Monday, July 28, 2008

One month in 1000 words or less

I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted. Rather than give a bunch of excuses of why I haven't blogged, here's what I have been up to, and then I can hopefully get back on track:

More rafting and homebrewing on the horizon.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Off to the Snake River

Sorry for the lack of updates on the trip, I've been busy this week interviewing for a possible new job and been preparing for our seven day expedition on the Snake River through the Hell's Canyon section. When I return after the Independence Day holiday, I'll catch up with both trips. Enjoy the summer!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cali trip report - Part III

Day 6
After cleaning up our campsite and packing up the rig, we headed southwest from Foresthill and again through Sacramento. I managed to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a rest stop, which was as close to San Francisco as we'd come. Roughly 15 miles north of San Fran is the suburb of Novato, where Moylan's Brewery is located.

Moylan's Brewery
Kat had a classmate with a connection to Moylan's and thankfully he was able to get us in touch with Brendan Moylan, the owner of the brewery. After we sat and enjoyed a sampler of their fine brews, we met up with Brendan who gave us a brief tour of the brewery. We were impressed that everything is done right here at the brewpub in Novato, from brewing to kegging and bottling. the restaurant/pub is one side of the building, while the other is split into three floors that house the brewery. Brendan was great, and we really appreciated him taking time out to give us a personalized tour.

We took it fairly easy at Moylan's, since the plan was to visit two more breweries later in the day. From Novato we traveled north on US-101 just 15 miles to Petaluma, home to one of our favorite breweries, Lagunitas. I've been drinking their beer since before I met Kat, which was seven years ago. I had wanted to visit their headquarters for quite awhile and I was brimming with anticipation when we reached the city limits of Petaluma.

As we pulled into their driveway, I began to feel a bit unsettled. Unlike Moylan's, which has an inviting look from the outside with flags and enormous grain silos, Lagunitas was right in the middle of an industrial business park. We pulled into a parking spot and sat there, staring at what looked like a warehouse. Sure, there were kegs out front and employees wearing company t-shirts, but I couldn't help but think, "This? This is what I've been waiting years to come visit?" With some uncertainty, we exited the truck and walked over to the building. A sign pointed us away from the warehouse towards the office were we went to check in.

Lagunitas Brew Kettle
The front office was much more welcoming, with all kinds of memorabilia and framed news articles about the brewery on the walls. Stephanie welcomed us, and after waiting a few minutes for any others, we left the office to begin the tour. The tour started in the Lagunitas tasting room, where Stephanie began pouring 6oz tastes of each of their regular brews, not waiting for us to finish the previous ale. They were surprised at our knowledge of the brewery, and tried finding beers we hadn't already tasted. She did find one; the Hop Stoopid Ale, which is as the name suggests, an IPA with a ridiculous amount of hops. I managed to talk her into letting us take a bottle with us, which we'll save for some special occasion.

The tasting room was a comfortable loft that sits above the brewery. Lined with old couches, a Foosball table and a vintage upright piano, the room was very cozy and open to employees after their shift. Here we were able to get a few stories from Sean, the head bottler, who has been with the company for a long time. Stephanie poured us a final beer for the walk, and we went downstairs to tour the brewery. Lagunitas brews in 80 barrel batches (a barrel is equal to 15.5 gallons). This was an interesting contrast to Moylan's, which only brews 20 bbl. batches. The size of the operation was noticeably different, from the size of the brew kettles and fermenters to the bottling operation. The entire staff was very friendly, and if we had a question Stephanie couldn't answer, she'd pull over one of the brewers who would discuss it more in depth with us.

When the hour was up, we went back to the office and loaded up on souvenirs. It could've been the beer, but I left feeling very satisfied, even with the high expectations that comes with a build up of several years. We gave our thanks, and headed back up 101 to Santa Rosa.

We headed to our camp spot, a city park on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. After setting up the tent, we packed a backpack and walked a mile to catch the city bus into downtown. Russian River Brewery has a brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa, and we were determined to have pints of the Pliny the Elder that we brewed a homebrew version of months earlier. We started with a sampler, that included all of their currently available beers. It was almost a 50/50 split of American style and Belgian style ales. We did find a few beers that we liked from the sampler, but clearly the Pliny was our favorite. Russian River did have some great pizza as well. I have to thank them for our new favorite combination - pepperoni, pineapple and jalapenos (The jalapenos here were the spiciest I've had in a long time).

I have to say that Russian River didn't leave a great first impression. While we certainly enjoy the beer, the location of the pub catered more to a college age "meat-market" lifestyle. It seemed like all around us were young adults either on dates or their with their friends to try and meet others. The real downer is that they would not fill the growler we had brought with us, they required we bought one from them. Since they had already rung up beer, food and t-shirts, we figured we'd find some beer of theirs to take home from a grocery store instead (we never did). Besides, we'd need a few extra dollars to give the cabbie since he took us the long way back to camp - asshole.

Day 7
After clearing the cobwebs, we arose and got the hell out of Santa Rosa. A quick stop at a wifi cafe was needed; both for coffee and so I could fulfill my unemployment requirements. Another familiar brewery was nearby, in Healdsburg just 20 miles north.

Bear Republic Brewery
Bear Republic was what we had hoped last nights experience would have been. The staff was friendly, and the patrons were even friendlier. We ordered a sampler tray of 15 2oz tastes of their current brews. While we tasted some fantastic ales, we talked it up with a couple of locals. Bear Republic brews on the spot here (mostly their specialty beers) and at their brand new brewery further up the road in Cloverdale. They also had no problems with filling up our growler from home, so we made sure to take some of their fine ale with us.

We pushed on north, now eager to be in the Redwoods. It was really nice not to have to be in a rush, and we were able to take the scenic routes through the forests instead of staying on the main highway. These giant trees were unbelievable, and staggering at times to stand next to. We camped at Humbolt-Redwoods State Park with giant Redwoods in our campsite. On one of these trees was the remains of an insect. All that remained of what I think was a bee was it's exoskeleton, and I grabbed this cool picture of it.

Bee Macro shot

More to come!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cali trip report - Part II

Day 4
Sunday morning had a special feel to it when I awoke. This was a day of transition. Our focus so far had been on the wedding and group activities. Now we would venture on our own path and begin our California exploration.

Lance and Jacinda (the newlyweds) had planned for the group to gather for brunch, followed by a leisurely drive around Lake Tahoe and then onward to Reno. We would follow them for a portion of the drive around the lake, and would then separate and head to our reserved campsite. Brunch was decided to be at the Harrah's buffet, located on the top floor of the casino. We checked out of our hotel and drove the three blocks to the casino. The view was spectacular there, with a full vista of the lake and surrounding mountains from all of the windows. The food was less than stellar, as I've come to expect at buffets. Since the cost was $20 a head, everyone made sure to fill up on the endless supply of snow crab legs.

Afterward, we began our caravan of vehicles heading north along the California lakeside. Kat and I were only able to make one viewpoint stop before getting completely swamped out by the tourists all on their way home. We gave our quick goodbyes knowing we'd see the honored guests the following day at the river and continued north to I-80.

We ended up taking a back road I had found to our campsite just outside of Foresthill. We had some difficulty finding the road at first, as the directions and highway signs were a bit misleading. With some help from a gas station, we found ourselves on the right road and judging by the printed directions were feeling confident we'd find the campsite with no problems.

Iowa Hill Road was an adventure all on it's own. Within a minute or two we found ourselves on a narrow, one-lane road that pointed directly down. Blind corners were at every other turn, and the turnouts were big enough for half a vehicle (when we actually saw any). The only thing that kept us from turning around was that the road itself was paved (only recently we found out later), and turning around was actually rarely an option. When we reached the bottom of the ravine, we crossed the North Fork American river, and immediately began climbing again. For another 20 minutes we dealt with the same conditions, except now climbing up the hill, expecting some asshat in a jeep to come flying around a blind corner at any moment. When at last the road began to level, a sign declaring we had reached Iowa Hill limits left us breathing in relief. All too soon, I'm afraid. The town was two run down buildings across from each other: on one side was what appeared to be the town hall, though it was dark and run-down, and the other side had an obvious tavern with haf the towns population sitting out front. As soon as we drove past they all started hollering and yelling. Before we could look at each other and say "What the..." a barking dog barreled out of the saloon and started chasing us. I turned to Kat and said "Go! Go!" not wanting to have any reason to stick around this place any longer. We soon outran the dog and left Iowa Hill in our dust.

Day 5
After surviving the attempted siege on our camp by mosquitoes, we went to bed to prepare for an early morning. We met Lance and Jacinda shortly before 8am the next morning in Foresthill to raft the Middle Fork of the American River. Kat and I were pleased to see her planning the trip on a Monday had paid off. Only 3 others had signed up for the day and the 4 of us would be in a raft by ourselves. From the get-go we all played the part of the first time newbie, and asked some of our favorite questions from customers in our years of guiding:

"How cold is the water?"
"Are we going to get wet?"
"Are there rocks in the river?"
"What if I fall out?"

We had everybody convinced we had never rafted before, right up to the point were we put our paddles in the water. The guide called for a stroked, and like a machine the four of us did a powerful synchronized stroke. It was almost laughable when the guide remarked, "Um, that was a pretty good stroke." We spilled the beans at that point and had a great time sharing stories and comparing notes as commercial rafters.

The Newleyweds
This river has some amazing features. The rapids are primarily pool-drop, so there were several ledge drops of about 3-8 feet followed by big pools of flat water behind. Almost every rapid we ran was easy to read from the water and understand the line. A couple drops had some hidden rocks or obstacles that we were glad to have a knowledgeable guide on. The biggest two rapids of the day were Tunnel Chute and Ruck-A-Chucky.

Tunnel Chute is a man-made rapid from the Gold Rush days. Miners used explosives to blow out the rock wall and divert the river flow as they found the currents were powerful enough to erode the soft rock, but not the gold it contained. Tunnel Chute is a strong chute of water that pushes up against the rock wall on the side of the river, then elbows back to the center with a 6' drop which submarines the raft (similar to Husum falls on the White Salmon). When you surface, the boat is still in a chute with water cascading over the left wall. The boat then slowly meanders into a 100yd tunnel, with the roar of the rapid behind you. It was an unforgettable spot.
Ruck-A-Chucky Falls
After a long flat section (with lots of paddling and no rapids), the river comes to a massive drop. Ruck-A-Chucky falls is a mandatory portage for commercial rafters, but I have seen experts run it on youtube. Our guides had us walk around the bank while they floated the boats through the drop. One guide would push the boats through, and the other would catch up and tie them off at the bottom of the rapid. On both occasions, the raft ended up stuck before they reached the bottom, and the guide had to dive off a semi truck sized boulder and swim to the raft to recover. We were pretty impressed with the operation.

We had a great day with AO Rafting, and their guides were very professional and fun (Thanks Ryan and Adam!). We'd tell them about our drive on Iowa Hill Road, and they mentioned we were lucky not to have stopped in town. Apparently the residents do not have mail, phone or electricity and prefer to keep to themselves and leave the world outside alone. After hearnig that, I realized my gut reaction of thinking this is where rednecks like those in "Deliverance" come from wasn't too far off. We said our goodbyes to Lance and Jacinda and headed back to camp to fend off the mosquitoes and prepare for the following day's beer drinking marathon.

Up next - Brewery Tour Extravaganza!

Edit: Bonus video scouting Ruck-A-Chucky Falls

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cali trip report - Part I

Day 1
Thursday morning was a mad dash to get out the door. I knew there were a ton of chores to get wrapped up while Kat was at her last day of class, and not much time to waste. I almost succeeded with having everything ready by the time she returned, and we managed to get on the road shortly before 2pm. By the time we were south of Portland it seemed like we had traveled back in time about 3 months. The sky darkened and the clouds dumped rain on us as if it were early March, not June. We found a Motel 6 in Medford around 11pm to crash at after traveling nearly 500 miles our first day.

Day 2
Left Medford, OR just after 8am after getting some crappy coffee and filling up in the state of cheap gas. Crossing into California on I-5 was pretty uninteresting to start. Kat and I pointed and joked at the palm trees along the highway that certainly weren’t indigenous. Mt. Shasta was a welcome sight for us however, which looms over Northern California much like Rainier. I was more and more uncomfortable the further south we got. I think it was following the highway pointing us in the direction of Los Angeles.

When we reached Sacramento, we headed East on US-50, and the trip completely changed. After hours of dry hills and commercially placed palm trees, now that we were driving towards the Sierra Mountains and Tahoe the scenery was much more pleasant and familiar. Suddenly we were deep in the woods and beginning a climb into the mountains, following the South Fork of the American River. South Lake Tahoe reminded Kat of Aspen, Colorado – a resort town that lies right at the ski slopes. We checked into our hotel to change and quickly had to leave for scheduled wedding festivities.

We toured the Lake for 90 minutes on a modified yacht. Family stories were told, drinks were served and pictures were taken. The highlight of the cruise was circling Emerald Bay, small cove at the corner of the lake that was at one point privately owned, but now a State Park and National Landmark. Afterwards, the wedding party and guests met at the casino for clubbing and gaming. We walked 2 blocks across the Stateline to Nevada where the Casino strip beckons tourists to lose their money. Eventually, I sat with the boys at a blackjack table and donated $140 to the casino over the course of a few hours. Kat was most amused by being able to order a beer after 2am and be able to walk the streets of Nevada with a drink in hand. We finally headed back to our hotel in California at 3 in the morning.

Day 3
In the morning, we found a diner for breakfast a few blocks west we could walk to. This walk also helped us find a Starbucks in the area, which ended up being the only places that had anything than drip coffee or Folger’s for most of our time in California. After breakfast we made our way back to the hotel and prepared for the early afternoon wedding.
Lake Tahoe
The wedding took place on the shores of Lake Tahoe. It was small and lasted no more than 30 minutes. The weather was beautiful and helped for a very memorable day. After the wedding and pictures, the guests made their way to the Port House for the reception dinner. I had the lobster tail, which was very succulent and enjoyable. We were also able to enjoy some decent beer here, New Belgium’s 1886, a dark Belgian ale.

Later in the evening we all gathered again at the casino for more clubbing and gaming. Kat is a reluctant gambler, but she had some fun at the Wheel of Fortune slots. We played $20, and at one point she had run that all the way up to $170. We ended up cashing out for $100, which was a nice win after my previous night’s blackjack loss. The entire group was tired from the Friday night party, and we ended up going to bed soon after.

Stay tuned for more to come!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

in California!

Birrell here, signed in as Kat to show her how easy it is to post on the blog on her laptop...

We're currently in Santa Rosa, at our campsite At Spring Lake. I don't have a strong connection at the moment, but I've been regularly updating our status at Twitter. Follow along if you're not already. Now on to pints of Pliny!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Destination: California Adventure!

Needless to say, Kat and I are filled with anticipation about leaving for our vacation tomorrow afternoon. I've been spending most of yesterday and today packing bags, cleaning house, and generally preparing for 12 days away from home. It's possible I'll be able to throw up a blog post on the trip and I may make updates on my newest find, Twitter.

If you're not familiar with Twitter, it's way for folks to let their friends and others know what they are doing at that very instant in a short message by the web or phone (SMS) text. If you have a twitter account, you can follow me here. I'm not going to promise to update this on any regular schedule (if at all), but it's much more likely for me to send a quick text message than it is to find a place with wireless to set up the laptop. More information on Twitter can be found at on their FAQ.