Tuesday, July 3, 2012

California River Rats

As we were driving back to San Francisco yesterday afternoon, weaving South on Highway 101 through golden hills crowned by intensely blue skies, my friend Jenny sitting next to me in the car kept exclaiming: "Gosh, it's so beautiful here!" She must've said it several times, enough to wake me up from my constant taking-for-granted of the majestic landscape that makes California such a visually stunning place. Jenny was visiting for the weekend from Cincinnati. You often need that outsider's point of view to remind you of how lucky you are.

Every summer for the past five years or so, my friends and I have been spending the 4th of July weekend camping by the Eel river in Mendocino county in northern California. We usually gather around 30 people and every year we set a theme, that we loosely adhere to. In the past, we had themes such as Indian Summer, when we built a tee pee and decorated the place with Native American paraphernalia. Another year we had a Hawaiian theme and we roasted a baby pig. One year we bought glow-in-the-dark sticks and we broke them open, splashing the paint all over our bodies and danced around covered in glowing paint.

Devin, building one of the shade structures. The beach has no natural shade, so at 100 degrees outside during the day having no place to hide from the burning sun can be a real torture.
This year's theme was Jamaican, so we hung up a bunch of Bob Marley and Rastafarian flags. Also, every year we build a sweat lodge. I'll talk more about that later. All this happens because of a great dude called Travis, who introduced all of us to this magic spot on the river and whose birthday we celebrate that weekend. Without his energy, enthusiasm and organizational skills, none of this would be possible.

It's not just natural, it's supernatural.

To reach this secret spot by the river you have to haul all your camping gear across the river. Depending on season, the water can be really high and fast, or low and easy to cross. We got lucky this time around, as the water was not higher than your knees. On Friday during setup time, we hauled a lot of shade construction gear across the river: duffel bags stuffed with down comforters and pillows, canvases and 2x4s for shade structures, tables and tarps, coolers and camping gear. Normally, we are low maintenance people and can camp in more basic conditions, but for this annual event we really go out of the way to make it special.

Our group of friends is very eclectic, comprised of all ages, professional backgrounds and lifestyles. We all share a love of riding 2-wheeled vehicles and we all met because of mopeds. Very few of us still ride mopeds these days, many have upgraded to motorcycles, but we formed a strong bond, and we continue to be friends beyond the passion for riding mopeds. The lady in the photo above is a talented software engineer at Google. She's also a bad-ass moped rider. Other people in the group are tattoo artists, graphic or industrial designers, photographers, mechanics or students. Overall, everyone has something interesting and unique to bring to the table. We all love adventures.

Flynn and Jordan


Meet Jenni. Who wouldn't want such a beauty to make you scrambled eggs on a camping stove in the morning?

Flynn has made a special appearance on this trip. He's carved himself a new life away from us, but we were happy to see him again this weekend. We've missed him a lot and it was so great to have him with us again.

Babes, babes, babes.

It was 6pm and we started getting ready for dinner and hanging out around the fire.

The babe pad.

Travel buddies reunion.
If you've followed our blog, you may remember Jenny, the lady in the middle, who accompanied Anne and I for one month of our trip, in India and Nepal. While we were still in Nepal at the beginning of May, she promised she would come to visit us during the 4th of July weekend. And here she is, keeping her promise. We've shared some intense moments together while in India - so it was great to see each other relaxed and comfortable with the environment we're in.

And this is Elena, another special lady in my life. Elena picked Anne and I up from the airport when we returned from our trip - she was the first (and only) person to see us in our dirty and ragged backpacker state. Elena is probably one of the funniest people I know and I hope her new and awesome boyfriend doesn't steal her completely away from us.

Alright, here comes the part of the blog where I get to tell you about the sweat lodge. This year, the boys built the best sweat lodge we've had. They chopped up a couple of young fir trees and used all the leaves and branches as the inner layer of insulation. I didn't take enough photos to depict the entire construction process and how beautiful the final product was, both inside and outside. The inner layer of the sweat lodge was then covered in many layers of plastic tarps, and an extra layer of down comforters at the end. It was all tied closely together with ropes. Inside the sweat lodge, they hung wild mint from the roof, which they had previously picked on the hillside.

The sweat lodge fits about 6 or 7 people at a time. It has a hole in the middle, where we pile up hot stones which were previously heated for hours in the fire. We gather around this pit of hot steamy rocks in pitch darkness, some of us completely naked. It is sweaty and steamy inside, and it gets hotter and hotter as we keep pouring cold water over the hot stones. We start chanting and the pitch grows louder and louder. I turned on my headlamp and pointed it high at the ceiling. We were surrounded by a canopy of fir tree branches, magically lit by the dim foggy light of my headlamp. The air was heavy with moisture and the scents of wild mint and pine needles. When the chanting came to a climax, we all crawled out of the sweat lodge, with our bodies covered in sand and sweat. We made a run to the river and jumped in the cool darkness of the water. I went in the sweat lodge three times and couldn't get enough of it. It's probably one of the best things in life and I highly recommend anyone to try building one, if they have the chance.

Bill, showing off his steak, a well-deserved treat after a hard day of dirt bike riding.
Many of my friends are now on a healthy eating and living kick. I was proud that among the 30 people we had this weekend, nobody was smoking. Last year you would've had a bunch of smokers around. Everyone is trying to eat as healthy as possible, with as little intake of carbs, milk products and refined sugars as possible. We had tons of fruit, vegetables, salads and healthy snacks. Kale has never been more popular. And steaks too. Long gone are the days of shitty campfire hot dogs and buns. We are now a grass-fed meat-eating gang.

It's a steak-off! Nicole's medium-rare top sirloin cut was juicy and melting in your mouth, so that makes her the clear winner.

A moment of quiet before the sun went down.

Beautiful Balprit cooking up some bacon. YUM!

Lots of things going on in this photo.

Clare and Luna, the chillest camping dog ever.

Boys will be boys!

Clare, Elliot and I miraculously color-coordinated our beach outfits. I guess electric blue is the new cool color.

At night time, we all gathered around a big fire. This was one of those moments you never forget.

And finally, the new lovebirds in town: Elliot and Jenni, both radiating with happiness all weekend long.
That brings me to the end of this week's post. We hope you enjoyed it! If any of our readers have suggestions and recommendations of swimming holes and places we should go see in California, please post a comment and let us know. And if you enjoyed this reading, spread the love by either sharing it on your Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook or thumb it up on StumbleUpon. Cheers!