fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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quick note (or, yes, I haven’t been fishing)

I sit down tentatively in front of the keyboard, the one-eyed monster stares back, unblinking. The view out the window reminds me that midsummer has passed and for the first time in a month I’m fully aware of just how much fishing I’ve missed. It’s a long time before the end of the season, and there should be opportunity to haunt favorite fishy places. But there’s no making up for time lost.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything just for fun. The prospect of doing so is exciting but a bit terrifying. I’ve been challenged the last month or so by genetics that required minor surgery on my left hand, not my casting hand, thank goodness. Apparently I inherited from some long-forgotten Northern European ancestor the necessary components to develop Dupuytren’s contracture. After outpatient surgery, I was in a brace for two weeks. There was no keyboarding at 70 words per minute. But life didn’t sit still. Work piled up. I was in the middle of three different website projects as well as my regular job. It’s taken weeks just to get back to par. To the three readers still left, I’m sorry for the absence.

My forced downtime did not go to waste. Karen and I spent a weekend in Chico; no fishing, just lots of beer tasting at the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across America.

The weekends this month are already full with life’s non-fishing activities and that’s just fine. Given that California’s in the middle of a horrendous drought, the trout have more important things to do than ignore my fly as it drifts by. Vegetation has become tinder for fires. It’s anyone’s guess if this winter will put a dent in the drought. The recent reports of warm water game fish and mammals appearing in the ocean off the California coast (mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, pilot and Bryde’s whales) and the recent humidity and showers could be the tea leaves predicting El Niño is developing. However, expectations have recently changed, and it may be a weak event.

In the meantime, you’ll find me preparing for the time opportunity presents itself.


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in the foothills for food

One of the best things about being willing to travel for food is that the allure of food…or wine or beer…can be the thing that motivates.

The release of monthly wine selection, which we elected to pick up rather than expanding our carbon footprint with door-to-door delivery, led to a last-minute decision to take a road trip last Friday that would loop through the Sierra Nevada foothill towns of Murphys and Jamestown. The last-minute part was a decision to make it a day trip rather than pack, unpack, then pack again for a short weekend stay at the cabin.

Spring Flowers at Ironstone Winery

Tulips at Ironstone Winery

Departure time that often dictates one’s route, and since we’d first stop in Murphys, timing put us in Stockton for breakfast. Yes, that Central Valley town, in the middle of some of the most productive farmland in the world. Yet is isn’t the prototypical farming community. Stockton is a city of 300,000.

When the real estate bubble burst, homes built on cheap agricultural land in and around Stockton — almost within commuting distance of San Francisco — were left empty. Without customers, businesses closed and shopping centers went dark. The construction industry that built both residential and commercial properties collapsed, increasing the rolls of unemployed. Income and property and sales tax revenue fell.

But Stockton is a city with a deep freshwater port handling over $1 billion in product shipment annually. It is home to the prestigious University of Pacific and its 7,000 students. During the boom years the city gained a new ballpark, a city activities center, at least one new hotel, an ice rink and a lovely marina. It’s been described as a slice of Los Angeles minus Hollywood.

Our stop for breakfast was at a restaurant within Stockton’s Miracle Mile Improvement District, three blocks south of UOP. Karen found the Midtown Creperie on our ever-present travel companion, Yelp. Years ago I spend half a week in New Orleans and Midtown Creperie offers any almost Disneyesque décor, and though dark, is complete with Mardi Gras beads at each place setting. The mood set, it was the King Cake crepe for me, with dark chocolate sauce substituted for the white chocolate glaze. Karen ordered an omelet with spinach, sausage and tomato with country potatoes. Per our usual strategy in a new place, we split our meals.

Apparently, I haven’t learned my lesson when it comes to trying a place for the first time, particularly one that specializes. The King Cake crepe was good, but with too much going on — apples, cream filling, chocolate sauce and multicolor sugar crystals — it was tough to judge the foundation of the dish, the crepe itself. It was good, to be sure, but I’d say the great presentation didn’t match the flavor. The omelet was good but the sausage was less present than I would usually hope.

After a 30-minute walk down Pacific Avenue and its eclectic mix of shops, we were headed to Ironstone Vineyards, the home of one of Karen’s favorite everyday wines. Outside planters around the winery always filled with the best-looking plants, and being spring, they were filled with flowers. We’re not extravagant with wine club memberships, but it is nice to walk in and taste all we want without a fee, so we did. A case of Karen’s favorite walked out with us.

We hadn’t planned for lunch, but after walking the grounds at Ironstone and up and down Murphys’ Main Street — and the result of my interest in the beers at Alchemy Market — we ended up at the Alchemy Café next door. My wife had suggested sharing a beer — gotta love her — and I suggested a small appetizer. That didn’t quite work out as expected.

We’d been to Alchemy Café before, and split the Thai Chicken Salad, which was more than enough. The idea was to just have small plate to nosh on. Karen ended up with a nice lamb soup. I ordered the Crispy Fried Calamari and forgot about the awesome and complimentary Alchemy’s Famous Gold Nugget Cheese Bread.

Despite its awesomeness, Karen won’t touch Alchemy’s bread. She doesn’t like cheese. But that’s okay. I got the whole serving of this spicy, heavenly goodness. It’s a foundation of ciabatta bread spread with a fluffy mix of salted butter, corn kernels, chopped green onions, minced serrano chiles, minced garlic, chopped cilantro, shredded white cheddar cheese and Parmesan cheese, the baked until golden brown.

Had I remember the bread would come, I’d have skipped the calamari. However, I’m glad I didn’t.

Then there was the beer. Both the Alchemy Café and the associated Alchemy Market offer a good selection of beer, along with a long list of local and not-so-local wines. I tend to gravitate to local brews, and most local offering on the list that day was
Knee Deep Brewing Co.’s Batch 135 from Auburn. To my tastes, it was a bonus that Batch 138 uses Simcoe hops in addition to three unnamed “C” hops (likely Cascade, Chinook, Columbus or Centennial). It was a good light but hopped up beer, though the Simcoe only served up a pine aroma and wasn’t too dominant in the drinking.

We sipped, talked and noshed. It was a great day.

Oh, there were flowers, too.


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will travel for food: Show Dogs & Cellarmakers Brewing

I do enjoy living in California. I love our many outdoor options. I live in a suburb of the Bay Area, in a balance of choice and means. But I have a love/hate relationship with our “big city,” San Francisco.

San Francisco was the seventh most visited city in the United States last year, for good reason — cool summers of fog-kissed sunshine, a history that lives on through landmarks such Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower and Fisherman’s Wharf. Lending to its picturesque quality are steep rolling hills patrolled by cable cars and dotted by a mix of architecture styles such as Italianate, Mission, Queen Anne, Stick/Eastlake, Craftsman, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. Parks are sprinkled about, including the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden and the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Culture abounds with art museums and performing arts. The sciences are represented at the California Academy of Sciences, the Morrison Planetarium and Steinhart Aquarium.

Wandering through neighborhoods like North Beach, Chinatown, Telegraph Hill and SoMa on a sunny day rank among some of my favorite experiences in The City. Christmas can be made more special with a visit to Union Square and a walk by Macy’s holiday windows displaying SPCA cats and dogs looking for forever homes. Personally, I enjoy carspotting and rarely is there not a sighting of a Ferrari or Tesla or the occasional Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls Royce or Pagini. (BMWs, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches are too commonplace.)

San Francisco is also most densely inhabited large city in our state and the second-most densely populated major city in the United States; second only to New York City. High-rise office buildings blot out the sky and create dark canyons that can be 10 degrees cooler. Our visit last weekend was marked by warmish temperatures, which likely gave rise to the rather pungent odors one might expect during a rainless winter.

Some people wanted champagne and caviar when they should have had beer and hot dogs. - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Some people wanted champagne and caviar when they should have had beer and hot dogs.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

But we will travel for food, which lured us once again across the Bay. Intellectually, I understand the need for and benefits of mass transit; but deep inside I harbor an irrational fear of missing a scheduled stop. (Yes, I know there will be another bus or train, but that means giving up control of my schedule.) However, I’ve become accustomed to the hour-long ferry ride and have recently adopted the mantra “walking is good.”

Walk we did. To get where we were going, we’d skirt the Tenderloin just above SoMa. The situational awareness I’ve been working on, unfortunately, meant I wouldn’t miss that guy relieving himself in the gutter on Turk Street. More than once we walked through a repellent cloud of “skunk” originating from green stuff, not the black and white animal.

In truth, it was more akin to hiking for food and beer, and lunch at Show Dogs Fine Sausages was the reward on the first leg. House-made hot dogs, sausages and condiments, and beer on tap. What’s not to love? And love it we did. Maximizing our opportunity to taste Show Dogs’ offerings, we split a House Maple Pork sausage and Fried Chicken Sandwich, a pint of 21st Amendment’s seasonal Fireside Chat — a nice, rich and semi-dark English-style ale tweaked with spices — and a side of fries. The maple pork sausage was an experience I’d gladly repeat, even without the sprinkling of bacon. The proportion of maple to pork was perfect. Think of that time at breakfast when your sausage rolled into a bit of syrup. The twist for me was the deliciousness of the fried chicken sandwich, it was outstanding. Sure, it’s fried, but the house-made lemon cayenne aioli, coleslaw, pickled ginger and well-matched bun make it something quite special. The fries weren’t as special, but were perked up by the house-made habanero ketchup.

We’d walk another mile or so to pick up something Karen had ordered, then it’d be another mile to Cellarmaker Brewing Co.’s taproom. But it was one o’clock, and the taproom wouldn’t open until two. So, without thinking, began to head to the Ferry Building.

A few blocks later Karen thought to check the ferry schedule. The next ferry wouldn’t leave until 3:45 p.m. Apparently, God wants us to have beer. And Cellarmaker delivered.

Cellarmaker is small, with a ten-barrel brewery and a twelve-tap tasting room inside a former garage in SoMa. It opened last October with four beers and has since expanded it lineup with a rotation of beers. We settled into the cozy taproom and upon learning that some taps were dry, ordered up five ounces of each available beer. It was nice to see that each glass was pre-wetted with chilled water before filling (I expect that it was distilled water).

We ended up with glasses of Coquette, Simcoe Galaxy IPA, Jagged Little Pale Ale, Coffee and Cigarettes and Kelly’s Blackout Stout. All were good enough to order again, but I fell in love with piney goodness of the Simcoe Galaxy. It reminded me of Skagway Brewing’s Spruce Tip Blonde, which is brewed with spruce tips. The Simcoe Galaxy is not, but the herbal, piney and almost earthy fragrance (of the Simcoe hops?) comes forward and lingers. This is an aroma-heavy beer with a light hazy yellow color and a surprising lightness. Karen was fonder of the easy-drinking Jagged Little Pale Ale, a clean almost-IPA. Coffee and Cigarettes stood out for its aggressive aroma of espresso and burnt malt backed up by a lingering smokiness.

I’m a fan of saisons/farmhouse ales, but Cellarmakers Saison Francisco wouldn’t be released for another week; however the Coquette, a grisette, was a good stand-in. This is in the style of a working-class beer: a light, slightly tart, low alcohol wheat saison about as pale as it comes. Envision sitting down and enjoy a pint after mowing that one-acre lawn on a hot summer day.

We ended up walking just over six miles this day. Nothing like enjoying good food and all that beer without gaining too much weight.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 3

My last full day in the Eastern Sierra was planned around a mid-afternoon visit to Mammoth Brewing. John — a multi-year attendee of this outing — was keen on the idea, so we planned to spend the morning fishing and the afternoon…um…let’s call it “beering.”

We got an early start driving up Rock Creek Canyon to the Mosquito Flats trailhead, at about 10,000 feet. It was a typically crisp fall morning when we geared up and begin hiking, which for stretches was more akin to climbing. It stopped every once and a while to catch my breath admire the scenery.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

We had no particular goal, so about an hour in we departed the trail and headed to the inlet of Heart Lake, which is about a mile and quarter so up the trail. John dropped down to the trail-side of the inlet; I hiked to the opposite side of the lake. Quite a few years ago I hiked this trial, a bit further, fishing the lakes along the way. That year I caught nothing. I know now that it had been too late in the day.

This early morning, however, there was plenty of interest, particularly if I could cast my orange humpy (dry fly) within a foot or so of the reeds lining the lake. There were spots, near inlets and outlets, where I would land half a dozen brookies, most colored up for the fall spawn. Most would slowly emerge from the depths or from behind a submerge log, and either lunch at my fly or flamboyantly refuse it.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

We’d fish Rock Creek between two other lakes as we descended with the creek. I’d hook an occasional brown trout and stop often to just enjoy where I was. It was a beautiful day, with an ever-present breeze that kept things cool. The sun would be obscured every once and while by dark clouds; the almost black clouds I’ve only seen in the high country. John’s movement would mirror mine for the most part, though he did have to return to the trail to hike over a huge granite outcropping that prevented his following the edge of one lake.

Throughout the morning we met other folks, mostly hikers with a few fly fishermen among them. There was a noticeable absence of hardware or bait fishermen. While the casting is easy on the lakes, greater stealth was required in the close quarters of the creek. Most of the time I would cast downstream about ten feet, piling up some line to allow for a relatively drag-free drift for another five to ten feet. Any closer and my footfall would spook any unseen fish.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, it was time for lunch. My plan included a quick shower — I was going into town after all — and to meet John in Mammoth. We arrived just about the same time and it was easily decided to share a flight of regular beers as well as one of the seasonals. We had a good time talking with a server who worked the summer at Mammoth Brewing and would be heading back to Murphys (where The Wife and I enjoy the fruits of local winemaking), where he’s help with the grape harvest at his family’s winery. I walked out the door with a growler of Floating Rock Hefeweizen and one of Imperial Root Beer.

Both the beer and root beer (which, to my taste buds, is easily one of the best root beers around) are long gone. The fish have forgotten who I am. This just means I’ll have to return.


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coyote, rattlesnake and turkey, oh my! (wild trout too.)

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

Sean lining up a putt on hole four at Twain Harte Miniature Golf.

When it comes to the oldest son, the easiest way to level the playing field is to chase wild trout. While there may be some claim that genetics would ensure that he’d be at least half as good a fly fisherman as his old man, the truth is that there’s no substitute for experience.

The day after our Annual One-Day Tioga/Sonora Pass Tour, we had an agreement to take it easy, meaning no alarms. We were still up and out at a decent hour, though long after the sun had begun to warm things up. This Friday being designated a “Man Day,” our first stop was for convenience store coffee and breakfast. The day would later include miles of dirt roads, a lot of hiking, and a whole heap of fly fishing. Manly stuff indeed.

We were headed northeast to Arnold, cutting across the dry, now golden Sierra Nevada foothills once scoured by ‘49ers. We passed the time during the hour-plus drive with conversation, the usual good-natured ribbing, and a good playlist. The focus of the day was a small freestone stream rumored to be well worth the effort. It could be easily accessed through a state park.

We didn’t want easy.

After inquiring about this stream a few months back, a club member cryptically described in a hushed voice a series of left and right turns leading to a serviceable Forest Service road that eventually crossed Stream X. His tale of the wild trout that lived there was peppered with warnings of fast-moving logging trucks and rattlesnakes.

With the help of a National Forest Service map of the area, I had determined the most likely route. But there’s nothing like local knowledge. We stopped at Ebbetts Pass Sporting Goods for guidance and picked up a few flies from one of the best selections I’ve run across. Bill, owner and long-time resident who’s hunted and fished the area for some 30 years, is always willing to take the time to offer advice. (Based on our conversations, I now have a list of rarely fished and not-so-easily accessed waters.) Bill’s confirmation of our route also included some obfuscation…the first left was after a city limits sign and our destination was near the bridge.

The paved road extended farther than expected. The vegetation here was a bit greener and denser than that around the Family Cabin and a welcome change. Soon enough we were on the dirt road. Not your typical Forest Service road, rather one made more drivable thanks to constant compaction by heavy truck traffic and frequent watering.

It became clear during our pre-fishing ritual — changing into waders and checking rods — that we were in the right place at the right time. Chance would have it that I looked up just in time, over the top the car and through the trees to a bend in the creek about 50 yards away, to catch a glint that could only have been from a jumping fish. An added bonus: it was just us.

Sean was on the stream first and hooked a trout in a small pool. It was about nine inches, and coloration and big parr marks confirmed it as wild. Looking over this stream, it was clear this would be a day of pocket water. At the end of the day, about 75% of the water we’d fish was pocket water and more than 90% of our takes would be on dries.

In typical fashion, we leapfrogged past each other as we headed upstream. Sean lagged behind at one of the better shaded pools in this section. Upstream was a wide, sweeping bend. Trees provided shade on the inside. The outside of the bend must be scoured during heavy runoff, leaving a big field of rounded stones of all sizes. Tire ruts leading down to the stones were left by the logging company’s watering truck and — as evidenced by a pod of obviously stocked trout darkening the center of the bend — a DFW stocking truck. Temptation got the best of me and I got a few planters to take a big stonefly pattern. Sean had since emerged and I moved upstream, only to be halted by a fence extending through the stream and up both banks.

Returning to the bend, Sean and I agreed that, with the two other fishermen who had since arrived, it was suddenly too crowded.

A rainbow trout that's a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

A rainbow trout that’s a bit bigger than expected in this small creek.

Nice surprise in a small creek.

During my time upstream, the driver of the watering truck had chatted up Sean. While sucking water from a beautiful stream that’s habit for wild trout is uncool, at least the driver offered up details about how to get to a more remote and less-fished section upstream. Following his recommendation, we picked our way down a less-frequented road. This isn’t your graded road, but rather a barren section of forest sprinkled with stones and crisscrossed by fallen branches. The type of road that wouldn’t necessarily require four-wheel drive, but where I would have been thankful to have a bit more ground clearance than offered by my (trusty) Accord.

It was slow going. The road meandered away from the stream and gained elevation before a fork dropped us down to a wood bridge.

Here the character of the stream changes. It’s nearly all pocket water. And skinny.

As expected, the fish were spooky. We didn’t really see the fish; we caught flashes of fast-moving shadows in the periphery of our vision. This is the kind of stream that tests one’s ability to pick out suspect water and adequately present a fly. There might be strikes on your first two drifts. After that, it was time to move on. Thankfully, there was a lot of stream available.

My first cast was to ideal pocket water behind a large boulder. Water tumbled past the boulder into a pool that while not deep, was dark enough to hide fish. That first drift netted a brilliant eight-inch rainbow. This was repeated often as we hiked upstream, with nearly every fish chasing our dry flies.

It’s likely we could’ve spent all day moving upstream. But we did have to pick up a wine club shipment in Murphys, so we headed back to try fishing downstream of the bridge. There were a few spots but it wasn’t too far before the stream enters a canyon narrow enough to encourage a solid risk/reward assessment before continuing.

A not-so-nice surprise.

A not-so-nice surprise.

Sean, who wasn’t aware of my decision, was hiking along a deer trail above the stream while I headed back upstream. There was no scream or shout, and it wasn’t until he caught up with me that I learned of the first rattlesnake sighting of the season. Sean was foolish coolheaded enough to linger long enough to take a photo.

We debated stopping to fish again on the way out but decided otherwise. Our drive back to the highway included sightings of a coyote and turkey. After a stop at Ebbetts to report on our success (suitably suppressing how excellent it really was), it was time for a post-fishing beer. Luckily, Snowshoe Brewing wasn’t more than 15 minutes away.

We completed the day picking up that wine, tasting some of that winery’s products, and grabbing decent-but-not-great burgers at a place adjoining a gas station. Music and banter continued on the drive back, with a promise to keep up the illusion that this really-not-so-secret place was our little secret.

I did outfish the boy. I also whooped him in a game of mini golf. Even so, I think he had a pretty great time.


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say hi on Opening Day, but with my cast it’s unwise to approach from the rear

The general trout season opens tomorrow here in California and though I’ll likely be awake before sunup, it won’t be to beat the freezer-filling crowd to streamside.

Work’s got to get done if there’s any hope of having time to wet the line on any unfamiliar waters, and I’ll be helping a new group of students learn some of the ins and outs of fly fishing before heading for the hills in the afternoon. Perhaps more accurately, my casting will be an example of what not to do for these novice fly fishermen.

This is the fourth year that Opening Day has been more of a casual affair. Admittedly, I am itching to get out there with the fly rod; but it’s become a ritual not to be rushed, knowing that my son and I will likely be the only people on a small stream just far enough out a Forest Service road that most folks will give up and turn around about a mile short. Google Maps shows another creek a couple of miles further that just might be worth a try.

The maximization of our fishing time will include a few roadside spots as well, and on Monday, after the weekend warriors have left, we’ll slink down to some stocked waters trusting that we’ll be able to hook the dumb smart fish that didn’t fall victim to power bait or shiny objects.

If you’re out in the Sierra foothills this weekend, look for the guy with the funny cast. That’ll be me.


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the good side to a bad wet season

The '97 ready to roll.

An excellent combination: sun, clear skies and a motorcycle.

The separation between Northern and Southern California is customarily delineated by rainfall or lack thereof. But not so much this year. The hope of a Miracle March making up for a dry, spring-like January and February is fading fast. I’m just a little bit worried that not all of the recently tied flies will get wet this year.

Still, I shoved aside one hobby for another, rolled the motorcycle out of the garage, geared up, set the choke and pressed the starter. Spark plugs fired, the engine caught, then sputtered and died. I tried a second time, it sounded as if it were flooded. After more thought than it should have taken, it dawned on me that this March day was already warm enough that there was no reason to apply much, if any, choke.

My son and I hadn’t really decided where we might ride, just that we would. But Sean’s suggestion of the Russian River Brewing Co. had lodged in my head, so we headed out Hwy 37, skirting the northern edge of San Pablo Bay (which is part of and north of San Francisco Bay), through the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge — a significant destination on the Pacific Flyway — and along the southern reaches of the Sonoma and Napa valleys. A cloudless sky and migrating birds looked down upon us.

It was good to be in the saddle again, and though we’ve ridden together less than either of would probably like, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve developed enough awareness to anticipate each other and communicate simple messages through hand motions. A bit of this signaling after we passed Infineon Raceway (the old Sears Point) had us heading north toward Petaluma, past green fields dotted by sheep and their lambs. The last dozen miles or so were the least enthralling; this section of Hwy 101 just south of Santa Rosa is always at some stage of deconstruction, and the redwoods on either side of the road always seem dusty, dirty and thirsty.

Soon enough we pulled into the free public parking (bonus!) offered for motorcycles, which just so happened to be behind the Russian River Brewing brewpub. Winding out way past the bar and through the tables, it was immediately clear that this is a popular place. (I’d later find out that, unless you’re a diehard triple IPA fan, stay away when the brewery releases its ‘Pliny the Younger’ — some folks wait up to five hours in line for the new batch of BeerAdvocate’s top-rated beer for 2009.) We tossed our names at the hostess, stashed the coaster-style pager and gulped down a few glasses of ice water.

Russian River Brewing Co. Menu

The tap menu. We opted for the right side...and it was good. Very good.

The pub is appropriately dimly lit, and the dark wood throughout quickly absorbs any sunshine that makes it past the crowd drinking and generally carousing out front. We were seated about halfway between the front and back of the place, and I had an unobstructed view of the tap menu. We’d learn that the left side tended toward ‘aggressively hopped’ beers; the list to the right was comprised of Belgian-inspired ales and barrel-aged (sour) beers. Selecting the beers in your flight is easy: pick one list or the other or both. It was an easy compromise — I was paying after all — and we opted to try the ales and barrel beers, to be accompanied by a ‘Piaci’ pizza (mozzarella, marinara, gorgonzola and pine nuts) and some hot wings.

Russian River Brewing Co. Flight

The traditional thumbs up from Sean, and a well-deserved thumbs up it is.

The grub was pretty darn good. The beers were crazy good. Our tasting included Redemption (blonde ale), Perdition (bière de Sonoma), Sanctification (blonde ale brewed with Brettanomyces yeast), Supplication (sour aged in pinot barrels), Defenestration (hoppy blonde ale), Damnation (golden ale), Damnation #23 (golden ale, triple aged with oak chips), Temptation (sour aged in chardonnay barrels), Salvation (strong dark ale), Consecration (sour aged in cabernet barrels) and Collaboration (IPA style). Only the Consecration was not to our liking, mostly because the cabernet seemed give the brew an overpowering sweetness.

Our favorites — at least mine — included Sanctification (uniquely tart but crisp), Defenestration (a clean blonde with a hop finish that didn’t linger or kill the taste buds) and Damnation #23 (a full-bodied, semi-spicy golden ale offset with a bit of oak). Thankfully, the sample glasses were 2 ounces, and we lingered over bites of the pizza, the gnawing of the hot wings and discussions of each beer.

A few hours later, well rewarded for the hour-long ride there, we started up the bikes and headed east toward the Sonoma Valley, offloading some beer along the way. After a while, Sean peeled off the main road and I stopped to refill the tank (42 mpg) before the final few miles to home.

Perhaps it’s time to think about hunting steelhead on the Russian River; any unsuccessful day fly fishing could be brightened with a visit to this namesake brewery.


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cruising Alaska, part four: Skagway

There’s something about getting off the beaten path that brings about a certain type of inventiveness. That’s not to say that city folk don’t have their fair share of ideas. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that when left to employ natural resources, interesting things happen. Skagway’s just such a place. The ship docked in Skagway that morning under overcast skies. The ocean astern was steel gray. A later departure time for our shore excursion allowed for a lingering breakfast.

Our decision on a Skagway shore excursion was predicated on setting aside time for walking around town. So, to ensure we’d have the afternoon to explore, we chose the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway summit excursion, a 20-mile ride to the 2,865 foot high White Pass summit. The WP&YRR was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush — ironically completed after the Gold Rush was finish — as an alternative to the trails climbing almost 3000 feet in just 20 miles. The narrow gauge railroad was a cooperative project that brought together American knowhow, British money and Canadian labor.

Headed toward the summit.

In a vintage coach car we passed through the east side of Skagway and began a climb that would take us past Bridal Veil Falls, abandoned trestles, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch and broad vistas looking back on Skagway and down to the Skagway River. The trees and bushes were painted with a blush of fall colors. Leaving the forest behind, we entered the alpine zone and arrived at the summit, our halfway point and the only point of the trip that entered Canada. The hard beauty of the summit was accented by trees dwarfed by a short growing season and heavy snow. Summit Lake seemed to kiss the edge of the railroad bed.

Fall color in the railway bed.

Then it was time for the “Summit Shuffle.” We were instructed to stand up, grab the back of our seat and pull it towards us, reversing the direction of the seat, then move to the opposite side of the aisle, guaranteeing that everyone would be have a new view for the ride back to Skagway. A neat trick. Just as remarkable was every passenger’s good natured approach to switching seats.

It was clear that on this trip we’d be laying groundwork for a return, as we soon accepted that our trip on the WP&YRR would one of those excursions that’d be repeated. Now knowing that Skagway isn’t a large town, next time I’d opt for the full-day 67½-mile WP&YRR trip to Carcross, Yukon.

The first sight to greet us after disembarking near town was that of pink salmon, stretching from bank to bank and filling the Skagway River. It’s one thing to see a few salmon heading upstream, or someone else’s video, but it’s another to see enough fish, hundreds of salmon, give reality to the old timers’ expression that “one could walk across streams on the backs of salmon.” I spent some time in awe of this sight, so stunned that I didn’t once wish for a fly rod in my hand. …well, maybe once.

The main part of town is a bit of a walk past what is probably one of the smallest immigration stations I’ve seen, the WP&YRR station and WP&YRR rotary snowplow #1. Downtown Skagway still has that small, frontier town feel, albeit with the obligatory stores focusing on cruise ship passengers (jewelry and souvenirs). If you ignore those tourist traps, there are some interesting local shops, including a yarn store that required a stop for the wife for a gander at qiviut (kee-vee-uh’ t) yarn. However, the price of this qiviut — the soft wool lying beneath the long coat of the Arctic muskox — made me wonder if it was laced with some of that Yukon gold (nearly $100 for 1 ounce!).

Skagway Brewing Co. appetizer.

But well within the budget, down near the end of 7th Street sat Skagway Brewing Co. Now, I’ve been scoffed at for usually refusing to drink, much less pay for, relatively flavorless beers. It’s a principle that serves me well and often leads to pleasant surprises. Skagway Brewing’s signature ale, Spruce Tip Blonde, was one such surprise.

We decided on lunch at the Skagway Brewing Pub, and started with an appetizer flight of the only-available-in-the-Pub beers: Prospector Pale, Chilkoot Trail IPA, Boom Town Brown, Blue Top Porter and the only outside beer, Alaskan Brewing’s Amber Ale. All were good, but absent from the flight was the Spruce Tip Blonde. Told by the waiter, of course, that Spruce Tip Blonde was worth a full glass, it would be the beverage accompanying some pretty awesome fish ‘n chips. Brewed with hand picked Sitka Spruce tree tips, Spruce Tip Blonde offers an experience that begins with an almost flowery aroma of spruce but tastes of a unique sweetness akin to a fruit and/or spice.

If you’re ever in Skagway, the Skagway Brewing Pub is worth a stop for lunch and beer. Or two.

Rotary snow plow #1 of the WP&YRR.

The steam engine of the WP&YRR at the dock.


The Picasa album with all the photos.