- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What most of us know about Idaho largely falls into two categories — potatoes and Mormons. Yes, that particular crop is one of the Gem State’s greatest and most important crops, and yes, the state indeed hosts a rather large Latter-day Saints contingency. However, Idaho — and its rather vibrant capital city of Boise — is so, so much more.

For instance, did you know that Boise and its environs were home to more Basque immigrants than almost anywhere else in the United States? Or that it ranks 10th in craft breweries per capita?

Or that its state capitol building doesn’t even have metal detectors?

The greater Boise area boasts so many treasures that a weekend is simply not enough to see it all. However, on a recent journey spent in and around Idaho’s capital and largest city, my adventures and discoveries were so numerous that it served to stoke a desire to return.

Here’s what I did in two days — and what you can do too.

***

 

Friday:

If you live almost anywhere east of the Mississippi save for Chicago and Minneapolis, you’ll need to catch a two-legged flight to get to Boise. This is true in my case, requiring a stretch from D.C. to Salt Lake City before a quick hop up to Idaho’s capital. If you can, be sure to sit near a window to take in the Rocky Mountains and the northern West countryside on that final leg.

Touching down at Boise Airport, I am both surprised and elated to find local vintners and brewers awaiting new arrivals outside of security. (This is about the single best way to welcome me to town.) Snake River Winery, named for the water running through Idaho’s Hells Canyon, has some chardonnay, rose, merlot and port on offer, all of which are rather surprising to the palate of this Jersey boy who learned to drink wine in California. The true surprise is the Anarquia port, which is positively amazing and, retailing at 46 bucks, a steal.

Taking the free in-town shuttle from the airport, I find myself at the fabulous Hotel 43 (981 W Grove St, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/342-4622), located in the heart of downtown. Named for Boise’s setting along the 43rd parallel in, as it happens, the 43rd state, Hotel 43 welcomes the visitor with a cozy lobby offering comfy chairs and copies of the local paper, the Idaho Statesman.

My room is a spacious suite, entailing ample living room outfitted with entertainment center cabinet that boasts a large-screen TV set before a generous and comfortable L-shaped couch. There’s a mini-fridge nearby, as well as room-length windows from which to view downtown. The bedroom is even more impressive, with a king-size bed, drapes and blinds, yet another TV and, to top it all off, a large soaking tub that comes apportioned with bath salts.

I make a mental note to pick up some booze to enjoy alongside a leisurely bath later.

Traveling makes me peckish (I blame my British girlfriend for this term), so it’s time for a caloric infusion. From Hotel 43 it’s a quick walk to the Boise Fry Company (204 N Capitol Blvd, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/949-7523). Burger choices and toppings are multitudinous, but in a first in my experience, so too are the potato choices. Welcome to Idaho. From the eight options on offer I select the “gold” variety for fries to complement a buffalo burger prepped “The Heat” style, which entails blueberry compote, lettuce, spicy ketchup and habanero.

Choices also abound as Fry Co. offers 10 seasonings. Since The Heat burger is indeed making me sweat — but it’s a good kinda burn — what better way to complement than with cajun, jalapeno and rosemary seasonings for the fries to stoke the tongue fires.

Beers are also on offer here, but it’s a little early and I have some walking to do.

It’s a bit rainy and chilly, but after months of a sweltering, atypical spring in D.C., the chill and mistiness are a nice change. Fry Co. is separated by a small park from the Idaho State Capitol (700 W Jefferson St, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/334-2100), a beautiful sandstone structure where the state’s government convenes.

And unlike every government building in Washington, I am not required to pass through any kind of security. At all. Not a metal detector, wanding or those x-ray bag scanners you find at TSA. Not even a security guard. Nothing.

Ideally, this is how things “should” be, even in the palaces of governance.

With the shock of non-draconian security already fading, I walk through both chambers of Idaho’s Congress, where schoolchildren are being acquainted with the process of democracy courtesy of tour guides. I can see the office of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter behind a rather large door with glass panels, with a secretary seated therein as if to greet visitors.

On the upper floors of the capitol, you can also take in artworks like statues and paintings that would be at home in any respectable museum, including Steve K. Ussing’s bust of Teddy Roosevelt, made from Idaho’s own rock sugar maple trees.

A short walk from the capitol is the Basque Museum & Cultural Center (611 W Grove St, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/343-2671), which celebrates the Basque influence on American culture at large, but Idaho’s in particular. Europe’s Basque region straddles parts of both Spain and France, its language unrelated to any other on the Iberian Peninsula. The museum shows how Basque immigrants first came to New York, where some become hoteliers and employed other new arrivals who spoke their language. But with the United States rapidly expanding in the 19th century, labor was needed farther west, and thus to the fields, farms and newly built establishments of Idaho they came — as well as to Washington, Oregon and other states.

In particular, they came to Boise, coming in waves from the late 1800s and on through the Franco takeover of Spain. In establishments in and around Boise, the “Euskadi,” as they are known, could preserve their language and culture while integrating into Western America.

My tour of the uniqueness of this town continues at Freak Alley (210 N 9th St, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/703-5966), which claims to be “the largest outdoor gallery in the Northwest.” In the service alleyways of businesses located on 8th and 9th streets artists have decorated doorways, walls and seemingly every surface available with all manner of representation. It must be seen to be believed, but I’ll just say that Freak Alley gives anything in Austin or Portland — the traditional bastions of weirdness — a good run for their money.

Idaho has well over 50 breweries, and fortunately for me, several are nearby. I take a walk over to Payette Brewing (733 S. Pioneer St., Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/344-0011 to meet with Carrie Westergard, the executive director of the Boise CVB. Friendly and welcoming, Carrie introduces me to Mike Francis, the owner/brewer of the establishment.

Mike tells me that Payette, named in honor of one of Idaho’s rivers, has been in this downtown location for a year, and they use locally produced barley and malts for their sudsy goodness. It’s a happening Friday, and the place is filled both inside and out with the afterwork crowd inside and on the outdoor patio to celebrate — or bid good riddance to — the end of another workweek.

The gifts are many on the Payette menu, and clearly Mike takes a catholic approach to his work. The North Fork Lager is light and refreshing, and best enjoyed when it gets a little warmer around these parts. The Fly Line Vienna-style lager is crisp and, I feel, perfect for a river rafting trip. Inspectah Czech is a pilsner that has an incredible character, and I’m not normally a hoppy beer kind of guy, but I do dig the Rodeo Rye Pale Ale, which has just enough of the bitterness bite to not be overwhelming.

Now more than nicely lubricated, I head over to dinner at the famous Juniper (211 N 8th St, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/342-1142), which proudly features organic local ingredients. (And as one of my best friends happens to have that same given name, I simply must dine here.)

To start I have to try the Seven Devils Idaho Bourbon, which has a spiciness to it that is perfect on the tongue. I was told that “fry sauce” is a major thing in these parts, so for first course I go in for some frittes. Be forewarned, if you don’t like horseradish, just skip on past as there is a lot in the fry sauce. I was also recommended the Snake River Farms Beef Medallions, served over risotto. The dish is an absolute delight, topped with caramelized Brussels sprouts.

I daresay, forget whatever you think you knew about Northwest cooking and do yourself a favor by dining here.

It’s been a wonderful, very full day, and I’m duly satisfied with local food and drink. And I need my rest, for tomorrow I shift into adventure gear.

 

Saturday:

Rental car gassed to the max, I head northeast out of town for my first off-campus excursion at Bardenay Restaurant & Distillery (155 E Riverside Dr, Eagle, Idaho, 83616, 208/938-5093). The snows have been plentiful this year, and thus, even now in spring, parts of the establishment’s parking lot remains submerged.

“Bardenay,” I learn, is an old sailors term for a cocktail. That strikes me as rather amusing hundreds of miles from the ocean, but it makes me smile notwithstanding. Distillery Manager Scott Probert greets me and shows me the bowels of the organization, where he and owner Kevin Settles are using Idaho’s ample freshwater — and snowmelt runoffs — to fashion vodka, gin and other spirits.

Of particular note are the London Dry Gin and Lemon Vodka, both of which feature a distinctive taste profile. To complement these fine craft spirits, I try out the Verde Pork Sandwich, which, I must say, is outstanding and tasty, especially with the roasted garlic mayo.

Heading even further north, I find my way to Cascade Raft and Kayak (7050 ID Highway 55, Horseshoe Bend, Idaho, 83629, 208/793-2221) for the first raft trip of the season on the Payette River. The staff is friendly and welcoming to this out-of-towner, briskly getting me fitted for a full-body wetsuit and booties to keep out the rather chilly water on the Payette, which is about six feet above normal level thanks to a healthy winter snowpack’s melt.

And, of course, a life preserver.

Shane, our guide, gives myself and the half-dozen other adventurers the basic safety rundown: Listen to what I say, paddle as I command, hold on and don’t panic if you go into the drink.

Solid.

We are driven a few miles upriver to infiltration point. A few kayakers and adventurous types are out today, but it’s very early in the season yet, so it’s only the hardy and/or the foolhardy. It’s also chilly, just above freezing in the atmosphere, and I touch the Payette with my fingers to find that it’s about the same.

There shall be no safe harbor for warmth this day. But I feel it’ll only add to the experience.

We push into the Payette, with a follow boat of staff and other guides on training runs behind us. Shane, a well-built, smiling fellow, regales us with anecdotes of working in South America as a guide in the Northwest’s off-season, and duly commands us “paddle, paddle, take a break” as he sees fit.

The first rapids are ahead — a baby, he tells us. I’m at port-side bow, the first to take on any water if it comes in over the side — which it does, immediately, as we tear into the whitewater. The frigid water feels both invigorating and painfully bracing upon my exposed face and hands, but I paddle on.

As soon as we’re through the first rapids, my hands are numb from the river water, so I warm them in whatever place on my body I can find.

I wanted adventure; I have found it.

The author, along with his boatmates, on the Payette River

The crew is a motley one of Idaho locals, a pair of sisters from Wisconsin as well as this East Coast traveler. Without knowing much of one another, quickly we develop a rapport with our paddles under Shane’s able command. One of the Badger State sisters is to my right on the starboard bow, and she and I lead the tempo of paddling whenever our captain tells us to begin.

We’re doing well, fording across the higher-than-normal rapids and keeping our raft on course through thick and thin. Each time we successfully negotiate another rapid, Shane has us all go “paddles up,” a high-five of our oars at midship.

We got this.

About three-quarters of our way into the trip, we come to the second-to-last rapid, and the most challenging. Shane, at the stern, jests, “If we’re going to tip over, this is probably the one.”

We all laugh.

Shane entreats my bow-mate at starboard to “ride the bull,” meaning she will sit upon the prow and hold on to the ropes as we push headlong into the big one. I’m slightly envious that I’m not doing so, but as I’ve already had quite a bit of freezing water in the face and every other exposed skin surface, I’m happy to let someone else take the brunt of the Payette’s fury.

Plus, with her not paddling next to me, I’ll need to be extra on my game for the big one.

We enter the rapids, and the second big wave spills her backward from the prow and on to her back at the bow. I’m all but blinded by the spray in my face, but I paddle on. We take the next big wave at a slightly odd angle, the starboard side seeming to lift, then tilt, and then ….

I’m underwater. Time slows. There’s no air, and somehow I hope that I’ll pop up beneath the overturned raft into an air pocket. I remain submerged. A thought as clear as anything in my memory flashes across my soul, as if the words were written in bright-red font across my closed eyes: “Is this it?”

It must have been seconds; it seemed like minutes. But then I break the surface, my life vest’s buoyancy bringing me back above water. I take a grateful breath.

I am alive.

The most basic directive of self-preservation assured, I immediately go into crisis mode, refined from my time as an EMT trainee. I scan about me, finding that my boatmates have been scattered by the current, with the overturned raft now downstream. I take a quick headcount and it matches our crew number. I can hear Shane barking commands to get to the raft as our sister ship paddles hard to catch up to us to assist.

One of my raftmates, one of the Wisconsin sisters, is frantic, crying, clasping the side of upturned raft. I recall she said earlier she cannot swim.

“You’re fine,” I keep repeating, reminding her that her lifejacket will keep her above water. “You’re fine.”

Shane corrals as many of us as are nearby back to the raft. I spy two errant oars in the water nearby, and I swim over to retrieve them, doing my damnedest to keep the numbness that is eating up all feeling in my fingers at bay. Remarkably, I feel fine otherwise, with the wetsuit amazingly doing its job and keeping my body heat close inside the artificial sausage casing.

I swim up to the raft. Shane mounts the overturned vessel and heaves to with his body weight, flipping it right-side up. He climbs in and then begins yanking us in one by one by our lifejackets. The crying Wisconsin woman, who was panicking thinking her sister had drowned, is next to me, and I keep telling her “you’re OK!” and pointing to her sibling, who is with us too.

With the help of Shane and a boatmate, I am hoisted by my life vest back into the vessel as Shane’s co-workers, now upon us, return oars and help us to the western bank to right the ship.

Incredibly, my next thought is: “My phone was in the dry bag.”

The immediate danger astern — no pun intended — Shane’s visage softens from danger and back to that rugged handsomeness. He smiles again.

“I did tell you we might tip there,” he said.

Despite the unexpected swim in icy water, the thrill of adrenaline and the very real danger we have just escaped, the crew laughs. Shane asks for a “paddles up” and tells us we all did a great job. The sisters are reunited and hug. The dry bag, which Shane had earlier secured to the hull, has survived, as have all of our phones.

Now minus sunglasses and hats — including the Boise ball cap that was part of my gift bag yesterday morning — we continue on. There’s only one more big rapid, Shane says, and it’ll be a cakewalk after what we’ve just been though. Nonetheless, our follow boat remains close at hand.

We got this.

Squinting against the sun that has now poked out from between the clouds, and fighting yet more splashes of icy water on our faces and exposed rowing hands, we follow Shane’s directives and press onward through the final angry, churning whitewater. We come through, and Shane has us lift one final “paddles up.”

Safely ashore, we took a group photo. There are more than a few jokes about coming through it alive. Meanwhile, I de-sausage-ify myself by extricating out of the wetsuit and booties and towel off the rest of the Payette from my bod. A hot shower will definitely be in order.

As are a new pair of sunnies. I’m in luck as a local CVS has a two-for-one deal, which heads off the unlikely possibility I’ll lose both on two future raft trips — or so it would seem.

Back in Boise I’m in need of some refueling, and head to the Saint Lawrence Gridiron (705 W Bannock St, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/433-5598). I all but devour the poutine, which is delectable, alongside a Rogue Hazel Nut Brown ale from Oregon. For main the blue brisket sandwich served with chili is calling my name, and it does not in any way disappoint. If you dine here, I recommend putting some of the house chili on the sammy for some extra zing.

As I promised myself, I head back to Hotel 43, where I fill up the bathtub next to my bed with hot water and bath salts, put my iTunes on shuffle and enjoy a pleasant relaxation with a stiff drink of vodka over ice and this week’s New Yorker (yeah, I’m that guy) in hand. It’s a wonderful way to unwind as well as to soothe the muscles you didn’t even know you had but that are required for paddling.

And to complement my latest experience of near-dying.

After a rest, I’m ready for a beer. Walking back through Freak Alley, I am deposited at 10 Barrel Brewery (826 W Bannock St, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/344-5870). As at Payette, there are so many to choose from that I ask for “Flight 2,” which is a generous selection of 10 beers. The Freak Alley IPA makes me smile given that I now know its namesake, but it’s a bit hoppy to my taste. (I swear, one day I’ll “get” IPAs!) The American Wheat is smooth and refreshing, as is the Cream Ale Nitro. I also am digging on the Fillstone Nitro, which is perfect for spring.

To wash it all down — cause that’s how I roll — I order the Idaho-made 44° North Huckleberry Vodka, which is so smooth and tasty that I know I’ll be on the floor if I’m not careful. (It really is that good, trust me.)

For dinner I’ve been told I simply must try out Richard’s (500 S Capitol Blvd, Boise, Idaho, 83702, 208/472-1463), a signature dining spot in Boise’s happening North End, where construction is a constant and much new business is afoot, as evidenced by this second location for the franchise, which opened Dec. 31.

Richard’s has a rather pleasant atmosphere — tony but not stuffy. Chef Richard Langston comes out from the kitchen to say hello. Friendly and courteous, he tells me of having come to Boise from the Bay Area and the joy that cooking for a hometown crowd brings him.

I feel like I’ve burned thousands of calories today on the river and in the river, so to satiate my appetite I start out with the smoked turkey sausage flatbread, which is satisfying if underwhelming. But the Spanish Riojan Blanca wine, with a dry, buttery taste, makes me forget any such minor quibbles amid its deliciousness.

I select the clams linguini as my entree, and words all but fail me at how wonderful it is. The zesty dish offers a spicy awesomeness, and despite the flatbread already in my stomach, I refuse to leave even a bite of the linguini behind. It’s yet another example of how quality seafood can now be found far from the nearest ocean.

Somehow I have room for dessert, and the hazelnut pot de creme, which is a rich chocolate custard mixed with hazelnut toffee, is off the chain. Paired with my favorite after-dinner drink, Sambuca, this final course brings me to absolute foodie bliss.

Now in a food coma, I practically stumble back to Hotel 43, set my alarm for my crazy-early flight back to D.C., and allow myself to melt into this extremely comfortable bed set in air-conditioned comfort (never mind it’s still in the mid-40s outside).

I am grateful. For I have discovered so much about Idaho and its capital city. It seems only fitting, I suppose, that the Gem State would have such treasures.

Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.

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