a nice breeze, the town is lively and welcoming, and the ocean is delightfully clear and warm.

Tomorrow we head out snorkeling and then have a cooking class in the evening. As we settle into the mellow pace here, our plan seems a little ambitious–especially now that I’m into my second Panti Rippa.

Friendly, Curious, and Beautiful

We are headed out of the Faroe Islands today, are back to Scotland for a quick overnight in Edinburgh before heading back to the USA tomorrow.

We capped off our trip yesterday with a ferry out to the island of Nolsoy, about a 20 minute ride from the capital in Torshavn, where we hiked around the town and explored a bit. Later we visited a church in Sandavágur before enjoying a nice meal at a restaurant called Arrstova (“House By the Brook”) on Torshavn harbor. Arrstova is in a wooden building built in the 1600s, but the menu is decidedly modern (my favorite was the lamb tartare, and the multi-course meal was the best of our trip by far).

As is true with any adventure, we didn’t know what to expect here…even more so because we didn’t know a single person that had visited the Faroes (well, at least nobody that we had asked). What we found was a rich history and stunning natural beauty, along with more than enough tourist-oriented services and a lot of great people.

While there is not a lot of lodging (and just a handful of campgrounds), the choices are growing through new construction and through services like AirBnb. We really enjoyed our AirBnb house, and our host was super-helpful and responsive.