Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chasing Waterfalls

Old Fort, North Carolina isn't a place many folks bother to visit. By the time you've come this far west, the Blue Ridge Mountains have been in view for the better part of a half an hour. Why stop at the bottom of the hill when you're so close to the final destination? Unless you're desperate for gas, there's little reason to get off Interstate 40 to explore this sleepy little town of barely 1,000 - or is there?
When we were looking for a place to live, Sue and I had a high opinion of Old Fort and the rest of McDowell County. While convenient to the cultural amenities of Asheville, the area is pastoral, with rolling hills and fields of hay. It reminded us more of the place we left than the sharp topography of the mountains just beyond. In fact, we seriously considered bidding on a house just outside Old Fort, and that was before we knew it would be where our grass-fed beef, pork and chickens come from (click here to see Foothills Family Farms) or where we'd find the trail head for Catawba Falls.
The fact that I'd never heard of Catawba Falls until yesterday morning is a bit of an embarrassment. Our friends, Sean and Sarah, were going for the first time and asked if we'd care to join them and their small posse of children for an exploratory hike. Sue was at work, but I had nothing going on (imagine that), so I got in the truck and rolled down the eastern slope of the Eastern Continental Divide like a bobsled driver. (Note: The 4-mile stretch between Black Mountain and Old Fort boasts a 1,200-foot drop in elevation and a 55 mph speed limit. With some previous experience, it is a shared goal of local drivers to go from the top to the bottom without touching the brake pedal. Visiting motorists can be identified by the distinct aroma of burning brake pads emanating from the backs of their vehicles.) But before I left, I did a quick online search to learn what I could about the falls (click here).
In a nutshell, the falls begin in the headwaters of the Catawba River - a watershed of significant importance around these parts. Though the falls themselves have been protected within the Pisgah National Forest since 1989, public access was not available until this past spring, when Foothills Conservancy completed the handover of 88 acres to U.S. Forest Service, finally allowing hikers a way to experience this natural treasure. I have had the recent opportunity to work with the folks at Foothills Conservancy on a membership brochure and found them to be incredibly dedicated and hard-working. To date, the group has helped preserve more than 43,000 acres in the Blue Ridge foothills. Learn more about them here.
I met the gang at the trail head and we set out in high spirits. Sarah and Sean's twin 2-year-olds are accomplished hikers and their baby daughter needs only to learn how to crawl before she joins her brothers. The trail began easily enough as it followed the creek along its course up the ridge. Evidence of human habitation included the stone ruin of one streamside home and another, concrete structure further up. The trail boast three sets of waterfalls, with the lowest being the most modest. The middle falls are unique in that they plunge through a break in a 1900s dam that was built to generate power. I am always amazed at what industrious people can accomplish when they set their minds to it. How they hauled the materials up the steep valley to construct the dam must have been a lesson in perseverance.
Thirty minutes into our trek and the kids were doing great; tiny legs fueled by a sense of discovery and peanut butter crackers. I wonder if Caesar couldn't have conquered an even larger empire if he'd only had a supply of Captain's Wafers. We kept the boys going with frequent rest stops and rock-throwing contests, but their little sister decided she'd had enough at the 1-hour mark. While my companions sat by the stream to rest, I went ahead to see how far we had to get to the upper falls. Our goal was only a few minutes up the trail for an unladen adult, but there was a tricky traverse over the creek and some boulders to scale. In the end, Sarah made the sacrifice to stay with the kids while Sean went with me to the end of the trail. The upper Catawba Falls were far more impressive than we'd ever expected - plunging several hundred feet from the top of the ridge. We paused there for awhile in the cool, moist forest, then Sean headed back down the trail while I pushed my luck.
There is a small goat path at the base of the falls with a broken sign making it clear to anyone who wishes to proceed that they do so at their own risk. I did so in the hope of making it to the top to see the source for all that water tumbling down the mountain, but the trail quickly turned technical. After 50 yards or so of using my hands to pull myself up the slope, I came upon a stretch so steep that intrepid falls watchers had installed a rope anchored into the rocks above. With the view getting more impressive with every step, I climbed the rope and then climbed some more, but the way was only getting more difficult. The rewards of Catawba Falls correlate directly with one's testicular fortitude. Mine gave out about 100 feet from the top, but the view of the valley below made up for most of my disappointment. It's not every day one gets to see a river being born, and the Catawba certainly has picked a beautiful spot to greet the world.
The way down was just as tricky, and I think I may have ruined a pair of shorts as I slid on my butt down the mountain. By the time I'd reached the bottom I was soaked in sweat that was half exertion, half fear. The trail to the top is about as extreme as I'd care to get at this stage of my life.
By the time I'd caught up with my hiking partners and made it back to the vehicles, it was 2:30 in the afternoon and way past lunch time. I had leftovers waiting for me back at home, but I think the next time I go, I'll head on in to Old Fort to find a bite to eat. When I'm there, I'll be sure to tell them I came because of Catawba Falls and thank them for protecting it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On Top of the Blue Ridge

As the crow flies, the top of Mt. Mitchell is just 12 miles from our house in Black Mountain, but Sue and I have found that proximity doesn't always translate into convenience here in western North Carolina. It takes over an hour to drive west toward Asheville, then jump onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for the 20-mile jog to the highest peak in the eastern United States; but oh, what a beautiful drive it is.
Known simply as "the parkway" around here, the 469-mile road connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, down the spine of the Blue Ridge, to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Construction started back in 1935, with much of the work force coming from down-on-their-luck Americans trying to survive the Great Depression (sound familiar?). After a few setbacks (there was a war or three mixed in there) the parkway was completed in 1983. It is now a beloved part of the mountain landscape and one of the most-popular national parks in the country.
Halfway up the mountain, Sue and I were giddy with anticipation. A cold front had passed the night before, wiping the haze and humidity from the air and leaving clear vistas as far as the eye could see. Alas, a lot can happen, atmospherically speaking, going from 2,400 to 6,700 feet above sea level. As we made the final turn off the parkway to enter Mt. Mitchell State Park, the clouds had closed in and the views had disappeared.
Nevertheless, we were on a mission that did not require pretty scenery, and we were meeting our friends Sarah, with her twin 2-year-old boys and 8-month-old baby girl, and Brandy, with her 2-year-old daughter. One might think so many tiny legs would hold our posse back, but Sarah and Brandy are moms with a mind to let their children find their own limits. With a helping hand to support them, the kids tackled the trail with gusto.
As you might guess, Mt. Mitchell's "extreme" altitude gives it a rather unique micro-climate, especially for a spot that's south of the Mason Dixon Line. The summertime temperature is a solid 10 degrees cooler than it is in Black Mountain (average temps for August are 68 during the day and 52 overnight), and the wind often howls when the lowlands are calm. The summit has recorded the lowest temperature in North Carolina, -34 degrees on Jan. 21, 1985, and a wind gust of 178 mph. It's also wet, all the time. Rangers who stay at the top of the mountain through the winter are often trapped by heavy snows that make the road to the top impassable.
The climate allows plants and animals one would normally associate with the boreal forests of the northern states and Canada to thrive here. Balsam firs, spruce trees and carpets of moss (including this one that looks remarkably like Antarctica) and ferns provide habitat for red squirrels, crossbills and saw-whet owls. After our hike through the woods, the gang had lunch at the mountaintop restaurant and watched in awe as the clouds disappeared, revealing the valley below.
The Blue Ridge is also a place for berry picking. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and a new one for me, service berries, grow in great profusion on the open slopes and late August is the time to go if you want to fill a gallon bucket. While the rest of our crew turned for mid-afternoon naps at home, Sue and I drove down a little way and set out on a promising trail to search for berries. We picked only a quart or so of assorted fruits, but it wasn't for any lack of abundance. It was just hard to stay focused on the task when the scenery around you is so beautiful. Hundreds of pipevine swallowtails flitted from flower to flower, along with a few of the vanguard monarchs out ahead of the migration. We saw several broad-winged hawks - also early migrants - and couldn't help feeling a little pressed for time. Autumn is coming, and winter storms will follow, shutting Mt. Mitchell away from us for three months at least. We've only just started to explore this beautiful mountain, but the bartender is getting ready for last call. Time's a-wastin' ... we need more time.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

These Mushrooms Are Making Me Thirsty

It started a month ago. The mushrooms are talking to me.
Western North Carolina has been blessed this summer with normal rainfall at steady, predictable infusions; perfect growing conditions for fungi. I noticed the first ones emerging in the backyard. They were perfect, mushroomy mushrooms - the kind that you just know have to be good to eat. Then there were more on my morning dog walk. First just a few kinds, then more than a dozen. Deep amid the clutter in the back of my mind, I know some of them are edible, and it's driving me mad.
When I was a kid growing up on the outskirts of Boston, my Dad must have had the same urges I'm experiencing today. He came home one night from work and announced he was taking a class on mushrooms. The class was led by a woman who obviously knew her stuff. She took her students on field trips all over the greater Boston area and showed them the mushrooms that were good to eat and where they grew. They ended each session with a trip to the kitchen, where they'd cook up and sample the day's catch. "Her idea of cooking a mushroom was a hot pan, butter and salt," Dad recently reminisced. They were the best he'd ever tasted. After he graduated, Dad kept us in the shrooms for several years; boletes, oysters, corals, puff balls and hen-of-the-woods as I recall, and I remember them being as delicious as he does. Sadly, Dad's interests took him in other directions and I never took the time to learn anything from him for myself (being a high school punk uses up a lot of brain cells you know).
Two decades later, I'm obsessing over a crop of mushrooms I'm 75 percent sure are delectable, but that's exactly 25 percentage points short of where you need to be to start taking advantage of the bounty - besides, Sue won't let me eat the bright orange, cup-shaped beauties I'm almost positive are chantrelles, growing next to a stump in the backyard. There are books and videos for identifying mushrooms, but I'm going to wait for the next meeting of the Asheville Mushroom Club, where I intend to become a model member and learn all I can about mycology and the pursuit of mushrooms. I just hope I don't get there next month and the speaker says something like, "Well, I hope everyone here took full advantage of the greatest mushrooming season in memory. We will not see the likes of 2010 again in our lifetimes."
Until then, I'll just have to be satisfied with taking pictures and reading blogs by other foragers who know what the hell they are doing (see Fat of the Land). Jealous much? Ummm, yeah.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Joining the ranks: the future of hunting

I grew up in a suburban town outside Boston. There weren't many opportunities there for a kid to learn how to hunt, at least as far as I could tell. The fact that no one in my family hunted was another hurdle. Dad's love for nature stopped at the view through his binoculars. he had no interest in taking any of the birds he loved to watch out of the woods and onto the dining room table. My uncle hunted (still does) and one of Dad's best birdwatching buddies used to hunt 40 years ago - back when eastern Massachusetts still had some wild places to roam.
Between the two of them, Uncle Alan and Bob filled my head with enough stories to start thinking nefarious thoughts about the waterfowl and upland gamebirds my Dad and I would traipse around after practically every weekend. But actually doing something about the itch that was keeping me awake at nights seemed impossible. Hunters were so few and far between in my part of the world that I can remember the very first time I saw one. Dad and I were out birding. It was early fall and there were a couple of guys walking toward us down the trail. I looked through my binoculars to see if they were birdwatchers and was shocked to find they were wearing camouflage and carrying bows and arrows. I had been thinking about hunting for some time before that moment, but seeing real hunters actually scared me. What were they going to do? Would they be angry at us? Would they shoot us accidentally?
Actually, they just said good morning and walked on by, but my father's prejudice against hunting punctuated the moment in my mind. "Assholes," he muttered after they had gone out of earshot. So you can see, I had a long way to go to get to where I am today.
Some years later, the promise of a hunting trip with Uncle Alan forced my Dad to set aside his ill will and apprehension. To get a hunting license, I had to pass the Massachusetts Hunter Safety Test. There was a training course that consisted of four evening classes. I was 14 or 15 years old and Dad had to take it with me. After the classes, I received the highest marks on the test and Dad was second. I'm not sure it changed his attitude one bit, but I'll be eternally grateful to him for going through it with me.
The anticipated hunting trip never happened, and it wasn't until I left for college in the middle of Ohio that I had another opportunity to finally answer this call I'd been hearing for the better part of a decade. In Ohio, I was surrounded by guys my age who had grown up in a hunting culture. I knew some of them woke up early, before classes started, and shot ducks in the nearby swamps. One night, my RA enlisted me and another guy to help him drag a deer out of the woods that he'd shot with his bow (looking back on it, that buck may end up being the biggest deer I'll ever see, alive or dead). I remember he was still in camo and facepaint when he knocked on my dorm room door. he was shaking with adrenaline and his speech was slurred, almost like he was drunk, but he wasn't. he was stone cold sober. I have since experienced the same phenomena after a successful hunt.
I talked to my uncle about this new opportunity around me and he sent money for me to buy my first gun - maybe to make up for the hunt that never happened, more likely to get my foot in the door with this tribe of hunters. The Remington 870 Express in 12 gauge is still a vital tool to my hunting exploits, but alas, I never used it in college. Partying took center stage in my life for most of my college career, and hunting resumed its back seat status.
It wasn't until 2002 - I year after Sue and I had married - that I finally had my chance. Sue was working for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission as a waterbird biologist and her supervisor was hosting his annual end-of-the-field-season party for all of the researchers in the region. As I was led around the house for introductions, I stopped cold in the television room. There on the wall, hung the shoulder mount of beautiful whitetail buck with 10 points. Flanking him were the skulls and antlers of two other fine bucks. I was smitten again. I managed to make all the way through the party before I approached Dave, our host. I pointed to the deer on the wall and said what I'd been longing to say to someone for the better part of 20 years, "Will you teach me how do do that?"
To his credit, Dave didn't bat an eye. "Sure. You wanna try this fall?" That started a mentorship that evolved into a friendship that lasts to this day. Dave loaned me an old 30-30 lever action rifle with open sights and taught me to shoot. He invited me to hunt as a guest on his hunting lease in eastern NC and helped me process my first deer. Later, when he'd bought property of his own, he opened it up to me to hunt deer and turkey any time I wanted and it was on his Jones County farm, under his tutelage that I developed many of the skills as a woodsman that I have today. I finally had the mentor I needed to kick open the door to a lifestyle that has become my passion, and for that, I feel lucky, privileged and grateful.
Which brings me to the point of this story. There are other folks out there who need hunting mentors - just like I did. Many of them grew up in similar circumstances, or maybe are only recently enchanted by the idea of harvesting their own meat in an effort to extract themselves for the industrial food chain. In recent decades, the number of hunters has fallen precipitously across the U.S. Why? Because the growing population cries out for more land to develop; more tract housing, more strip malls, more roads and bridges. Because it's so easy to become lost in cyberspace, that kids don't go outside anymore. Because we have become dependent on the industrial food chain that packages up meat that's jacked up on steroids and hormones into nice, cheap styrofoam and plastic packages. We've forgotten what real meat tastes like.
Meanwhile, state fish and wildlife agencies are scrambling to reinvigorate the ranks of hunters. Why? Because hunters provide more dollars for conservation than any other group of outdoor users. Without the funding that comes from license sales and the tax on hunting gear, state and federal efforts to protect wild places and conserve it for public use would shrivel up. They need hunters as much as we need the lands they protect and preside over. But even more than that, hunting is a critical chapter in the evolution of man - perhaps no longer essential to our survival in the literal sense, but an important heritage that should be nurtured and preserved. In my mind, it is impossible to recreate the intimacy and honesty that ethical hunters share with the environment. They've had some success. Though the number of hunters in this country remains at an all-time low, recruiting figures indicate more women than ever are taking it up, and their presence is most welcome.
Holly Heyser writes and excellent blog that often reports on women in hunting called Norcal Cazadora. Check it out if you haven't already.
So I have pledged to do my part. The NC Wildlife Resources Commission has initiated a hunting mentorship program and I have signed on to introduce someone new to this amazing way of living within the landscape. It was easy to sign up - just go to the NCWRC Web site and follow the links. I'm already planning to take and old friend out this fall as often as he cares to go and teach him what I know. It's the least I can do for the pursuit I care so much about.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Bert and His Bodacious Berries

Bert bought his 10-acre plot of heaven on the top of Moffitt Hill in 1989, shortly after he moved from West by God Virginia with his wife to Old Fort, NC. After working in manufacturing for most of his adult life, the company moved to Mexico and left Bert looking for a job with just a few years until retirement. He hooked on at a chemical plant for a time, but all the while he kept working on the little farm that would become B&J's Fruit Farm.
In 2001, the couple completed construction on their home on the ridge and Bert started planting. He planted pear trees, apple trees, chestnuts and hazelnuts. He planted high bush blueberries, blackberries, red and white raspberries and grapes; muscadines, white and red.
Today, you call ahead like Sue and I did to see if anyone is home and find out if anything is ripe for the picking. Lucky for us, the first week in August is prime time for blueberries and blackberries, and there are enough peaches coming on to make it worth your while.
On a clear day you can see Mount Mitchell, the North America's highest peak East of the Mississippi, but during the summer, only pocket views of the surrounding mountains are visible through the screen of 12-foot butterfly bushes that ring the house. One must guess the couple enjoys watching the swirling tornado of tiger swallowtails and silver-spotted skippers as much as the distant ridges.
The sun was high when we pulled up to the house, but Bert, now 70, didn't hesitate to leave his air-conditioning to show us where everything was. Halfway down the hill, we were starting to feel a little fruit drunk, as our host pulled peaches, apples, berries, grapes and tomatoes from the vine to sample and approve of their wholesome goodness. None of the fruits or vegetables at B&J's are sprayed with pesticides, (Bert just doesn't want any of that stuff on his land) so you have to cut around a few worm holes here and there - a sacrifice we were more than willing to make.
We told him we wanted berries, and maybe some peaches for jam, and he gave us a collection of buckets, baskets and pails and turned us loose in the gardens. I went for blackberries first, while Sue went over to the blueberry bushes.
One of the results of the zero-pesticide policy at B&J's is a profusion of mosquitoes in the blackberry rows. After battling for 15 minutes or so, I emerged with a quart of berries and a dozen welts around my ankles. Bert clucked at my "meager" haul and my bit-up legs. He has a can of bug spray up at the house that I could have used, but he forgot about the mosquitoes. Thanks buddy, next time I'll bring my own.
Sue was doing much better with the blueberries. The bushes were so laden with fruit, you could pick entire clusters like milking a cow. In no time she had four quarts worth and Bert, who was feeling helpful, got out his pole picker and gathered us six pounds of peaches (at 50 cents a pound mind you).We settled up back at the house. He wouldn't charge us for the blackberries or clusters of grapes I'd thrown in, and he gave us two pounds of peaches for free to make up for the worm damage we'd have to cut away. Before we left, Bert divulged that he makes wine from most of the crops on the farm and asked if we'd like to try some. We did and we did; elderberry, red raspberry and rhubarb wines; the latter two being predictably fruity and sweet - good candidates for spritzers and sangria - the elderberry tasting more refined and complex, good enough to stand on its own at the dinner table (in a Mason jar no less).
On the way back to Black Mountain, we devised a plan for our haul - blueberries fresh and frozen, blackberry/peach cobbler, grapes for the table and peach jam.
Ahhh summer - the height of your bounty is truly amazing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Versatility of Venison

I started cooking with wild game shortly following my first successful hunt back in the fall of 2002. Including and ever since then, I have luckily been unable to reproduce the sour, undeniably strong and often unpleasant taste of the venison dishes that came before it. I have my first hunting mentor, Dave, to thank for this, as he thought it equally important for me to learn how to butcher and package a deer for the freezer as it was to kill one.
Some 14 deer of various sizes, ages and sexes have fallen by my trigger finger since that first yearling doe in eastern North Carolina. Only one of them was butchered in a commercial processing operation - a mistake that will never be repeated.
Breaking a deer down into its useful parts (with knives, not meat saws) allows me to be more creative with the ways I prepare it for friends and family in the months to come. If I want to make sausage, I can trim and grind every scrap of meat. If I want to braise shanks, or keep a whole ham to smoke, I can do that too. Most importantly, I have total control over how my deer is handled - from forest to freezer - and that, I think, makes all the difference.
At the end of the season, a successful hunter/home butcher will have plenty of venison of superior quality to prepare as he or she would any beef or lamb. The only caveat to cooking with venison is to factor in the lack of fat. This often translates into shorter cooking times or the addition of fat, be it animal or vegetable, to keep the venison to keep it moist and tender.
One online place where I find lots of inspiration is Hank Shaw's "Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook" blog (see the blog roll in the right hand margin). Hank has taken wild game cookery to gourmet heights, but he has plenty of preparations that are easily accessible to cooks of all skill levels and timid palates.
One of my favorites is his recipe for corned venison. This simple cure-and-cook method for a whole venison roast is like a gateway drug for non-game eaters and should be in every hunter's repertoire.
Here's how it goes, verbatim to Mr. Shaw's excellent instruction.
One 3- to 5-pound roast (It can be from any large game or domestic animal. I prefer the
large, rectangular muscle group from the hind leg)
1/2-gallon of water
1 cup Kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/2-ounce Instacure No. 1 (purchased online at Butcher and Packer)
1 Tbsp cracked black pepper
1 Tbsp toasted coriander seeds
12 bay leaves crushed
1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
6 garlic cloves choppedThrow everything but the roast into the pot of water and bring to a boil, then cover the pot and remove it from the heat until it has cooled to room temperature.
Place the roast into a non-reactive container, just large enough to hold it and the corning brine. Cover the roast with the liquid (discard what you don't need) and put it in the refrigerator to "cure" 5-7 days, depending on the size of the roast.
Once the curing process is finished, remove the roast from the corning brine and gently rinse it with tap water. Now place the meat in a tight-fitting pot and fill it with water so it's just covering the roast. Simmer (do NOT allow it to boil) for 3-5 hours and you're done - corned venison.
Sue likes this especially when it's chilled in the fridge, sliced thinly and starring in a rueben sandwich with all the fixings. I prefer it served cold on a meat tray with a really good spicy mustard. About the only way to screw it up is to try to serve it before its had a chance to cool off from its long simmer. I have found that the meat really benefits from a nice resting period. Once the venison has been corned, it will last in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Someday soon, I'm plan to try this with a whole ham from a wild pig, but instead of simmering the roast, I'm going to slow-bake it and hit it with a honey/maple glaze. I'll let you know how it turns out.
Mmmmmmm .... ruebens.