Monday, January 26, 2015

A Clear and Pleasant Danger - part 1

Words by Greg
Photos by Greg and Trina

We fancy ourselves as adventurers, of a sort. Explorers. Yet we must be realistic. There is the Unknown, capital U. Mountains not yet climbed. Rivers not yet run. Caves not yet explored. Lost civilizations still moldering in the jungle, untouched by recent human hands…

And there is the unknown, lower case u. Which works fine for us. It is highly unlikely that we will ever fill in an empty spot on the map -- if indeed there are any empty spots remaining. Yet we can and do happily explore places where we have never been. We further admit that we are most attracted to places that are lonely enough and wild enough that they retain a sense that perhaps we could be discovering them.


This summer, we found ourselves in Idaho. Which (surprise) has been discovered and explored. And we happened to be in a small but active town through which a famous river runs. We happened to have our small boats along with us. We got some local beta from an outfitter and drove into the canyon and got out of the truck and stood on the side of the highway and stared down at the river. It looked fun. Wet. Swift. And as challenging as we required: pools and drops and waves and chutes and small holes and rocks to dodge.

We drove on down the canyon car-scouting and stopping for better views. We watched flotillas of commercial rafts bobbing along. We plowed along with other cars on the highway. We observed small masses of people wading in hot spring water that poured scenically from a culvert under the road. And despite the rugged canyon walls, the playful water, the convenient roadway, by the time we'd driven to the take-out, our opinion of the run was decidedly "Meh". It was all just a little too "discovered" for our taste.

At the take-out ramp, we struck up a conversation (--we can act extroverted when it suits our introverted purposes…) with a rugged-looking local river rat, asking if he knew of any smaller, more remote runs that might be appropriate for our little rafts. Despite the late season and quickly dropping water levels, he had a couple ideas for us. One, a nearby tributary with a patriotic-sounding name, was probably our best bet as it was road-scoutable and fun. The other creek was "a crazy long way back in there" but still scoutable from a dirt road. And he had no idea if there was enough water. Hmm. We said thank you and waved goodbye.

We turned off the main highway and headed to Patriotic Creek. From the winding paved road we could see that there was barely enough water, but what there was looked pretty fun and challenging. But when we stopped for a closer look, there were ATVs buzzing around, car alarms going off in campgrounds, fishermen, private property signs and other indications that we were not yet far enough from the benefits and perils of civilization. Hmm again. So… What about this Crazy Creek? It took us a few minutes to even find it on our state map. Miles and miles away. But we had a full tank of gas and plentiful supplies , so we pointed the truck in that direction and drove.

The pavement ended. Always a good omen. Then the road pointed upward steeply and got a bit jagged. Another good omen. Soon we were crawling upward into high mountains amid burn-scar forests until we were spit out on top of a pass. Bare, rocky peaks marched off into the distance, spilling yellow and red minerals from their tops. Steep drainages cut into the rough country ahead. And beside the road at the high point was The Sign.

It was a fairly standard and fairly fresh Forest Service sign with very few bullet holes, preparing us for the beauties ahead, but also warning us of all the dangers we would be facing if we carried on our way. Fire, lightning, deadfalls, dehydration, exhaustion, exposure. Bears, snakes, lions, wolverines. Warning us to be prepared and capable. All of this sounded great to us. And since we did feel like we were prepared and capable, we were excited to continue.

On The Sign was a map. Surprisingly detailed. We could see Crazy Creek. Could see that a road followed it, like we'd been told. But we could also see that the road stopped and the creek continued into wilder country, accompanied by a trail. Hmm! And down the creek -- how far? -- the map showed a hot spring. Hmm!! Gears started turning in my head. No scale on the map, but I juggled inches and formulas between our state map and the map on The Sign and came up with a reasonable figure. We put our heads together and speculated about the possibility of a little journey involving rafts and packs and camping wild and a remote hot spring.

Enticed by our own imaginations, we leapt back in the truck and continued onward, down the ragged hill into the wild heart of Idaho. Hot summer pine dust in darkened forest. Small green meadows on the banks of thin streams of rippling silver. Open views of harsh crags seen through the shocked, stiff nap of standing snags burned by past fires. Beside the road, freshets gathered into runnels, runnels into brooks, brooks into a stream that poured at last into Crazy Creek.

Ah… The crazy little creek looked… small. Small and enthusiastic. But small. Still, we passed a slightly inhabited Forest Service camp and kept on driving down the dead end road that followed the creek. We hit the end of the road, grabbed the dogs, and sauntered down the trail for a closer look. Shallow-looking riffles connected deep emerald green pools where fish drifted within watery shadows. The creek had gathered a few small tributaries since our first sighting, and looked… bigger. Not big, but bigger. And just maybe big enough. We soaked our feet in the cool water. We'd passed a couple trucks and a couple fishermen on the last part of the road. But beyond here there would be no more trucks. No motors or alarms. No modern improvements. And probably no help of any kind. Just a slice of wild.

We stared downstream to where the creek disappeared into blocky canyon walls and sparsely forested slopes. Disappeared into, if not the unknown, then at least into the only-as-much-as-could-be-known-from-a-map-on-a-sign-on-the-side-of-a-forest-road-in-the-wilds-of-Idaho. Into a mysterious place of possible danger. Of probable adventure. Toward the unlikely lure of a steaming spring. And with the promise of possible satisfaction in our little quest for a small piece of something that was -- as yet -- to us -- unknown.

We decided we'd do it. We'd load the boats with gear and dogs and plunge in and see where the creek would take us. If the creek would take us. Was there really enough water to float? We didn't know. But if not, couldn't we re-pack the boats and hike out? Yes. And how dangerous could it be? We didn't know. But wasn't the whitewater danger lessened by the low flows? Er.. maybe.

By the time we'd had our afternoon tea (we like to keep our vacations refined…) and had taken our afternoon naps (we like to keep our vacations, you know, vacation-y…) the day had burned away. So we vowed that first thing in the morning we'd pack up and start our float. Which is pretty much how it worked. Just barely past noon the following day we had trimmed down our massive pile of gear into a huge pile of gear that we could carry. And we had carried that gear 200 yards to the river where we unpacked it all again and re-packed it into the boats. Then we each grabbed a paddle and a dog and shoved off into the emerald green water.

By this time, the morning sunshine was darkening into a monsoon afternoon. Grim clouds were rolling in over the canyon walls. The emerald green water was already taking on a darker and somewhat more threatening hue. And the wind was starting to pick up. We paddled around the first bend to where the walls of the canyon began to crowd closer. Paddled into… Swift little chutes. Butt-dragging riffles with dog-tossing stopper rocks. Fun, ping-pong rapids. Maze-like boulder gardens where we had to scout to find a channel wide enough to fit through. And wood.

Wood, wood, wood. The surrounding forest was spare and much of it had burned. Skeleton trees lay toppled in the water. Sometimes a single trunk in wide, slow water. At other times, a convoluted trap of tangled logs covering fast water. We turned every corner with our eyes wide. Peering ahead for the danger of wooden strainers and sieves. And also, always, always alert for The Falls.


Just before we'd left the truck, a young lady had walked past wearing running shoes and carrying a pair of hiking boots. Perhaps she worked for the Forest Service. And we, slightly uneasy about our unknown, had stopped her. "Do you know the creek below here at all?"

"Sure," she said, "Pretty well."

"Are there any… waterfalls?"

She answered: "Just one."

What? I'm pretty sure my eyes got big.

"It's about this high." she said, holding one palm two-and-a-half feet above the other.

Oh. My eyes shrank back down to normal size and I glanced at Trina. "We can probably handle that."


We continued to pick our way down the creek under cloudy skies. We splashed through small rapids. Dragged the boats over a few of the shallowest riffles. Ducked under skewed trees. Hoisted over downed logs. And took turns on non-dog-able rapids while the canine contingent stirred up trouble in the riverside brush. The water, while not warm, was not super cold, either. So we jumped in and out of the boats as needed in relative comfort, despite the lack of sunshine. Hours passed before we came around a corner and saw, ahead, The Falls.

A crenelated shelf ran diagonally across the creek. Water poured though gaps and "plunged" oh, about two-and-a-half feet. Maybe even three? I stood on shore and stared at it. The clearest channel ran left, but was choked with small boulders on the approach. It looked like I'd get stoppered in the rocks above, have a chance of flipping, and then get dragged over the ragged rock, paying a price in flesh. Trina looked at it and said, "I'll give it a go." Damn this woman and her adventuresome ways, I thought, quietly to myself, as she launched, weaseled through the boulders and came splashing happily down the chute with a big smile on her face. So naturally, I had to try it, too. With more weight and a less buoyant boat, I did get hung up on the rocks above. I managed to joust and stab myself clear and came into the dropping chute more-or-less straight, flumphed cleanly down the chute and into the frothy water below. With a smile on my own face.

After The Falls, things got interesting. We came upon the first of several massive logjams. Thick trunks and splintered branches blocked the creek, piled into a jumble fifteen feet high. A testament to the vast quantity of available material in the burnt forest around us. And to the power this creek could generate during high water season. We hauled our boats up the shoulder of the canyon to walk around. And put back in below.

Then it began to rain. The sky darkened. Wind kicked into the canyon and drove chilled drops into our faces. We stopped to put on rain coats and wondered if we should seek some kind of shelter. But there wasn't really any shelter to seek. The feisty little creek shoved us along while the wind knocked at us and tugged on our boats and paddles. There were a few flashes of lighting from up on the canyon rim. Rumbles of thunder rolled our way over the thrash of the creek. Then a scream and crack erupted from the right bank as a gust of wind tore a burnt snag off its roots and sent it crashing down with a whunk and a cloud of dust. We were suddenly aware that a tree could as easily fall across the creek or onto us. Were we safer in the water or amid the burnt trees on shore? We had no idea. We kept paddling.

The creek kept us occupied. We dodged rocks. Climbed over downed trees. Scraped for the deepest channel. Bounced through rapids. We found a rhythm in our motion that kept us moving forward steadily amid the ever-changing array of obstacles and choices. The rain tapered off to a drizzle. On one snatch of wind I smelled… Sulphur! The hot spring! We had no idea of where it was or what it looked like. Was it in the river? Next to the river? Above the river? How far down the river? How close? How would we know? Trina was a little chilled and had no intention of stopping until we found warm water she could soak in. Never mind that we didn't know if it was even possible to soak in the spring.

More log jams. More playful little rapids. And frankly, despite the chill and uncertainty, there was a fair amount of grinning as we spun and dodged beneath the angular towers of mottled gray rock that stabbed upward into the stormy sky. There was nowhere that we would rather have been.

Continue to part 2 here

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Goldilocks’ Almond Torte

by Trina

Once upon a time there was the most amazing almond torte in the history of the known universe. It wasn’t too light. It wasn’t too dense. It wasn't too dry. It wasn't too sweet. It was juuuuuuust right. This torte was one of the desserts at The Ragtop Grill. My first ever restaurant job in a long line of them that ultimately supported me through high school and a couple of college "careers," The Ragtop was a cute little bistro with an octagonal footprint, and eight panels of canvas roof that rolled up and away so that the entire dining room was open-air, with a fireplace in the center and surrounding redwood trees for a canopy. Locals would drive their ragtops down from the hills and in from the coast for the grill’s lovely, classic Sunday brunch, which was my first exposure, at the impressionable age of 15, to foods other than my mom’s southern down-home cooking.

There was an oyster bar with raw oysters on the half shell, Oysters Rockefeller, oysters all kinds of ways, all of which were brand new to me. There was gravlax, brioche, and half a dozen variations on Eggs Benedict. The Ragtop blew the roof off my concept of food. It is where I first realized that there was a whole world of food out there, a world waiting to be explored, where none of the dishes were flavored with canned of cream-of-chicken soup or Cool Whip.

At some point in my history of waitressing jobs, I figured out that just about any chef was happy to stay after a shift to teach an eager student how to make something from the menu that she particularly loved. The almond torte, however, was before that time and it simply didn't occur to me to ask for -- or abscond with -- the recipe. I didn't know, as a young teenager, that this torte would haunt me into adulthood, and that decades later I'd still be trying recipes in the hopes of finding one that matched the perfect density and not-too-sweet-ness of the first almond torte to ever pass my lips. I didn't know that the distance of years and the fallibility of memory would be putting this torte more and more out of reach as time went by.

The search has taken me around the world. The Majorcan Flourless Lemon Almond Cake, at the light end of the spectrum, is wheat- and gluten-free and lightened with whipped egg whites; it’s practically health food. The very dense, very buttery Italian Almond Cake, which is most definitely a dessert, represents the heavy, indulgent end of the spectrum. The otherworldly Cranberry Pecan Frangipane Tart is amazing and lovely (and a new favorite), but different than what I've been aiming for. The hazelnut torte from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which I tried with both almonds and pecans, is wonderful with any nut, but again, different than what I was after. All these years later, I still hadn’t found the magic recipe, so finally, left with no other choice, I made one up.

Experimenting like this is rarely as successful as it was with this effort. At least in my experience, something is always not-quite-right, there's too much of one ingredient, and not enough of another, with results that remind me that I don't entirely know what I'm doing. But, surprisingly, somehow, borrowing elements from both the lightest and densest tortes, aiming for middle density and as much almondiness as possible, this one worked -- I mean really worked -- the first time around. It will, of course, be ever impossible to achieve a perfect match for a 30 year old memory of what is now an unreachable pinnacle in almond torte-dom, but this recipe might just be as close as I’ll ever get. It’s juuuuuuust right enough. (And it's easy.)

The recipe:

Torte ingredients:

1 1/3 cups almonds
1/2 cup wheat flour*
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chopped
*Make it wheat-free by substituting an additional 1/2 cup of almonds, processed, for the wheat flour.

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ tsp almond extract

¾ cup slivered almonds
½ TBSP sugar
1/8 tsp salt

How to:
Process almonds in food processor to a flour-like consistency.
Add wheat flour, nutmeg and salt. Pulse to combine.
Add butter; pulse to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until sugar starts to dissolve, then stir in extracts.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and combine.
Scrape batter (it will be thick) into a buttered and floured 9” springform pan and spread it evenly.

Sprinkle slivered almonds over batter; sprinkle sugar and salt over almonds.
Bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Let it cool for as long as you can stand before cutting it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Autumn Singletrack

photos by Greg

Autumn is a generous time in our little corner of the world. It begins, perhaps, with the first frosts that nip the high country. With the leaves turning from green to gold on the shoulders of the mountains, the color spilling downward into the valleys, then pouring away to leave bare branches. Summer heat fades away and sleeves go from short to long. Snow splashes off the mountains like inverse waves, a wash of white that splashes downward and retreats with sunshine, only to splash further with the next storm, the tide, as it were, coming in.

Autumn also seems to bring with it a certain clarity of light. As if the gold of the falling leaves rises into the air, warming the view of our canyons and mesas. It's a rewarding time to be outside. And we hope we made good use of our time.