Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Microbrews Cruise: OMB


As Terry pointed out in the comments of my last post, I negligently brushed off a wonderful, somewhat unique event Miss Chef and I enjoyed last Wednesday.  It occurred at our favorite playground, the US National Whitewater Center.

But before I go any further, I’d just like to take a moment to mention how incredibly fortunate we are to have this resource within a 20-minute drive of our front door.  The center has been open since the fall of 2006, with much local controversy.  Though it’s a world-class facility (in a city that desperately wants to consider itself world-class), many residents were unhappy with public-funded lending provided to the center, especially when it operated in the red for the first two or three years.  There was also a lot of grumbling about the original access route to the place by those who lived in the neighborhood; even including gunshots aimed at drivers and mountain bikers on the trails!

However, I am happy to report that today the controversy seems to have settled, the Center has paid back its loans, and as far as I know it is at least breaking even.  Based on the crowds I’ve seen the last several times I’ve been there, its popularity is growing fast.  Finally, I think Charlotte is beginning to realize what we have here.

A little taste of the competition channel

And just what do we have?  Well, the main attraction is a double-channel artificial recirculating river offering class II to IV rapids for kayaks, canoes and rafts.  Fifty dollars gets you a guided 90-minute whitewater rafting trip for anyone from age 8 on up, regardless of fitness level (within reason!).  If you really fall in love with whitewater, you can sign up for private and group instruction in whitewater kayaking, as Miss Chef did last year. 

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If you’d rather get your adrenaline rush on dry land, there are plenty of other options.  14 miles of trails in the woods are open to mountain bikers, runners and hikers.  Right by the main entrance rises one of the largest outdoor rock-climbing walls in the world.  An 1,100-foot long zipline zooms you over the whitewater channels, and there are more zipline courses back in the woods.  Suspended adventure courses challenge your balance, agility and comfort with heights.  A 40-foot controlled free fall lets you feel like a stuntman (or woman).
With so much in one location, it’s a great place to try out all kinds of new activities.  A day pass includes rental of mountain bikes, GPS units for geocaching, flatwater kayaks/paddles, stand-up flatwater paddleboards, along with whatever helmets, harnesses and pfds are required for any of the other activities.  And when you’re done with your workout, you can plop yourself down at a full-service restaurant boasting an actual chef and an excellent selection of beers on tap.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand.

The USNWC offers a series of Microbrews Cruises throughout the summer, highlighting different craft breweries from around the country.  Last Wednesday featured a local favorite, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery (OMB).  We headed out to the Center after work, arriving at the kayak barn at 6:00.

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You don’t actually get a kayak here (unless you’re doing whitewater).  You can see the paddles to the right, next to the umbrella-protected sign-in station.  You also get a pfd (lifejacket, for the uninitiated), and directions to the flatwater dock down on the real river.

The first part of the experience was a guided hour and a half kayak tour on the Catawba river.  Which happened to follow the exact trip I usually do on my own!  We were a group of about a dozen, plus a couple of guides.  Most opted for single kayaks, but a few couples decided to try the tandem kayaks.  You can see one such pair in this picture.

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The, erm, unusual paddle positions might give you some idea of why the guides refer to them as “divorce kayaks.”  Miss Chef and I tried one a couple of years ago, and while we didn’t end up in a paddle fight or anything, I’d much rather go single.  Not only do you have to coordinate your paddling, but the longer boats are much more difficult to maneuver.

Here’s a photo of us taken by the Divorce Kayak guy.  See, happy smiles all around!

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I’m leaning back like that to make sure I fit in the picture—ha!  Notice the bare feet?  We’ve learned it’s much easier to leave our shoes on the dock than to squish our way back up the hill.

But I digress…back up the creek we go.  We only went about 2/3 of the distance I had gone the previous Saturday, but I was happy to learn a bit more about that particular stream from our guide.  For example, the old beaver dam we used to see—which got washed totally away this spring—used to be eight feet high!  Also, I had no idea there were river otters in the area.  Unfortunately, they seem to be crepuscular, as our guide has only seen them early in the morning and around dusk, outside the normal operating hours for the kayak barn.

As we came back out of the creek, the sun was beginning to set.

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Immediately after I took this picture, a large bird swooped across the river from right to left, landing in the trees at the edge of the woods.  It was a large brown owl—I don’t know what kind—and it sat there unmoving, looking down its beak at us as we paddled on by.  Unfortunately, it was too dark back in the trees for me to get a picture, especially while floating down the river.  This picture illustrates some of the challenges of low-light photography from a moving transport with no brakes!

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However, I did manage to get one last pretty shot as we approached the creek’s entrance to the main river.

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As the sun settled toward the horizon, we paddled back to the dock, hauled our soggy asses up the hill to turn in our paddles and pfds, and headed to dinner!  At a well-designed firepit area in a piney woods, the chef and staff of River’s Edge, the on-site restaurant, served up a buffet-style barbeque feast.  They’d smoked their own pork and chicken and had a proprietary sauce to top them with.  They also had a potato-and-pepper side dish and suprisingly good corn on the cob (since it’s still a month or so from corn season down here).

But before we got to the food, we were greeted by an employee of OMB who offered us a generous pour of one of the three beers he’d brought: Copper, their original and still best-selling altbier, a seasonal pilsner and an amber ale.  Once the last stragglers arrived, we had a few introductions to some of the staff, greetings from the chef, and then we were able to dig in.

After we’d had our fill, the brewery employee (whose name I know Miss Chef could remember), told us very enthusiastically of the history of OMB and the art of brewing.  Then he guided us through a tasting of each of the beers—except for me.  I’d already had one and a half, and Miss Chef mentioned in passing that I was probably going to have to drive home, so I passed on the extra tasting.

I won’t go into details about the brewing processes and differences among the beers, mostly because I can’t remember them!  But the talk was truly interesting, and Miss Chef and I would have enjoyed chatting more with Mr. OMB.  As it was, the hour was growing late, and things began to break down when a small group of young twenty-somethings reached obnoxious loud-mouthed inebriation and decided their smartphone games were more interesting.  However, a visit to the OMB taproom and a guided tour of the brewery has been added to our list of things to do…someday.  Miss Chef is very interested in bringing her students there, too.

I leave you with a last picture of the side of the raised firepit, which was graced all around with the USNWC logo.  It kind of captures for me the unique quality of this one-of-a-kind place.

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  1. Okay, I admit it, I skipped ahead to the beer part. What a shame the twenty-somethings broke up the tasting. I'm looking forward to your OMB visit.

    I did go back and read the river part!

    1. Ah ha, so now I know it wasn't so much the "cruise" part that interested you...I like the way you keep giving me post assignments, though. Helps prevent writer's block.

  2. you on a banana!
    wonderful! x

    1. Not just a banana, m'dear...a floating banana!

  3. That's so interesting - I had a nice restaurant meal interrupted only yesterday by drunk, loud and obnoxious twenty-year-olds who couldn't put down their phones for a second. The three of us sat watching the four of them, wondering what is happening to our world...

    1. They weren't as obnoxious as they might have been indoors. Surely every generation has wondered the same thing, though.

  4. Wow. We still need to get there! So beautiful.

    I got stuck on the word "beaver" when you mentioned it. (insert Beavis and Butthead laughing).

    1. Don't be misled; the actual Whitewater Center itself is not nearly that beautiful. You have to paddle awhile to escape the crowds (though not nearly as long as you might think).

      It's sad there's a whole generation growing up who will only look confused when you try that B&B laughter on them. It's so useful, though!

  5. Sweet! Great pics as always - Don and I are huge fans of microbrews... we're looking forward to our trip to Boise and Portland later this summer! :)

    1. I expect a full report, on Portland especially. We are thinking of spending time there next summer.

  6. Looks like you had a blast!


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