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Put paddles aside for pizza

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher Percy Collier
Globe Correspondent / July 18, 2004

BRYSON CITY, N.C. -- Dripping wet, paddling instructor Jeremy Anderson returns from the walk-up window of a rustic cabin beside the Nantahala River holding two piping-hot, pepperoni-speckled personal pizzas. Water is gushing downstream just a few feet away; chants from raucous paddlers careening past linger within earshot. Having spent multiple days training in rogue water with Anderson, I've gotten into the habit of following his directions with little hesitation. I paddle when he paddles. I turn when he turns. And now, based on the recommendation of this seasoned guide who has been teaching on the river for three years, I will eat where he eats.

Pizza by the River may score points for being the local hangout for paddling guides. But who goes there isn't nearly is as intriguing as how -- and under what circumstances -- many arrive. Those who don't drive come by kayak or raft, eight miles down Nantahala white water, past a Class II rapid called The Chamber of Waves, one mile before Nantahala Falls -- the biggest rapid on the river.

Chicago-style pizza is famous for being cooked in a deep dish. New York-style pizza often emerges from an oven so big a body could fit in it. But Nantahala pizza, I'm finding out, has its own set of signature attributes. It comes out of a convection oven. The outer crust is high and crispy. The toppings are fresh. Mozzarella cheese is baked into it. And the accompanying beverage of choice is Cheerwine, a burgundy-colored cherry soft drink that's been around since 1917 and is served in country stores throughout the South.

The atmosphere at PBR is anything but ordinary. The dirt-filled cockpit of an old kayak along the riverbank acts as flower pot. A drum set, bongos, and a guitar case are set up in the corner of the roofed deck. A salmon-sized statue of a mermaid hangs from the rafters with Mardi Gras beads around its neck. A talking Yoda action figure graces the counter, sharing space with a stuffed Jerry Garcia doll. A chocolate-colored dachshund named Elton John limps about with a cast on its leg.

During the day, rafts are stacked high beside the nearby launch ramp. Seeing a line of as many as 40 people is not uncommon. Paddlers in search of a slice walk up to the counter in waterlogged booties and dripping life vests. Then night falls. Tourists return to rented rooms or head home. Christmas lights illuminate the porch. A bands plays. A bonfire blazes on the other side of the launch ramp. Guides from rafting outfits up and down the river come out of the woodwork. Pies are ordered all around and local brew is shared among peers as stories of the day unfold. Infiltrating this culture takes time and a knowledge I have yet to possess. So as the sun begins its descent over the high mountains, I slip away and head for home with a full stomach, leaving this outpost where the urges to eat and to run rapids converge.

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