A crowd of us are about to embark upon the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s first Microbrews Cruise of the season when someone asks if we’ll be taking single or tandem kayaks.
“It’s your choice,” says our guide, Robin Callahan. “But we call the tandem kayaks divorce boats.”
It’s a bit harder for two people to paddle in unison, it turns out, and I have to imagine this little gem is appreciated by the many couples in attendance. Callahan doles out some interesting Charlotte history, and then it’s time for another guide to give a crash course on how to paddle and steer a kayak.
We’re at the flatwater center, near the manmade rapids that are the pride of the park. The Microbrews Cruise, though, takes place in the Catawba River. To get there, we grab our paddles and life jackets before heading over a ridge and through the towering pines, until finally descending unto a dock stacked with kayaks.
Never miss a local story.
We point our bright yellow rigs downstream. Through the trees, mountain bikers speed along the trails. And they aren’t the only other sign of life: Callahan points upward as a blue heron’s wide wings cut the sky.
We approach the portion of Interstate 85 that passes over the river, and the blur of cars inspires several kayakers to remark on how good we have it this Friday afternoon. Wanting to draw no closer to the noise of the interstate, we instead turn our kayaks around just after passing below an osprey’s nest.
Rather than going back the way we came, Callahan leads us up John’s Creek on our way back to the dock. This portion is much more narrow and shallow, which requires that we form a single-file line and maneuver a bit more slowly. A turtle suns itself on a log jutting from the water. And while the area usually teems with beavers, we spy only a gnawed tree branch that indicates one dined there not long ago.
We, too, have worked up an appetite. After returning our kayaks to the dock and our paddles and life jackets back to the whitewater center, we head up to the Ridge Pavilion. New to the center this year, this covered area affords us a panoramic view of the facility as the sun sets on it.
Two fires are lit, which is quite welcome for those of us whose pants have been sloshed with water. (Pro tip: The center has lockers you can rent for $2, and I’d recommend at least bringing some additional shorts or pants.)
We sit at the long, communal tables and make fast friends with our fellow kayakers. We dine on smoked salmon, mushroom-covered chicken, cheesy broccoli, fingerling potatoes and mini Key lime pies. It’s all served up buffet style, and the servers keep the food coming.
Each Microbrews Cruise features a different craft brewery, with California’s Stone Brewing Co. taking the taps for this first cruise of the season. Brewery representative Lee DeVine stands by the fire and tells us about the beers. He starts with Stone IPA, long a great example of the West Coast style. Following that is Cali-Belgique IPA, which is that same IPA but fermented with Belgian yeast. And though I’ve consumed pitchers of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard before, I never knew the beer inadvertently created the American strong ale category as a result of a happy, heavy-handed accident with some malt.
Such trivia is just one of many reasons it helps to have a brewery representative at events like this. Finally, DeVine raises a glass of Matt’s Burning Rosids, an imperial cherrywood-smoked saison brewed in tribute to former Stone brewer Matt Courtright.
We raise our glasses to Matt as well before settling back into talk of the day, the food, the beer. Now dry and sated, everyone appears to be having a great time. And why wouldn’t we? No one took out the divorce boats today.
Drinking at the U.S. National Whitewater Center
Microbrews Cruise: These kayak trips to dinner and beer will be held at various dates through October. Upcoming cruises include Lagunitas Brewing Co. on Wednesday, NoDa Brewing May 29, Terrapin Beer Co. June 3 and Highland Brewing Co. June 5. Cost is $55 for the kayaking, buffet-style dinner and eight 4-ounce samples of beer. Details: http://usnwc.org/relax/adventure-dining/microbrews-cruise/.
Unwined: Imagine the Microbrews Cruise, but with stand-up paddle boarding and wine. This new event has proven popular; all but two dates (Sept. 11 and 18) are already sold out. Cost is $55. Details: http://usnwc.org/relax/adventure-dining/unwined/
Zipline and Dine: Instead of paddling down the river, here you will move through five ziplines and two roped bridges before rappelling down to enjoy dinner and drinks (wine or craft beer). Cost is $75. For a list of dates and start times: http://usnwc.org/relax/adventure-dining/zipline-dine/
Brew Stash Bash: This marks the fourth year for the USNWC Brew Stash Bash (June 13), which kicks off with a 6K in the morning before the beer festival is held from 1-6 p.m. There will be live music throughout the day. Attendees can purchase cards to cash in for beer samples. Details: http://usnwc.org/relax/festivals/brew-stash-bash/
Pump House Biergarten: Located on Belmont Abbey Island and surrounded by rapids, the new Pumphouse Biergarten is the perfect spot to enjoy a beer after a day spent in the great outdoors. The bar boasts a grill and 40 taps (with six devoted to wine).
River’s Edge Bar and Grill: This bar and restaurant offers a variety of craft beers on draft, as well as a good selection of cans. It’s also the best place to replenish all those lost calories, with a menu of salads, sandwiches, burgers and wraps.