Friday, July 22, 2011

River's End and Relia's: A Taste To Remember

Coming from a large, loud and deeply Southern family I would be lying if I said that most of my childhood memories and existence wasn't centered around food. Every family gathering, whether a wedding, funeral, or anything in-between was an excuse for the women in my family to cook and for the rest of us to eat. To this day, a golden piece of cornbread still tastes like a Sunday afternoon in my great-grandmother's kitchen. Windows thrust open to sweltering late summer, the smell of roses and baking bread, my great-grandmother up to her elbows in flour and cornmeal.

To me birthdays will always be homemade chocolate cakes, the chlorine of our backyard pool, fireflies at dusk, butter cream frosting dripping off my aunt's fingertips in the candlelight. Pecan pie is a family reunion tradition. Homemade stuffing is for Thanksgiving. Tortilla wraps and potato salad are Christmas appetizers. I can honestly say that every important memory I have is dripping with some sort of sauce or stuffed with some variety of cheese. Even now that I'm out on my own, I can't eat a steak without seeing my father and his two brothers circled around our grill, laughing and reminiscing about this car or that friend as the kebabs burned in the twilight, forgetting for a few moments that they were already old and that their children were hungry.

Needless to say, I've learned that good food is an essential part of a good vacation. That's why when I first came to NOC I made it a part of my mission for the summer to scout out the best dishes at NOC's two main on-campus restaurants: River's End and Relia's Garden.

At a little seaside cafe in Sorrento, Italy an Italian waiter once told me that the way to a woman's heart was through a good pizza. If that's true then River's End has been playing cupid for years, because amazing pizzas are their forte. Flip to the back of the menu and beeline straight for the Big Fat Greek Pizza with feta cheese, olives, artichokes and pepperoncinis. Opt for the gyro meat over the chicken and close your eyes as each bite whisks you away to the white sands and blue waters of Mykonos. If the Greek Pizza doesn't sound like your thing then the Veggie Delight Pizza is also a popular choice. Piled high with olives, mushrooms, broccoli, and tomatoes and bubbling with cheese, the Veggie Pizza is a great way to to make a healthy choice a delicious one. Split the 10 inch with a friend and pair it with the Greek salad for bonus veggie points!

If you need some extra protein to support all that paddling you plan on doing then choose the Bulls Sluice Burger. Smothered with mushrooms and Swiss cheese it tastes uncannily like a Philly Cheese steak except with tenderer meat and more substance. After my five year old cousin took a bite he confidently pronounced it “man food” but it has heartiness enough for both genders. Another great burger option is the voracious vegan. Crunchy as a burger on the outside, the inside is soft and melted veggie goodness with a little spice. In my opinion, the Voracious Vegan Burger is one of the best dishes on the menu whose unique flavor is enough to win over even the pickiest eater. If you're not feeling the complimentary side salad or chips then substitute the tater tots for an additional 75 cents (the best 75 cents you'll ever spend) and enjoy an old raft guide favorite.

Some other popular dishes include: the infamous Chicken Sherpa (a basmati rice dish cooked with stir fried veggies, cheese, and lentils), The Nantahala Gorge Club Sandwich, and Walnut Dill Chicken Salad Sandwich. Pair any of these options with the BBQ Whitewater Wings as an appetizer and the Homemade Cobbler for dessert and you have an unforgettable meal ahead of you.

River's End is a classic dining experience. It's a place to catch up with old friends, re-live moments on the river with family, or charm a first date. It's a place where nobody raises their eyebrows if you walk in with river gear on, where you can watch the fog roll off the river from your table, and where affordable prices meets great food. River's End is all the tradition and comfort of a family dinner at home with a unique rustic mountain flair.

And then there's Relia's Garden. Nestled at the top of a hill, surrounded by a garden filled with flowers and herbs, overlooking the river below; Relia's is truly something out of a fairytale. You walk into a scene of rustic elegance. Dark mahogany wood creates high ceilings and large windows inside and an expansive deck outside for meals. Soft lighting and candlelight makes every meal a romantic and special affair.

Throughout the whole meal our waiter Jacob was courteous, prompt and exceeded service expectations for a fine dining experience. Upon his recommendation we started out with the Black Eyed Pea and Collard Fritters appetizer. The dish was a mash up of black eyed peas and collard greens, lightly breaded and served with a sweet tangy ham au jus. Another popular appetizer is the Crab Stuffed Hush Puppies which is served with spicy mayonnaise.

We then moved on to our second course: light leafy salads with carrots and tomatoes, drizzled in lemon, ginger vinaigrette. The ginger vinaigrette gave the salad a distinctly Asian flair that was unusual and refreshing. With most of the entree dishes, the salad comes included in the cost. It presents a very nice prelude to the main event.

For the main course my friend ordered a crab cake po-boy sandwich with brussel sprouts and I had the Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts. If the appetizer and salad hadn't already impressed me, I would've been completely floored by the main dish. Both dishes were artfully arranged and presented in timely accordance with the other courses. The Salisbury steak was drenched in a succulent gravy that blended the satisfying familiar taste of Southern cuisine with the finesse of fine dining. The mashed potatoes were homemade and blended with herbs while the brussel sprouts were seasoned and cooked to perfection. The Salisbury steak was also featured as one of the daily Blue Plate Specials which allows you to try four-star dining at a very reasonable price.

I have never been a big seafood person. With my father suffering from severe shellfish and seafood related allergies, I was inculcated with a disdain for all types of fish from a young age. Needless to say, it was a feat getting me to try to the crab cake po-boy at all but I am so glad that I did. I was completely blown away. The bread was toasted and buttery while the crab cake itself was lightly battered and tender. I couldn't detect even the slightest salty or fishy taste. The crab cake po-boy sandwich was so amazing that it actually managed to convert me into a seafood person! Even, if it is just the occasional crab cake.

After our entrees it was on to the main finale, a piece of French Silk Pie. Made of chocolate ganache and the slightest pinch of cayenne pepper it's served with raspberry jam and cappuccino whipped cream. Although the mixture of chocolate and pepper may sound strange, it ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. The pepper brings out the overall flavor of the dessert and adds the lightest kick to the dish. It was a wonderful end to a spectacular meal.

Relia's Garden is truly a special and unique dining experience. It's food that takes me back to the comfort of my grandmother's kitchen while simultaneously providing the cultural experience of a New York City restaurant. It is a titillating encounter for the taste buds in a place that brings an elegance and romance to Smoky Mountain dining paralleled only by the beauty of the mountains themselves.

Food defines our memories. Each summer I've spent at NOC has been filled with whitewater adventures, moonlit hikes, and lakeside campfires; but what often really sticks with me are those dog tired breakfasts, lunches and dinners enjoyed afterward. And I know, in years to come, I won't be able to practice my roll, raft through a Class IV rapid, or look at a garden drenched in starlight without tasting a Greek Pizza or a slice of French Silk Pie.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nantahala Outdoor Center: A Paradise in the Clouds

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This place just hangs onto you. It writhes its way under your skin, grows roots slowly into your heart and your mind, fills your eyes up with all that sky and rolling mist until one day you discover that you've become just as mossy green and craggy blue as the mountains themselves. And then that's it. The land has you and no matter how fast or far you try to run, you'll always be yanked back. Pulled suddenly and firmly back to dirt roads meandering through laurel and wildflowers up into cloud, to the shadow of a hawk flying endless circles against the sun, to the quiet steady ticking of water dripping onto moonlit boulders.

The Nantahala Gorge in the Smoky Mountains has had a irresistible hold on me for several years now. Blanketed in white fog and folklore the area has an effect that's both eery and thrilling. Originally the territory of the Cherokee Nation, it hosted the main trail between the Valley areas in Andrews and the busy Middle Towns on the Tuckaseegee and Little Tennessee River. Regarded with half-fear, half-wonder, the Gorge was rumored to contain a gigantic snake named Uktena and a community of wonder working little people called Yunwi Tsunsdi. The area was called Nantahala by the Cherokee, which translates into “land of the noonday sun” because the only time the sun could penetrate the high mountain peaks and reach the ground was precisely at noon. The scenery is breathtaking, the aura unmistakably occult, but my infatuation to Gorge delves deeper and finds its root in the community itself.

As the largest and one of the oldest outfitters on the Nantahala River, the Nantahala Outdoor Center serves as the main social outlet for guests, staff and locals in the Gorge. With three on-site restaurants, a late night bar offering live music, an outfitters store and a whole range of outdoor activities and lodging available; NOC has become somewhat of a self-contained mini-town filled with residents that are all passionate about the outdoors. When I first became an employee here, I had no idea just how tight knit and unique of a community I had stumbled into. Walking across Founder's Bridge you can unknowingly rub elbows with Olympic paddlers. Hanging out beside the NOC wave you can exchange banter with pro-kaykers. Raft guides from different companies salute each other on the river. Boaters of various skill levels, from all over the country come together to take on the “Mighty Nanty” and learn from each other every single day. Three summers later, and I'm still hooked.

The memories I've made during my summers here are moments I will carry with me my whole life. One of my favorite NOC memories is when my roommate and I were practicing rolling our kayaks at Fontana Lake. After watching me flail around for about ten minutes a very nice gentleman came over and worked with me for an hour until I improved. After he walked away my roommate informed me that I had just obliviously received an hour long kayaking lesson from NOC's first employee and one of the best kayakers in the area, Jimmy Holcomb, for free.

I wake up every morning not knowing where the day is going to take me or what type of adventure I'm going to have. One afternoon after work I was sitting at a picnic table by the river and I struck up a conversation with some paddlers that lived in the area. The next thing I know, I'm sitting in the back of a pick up truck, flying up a gravel road to a house on the very top of the mountain. On the screened-in-porch are three old men with long gray beards and toothless grins, holding a banjo, a stand up bass, and a washboard. Possibly the best bluegrass I have ever heard, and all from the comfort of a rocking chair.

And then there are all those nights spent up at Queens Lake. Sitting around a campfire and talking about nothing in particular as cicadas buzz all around us. Holding hands with a bunch of friends I've just met as we leap off the dock together, wild with youth and laughing in the moonlight. Moments and people I wish I could hold onto forever, but all of them as fleeting as the summer itself.

The days are hot, the water is cold, and time stands still. If you're in the Gorge a week, it feels like a month. An entire summer, feels like a year. With all of the whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and numerous other outdoor activities in the area you don't notice the time passing. In the Gorge cell phone service is limited and internet is even harder to come by. But I don't miss it. Surrounded by the people I care about and the things I love, I find that I don't actually need that Starbucks cappuccino in the morning.

The first time I rafted down the Nantahala River I was eight years old, on an end of summer vacation with my dad, my uncle, and my cousin. We ended up on a guide assisted rafting trip which meant that there was a guide in every other raft. Inevitably, my dad ended up self guiding our boat and although we had a few spills, it's an adventure that still comes up at family gatherings. The next time I braved the Nanty was on my sixteenth birthday with some friends from home. We had a lovely guide (and no swimmers this time) that led us in sing-alongs the whole way down. The summer I graduated high school I became NOC staff, and since then the area has become my anchor. The Nantahala Gorge is the place I feel most at home, and most content. It's the guiding light that gets me through each school year. My secret paradise hidden in the clouds.

Since my first rafting trip as an eight year old, I've been down the Nantahala River more times than I can count. But it never gets old. I have forayed out to other rivers with bigger rapids and greater thrills but its a love affair that never lasts. At the end of it all I always find myself leaning against Founder's Bridge, watching the sun set over a river blanketed in mist and purple in the dusk. Enjoying a glass of sweet tea with a childhood friend, having quiet conversation about the steady drip of water or the way a hawk flies. Watching an old love forge its way into my future, just as surely as it meandered through my past. And I know no matter where I go, or what I do in the coming years, the Nantahala Gorge will always be there, calling me back to this perfect place of mist and river and sky.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

River Leaders of the Month July 2011: Kristin and Sean Bierle

Here at NOC we're looking forward to the Camp Cup Challenge next Monday and Tuesday. The Camp Cup is an exciting youth paddling event that gets a dozen summer camps and about 150 kids on the water for a slalom competition and a downriver race. It's likely the biggest kids whitewater paddling event anywhere. And though we enjoy, welcome and support the event here at NOC, the fact is it wouldn't be happening without two motivated and committed volunteers: Kristin and Sean Bierle. They come all the way from Boise to put this amazing event together for the campers. Why? According to them, "It's one of the highlights of our year."

Sean, Pebbles and Kristin paddling on one of the Alzar School's recent sessions.

Kristin and Sean spend most of their time supporting the Alzar School, a non-profit school that currently runs three-week programs focused on cultural exchange, service learning, leadership training and outdoor adventures. Between these programs the couple is devoted to building the foundation for the school's first full academic year in Fall 2012. Kristin works as the school's Executive Director and Sean is the school's Head Teacher overseeing curriculum development and implementation. The school's main campus will be near Boise, and students will get to embark on two international adventures a year. It is a really cool organization, and it's going to be even better when it goes year-round.

So why do these educators from Boise want to put on a race in North Carolina? Well, Kristin is a Tar Heel from Cornelius, NC who grew up paddling and going on outdoor adventures with her father. When she was 13, her father bought her a kayak, and she took a few lessons from NOC's Paddling School. She further developed her paddling with Gordon Grant at Camp Green Cove, and also at Green Cove she participated in the Camp Cup Challenge as a racer. Back then the race was organized by the Nantahala Racing Club with sponsorship from the American Canoe Association.

Though Kristin moved on to bigger rivers and now has her own kayaking students, the "Camp Cup" stuck in her memory as a wonderful event, and when she learned that the event stalled out in the early/mid 00's she decided to bring it back, which she and Sean did in 2008. Besides just executing on the event, the couple has rallied a strong coalition of manufacturers, instructors and outfitters for support, and the Camp Cup has grown very strong again over the past three years. The expectation is for another 150 kids to hit the water again in 2011.

Racers pose on the banks of the Nantahala before a run through the Camp Cup Challenge slalom course.

The event allows kids and teenagers to compete in a low-stress, supportive environment; they paddle one-person kayak (K-1), one-person canoe (C-1), open-canoe (OC-1) and two-person open canoes (OC-2). Racers get paddling experience, but also get to meet new paddling friends and practice leadership skills by rallying their camp teams.

The camp cup even brings together paddlers who already knew each other: more than once Kristin and Sean have seen kids who attend the same high school "back home" discover that they both like paddling, but they've been at different summer camps. Our hope at NOC is that the race participants will form lifelong paddling friendships and become the future leaders of paddling in the Southeast.

A Camp Cup Challenge downriver racer punches through the bottom of Nantahala Falls.

In the meantime though, we're looking forward to the riverside cheers, exciting gate runs, downriver sprints and, yes, even some of the "carnage" these boaters will provide early next week as they push and expand their abilities on the water. These guys and gals go all out.

So if you happen to be here Monday or Tuesday of next week, stop and thank Kristin and Sean for their meaningful impact on whitewater recreation and their extra effort to make an impact on the water and in the racers' lives.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

America's Most Popular River: Tennessee's Middle Ocoee

The "Middle" section of the Ocoee river flows through the far Southeastern corner of Tennessee, just over the state line from Georgia and North Carolina. It's in a wonderfully beautiful area, surrounded by lakes like Blue Ridge, Nottely, Parksville and Ocoee. The locale is part of the Cherokee National Forest, and there are some great ways to spend a weekend outdoors there.

Nonetheless it seems like an unlikely place to boast the country's most popular whitewater river, considering it's not in the Rockies, Sierra Nevada Mountains or near the highest peaks of the Appalachians. So what's the deal? Here are the two simple reasons why the Ocoee is the capital of whitewater rafting in the USA:

1) The Ocoee should be the most popular river in the country because its fun rapids, moderate difficulty, continuous action, favorable water temperatures and dependable releases constitute the ideal mix of a mass-appeal whitewater trip. The only thing missing is a true "wilderness" section, but it probably couldn't be the most popular river in the country and maintain a wilderness atmosphere anyway. Despite its popularity though, it's a very beautiful river, and morning and late-afternoon trips do control the impact of heavy summer crowds.

2) It's an easy day-trip from Atlanta, Chattanooga and Knoxville, and it's reasonably close to Nashville and Birmingham too. There are some other Ocoee-like runs out there that just aren't all that close to big cities, and therefore they're not as accessible. It's not just the fact that there are nearby metro areas though; these are scorching-hot metro areas in a part of the country that wants to cool down on the water. (See today's article in the Huntsville Times if you don't believe me.)

Ocoee Rapids
In whitewater rafting popularity, it's all about the rapids. How many are there, and how fun are they?

Well, sometimes paddlers go on a trip and they ask the names of every rapid. Don't even bother on the Ocoee. There are a few big ones you'll certainly want to know, but 75% of this river is going to be splashing your boat. There's only one five minute pause in the action, and most folks are actually ready for a bit of a break by then. As for the big rapids, the short list of "the biggest ones," if you ask an enthusiast like me (I'm not really an Ocoee guide) is:

The launch site for this trip is right below the dam separating the Upper and Lower sections, and it's a bit intimidating, especially considering that a pretty powerful rapid called Grumpy's is less than 100 yards into the run. The actual Grumpy hydraulic is tops on my list of "places where I'd like to remain in the boat on the Ocoee." You can see some footage of Grumpy's on this video from :28 to :46. Note the "hydraulic" is the big splash the raft kicks up at :36.

Broken Nose
Basically a curvy S-turn above two ledges, Broken Nose isn't as threatening to rafters as it's name suggests, though upside-down kayakers can attest to the reasoning behind its title. Footage of this rapid runs from :47 to 1:22, but the farthest-back boat in the shot beginning at 1:11 is probably the best illustration of the full length of the action.

Double Suck
Like most Ocoee rapids the route here is over a ledge and through the biggest obstructions--in this case two large hydraulics. Note the big spray coming off the first hole at 1:25. This is a fun rapid, though it's super fast. When you're at the top, the ledge is surprisingly large.

Double Trouble
Not to be confused with Double Suck, Double Trouble could be the most beloved rapid on the river. It unselfishly gives the people what they want: gigantic splashes, a fast bouncy ride and a relatively paddler-friendly environment. (If I had to swim the length of a rapid I suppose I'd choose this one.) See 1:37 till the end of the video.

We don't have great video of Tablesaw because the river runs away from the roadside at this point, but this is the biggie. Here the river channels all its 1250 cfs of water through a tight rocky slot. This means you've got a fast, bouncy, powerful straight shot through some turbulent (pleasingly turbulent) whitewater.

Tablesaw rapid with a boat full of rafters midway through.

Diamond Splitter
This gets the "editor's choice" award from me. Easily the most photogenic rapid, Diamond Splitter gives paddlers multiple route options and a splashy ride over the sticky, but not-to-worrisome Witch's Hole.

Diamond Splitter rock proudly bisects its eponymous rapid.

Hell Hole
Site of the last ICF Freestyle World Championships held in the US (1993), Hell Hole, for rafters, is just one quick splash. But when you're on the bus ride back to the outpost it's the wave you'll be remembering as 15-foot wall of water to your nodding companions. See the photo, and you can understand.

A raft stalls out briefly on its way through Hell Hole on the Middle Ocoee.

When to go:
The Ocoee runs Thursday through Monday in the three main summer months, and on the weekends from March to October. It's controlled by the TVA so releases are fairly standardized, but if you pay attention to weather and other factors it is possible to get a beefed-up Ocoee trip with some extra water in the river.

Otherwise go when it works for you. Most trips are the same, but early-morning and late-afternoon trips are a good avoid-the-rush option.

Ocoee Discount Special Trips
Also note that you can save almost 50% by booking an off-peak time on select days. Book one of these trips and you'll get the same Ocoee rafting experience for only $25 per person.

Also, consider participating in the American Cancer Society's "Fight the Rapids for Cancer" event on July 17. NOC will donate $1 for every rafter we take down the river this Saturday, and guests will also have the option of purchasing an event T-shirt that day as well. Book now to participate in this great event.

To book, use NOC's secure online reservations system or call 888.905.7238. More information is available at NOC's Ocoee rafting page.

The Ocoee's Popularity
Up until 2008 there was some confusion on what the nation's most popular river actually was. The Arkansas River in Colorado used to have more total rafters than the Ocoee, but it also has numerous popular sections: Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Brown's Canyon and the Royal Gorge are all very popular. Without a doubt the Middle Ocoee is the most popular of all these stretches of river, and though the Ocoee has a second section, the Upper Ocoee, its tight release schedule limits its runs. (The vast majority of Upper guests do the combo trip anyway, meaning they run the Middle section as well.)

Now this section-by-section analysis is unnecessary anyway. The Ocoee has continued to grow and maintain its popularity and now has more rafters than the sum of all the Arkansas's sections. So, the Ocoee can brag about being "America's Favorite" whitewater without having to use an asterisk.

There's no reason not to be gracious though; the Arkansas and the Ocoee are actually pretty similar (splashy, continuous and comfortable during peak season) even though the Arkansas's desert environs and big runoff flows are nothing like the Ocoee's. (It's a river worth experiencing if you head off to Colorado sometime.)

When You Go to the Ocoee:
If you'd like to make an overnight trip our of your experience, here are some places to stay. The Cherokee National Forest offers excellent opportunities to adventure-lovers looking for more than whitewater:

Mountain bike at the Tanasi Trail System, Old Copper Road Historic Trail or at the Jackrabbit Mountain Bike and Hiking Trail system in Hayesville, NC.

Dayhike to Benton Falls or enjoy the scenic spur hike.

Drive the beautiful Cherohala Skyway.

And, if you really like rafting the Middle, you'll probably want to consider coming back for the Upper/Middle combo trip sometime.