Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part One

By Johna Till Johnson

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Sunrise over White Horse Key

“How far ya headed today?” The speaker was a young man, trendily bald and healthy-looking in the bright morning sunshine.

He and a few other folks had just arrived at the island where I’d spent the night. The rest of his group was walking on the beach through the white powdery sand.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

His mouth opened and his jaw literally sagged. “You have no idea?” he repeated. Clearly, the concept of setting out without a fixed plan and a firm destination wasn’t something that he could comprehend.

“That’s right, none,” I confirmed.

That wasn’t entirely true: I had some idea. I had a chart marked with promising camping locations, and homemade tide charts indicating the optimal time to approach each. But exactly where I’d end up each night, and how far I’d go before I got there—I hadn’t decided. For the first time in my life I was without a fixed plan, other than to stay out in the Ten Thousand Islands for a week or ten days–or however long took my fancy.

Taking your grief into the wilderness is an established literary trope (cf Cheryl Strayed’s Wild). And I’d been desperate to get away from the looming darkness of a New York winter–not to mention to avoid confronting Christmas, which is one of Vlad’s favorite holidays. But I also wanted to find out how well I’d fare on a solo kayaking expedition: Did I have what it took to spend days in the wilderness by myself? Could I find my way? Handle the inevitable emergencies?

And most importantly, could I hoist a kayak onto a car top by myself?

The first step was to make sure I understood the area. The Ten Thousand Islands is a stretch of parkland on Florida’s Gulf Coast that runs south of Cape Romano and north of the Everglades. The name isn’t apocryphal: There are probably at least ten thousand islands—but most of them are mangrove patches, pretty to look at (and home to thousands, probably millions, of birds) but impossible to land at.

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The Ten Thousand Islands

A few of the islands have sandy beaches and are camp-able—the trick is to know which ones, and how to get there. It’s easy to get lost in the mangrove swamps,  where everything you see is a green bubble perched on an expanse of blue-green sea.

Fortunately Vlad had several nautical charts of the area, at different levels of resolution. I selected three to accompany me on the trip (plus a backup). But although they’re important, charts are no substitute for the most critical component of understanding the area: Local knowledge.

To that end, I sat with a friend (Russell Farrow of Sweetwater Kayaks) over a pint or two at one of the many microbreweries in the town of Dunedin.  We discussed the area, and he pointed out several features that weren’t on the charts, including an indian mound at Pumpkin Bay, and many camp-able beaches.

Most crucially, he steered me to a website that listed the tides at several critical points in the Islands. The entire area is extremely tidal, and many routes that are passable at high tide are impossible at low tide. Equally importantly, many sites that appear to be camp-able are not… because the beaches disappear underwater at high tide! So a good knowledge of the tides isn’t just helpful, it’s essential.

After checking online, I faced my first challenge: How to capture the tidal information in a way that I wouldn’t lose it while out on the water? I decided to write them on plastic baggies with a Sharpie. I thought I was brilliant for arriving at this solution, until I found out it’s common among paddlers in the area. Oh well—at least I was headed in the right direction.

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Homemade tide charts

Speaking of heading in the right direction, Russell also recommended Calusa Island Marina as a good launching place, with ample (albeit expensive) parking.  I could leave the car there for the duration of the trip.

About that car… the idea was for me to rent a boat at Sweetwater, load it on to my rented SUV, and unload it when I got there. Simple enough, except I’d never put a boat on a car (much less an SUV) by myself before.

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I did it myself!

Vlad and I could handle it together, but I really wasn’t sure I could do it solo. Not only is my strength lesser, but I simply don’t have the height to hoist the boat onto the car.  “We’ll show you how,” Russell assured me.

Sure enough,  they did. And I could! (The trick, it turns out, is using a piece of carpeting to slide the nose of the boat onto the roof—and standing on a stool.)

My courage bolstered, a few days later I arrived at the marina. It took a surprisingly short time to  unload the boat from the car, pack it, and set off without a backwards glance. (A mistake, as it turns out, but that story comes later).

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Setting off!

I was on the water around 10 AM. The day was warm, but not too hot, with a light wind. I wended my way through the mangrove islands, where the light turned the water green-gold, and headed out towards the open Gulf.

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Green mangroves…

Suddenly I heard a splash, followed by a deep, throaty breath. A dolphin! No, a pair of them! They arced around me, diving and coming up for air, oblivious to the kayaker in the water. Apparently I was paddling over a roiling school of mullet, and the dolphins were enjoying breakfast. It was an auspicious sendoff!

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…and a pair of blue dolphins!

 

I soon pulled past the last of the keys and turned left (roughly southeast), heading down the coast. To my left were the Ten Thousand Islands. To my right was open water, with the sun sparkling off the tips of the waves.Without any particular destination in mind, I kept going for a few more hours, ticking off the various keys as I passed them, pleased with my ability to track them by compass and chart alone (I had yet to turn on the GPS). Around three PM I decided to investigate potential campsites–although the days were longer in Florida than in New York, darkness still came early. The sun would set at 5:45, and I didn’t want to be caught without a campsite.

When I turned towards the keys, I found I had a choice of two keys quite close together: Gullivan, which wasn’t an “official” campsite, but which Russell had marked as quite camp-able; and White Horse. White Horse was bigger, with a long stretch of beach, and higher ground, particularly on the inside tip. But I could see campers there already: at least two large tents, plus what looked like a sailboat anchored nearby.

Gullivan was empty, and for the first night out, I fancied being by myself. So Gullivan it was!

I paddled around the inside end of the island. Just as on the chart, there was a small curved bay, with a sandy bar protecting calmer water. The sand bar didn’t seem high enough to withstand high tide, though, so I continued around the curved end. There, on the side, facing White Horse, was a long sloping beach, with trees, grass, and high ground behind it. An ideal campsite.

I landed the boat, unloaded the water (the heaviest part of the load was the roughly 50 pounds of water I’d packed, in collapsable Platypus bags, and I couldn’t move the boat myself without emptying it of waterbags), and dragged the boat up on shore.

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First campsite on Gullivan Key

Then I set up the campsite, on the highest point I could comfortably manage. It was a couple of feet above the highest high tide mark. High tide would hit around midnight, but with luck I’d be well above it. If not—well, there wasn’t any higher land on the island. So I’d better hope for luck.

“I’ll be fine,” I thought blithely.  The wind was brisk, so since I didn’t have stakes, I used the water bags to weight down the tarp. The breeze would ensure no mosquitos. All in all, I was quite satisfied with the campsite.

After a short walk around my deserted island, I broke out the Jetboil and made dinner. To my delight, I was hungry. I hadn’t had much of an appetite in recent weeks, and though my last meal had been a breakfast croissant nearly 12 hours before, I hadn’t felt hungry yet today. But the smell of the freeze-dried spaghetti with meat sauce was enticing, and it tasted even better than it smelled.  I couldn’t have enjoyed dinner more if it had been a meal at the Four Seasons.

After dinner, I snuggled into my bivy sack.  Comfortably cushioned by the air mattress and two pillows (such luxury!), I was protected from the anticipated late-night chill by my sleeping bag, and from any mosquitos by the netting that covered the bivy sack’s opening.

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A five-star meal on the beach!

And I discovered something wonderful: As the night deepened, I could see stars! In an open bivy sack, your face is exposed directly to the sky–it’s not like being in a tent. So through the wispy veil of mosquito netting, I was looking directly up into the spangled heavens. It was a clear night, and the stars glittered brilliantly–including Venus, which hung close and bright to the fading crescent of a waning moon. My last conscious thought was: “I’m sleeping under the stars!” And then I was.

I awoke a few hours later, in the dark,  to the sound of waves lapping the shore. I looked up and there they were—foaming and frothing just a few feet in front of me. Sure enough, just as predicted, the tide had risen—but when would it stop? It was already strikingly close to where I’d camped (though still below the previous high-tide mark). And high tide was still about an hour in the future. What if it came up higher?

What to do? I could trust to my calculations and assume the tide wouldn’t come up much higher. But if I were wrong… I’d be frantically trying to pack the boat in the dark as water sloshed around everything, perhaps pulling my gear out to sea.  I’d done that once before during the Everglades challenge, and I didn’t want to risk it.

The alternative would be to pack up the boat and, since there was no higher ground on my island, paddle across the short stretch of water to White Horse Key. The night was warm and calm, and I’d paddled at night many times. It wouldn’t be particularly risky… but it would be disruptive. Locating a campsite and setting up camp in the dark would probably consume the rest of the night, and I hoped to get some sleep.

I decided to split the difference. I packed up the boat, changed into my paddling gear… and sat and waited, with my headlamp on. The water was still creeping up the beach, higher than it had been when I first awoke. So I drew a line in the sand. If the water crossed that line, I told myself, I’d launch for White Horse.

It was roughly 11:45 when I drew my Rubicon.  High tide was predicted for around 12:30. So I had 45 minutes to go. I sat up and dozed intermittently, turning the lamp on every five to ten minutes or so to see what the water was doing. By around 12:20 the water had stalled… and by 12:30 it was clearly receding. I gave it another 10 minutes or so to be completely certain… then I unpacked the tarp, bivy sack, air mattresses and pillows, and changed back into my sleep clothes.

I snuggled back into my nest with a feeling of triumph. My calculations had been correct! And if they hadn’t—I was confident I could have made it to White Horse without trouble. In just one day I’d managed to get the boat off the car, navigate my way to an unmarked campsite, and survive the tides. I was on my way!

The next morning, I awoke before dawn. I was sleepy but felt impelled to get up, almost as if Vlad were nudging me. He always liked to take pictures of the sunrise, and of everything else in the clear morning light. I tried to resist the impulse, but like Vlad himself, it was overwhelming. I grabbed the camera and unzipped the mosquito net just in time to see the sky brighten over White Horse into a glorious sunrise…

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The sun rises over White Horse Key… marking a successful night

 

 

Excelsior

By Johna Till Johnson

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72nd St Subway Station-Q Line

What makes photography interesting is the eye invested with feelings. That was the advice I’d gotten on finding my own photographic style. Strive not for esthetic perfection, but for conveying the emotions and narrative of the moment.

Tall order for someone still figuring out how to keep the camera steady enough to focus!

I was game for the challenge, though I suspected it would be an upwards struggle. One problem presented itself when I ventured out on a recent weekend: the world outside didn’t seem to match my feelings. It was a grey day in midwinter, but I was feeling… buoyant.

How—and where—would I find something that would convey my mood?

I took several shots outdoors before I stumbled across the perfect subject: the brand-new 72nd street subway station. Readers of the blog already know that I love subways. And I’m particularly in love with the 72nd Street station, with its high, gleaming arches, still-pristine walls, and glittering, realistic, slightly larger-than-life mosaic portraits.

Yes, I decided, the subway station would be perfect. Especially since I was taking the subway anyway to run my errands.

I had just about finished up a series of  photos when I noticed someone else doing the same thing: A young man in a puffy black jacket carrying a serious camera—with a long, impressive lens—was across the way, apparently preparing for a close-up of one of the mosaic portraits.

He had long hair and a distracted, somewhat hostile, expression. When he caught me looking at him, his eyes narrowed a bit, in that classic New York scowl. I could almost hear him thinking, “Whaddaya looking at?”

I leaned over the railing towards him. “We’re doing the same thing—only you’re a real photographer!” The scowl disappeared and his face lit up with an almost bashful smile. “I’m trying!” he said.

I smiled back and turned to leave.

Then it hit me: That was my shot. I turned around and steadied myself, hoping he wasn’t looking at me. No danger of that: he was leaning backwards against the railing,  carefully studying his subject. Carefully, quickly, I took the picture, then stepped back to frame it again.

It wasn’t until I’d taken a couple different shots that I noticed something I hadn’t previously seen: the word Excelsior in raised lettering on a concrete bar above the staircase. It’s Latin for “ever upward”, and it’s the New York State motto. I hadn’t even known it was there until I examined my photo.

Whoever elected to put it over a staircase obviously had a sense of humor. But I was delighted to discover something new in my favorite subway station—and struck by the appropriateness of the message.

Ever upward, indeed!

Pipes at Grand Central Station

By Johna Till Johnson

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Pipes at Grand Central Station

Friday morning, midwinter.

O-dark-hundred, as they say in the military: early in the pre-dawn darkness. I’m at Grand Central Station, traveling north for a business event.

I pass by the track where my train is supposed to arrive in 20 minutes. The track is dark, deserted, with no sign indicating an imminent arrival. Plus the track is filled with what looks like junk. In some places there’s barely a walkway for the passengers. Could there be some mistake?

Buying my ticket I ask the booth agent: “Is this really the correct track?” He checks the monitor, nods. So I take my ticket down to the track. Still no sign, but there are now a few guys driving carts up and down, past the piles of junk.

I walk towards the end of the track, my mind and eye trying to make sense of what I’m seeing. Banks of carts. Wire containers. And is that an old office chair standing by itself? Where did it come from, and what is it doing here?

I pass by a brick building with a sign:  Grand Central Station Mailroom. A mailroom, improbably located on a train track?  Who knew?

The building is lit indoors, but empty. The sign on the door says it opens at 7 AM, but it’s not yet seven.  I peer inside. Tables, printers, bins for sorting.

I keep going, towards the darkness of the tunnel at the far end of the track.  The piles of junk thin out, replaced by banks of cables and pipes, soaring into the cavernous darkness overhead.

There’s a conductor at the far end, standing by himself. He’s a young man, trim, with a tired look on his face. I approach him, wonder in my eyes, excitement in my voice. “This is amazing! Is it always like this?”

“Like what?” he asks.

“All this… ” I gesture to the clutter, the pipes, the darkness.

He laughs. “Every day!”

“There’s so much to look at!”

“Yeah… I guess there is…” His voice takes on a wistful tone. “You don’t really notice it when you see it every day.”

I nod, understanding what he means. Then my attention is captured by a perfect arch of pipes, rising into the overhead darkness.

I reach into my backpack for the camera.

“Photography helps people to see”-Berenice Abbott

By Johna Till Johnson

Photographs by Berenice Abbott

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Pike and Henry Street by Berenice Abbott, 1936

It was one of those Facebook memes that occasionally goes around. “Let’s fill Facebook with art! Like if you want to participate, and I’ll give you an artist to post on your Facebook page.”

The poster, David, is a longtime friend with wide-ranging artistic interests and great taste, so I signed up. Besides, we can all use a little art in the dark days of February, right?

David assigned me Berenice Abbott. I’d never heard of her—though even a photography newbie like me immediately recognized some of her iconic NYC photographs. I spent a delighted evening reviewing her life and work and reading her brief Wikipedia biography. If you haven’t heard of her, I encourage you to do so, too–she was one of the great 20th-century artists of the “realist” school. Her quote about photography helping people to see resonates very strongly with me right now, as I work to develop my eye.

A delightful discovery: She developed several cutting-edge techniques for scientific photography, and in fact illustrated a 1958 high school physics textbook (an article about which appeared in Forbes Magazine recently).

Enjoy!

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Penn Station Interior, Manhattan by Berenice Abbott 1936

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Blossom Restaurant by Berenice Abbott, 1935

 

Subways

By Johna Till Johnson

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Subway scene February 2017

I love subways. I’m not sure why.

It’s not just how functional they are, how efficiently they take you in minutes to places that would otherwise require hours of travel through traffic-choked streets.

It’s partly—even mostly— because of the way they instantly, magically adjust your experience.  You go down a staircase and in a moment find yourself safely (or swelteringly) out of the elements.

Perhaps there’s music, anything from a violin to a jazz band, interrupted by the blare of announcements and the scream of trains.  Regardless of whether it was day or night outside, cloudy or clear, the light has changed to a steady, unflattering overhead glow.

Shadows seem deeper, edges sharper. Platforms roll off to the side, hiding themselves behind square pillars. And there are people all around, almost all intent on ignoring you.

It’s an alternate reality, a step out of space and time. And when you emerge at the far end, you’re never quite the same person who first entered…

In Memoriam: Vladimir Brezina

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo credit: Vlad and Johna in drysuits by Larson Harley, NYC Photographer

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.

Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue —
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space –
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., RCAF (1941)

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Vlad in the East River

Vladimir Brezina slipped the surly bonds of Earth on December 13, 2016 (though I like to think he still checks in from time to time). Although the tumbling mirth on which his eager craft traveled was waves, not clouds, this poem captures his spirit perfectly. Here is a little more about his remarkable life, and the joy with which he lived it:

Vladimir Brezina was born on June 1, 1958 in the outskirts of Prague. His father, also Vladimir Brezina, was a civil engineer who designed several notable bridges. His mother, Vlasta Brezinova, was a psychiatrist and moved in artistic circles; Vlad had memories of family friends who were well-known artists and writers. (Both parents are now deceased.)

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Vlad as a boy in Prague

The family lived in a house (which is still standing) near some woods and a pond, on which he skated in winter. Vlad’s memories of the time were idyllic. He even enjoyed getting punished for his mischief: Apparently his parents would send him to the bathroom for a short “time out”. But the bathroom had a wonderful view and was the warmest room in the house, so it was no hardship—particularly in winter.

Vlad, who was an only child, was close to his extended family. But his comfortable childhood in Prague came to an end when he was 11 years old, when his father took the family on a “vacation” from Czechoslovakia following the Soviet invasion in 1968. Travel into and out of the Soviet-controlled country was becoming difficult, and the time had come for the family to seek its fortunes elsewhere.

Young Vlad waved goodbye to his grandmother as they drove off. He never saw her or his country again.

The family drove through Italy and onward to Libya, where they arrived on August 31, 1969. His father was slated to start a design project, presumably on Monday September 2.

However, on Sunday, September 1, Muammar Gaddafi seized control of the country in a coup d’etat. “Our timing was perfect,” Vlad observed with his characteristic wry humor.

It’s not clear how long the family remained in Libya following the coup, but over the next few years, Vlad lived in Libya and Iraq while his father worked on various projects. The family ultimately settled in the United Kingdom, where they became British citizens, as the Soviets had revoked their citizenship upon departure from Czechoslovakia.

Vlad attended Clifton College, a prestigious boy’s boarding school. At Clifton, Vlad excelled in athletics (he was a rugby player), science, and art. He often told the story of how he re-invigorated the school’s art competition, which his house subsequently won for several years in a row (under his direction), earning him the nickname The Art Fuhrer. Upon graduating from Clifton, Vlad attended Cambridge University (as it was then known) for a year, where he studied art history. He then spent a year at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

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Vlad in graduate school

At some point in that period he held a job picking vegetables for scientific research. He recalled with glee that after the experiments were complete, “You could roast [the experimental subjects] and eat them!” Although the experience piqued his interest in science, he found himself growing tired of the long winters in the UK and Northern Europe.

Enticed partly by the prospect of year-round sunshine, and also by his then-girlfriend, he moved to the United States and enrolled in the University of California San Diego, majoring in biology. He became a US permanent resident in 1983, and adopted America as his home. He ultimately obtained his PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA in 1988, with a focus on understanding how small peptides controlled electrical activity in the neurons of the largish marine sea hare, Aplysia californica, which he harvested with great delight from the tidal waters off Los Angeles. His graduate work would set the stage for what became a lifelong effort to understanding how patterns of electrical signaling in complex neurobiological networks controlled behavior.

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Aplysia research group, Mt. Sinai NYC

Vlad had always intended to settle in New York, which he maintained was the only American city with the right combination of energy and chaos. It had captured his imagination early on, and in short order, the newly minted Dr. Brezina became a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York where he quickly became a card-carrying member of the Aplysia behavioral neurobiology community. In 1990, he joined forces with Klaude Weisz at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, where he rose to the level of associate professor. He remained on the faculty at Mt. Sinai until his death in 2016.

Vlad’s scientific work was both theoretically groundbreaking and experimentally elegant. His area of research was in neuromodulation, which is the way nerves communicate with themselves and with muscles in a constantly changing dynamic process. During his years at Mt. Sinai, he introduced an important new theoretical and experimental concept, that of the neuromuscular transform, which he defined as a sort of ‘filter’ that describes how the activity of motor neurons is converted into a muscle contraction. His critical insight, perhaps deriving initially from his studies on complex mathematical transforms, was that this filter is itself dynamic and nonlinear, rather than static (as some had supposed). Moreover, he demonstrated that this dynamism played an important role in animal learning and behavior, enabling the creature to adapt to an uncertain and ever-changing environment.

Throughout his life, Vlad maintained an avid interest in long-distance, human-powered travel. When he lived in the U.K, he hiked a 100 km trail in the Lake District. The summer he was 16, he made a solo journey by bicycle through France, camping at night by the side of the road for several weeks. During his years in California he was a passionate long-distance hiker.

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The legend begins… Vlad (left) with K-Light

And in New York, in the 1990s, he discovered kayaking.

His first boat was a red Feathercraft K-Light that packed into a backpack weighing a mere 40 pounds. He continued the tradition of red Feathercrafts, getting increasingly larger models that he could pack up and carry on trains and taxis to pursue his adventures. (Sadly, but somehow fittingly, Feathercraft went out of business in December 2016—something Vlad fortunately never knew.)

Vlad quickly became legendary for his knowledge of the New York waterways, and for his feats of endurance in navigating them and others, including New England and later Florida. He discovered many of the now-iconic locations of New York City paddling, including the Yellow Submarine in Brooklyn, the seals on Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, and Alice Austen House and the Graveyard of Ships on Staten Island. (It’s impossible to say who was first to see these from a kayak, but Vlad was among the earliest.)

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At home on the seas

On his excursions, Vlad simply never seemed to get tired. He once completed a combined circumnavigation of Staten Island and Manhattan without leaving his boat for eighteen hours. His explanation for doing so? “I finished the Staten Island circumnavigation and wanted to keep going— and the currents were right for a Manhattan circumnavigation.” He also wrote about a kayak-sailing adventure during which he and a friend covered 100 nautical miles in 22 hours—again without leaving the boat.

One of his favorite trips was a 10-hour journey around the Elizabeth Islands in April 2002, during which he saw a whale. Subsequent adventures included circumnavigating Long Island in nine days in 2012, and the culmination of a long-time dream: Completing the 300-mile Everglades Challenge, a race from Tampa to Key Largo in Florida, in just under eight days in 2014. Fittingly, his “tribe name”—a nickname adopted by each participant in the Everglades Challenge—was Sea Hare, hearkening back to the creature on which he’d focused the majority of his research efforts. Many of his kayaking adventures are chronicled in our blog Wind Against Current.

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Partners in paddling… and life

Vlad also loved contributing his kayaking skills to others’ adventures. He was a longtime supporter of NYCSwim, a group that organized long-distance swims. Vlad served as “kayak support” for many world-class swimmers, several of whom he accompanied on record-setting feats.

Vlad maintained a lifelong love of poetry (with a particular fondness for Yeats and Philip Larkin), and enjoyed and appreciated opera. He also maintained an avid interest in photography all his life. His earliest photos, dating back to when he was a young teenager in the 1970s, demonstrated emotional depth and an elegant sense of detail—traits that characterized his photos in later life. Over several decades he documented his beloved city, New York, as well as his kayaking trips, with unforgettably vivid images.

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Backlit flower, by Vladimir Brezina

Among his blog followers was a group of several dozen photographers, many professionals, who admired his work. Vlad sold a few photographs as book covers and illustrations, but never had any interest in pursuing photography professionally—for him, the work was its own reward.

That attitude was the essence of Vlad, whether in art or science. He often said his defining characteristic was his esthetic sense. Whether paddling, making (or appreciating) art, or conducting science, he always strove always to uncover the eternal and the true. In many respects he lived by Keats’ line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

In addition to his esthetic sense, another defining characteristic was his insatiable intellectual curiosity and love of constructive debate.

I first met Vlad in 2009, when we began paddling together. One of our earliest conversations was about the happiness of ducks.

We were paddling a Manhattan circumnavigation in winter, and I’d noticed ducks swimming energetically—and to all appearances cheerfully—in between the blocks of floating ice in the river. “Why are ducks so happy swimming in ice water?” I asked him.

“How do you know they’re happy?” he countered, and we were off on a wide-ranging discussion that included the subjective/objective problem in neuroscience (how can a brain think objectively about itself?), the biology of ducks (apparently they have an entirely separate circulatory system for their legs and feet), and “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the seminal paper by New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, with which we were both familiar. That conversation lasted the entire six hours of the circumnavigation and continued between us, in various forms, until shortly before his death.

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Wedding day, Oct. 17, 2015

I was far from the only one with whom he had such conversations. His former student and subsequent collaborator, Miguel Fribourg, remembers, “The conversation would start discussing a mathematical method, and end up talking about ethics, physics, or Spanish politics.”

Vlad also was deeply, profoundly, and generously, kind. His students remember his love of teaching, a love that came not from ego, but because he was delighted to share ideas with someone. “I will be forever grateful for his generosity and patience in teaching me how to reason, and interpret facts. I also take as a lifelong lesson from him, how to be humble in science and life in general,” says Miguel. Vlad also extended that generosity to the younger generation; for many years, he enjoyed judging science projects for the WAC Invitational Science Fair, at which dozens of Long Island high schools competed.

Vlad had the wonderful talent—which he awakened in me, and many others who were close to him—of appreciating the moment, regardless of what it held. There were of course life’s joyous moments: a breathtaking sunset or star-spangled summer sky; the sound of inspiring music at the opera; and convivial meals with wine, friends, and good food. And when he and I cooked at home, we’d put on music, dance while cooking, and use the fine china and crystal for everyday celebrations.

But Vlad’s genius was not only enjoying these happy moments, but also ones that could have been less than happy. Wind, cold, and rain never fazed him; nor did sweltering nights or water-laden sleeping bags.

I recall once finding ourselves in the dead of night, in below-freezing temperatures, in the custody of puzzled NYPD officers, trying to explain why we and our kayaks were on a beach under the Verrazano Narrows bridge. We quite possibly could have had our kayaks confiscated, and might even have ended up in Rikers Island prison. Instead of being afraid, I realized I was having fun!

There was also the moment, some months after his cancer diagnosis, when we returned home from a particularly harrowing stint in the emergency room. We’d been in the hospital for nearly 40 hours, and as we opened the door to come home, Vlad exclaimed, “Well, that was fun!” And not only did he truly mean it—he was right. It had been fun.

Finally, it’s impossible to write about Vlad without mentioning his ineffably light, witty, gentle sense of humor that often manifested in his characteristic squeaky laugh. His humor relied on clever turns of phrase and occasional goofiness—it was never at the expense of another person. (He loved to mimic expressions and gestures that struck him as entertaining).

smiling-vlad-and-palm-trees

What will survive of us is love —Philip Larkin

I was privileged to be first his paddling partner, then his life partner, and finally his wife (we were married on October 17, 2015). His legacy to me, and to all who knew him, was showing by example how to live in selfless pursuit of truth, beauty, and love—and to enjoy every moment of that life with zest and humor. It will never be the same without him, but what he gave to the world will live on.

Capable

By Johna Till Johnson

Yellow Submarine Paddle 3

Vlad in his element: eminently capable!

In response to today’s daily prompt.

What does it mean to be “capable”? It’s more than having a set of skills that enable you to cope with a situation. It’s about knowing which of those skills to deploy, in which order. Knowing all the little nuances that affect the situation–and how to adapt and respond to those nuances.

It’s an understatement to say that Vlad was a capable paddler. That he was, and much more, too.