By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina
The night before, we prepared. We made sure we had our paddling equipment (life jackets, spray skirts, tow ropes, pumps and sponges). Navigation gear (compasses, GPS, charts). And clothing: it’s definitely the season for drysuits now, with plenty of insulation underneath. And pogies–can’t forget the pogies! (Pogies are kayaking “mittens” that allow your bare hands to grip the paddle, but simultaneously sheath them in delightfully warm neoprene.) The Jetboil, so we’d be able to make hot coffee during the trip. And food, water, all the usual.
Unfortunately, Pier 40, where we normally launch, is still closed due to the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy. Plus, the Coast Guard is still limiting recreational boating in New York Harbor as the cleanup proceeds. Boating is now permitted during daylight hours, but not after dark—and with the days this short, it’s hard to guarantee we’ll make it back in daylight.
So the plan was to take our folding boats up the Hudson, well north of the city. Vlad has his new-ish Red Heron. Johna has inherited his original K-Lite (which she’s dubbed the Baby Vulcan, named for the Vulcan III, a tugboat she fell in love with during the tugboat races earlier this year).
Sunday morning, we were up at 5:30 AM. The rental car was packed and ready to go by 7:15. At that hour, there was no traffic, and we arrived at the boat launch at Ossining at 8:45.
All was going according to plan, in other words.
Then reality intervened, as it so often does….
“Boy, it’s cold!” Johna said, rubbing her gloved hands together, as we stood outside the car, the boats and gear in bags on the concrete launch.
“Sure is!” Vlad agreed. Okay, so we knew this. It was 34 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the car’s external thermometer. But it was a cold 34 degrees, with a brisk wind that stripped the warmth from our bodies almost immediately. Even with heavy jackets and gloves, our fingers were getting cold and stiff.
And we had another hour or more to spend assembling the boats. With practice, you can put a folding boat—particularly a small one like the K-Lite—together in 10-15 minutes. But Johna’s inexperienced, and the last time it had taken us well over two hours to assemble both boats and launch.
Two hours in this chilly wind? With fingers getting colder and stiffer by the minute? Assembling a folding kayak takes some fine motor skills—and our fingers were already getting numb.
We wandered out to the edge of the boat launch, where we were exposed to the full force of the northwesterly wind. Big mistake: whatever warmth we had left dissipated from our bodies.
Back at the car, we looked at each other. At the boats, neatly packed in their bags on the ground between us. At each other again.
“Do we really want to do this?” we said, almost in unison.
And then we put the bags back in the trunk of the car.
You need to understand… we aren’t quitters. We’ve gone out plenty of times in questionable conditions. And we’d gotten up early, and made special preparations. And, and, and…
But it was cold. We’d be hypothermic before we even launched—sometime around 11 AM, at this rate. Which would give us just a few hours before dark (which falls around 4:30 PM this time of year). And oh, did we mention we’d have to disassemble the boats at the end of the trip? That would take another hour or so.
The paddle-to-work ratio just didn’t seem to be worth it.
But what next? Once we’d decided not to launch, the entire day opened up. It wasn’t even 9 AM….
“Do you want to go to the Storm King Art Center?” Vlad asked.
Vlad explained. The Storm King Art Center is an outdoor museum and sculpture garden that features works of artists like Alexander Calder, David Smith, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein…: large sculptures, some dynamic, spread over many acres of woods and hills. He’d been wanting to go for a while.
Johna isn’t much of an arts buff (or so she thought). But traipsing around on a brisk late-autumn day sounded just fine. A few pretty works of art around the edges—well, that would be just icing on the cake.
It wasn’t long afterwards that we drove through the gates of the Storm King Art Center, headed up the long winding path, and parked in the mostly-empty lot.
What to look at first? The first piece that caught our eye was a large white sculpture that looked vaguely like a coconut husk.
“Alien egg,” Johna dubbed it. It turned out to be “Momo Taro”, by Isamu Noguchi.
Beyond that, though, was a line of trees on top of a steep slope that led down to a creek, glimpsed at the bottom through the bare trees. Hmm… running water… After a moment’s consideration we decided to head down to the water. (We are paddlers after all.)
At the bottom, the creek burbles over the rocks. Vlad takes pictures. Johna looks at the rocks, wondering what they’d feel like under her bare feet. Despite the gloomy, overcast day, we’re feeling energized. Something about the woods and the creek—not to mention the brisk hike in the outdoors—has us feeling both in tune with nature and eager to explore. It’s not kayaking, and certainly not how we expected to spend the day—but it’s an adventure!
We head up the hill and look at more art.
Some of the sculptures seem as though they’re inviting us to play with them…
Others are sly and quietly whimsical, designed to blend in with the landscape…
Even after all this, though, Johna is skeptical about her ability to truly appreciate this kind of art. That’s until we catch a glimpse of a dark wooden form against the trees. It could be just a crooked tree branch, or….?
“Do you think that’s art, or natural?” Vlad asks.
We peer through the trees. “Art,” we decide.
Up close, it looks like a cockeyed cross, on top of a small rise. Dark wood, jaggedly held together, like an abstract of the cross on Golgotha.
Something about it is ineffably sad.
We draw closer. It’s definitely art. And unlike some of the other pieces, it’s not harsh, or brash, or ostentatious. It’s simple, open. And sad.
It’s not listed in the brochure—but we find, set discreetly into the ground some distance away, its identifying plaque. It’s “Ex”, by Gilbert Hawkins.
We stare, take photos, stare some more. And when we turn away, somehow all the rest of the art looks different. More real, somehow.
A graceful, silvery motion catches Johna’s eye. It’s down in a little valley in front of us. “Let’s go down there,” Johna says.
So we make our way down another hillside, past a series of sculptures as different from each other as they are from what we’ve seen thus far…
After a while, we find ourselves at the base of the shimmery silver object. It’s definitely moving… it appears to be drifting on the breeze..
“Statue” doesn’t do it justice. It’s misleading, in fact—there’s nothing static about this art. Its two arms wave, appear to bend, in their dance around each other create delicate shapes in the air with their feathery tips.
It’s “Sea Change”, by George Cutts. And we can’t take our eyes away from it. It’s both astonishingly beautiful and an intellectual puzzle. Are the two arms identical? Do the patterns repeat? We figure out after a while that the arms are rotating in opposite directions. And the patterns do repeat. But we still haven’t decided if the arms are identical. We think not, but it could be just a trick of the perspective.
After that, everything seems different.
We chuckle at the dry wit of “Gazebo for Two Anarchists: Gabriella Antolini and Alberto Antolini,” by Sia Armanjani, which features two identical seats, each with its own entrance, facing each other but separated by a long hallway.
We inspect various abstract shapes that we come across, scattered here and there in the terrain….
… marvel at the scale and delicate graceful balance of what look like giant steel logs, balanced precariously on each other…
… and speculate about the size of the giant dinosaur that left these droppings. “If we see the creature that left these, we’d better run!” Vlad concludes.
But what’s this, off in the distance? It looks graceful and primitive…
It’s “The Arch”, by Alexander Calder. And Johna is beginning to discover some artistic sentiment in her engineering soul… She finds she’s drawn to many of the Calder pieces, as well as a few by other artists. (Vlad has always liked Calder, too.)
We continue to explore…
We come to something that looks like a series of dark squiggles against the sky. It’s on the top of a hill. To Johna’s eye, it appears to be an abstract of a warrior holding a sword and shield, but we have to climb the hill to learn what it’s called…
“Frog Legs”? Ooooooh-kaaaaaaay…. Johna is not particularly enamored of Mark Di Suvero’s work (and this is just the first of his pieces that we come across), although she appreciates its forceful energy.
She is, however, enticed by the smooth steepness of the hill on which we are standing. What a wonderful hill to sled down, but there’s no snow….
… so she decides to roll down it, laughing as she spins around faster and faster…
… until she’s dizzy enough to have to stop!
We’re now in the South Fields section of the Art Center, where some of the largest and most dramatic pieces are…
And it’s a looooong walk from piece to piece! The sun, which has now come out after a couple of brief snow showers, is low on the horizon. The temperature has dropped a few more degrees, and we’re thinking about calling it a day.
But we have seen something off in the distance that looks different, unusual somehow—even in this lineup of distinctly unusual pieces.
There it is, through the darkening woods… a strange triangular shape.
But what is it?
We draw closer to have a look, and yes, it is what it seems: a three-legged Buddha, one leg on its (his?) head…
The scale is dramatic. We marvel for a while, and then turn toward home.
En route, we encounter more whimsy: a concrete marker with a “your face here” opening…
… a fence made entirely out of mirrors, which shimmers and flutters in the late-afternoon light, reflecting the dry leaves that drift past in the wind…
… abstract shapes made out of curious material—old tires…
And at last, tired but happy, we’re back where we started, ready for the drive back to the city.
Yes, it started like any other kayak trip. But it ended with us at play in the land of the giants—and exploring the world from a whole new angle.
A whole new look at the world: the best kind of adventure!