Red Wine, White Water –
Food and drink star on the California Roll – a legendary rafting jaunt through the California Sierras – By Craig Claiborne, Food Editor of the New York Times
A short while ago, when I announced that I was about to embark on a white-water rafting trip in the Sierras of California, my friends responded with mock shock and unrehearsed hilarity.”You can’t even swim,” one of them said, his voice edged with sarcasm. And it is true. Although I spent years in the Navy, the most I was ever able to master was a dubious version of the Australian crawl.My appetite for this whitewater venture had been whetted on a more sedate cruise by a fellow passenger who described for me a gastronomic expedition he had recently returned from, a 3-day river extravaganza called the California Roll. (The name is a play on food words, a reference to a sushi dish in which avocado and mock crab are rolled with rice and seaweed.) He produced a bill of fare from the last evening of his outing. It described 4 courses, among them shrimps vinaigrette, with chilled snow peas and a scallop ceviche, and fillet of beef grilled over mesquite and served with thyme butter, all complemented by a sampling of almost 20 well chosen California wines. This was my idea of roughing it.
A short while thereafter I found myself bound for Sonora, an old mining town in the Sierra foothills, from which I would be driven to a rendezvous with some 20 other rafters at La Casa Loma, a small general store about 10 miles southwest of Yosemite National Park. The store Is used as a staging area by Sierra Mac River Trips, a company owned by 35-year-old Marty McDonnell. Over the years, Mr. McDonnell, considered by his peers to be one of the finest white-water guides in the country, has conducted one to three-day excursions down the Tuolumne River for thousands of people, from 5 to 75 years of age.
When all the passengers had arrived at La Casa Loma, we boarded a bus and drove down a narrow, bumpy, serpentine road, an appropriate initiation for the journey that was to follow. We arrived at an unspoiled Sierra mountain canyon near the confluence of the main Tuolumne and its south fork. The California Roll, which takes place during every full moon throughout the summer months, starts here and continues for 18 miles of one of the country’s most challenging white-water runs.
We unloaded the vehicle on the banks of Meral’s Pool at Lumsden, a calm stretch of water ahead. When a thousand pounds or so of provisions (sleeping bags, tents, air mattresses, cold-weather gear, garbage bags, pillows, food and wine, tables, linen and crystal) had been secured to large, inflated rafts, the passengers gathered into a group to listen to a briefing by Mr. McDonnell. He told us in fairly ominous and earnest tones that we were about to embark on “an Osterizer of a ride,” that we were to look out for rattlesnakes, falling boulders and poison oak, all of which were common enough around roaring rapids that bear names like Nemesis and Hell’s Kitchen. He cautioned us to hold on tight to a well-secured rope handle as we sat in the raft, and he gave us advice on how to survive if we fell overboard. For whitewater addicts, it was clear, much of the fun lies in perilous living.
We boarded our self-bailing rafts and were paddled out of those calm waters. Within seconds, I felt myself surrounded by the perils in question: wild currents, boulders large and small that would loom suddenly ahead of our craft, deep chutes, straight down tumbles of eight feet and more. Hold on tight I did. Words like “somersault” and “catapult” pounded my brain as the cold waters poured over the front of the raft and into my lap. The trip had all the qualities (mainly speed and terror) of an out-of-control roller coaster ride: the raft would plunge downward and hit the bottom of the rapids, but we were neatly, miraculously, even comfortably cushioned. Each time, we survived. And each time we were inevitably warned that the worst was yet to come.
Along about 5 in the evening, the rafts would touch shore and we would disembark. As the crew hastily unloaded the provisions for the first evening not only tents and sleeping gear, but crates of fresh food for the evening feast I introduced myself to David McNair, the party’s wine master and, between trips, manager of an audio-video shop in Sonoma County. His offerings for the first evening included nine California chardonnays, one cabernet sauvignon, three white zinfandels, one sauvignon blanc, a petite sirah and a pinot noir; during the course of the journey, six different champagnes were served. Most of the dinner wines were 1980 vintages, but the older bottles, among them a 1947 cabernet sauvignon and several 1974 zinfandels, were impressive.
“The Tuolumne is a very serious river,” Mr. McNair said. “it’s pretty radical taking aged wines down the rapids, but so far we’ve only lost one bottle.”
The chef for the expedition was Armando G. Dominguez, and he is an expert at his calling. Mr. Dominguez, who runs a catering business in San Francisco, specializes in foods that go by the name “Tech-Mex” a subdued version of Tex-Mex food that leaves the diner with enough taste buds to enjoy his wine. The food for our first evening began with a “mandala” of seasonal vegetables with a tarragon dipping sauce and assorted imported and domestic cheeses, followed by sausages flavored with aged tequila and a variety of mustards, deep-fried quail eggs with chili croutons, a filet mignon grilled over mesquite and served with a roast garlic butter, wild rice blended with chanterelle mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, buttered spinach, a string bean salad with hazelnuts and cream and, for dessert, fresh figs with raspberries. At other times Mr. Dominguez regaled us with the best chicken tamales I have ever sampled; their filling contained bits of almonds and currants and the tamales were served hot with a puree of sweet red peppers. Other memorable dishes included a mousse of smoked trout on apple slices with a garnish of borage leaves. All the evening meals were arranged on tables covered with starched and neatly ironed tablecloths.
Dinners were served from about 6:30 to 10 in the evening, after which we retired to our tents or slept under the open sky, bedded down on portable mattresses with sheets or in sleeping bags.
Breakfast and lunch were only slightly less elaborate than dinner. A typical breakfast included wedges of honeydew and cantaloupe, pecan coffee cakes, croissants, bacon and campfire coffee. One day’s lunch consisted of assorted greens, such as radicchio, watercress, scallions and an uncommonly tasty ceviche of shrimp with an abundance of chopped fresh coriander tomatoes and lime. After the midday meals, we would have some time to explore the caves and old mine shafts in the area, pitch horseshoes or go canoeing or swimming in still mountain pools before resuming our trip down the rapids.
On the last day of our journey, as we approached the 110-foot-high bridge at Ward’s Ferry onto which the rafts would be hoisted, we floated in calm waters, surrounded by the magnificence of the lower Sierras, the towering groves of ponderosa pines, cedars, redwood trees, wildflowers in brilliant hues, boulders of gray and blue slate. As we drifted toward the bridge, I recalled that hoary old chestnut that Sydney Smith, the English writer and clergyman, wrote more than a hundred years ago, “Fate cannot harm me, I have dined today.”
Copyright © 1986 New York Times. Used by permission.