November 6, 2011
You might think you were enjoying a sumptuous dinner at a high-end restaurant if not for the sounds of the rushing brook and the crackling embers in the fire pit.
Welcome to al fresco dining at Orenda, one of the highlights of an all-inclusive back-country camping experience in Johnsburg near Mill Creek and Garnet Lake in the Adirondacks.
This isn’t your every-item-from-the-L.L. Bean-catalog kind of outdoor adventure, so you don’t need to schlep tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves or mess kits to your site.
Instead, Orenda owner David Webb will provide you with linen-clad mattresses in large canvas tents (complete with woodstoves to keep you toasty in the autumn chill), lead your family on a nature walk and teach you some local Adirondack history, arrange for a local guide to take you canoeing, fly fishing or hiking and prepare fresh, local dishes over an open fire three times a day.
He’ll even send you off on your rafting trip with a supply of gorp.
Where else in the rugged Adirondack Park could you be so pampered?
The concept is called “glamorous camping” or “glamping,” for short, and it’s Webb’s vision to create an environmentally low-impact and serene environment where couples or families can escape their urban or suburban confines for a few days or a week.
It is reconnecting people with nature, without the labor of tent camping.
“I wanted to share everything I learned as a kid with people who might not necessarily have the skill set or the desire (to camp traditionally),” Webb said. “And I wanted to create something where people could come up and have really wonderful, healthy gourmet foods made for them.”
Webb said while his Adirondack version of glamping is “borderline” compared with what would be found at a few upscale retreats in California and Montana, it’s still a unique venture in upstate New York.
“Out West, they have their own butler, they have bathing tents, the s’mores are made with Ghirardelli chocolate, they fly you in by helicopter; everything’s completely decked out with bed frames and linens. I have bed frames, but I built them out of wood,” he said. “I wanted to maintain a really comfortable camping environment, but at the same token, I didn’t want to go and become a bed-and-breakfast in the woods. I want people to learn some of the basics up here.”
On a breezy, 50-degree, overcast weekday in mid-October, Webb gave two visitors a sample of just one of his “gourmet Americana” meals that dinner guests enjoy every night of their stay: an arugula salad with fresh radishes and Parmesan shavings in a balsamic vinaigrette, baby Portobello mushrooms stuffed with herbed goat cheese, a center-cut pork chop infused with rosemary and topped with apple butter and sweet potato fries.
Everything but the salad course was prepared in cast iron fry pans over a roaring camp fire.
“The little ashes and the smokiness that come off the fire, it’s perfectly fine for you,” Webb said. “Having a wonderful meal by a creek in the evening by candlelight with a bottle of wine or a beer? That’s the recipe.”
Webb multitasked this day between throwing a combination of oak, birch, apple and maple logs on the fire and moving the skillets on and off the flame, in tempo with a wind that whipped ashes up into the air.
Just steps away in his outdoor kitchen, a metal roof-enclosed structure with a long row of rough-sawn cabinetry with locks on the doors to keep out wildlife, Webb set out enamelware plates, silverware, wine glasses and paper napkins on an 8-foot-by-4-foot hemlock-topped island. Wood stumps served as rustic “stools” and a camping lantern hung overhead.
A cooler at the foot of the island keeps items handy that Webb plans to use immediately but for long-term storage he borrows a neighbor’s refrigerator. He said he has taken food safety and sanitation course certification.
“As much as this is outdoors, I probably maintain (a level of) sanitation equal to or more than some restaurants,” he said.
Webb has no formal cooking training but learned by watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on PBS.
He thinks of basic recipes as “building blocks” but then likes to experiment with new flavor combinations, using local produce and purveyors.
Webb’s most popular dish is his Blue Mountain sirloin hamburger infused with Maytag blue cheese and apple wood-smoked bacon served on a brioche roll with mesclun salad.
Other nights might feature three-cheese tortellini sauteed with olive oil, garlic, zucchini, yellow squash and capers with grated Parmesan cheese or herb-crusted flame-roasted chicken breasts.
Breakfast might be eggs and bacon or Webb’s special buttermilk pancakes.
Lunch consists of cold cuts or maybe his grilled white and yellow cheddar on wheat bread with sliced avocado and onions, an impromptu experiment that turned out to be a winner.
In the family
Orenda, an Iroquois name for a place where one can obtain self accomplishment through nature, sits on property Webb’s family purchased in the late 1970s. The acreage included a house and an old maple grove his parents tried to turn into a ski house.
His grandfather came up with the name Orenda.
Webb and his brother, Christopher, a playwright, composer and musician, used to spend a lot of time as kids on the property. Tragically, Christopher contracted a rare form of cancer, and before he died three years ago at 35, he made Webb promise to do something with the 46 acres.
Webb left his construction management job building multimillion-dollar skyscrapers in New York City.
“Realizing how simple and precious life was, I decided I didn’t want to waste any more time working in an industry where it completely wears you down and before you know it you’re beat up, broken, stressed out with different ailments and you really don’t have much to show for it,” he said.
Webb built his first pavilion at Orenda in 2009 for a memorial festival attended by Christopher’s friends. He hadn’t conceived of the idea of the camp at that point, but people who spent the weekend eulogizing his brother urged him to think about making some sort of business out of the land.
Two more festivals, called “Webb Fests,” were held in 2010 and earlier this year to reunite Christopher’s friends and enjoy time in nature.
In March, Webb began work on Orenda, building the outdoor kitchen and the three tent platforms, situating the canvas cabins far enough from each other that families have plenty of privacy.
He hosted 45 clients, including five families of four, at the camp.
The retreat just closed for the season but will reopen next April. Reservations are being booked for 2012 already, and Webb said he’s planning to improve the glamping experience with an outdoor shower and two or three more tent cabins.
“The biggest compliment to me is when the kids are getting ready to leave and they start breaking down and crying, ‘I don’t want to leave, Dave!’ I think, ‘OK, I’ve done a good job,’” he said with a laugh.