There are few things as thrilling as rolling on the river – whitewater rapids crashing against your raft, pushing and shoving as you fight to control the force of the water by digging your paddle deep into the river. It was our first time on northern California’s Tuolumne river, a wild and scenic waterway that begins in Yosemite National Park and then surges through a canyon, forming 18 miles of class IV+ rapids.
The trip we took was organized by rafting outfitter OARS, and introduced us to three
days of not just exhilarating rapids, beautiful hikes and pristine swimming holes, but also to the joys of craft beer and cheese tasting (more on that later).
There were 19 guests in our group – a few families, some cycling buddies and one couple – along with three rafting guides and four additional boat people to take all that food, beer, camping equipment and a minimal amount of clothing down the river with us.
Days were spent rafting through rapids, with names like Hell’s Kitchen, Surf City and Steamboat. Eli, the guide on our boat and the lead guide on the trip, entertained us with jokes and tales of the Toulumne and others rivers he rafted, and we grew quickly comfortable with his booming commands:
“Forward one time!”; “Right forward, left back! And again!” Once we made it down the rapids with everyone intact, we celebrated our hard work with a “paddle high five”.
Each day, we took some time off from the river, and hiked along the Clavey river and up the north fork of the Toulumne. The heat wave, with temperatures reaching into the mid to high 90s, made the swimming holes a welcome highlight. We lazed on the rocks, made our way down natural rock slides, and on the first afternoon,
some of our group extended their hike further up the trail (I was not one of them, but my 19-year-old daughter was). Their reward – a black bear sighting, a soaring jump into a watering hole, and swimming through a couple of waterfalls.
Back on the river, the canyon surrounding the Tuolumne looked pristine to this New Yorker, and due to the high temperatures, the splash fights and chances to jump into the river in between the wild rapids were welcome activities. At lunchtime, we docked our rafts
along the river and the guides immediately got to work around a high table, slicing and dicing fresh fruit for us to munch on while they tended to the rest of the meal. They carefully prepared lots of fresh food options – chicken ceasar wraps with avocados were a personal favorite, as were one morning’s eggs Benedict.
When the day was done, we docked along the river, and one of the guides explained the lay of the land – most importantly, where there were flat areas to pitch our tents and the
location of the toilet “system” for the night. Once the tents were ups, we headed to the dining area and makeshift kitchen, set up along the river under a tarp. While Christian, a talented Chilean chef, prepped the evening’s culinary feast with the help of us wife and several guides, the rest of us got our palates ready with cheese and craft beer.
Janne, our representative from the Cypress Grove Creamery in Humboldt County, California, put out a selection each night of six different goat cheeses. She explained the history of the creamery, how the cheeses are made, and fielded many questions about the goats. Humboldt Fog cheese is one of my all-time favorites, and now I had a chance to taste some of its
cousins, such as Purple Haze, made with lavender and fennel, and Truffle Tremor, a goat cheese laced with bits of truffles.
I normally wouldn’t have thought to sip a cold beer with my goat cheese, but that was the pairing and I was ready. Shaun, the owner of the 21st Amendment Brewery, based in San Francisco, brought eight different canned craft beers for this thirsty group to savor. Sean explained how he ditched his plan to attend law school to start making beer instead,
and gave us the background of the company, process, and his beers, which range in alcohol content from 4.9% in Hell or High Watermelon to 11.5% in Lower de Boom Barleywine style ale. My personal favorite was an ale called Bitter American.
Christian, who discussed his menus and the pairings in advance of the trip with Janne and Shaun, brought out some of the tastiest ceviche I’ve ever had, along with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil on skewers. One night, he served skirt steak with chimichurri sauce and fresh asparagus, followed by tiramisu for dessert. And the following night, after more beer and cheese, accompanied by the chef’s skewered shrimp and prosciutto-wrapped scallops as appetizers, Christian presented a main course of lamb chops over wild mushroom risotto and snap peas. Dessert? S’mores, of
course. But this rendition was made with a variety of dark chocolates.
On the third and final day, our group enjoyed some time at a swimming hole until the water – controlled by a dam about 15 miles up the river – rose to a high enough level for us to paddle. Our group of six hopped onto our raft, ready for Eli’s guidance and occasional kudos. “Good work crew” he’d offer after we pulled hard and jumped into the middle of the raft when he shouted “Down low!” We rafted through rapids called “the Alps”,
and finally through “Pinball” before reaching our take out point.
We said goodbye to our amazing guides, paddling partners and camping neighbors. Everyone in our group had come on this trip in search of an adventure – with a dose of gourmet food, divine cheese and some very tasty beer. I think it’s safe to say we all got what we came for.