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Western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania encompass some of the natural world’s richest terrain. They share an inland seacoast hemmed with bluffs of shale formed when this part of the globe was a tropical sea floor in the southern hemisphere. Then enter one of North America’s most bountiful grape growing regions outside California, 30 thousand acres with a proud agricultural history going back nearly two centuries. Along this narrow lowland plain, each spring broad-winged hawks and other birds of prey soar toward northern breeding grounds as they have for millennia.
Running athwart the grape belt is an eight-mile historic portage, or “carrying place.” On Lake Erie’s shore near the mouth of Chautauqua Creek American Natives once shouldered canoes for the 900-foot vertical ascent up and over the escarpment marking the rim of a great highland called the Allegheny Plateau, where the glittering waters of Chautauqua Lake form northern headwaters of the vast Ohio-Mississippi River system. What a story this place has to tell!
“Rock city” outcrops over a third of a billion years old jut from our region’s hillsides. Each spring birds from Central and South America, in brilliant breeding plumage, arrive by the thousands to nest in its forests. Glacially formed lakes called “kettles” dot the region, evidence that colossal blocks of ice from the retreating glacier became stranded and buried in gravel thousands of years ago; globally rare plants inhabit similarly formed peat bogs. Here and there tower groves of centuries-old titanic eastern white pine and hemlock trees; the list goes on and on.
Pair these natural wonders with today’s upswing in locally grown foods and beverages. Everything from basswood honey and maple syrup to heirloom tomatoes and shitake mushrooms, from dry Riesling rested in black locust wood barrels to sustainably, humanely raised beef and aged, raw milk cheese, the region has become a cornucopia for folks looking to enjoy its unique and delightful flavors – literally.
Now a new enterprise, called Chautauqua Backroad Adventures, has been launched for the purpose of sharing the natural and agricultural wonders of our extraordinarily beautiful Chautauqua-Allegheny Region. It provides all-inclusive pre-planned and custom-designed holidays, including comfortable accommodations and transportation, expert nature tour guides, and dining with a focus on local artisanal foods and beverages for holistic experiences that are at once place-based, restorative and stimulating.
Jamestown native Dr. John Rappole, who returned here following a career with the Smithsonian Institution as a globe-trotting research ornithologist, came up with the idea for Chautauqua Backroad Adventures based on his experience with bird-focused tourism in South Texas.
Rappole explains, “My wife, Bonnie, and I stayed at a wildlife research center near Corpus Christi for a couple of months this past winter. Texas is world-renowned for its birds and for birding tours, and it occurred to me that now that we’re retired, my colleague, Gene Blacklock, and I might get into the business since we have some credibility based on our books on birds of the region. When we got back to Jamestown, I was discussing the idea with Leonard Faulk, of Jamestown Renaissance fame, and Len said, ‘Why not do something like that up here as well?’”
Intrigued by the suggestion, Rappole approached friends and colleagues Jim Berry, former President of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, and Mark Baldwin, its former Education Director, about joining the effort and complementing his own skills as a field naturalist and nature educator.
Rappole continues, “The three of us put together plans to form a limited liability company, Chautauqua Backroad Adventures. While pondering how to make our offerings attractive, we hit on the idea of incorporating artisanal foods and beverages into our tours – stopping for lunch at famous local eateries and wineries, and closing each day with a gourmet dinner and wine pairings.”
Luckily, when approached, noted professional chef Cesca Wellman loved the idea of blending natural history and culinary experiences and joined the Chautauqua Backroad Adventures team.
Rappole notes, “The combination of first-class accommodations and delicious foods and beverages along with expert-guided nature experiences and stimulating evening programs, all wrapped up in a single, all-inclusive package, is unique, so far as I am aware.” He concludes, “Whether or not we are able to find a market for our service remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the ride.”
On a recent October day Chautauqua Backroad Adventures invited several guests to hit the road for an autumn sampler of place-based experiences. In the morning participants took in the view at a spot on the continental divide where both Chautauqua Lake and Lake Erie share the same panorama; inhaled the wintergreen scent of a yellow birch twig at Chautauqua County’s Luensman Overview Park; munched a perfectly ripe wild pawpaw at the mouth of Chautauqua Creek; and enjoyed a gourmet lunch at the Johnson Estate Winery that featured its wines paired with Westfield Fisheries’ smoked Lake Erie whitefish, artisanal goat cheese from Reverie Creamery, pulled pork sandwiches from Ivorywind Acres, and Westfield’s famous Portage Pie.
After lunch the sensory feast continued with a hike into Chautauqua Gorge and an object lesson on the region’s geology. Once back into Chautauqua Lake’s watershed the story continued with a narrative on the lake’s natural history, punctuated with a stop at the I-86 Overlook and its awe-inspiring view of the lake. The day ended with sumptuous wines and hors d’oeuvres made with the freshest ingredients by gifted chef Wellman.
Tour guest Stephanie Burdo, Communications Coordinator at the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, likened the experience to an unfolding narrative. She said, “A tour with Chautauqua Backroad Adventures is like entering a storybook, spending the day walking through history, scouting for plants, birds and wildlife, and tasting the deliciousness of foods grown by local farmers and prepared by expert hands. There are fascinating chapters that cover natural history, American history, and agricultural and local heritage that arise every step of the way. It is experiential tourism at its best.”
For more information about Chautauqua Backroad Adventures please visit www.chautauquabackroads.com.