Kids travel free on Utah summer rafting trip

Dvorak has free rafting trips for kids age 5 to 12 this summerYesterday we told you that 2011 is shaping up to be an epic year for whitewater rafting and kayaking in the U.S., thanks in large part to the record amounts of snow that hit the western states this past winter. Now that the warm spring weather has started melting all of that snow, rafting companies are gearing up for what should be a very busy season, and some are offering great deals in an effort to lure adventurous travelers their way.

Take for example Dvorak Expeditions, which is offering a fantastic promotion for families who want to take a rafting trip this year. The company is running a “Kids Go Free” option that allows one child (ages 5-12), per paying adult, to travel for free on one of their week-long rafting trips this summer. That means a family of four only have to pay for mom and dad, and the two kids get to come along at no extra cost.

The six day, five night, trip runs the legendary Green River, located in Utah. It is one of the most spectacular and scenic paddles in the entire U.S., and a top draw for paddlers the wold over. River guides will lead the family through miles of unspoiled wilderness that passes by two Native American Indian reservations and through the deepest canyon in the entire state. The trip offers excellent meals along the way, plenty of off the water entertainment, and a number of day hikes that reveal ancient petroglyphs, hidden rock grottos, and outlaw hideouts from a bygone era when Butch and Sundance led their “Wild Bunch” through this very region.

But the real highlight of the trip is the Green River itself. Stretching 84 miles in length, the waterway is typically considered one of the best beginner and intermediate rafting spots in the U.S. This year however, it should exceed all of those expectations, as the extra snow will likely add an unexpected punch to what is already a great river experience.

If you’re wondering what to do with the kids on your summer vacation, consider taking them on a Dvorak rafting adventure. 2011 will be the prefect year for just such an excursion, and it is likely to generate memories for a lifetime.

[Photo credit: Jerry Magnum Porsbjer via WikiMedia]

2011 reportedly a banner year for whitewater rafting

2011 could be the best year ever for whitewater raftingExperts say that 2011 is shaping up to be a fantastic year for whitewater rafting and kayaking in the western United States, thanks to some of the heaviest snowfall totals in decades. As the warmer weather spreads out across the region, all of that snow is starting to runoff, creating high rivers, raging rapids, and some of the best paddling opportunities in years.

Rafting companies in states like Colorado, Idaho, and California are gearing up to take advantage of this bountiful season for water on their rivers. A number of major waterways out west are already 150% above their 30-year average and some are even approaching a 200% increases. But even at this late stage in the year, snow continues to fall at higher altitudes, which means the great whitewater is now expected to last well into July – a time when the adrenaline pumping waters have usually dissipated for the year.

Of course, all this high water brings other concerns as well. Inexperienced paddlers can quickly find themselves overwhelmed in rushing waters, which means there could potentially be more rescues and accidents throughout the 2011 rafting season. The expected high waters have also brought about closures to some sections of notoriously difficult rivers as well. For instance, there are already plans to close some portions of the Arkansas River in June, as they’ll likely be just too high to run.

But the upside to all of this spring and summer snow melt is that whitewater rafting and kayaking opportunities should abound throughout the summer months. So whether you’re an expert paddler or you’ve simply always wanted to try, it seems that this will be a great year to hit the water.

[Photo credit: Redmarkviolinist via WikiMedia]

West Virginia’s scenic Gauley River: class V rafting, fall colors

“Holy crap, what a sausage fest.” This was my first thought, as I glanced around the crowded parking lot. It was a cool, drizzly September morning at Adventures on the Gorge, but that wasn’t stopping 40 men–many of certain age and wafting last night’s whiskey fumes–from preparing to raft the Class V+ Upper Gauley River.

I was in Lansing, (southeastern) West Virginia, fulfilling a 20-year goal to run the notorious Gauley. Every weekend, from mid-September to mid-October, water from the Summersville Dam is released into the Upper portion, raising the river to epic proportions (a raging 2800 cfs is average Gauley flow this time of year). In layman’s terms, the rapids remain at a solid Class III to V+, making for one of the wildest whitewater experiences in the United States.

Since it first opened to commercial trips in 1974, this 26-mile stretch of river, which contains over 100 rapids, has drawn whitewater enthusiasts from all over the world. The dam was built in 1965 for flood control, and the release extends the “Gauley season” well past other American rivers. An added bonus are the fall colors that peak in October, making for a visually stunning trip.

The Upper Gauley in particular is known for its steep, drop/pool rapids. A gauntlet of five consecutive Class V+’s–Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet’s Falls–form the most famous stretch. The Lower is more sedate, although it still has plenty of Class III, and a couple of Class IV/V’s.

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I’m not the only one with Gauley fever. Over 60,000 adventurers annually converge for the dam release, which is why the infamous Gauley Fest is held in September. The New River is also located in this region. Now believed to be the oldest in the world, after the Nile, the New ranges from Class I to V, depending upon season, but has long stretches ideal for sunset paddles and float trips.

The New and Gauley are located within the New River Gorge National River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, respectively. But there are other charms in the region as well: the stunning New River Gorge Bridge (formerly the largest arch bridge in the world, and a BASE jumping mecca), climbing, mountain biking, and fishing. The scenery runs toward rolling farmland dotted with dilapidated barns, historic hamlets, and thick swathes of forest. The New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau site is a good resource for area attractions and amenities.

Many outfitters exist in this region, nearby Fayetteville being the whitewater epicenter of West Virginia. The town’s National Historic District, while small, is very charming, and has pretty much anything you might need. Grab a coffee and afternoon snack at The Cathedral Café, located in an actual former church, or, to quell a hangover, pick up something cheap and carby at the awesomely-named Tudor’s Biscuit World.

Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG), which bills itself as an “outdoor adventure destination company,” was named one of the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth,” in a 2009 National Geographic survey. They’ve capitalized on the region’s multi-sport opportunities by creating a 1,000-acre “campus” bordering the New River Gorge National Park. The property also has accommodations ranging from camping and rustic platform tents, to new, deluxe cabins and vacation homes.

AOTG was founded in 2008, the result of a merger of two existing–and exceedingly well-regarded–local whitewater companies. Founding Director Dave Arnold has been guiding on the Gauley since the ’70’s. His Class VI-Mountain River merged with The Rivermen; collectively, they possess the most whitewater experience in the region. Safety being my number one criteria for choosing an outfitter, I knew I was in good hands.

AOTG has plenty of seasonal options (April-October) if you don’t go in for big hydraulics, can’t afford a multi-day raft trip, or don’t want to rough it. The company offers half-day, full-day, and overnight runs on the New and Gauley Rivers, ranging from Class I float trips to epic Class V (you must be at least 15 years of age to run the Upper Gauley). The overnights are actually “glamping” on the river (think hot tub, primitive showers and pit toilets, Baggo, fire pit, kegs of Anchor Steam and PBR, and prime rib and salmon for dinner).

As for the testosterone-fueled parking lot scenario, it turned out my trip was comprised primarily of several groups of men who do Gauley season annually. If you’re a solo female planning to run the river and aren’t into crushing beer cans on your head, you can always talk to a rep about booking a trip with a more balanced male-to-female ratio. Private women’s groups do book with AOTG, but the guides I spoke with told me the Gauley tends to be rather penis-centric. Don’t let it dissuade you. The most important things are listening to your guide, paying attention to what’s going on around you, and digging in hard.

As much as I love major whitewater, however, I don’t enjoy courting death or yardsales (something of a sport on the Gauley, which is admittedly very entertaining to watch). Fortunately, Miles, the guide in our nine-person raft, had outgrown the urge to capsize for kicks, although he took us down more technical lines when they presented themselves. A native Coloradan with vast whitewater experience, he was top-notch: patient, skilled, and an all-around good guy. His fiancee, Julie, was the sole female guide. Tough woman, that Julie.

The Gauley isn’t the biggest whitewater I’ve run (that would be the Futaleufu, in Chile), but it’s pretty damn big. What makes it scary are the drops, undercut rocks the size of houses, and churning hydraulics–these are not rapids you want to swim. Thanks to Miles, we didn’t have to. We had a fantastic day on the Upper, and pulled into our campground at the “Canyon Doors” rapid, at the start of the Lower Gauley.

Whether or not glamping is your thing, AOTG has a great set-up. The location is gorgeous–steep canyon walls glowing dusky rose with the setting sun–and a hot shower, drink, and slab o’meat at the end of a cold, exhausting day on the water were very much welcomed. If you require down-and-dirty primitive camping; check with other outfitters, as everyone offers something different. Go to the NPS site for camping permit information if you’re paddling independently.

AOTG offers a total of 14 experiences that can be done independently, or as part of an all-inclusive package. Besides whitewater, there’s rock climbing, horseback riding, tree canopy tours and ziplines (the badass new Gravity zip debuted on Sept. 26), caving, biking, and a Gorge Bridgewalk. There are four restaurants/bars (have a sunset beer at Chetty’s Pub, which has an open-air deck and fantastic view of the Gorge), and three camp stores/outfitters. The property is definitely geared toward families and couples, and customized options like team-building and youth groups. But even if you’re traveling solo and on a tight budget, there are affordable options, with prices starting at $39 for activities/$8 BYOT camping (depending upon season). It does have the feel of a summer camp, so be forewarned.

I actually much prefer independent travel, but I like that AOTG makes adventure activities accessible for the solo adventurer who might otherwise be thwarted by logistical or financial constraints. I ended up doing a package, with two nights in one the sweet deluxe cabins (hot tub, hardwood floors, fully-equipped kitchen, outdoor grill, and fire pit), and the river trip. Also included was a full day doing the Treetops Canopy Tour, and the Gravity Zipline–not stuff I’d ordinarily do, but I’m glad I did. The Treetops Canopy Tour ($99/pp), which debuted in May, ’09, is a three-and-a-half hours, and includes ten ziplines and five sky bridges.

It’s not extreme, but the tour is a fun, educational way to spend the morning. In between zipping over Mill Creek and through ancient hemlock, hickory and magnolia forest, the guides talked about the history and botany of the region. The course is also designed with sustainability in mind, and is part of a project to help save the threatened Eastern Hemlock from wooly ageldid infestation. Thus far, AOTG guides and staff have tagged and treated 6,000 trees, some of which are over 300 years old. Although it rained steadily throughout my tour, it only served to heighten the desolate beauty of the forest. The tours run year-round, so you can also experience zipping in the snow.

Gravity ($69/pp) is a total blast. With lines running 1800-,1600-, and 1300-feet in length, at a height of 200 feet, you can really haul ass (up to 45 mph). The location atop one of the highest points in the valley makes for incredible views of fall foliage and farmland. Do it. What the hell. Do it all.

The New River Gorge is a five-hour drive from Washington, DC. The closest airport to the region is Charleston, WV

Peruvian adventure travel and agritourism on Lake Titicaca’s Isla Amantani

While I sat at the table with her young son, Ayun, I watched Imeliana Calcin stuff wood into the stove. Although she’d greeted me at the boat dock in a skirt and faded t-shirt, she’d changed as soon as we arrived at her family’s tiny adobe house. Now, clad in the intricately-embroidered white blouse and headscarf for which the women of Isla Amantani are famed, she was preparing sopa de quinoa for our lunch.

I was on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the
unfortunately-named, highest commercially navigable lake in the world. Amantani, like neighboring Isla Taquile, is a small, natural island (not to be confused with the famous, totora reed “Floating Islands” elsewhere on the lake) populated solely by subsistence farmers like the Calcin’s.

Since the mid-eighties, agritourism has helped provide income to the islanders. Visitors stay in modest guest rooms, or share a dwelling with families, joining meals and even helping with seasonal crop harvests, if they so desire. The islanders hold frequent dances to provide visitors a chance to interact with the communities, and learn more about Amantani’s culture.

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Otherwise, there’s no other real tourism infrastructure on Amantani-no restaurants, bars, or shops, although the locals sell their embroidery at the dock. The farmstays are arranged by tour operators in the lakeside city of Puno, or through adventure travel agencies such Northern California’s Bio Bio Expeditions, the company I booked with.

The residents of Amantani and Taquile speak Quechua, the language used by various cultural groups throughout South America. The islanders, however, are more closely related to the Aymara people of the Altiplano of the Central Andes. The approximately 800 residents eke out an existence by growing quinoa, trigo (emmer wheat), corn, potatoes, and oca (a type of sweet potato); and raising sheep, chickens, pigs, alpacas, and cuy (guinea pigs, a typical indigenous dish throughout Peru). They make a mild, salty queso fresco from the milk of their cows, and sun-dry part of their potato crop to make chũno, which can be reconstituted in soups and stews for sustenance throughout the harsh winter.
I first heard about the island the previous year, while running Chilean Patagonia’s wild Futaleufu River on a Bio Bio trip.

I was really impressed by Bio Bio’s genuine regard for preserving the ecological and cultural integrity of their host countries. After learning of my interest in agritourism, Peruvian guide Piero Vellutino told me about Amantani, and suggested I visit the following summer, during the dry season. Piero-whose family is famed for their whitewater expeditions and first ascents- is National Peruvian Kayaking Champion, and an all-around badass. He and his wife, Patty, are also the Peruvian base outfitter for Bio Bio. Their company, Terra Explorer Peru, is based in Cusco, and together, the companies offer customized cultural extension trips such as cooking classes and market tours, because, Piero explains, “that’s what makes places special and distinct from one another. Water is the same everywhere.”

I booked a trip with Bio Bio to run the Apurimac River and walk the Inca Trail, then added two days on Amantani-which has excellent sea kayaking, and plenty of walking trails. Due to time constraint, I was unable to sea kayak, and instead opted to focus on food. That’s how I ended up in Imeliana’s kitchen (which also happened to be her famiy’s dining and living room, as well as bedroom). Ayun and I snacked on choclo, boiled native corn harvested that morning by his father, Esmael. When he’s not tending to his crops, Esmael can be found down by the boat dock selling blended fruit juices from a collapsible table. Entrepreneurial spirit is a necessity to support his and Imeliana’s six children, but they were genuinely sweet, gracious hosts who made me feel a part of the family.

The Calcin’s live in Colquercachi community, the largest on the tiny island. Through sign language and rudimentary Spanish on both our parts, Imeliana taught me how to prepare the soup, and described typical meals- primarily some type of grain-based soup or stew, rice and boiled potatoes, and corn. When lunch was served-brothy soup augmented with greens, potato, carrot, and onion, accompanied by fried queso fresco, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes- several of the children straggled in from school to pick up their lunch. Imeliana portioned their meals onto aluminum plates, wrapped them in cloth, tying the ends into a handle, and sent them on their way with a dazzling smile. The meal concluded with muňa tea, a mint-like herb prized for it’s medicinal properties.

After lunch, I hiked to Pachatata, the highest point on the desolate, nine-kilometer island. I passed women harvesting potatoes in brick-red dirt fields, and men carrying sheaves of trigo upon their shoulders. At the “summit,” there is a small temple used for private rituals and feast days. Spread out beneath me in all directions lay terraced farm plots, divided by low rock walls. Far across the lake, the snow-covered Bolivian Andes were visible. Amantani is wild, and lonely, and emblematic of a way of life that-for better or for worse- has changed little in thousands of years. It’s not a luxury holiday, but it’s a rich experience that helps preserve a globally vanishing way of life.

If you visit Amantani or Taquile, it is appropriate to bring a house gift such as fresh fruit, which is difficult to find on the island, or staples such as rice, sugar, or flour. Donated clothing for the island’s children is also appreciated.

LAN offers flights from Lima to Juliaca, which shares an airport with Puno (one hour by minibus). Alternatively, you can take a coach from Arequipa or Cuzco (five and six hours, respectively). If you’re traveling alone to Puno by bus, be sure to book a trip that gets in at a reasonable hour. I ended up arriving at 4am, and the Puno bus station (or any bus station, really) isn’t somewhere you want to be, alone, at that hour.

Sopa de Quinoa
Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes since approximately 3,000 BC. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and is a complete protein (meaning it has all the essential amino acids). Substitute it for couscous or rice in soups and salads, or as an accompaniment to meat or vegetarian dishes. This recipe is actually one I obtained from a dairy I visited in Ecuador; it differs from Imeliana’s in that it contains…dairy. But it’s so unbelievably delicious, especially when made with pasture-raised eggs, and good-quality milk, butter, and cheese, that I had to include it.

Recipe courtesy of chef Jose Maria Pumisacho, Hacienda Zuleta

Serves four

2 cups quinoa
6 cups water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 scallions, white part only, sliced
1/3 cup heavy cream
½ cup of milk
yolks of two large eggs
½ cup of grated, semi-firm cheese that melts well, such as Gruyere
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Put water into a stockpot, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, add quinoa, and cover the pot, stirring occasionally. Cook quinoa for approximately one- to one-and a half hours, or until the grains are soft.
While quinoa is cooking heat an eight-inch frying pan over medium heat, add butter, and when butter is melted, add onions and cook until transparent. When quinoa is ready, add onions and half of the milk to the quinoa and bring to a boil for five minutes, then reduce heat and let simmer.

While quinoa mixture is simmering, add egg yolks, the remaining milk, cream, and cheese in a blender, and process for one minute. Add this mixture to the soup right before serving, and stir it into the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.