Trip 9: Hudson River, Beacon to Peekskill

Text and photo by Vladimir Brezina

Winter riverbank

Saturday, 18 December 1999

7:43 a.m. Metro-North train to Beacon. Launched by 10 a.m. Winter weather: temperature in the 30s all day, cold wind from the north. Partly overcast at first, then mostly sunny; pale blue winter sky, sun low down on the horizon.

Water temperature probably in the upper 40s. All trees bare by now. Paddled south with the ebb current and wind. Past Denning Point, Bannerman’s Island, Cold Spring, West Point. Lunch on Con Hook, cold in the wind (wearing only wetsuit, not yet drysuit), but warm enough out of the wind in the sun. Paddled further south to Peekskill; arrived in Peekskill Bay around 1:30 p.m. Explored the beginning of Annsville Creek; not very interesting now in the winter; shallow and muddy. Not enough daylight to continue to Ossining, so 3:19 p.m. train back to New York City.

(Note: We’re seeing the shape of the Vlad-to-come emerge in these few short sentences. He always particularly enjoyed winter paddling, which is a truly different experience from paddling on a warm summer’s day. In later years he will not be daunted by the onset of night, although paddling alone at night in winter certainly increases the risk.)

Blown Away

Vlad as a child

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s 11:30 on a sweltering summer weekday. I’m on my way to a client meeting downtown. I step into the subway car, grateful there’s a seat and working air conditioning. The people in the car are the usual mix of ages, races, genders. We avoid eye contact.

At the next stop, a heavyset young man gets in, with a little boy, about three, in a stroller. The man settles into a seat across from me, and I glance at the little boy.

He’s adorable. There’s something hauntingly familiar about his expression: placid yet worried, with his brows drawn up in a look of concern. I smile at him and try to get his attention. Out of shyness or embarrassment he looks away, towards his father. Or maybe he’s put off by my unnatural hair color and the giant, bug-eyed sunglasses covering half my face.

“Can you wave hello?” the father asks, but the boy won’t turn towards me. “It’s ok,” I say, smiling, to the father. “He doesn’t have to wave at the strange lady.”

Then I suddenly realize, with a pang, why the child’s expression is so familiar.

I turn to the woman next to me, a kind-looking middle-aged Hispanic woman. She’s also smiling at the little boy.

“My husband has a photo of himself at about that age, with that same expression,” I say to her. “So sweet!” I notice I’m speaking of Vlad in the present tense, but don’t bother to correct myself.

“So sweet,” the lady agrees, and tries to get the boy to look at her, but he won’t.

The familiar wave of grief washes over me. I feel my eyes watering, and I’m grateful for the sunglasses hiding my face. To distract myself, I look at the people across from me. There’s a couple, sitting close together. Both are looking down at their phones, oblivious. The only way I know they’re a couple is how close they’re sitting. A couple. Another pang.

A few moments later, my stop is approaching. In preparation, I get up and head towards the door. As I do, I hear the people around me start to stir and murmur, but I’m not paying attention. Then the man who was across from me says, “Ma’am, look!”

I turn, and the boy is reaching out for me, his hand a starfish, his body straining against the stroller straps. He says nothing, but the beseeching look on his face is clear, and clearly directed at me.

“He doesn’t want you to leave!” the woman gasps in surprise. We all exchange looks of wonder.

The subway doors open. I step off the train, glad once again for the oversized sunglasses.

Trip 8: Hudson River, Peekskill to Yonkers

Text and photos by Vladimir Brezina

Winter sunset at Yonkers

Sunday, 5 December 1999

7:43 a.m. Metro-North train to Peekskill. Launched by 9:30 a.m. Hazy and windless morning; water like glass. Relatively warm for December (later in the day, temperature up to 60°F). (Note: The scientist in him, and also the world citizen, would always make a point of including units. Most Americans, and nearly all American nonscientists, would assume Fahrenheit to be understood.)

Paddled against flooding current (for first two hours) down to the entrance to Haverstraw Bay, then directly across to Croton Point. No wind at all, water like a mirror, reflecting sun struggling through banks of clouds at first, then becoming a steady diffuse bright glow in a pale blue sky, with outlines of opposite shore and Croton Point in front very hazy. Very few other boats: a few fishing motorboats and the usual tugs and barges; a couple of kayakers around Croton Point.

Tappan Zee in the mist

Past Croton Point around noon and south through the Tappan Zee. A mile or so north of the Tappan Zee Bridge wind suddenly picked up to 15-20 knots from the south. (Note: In later years, Vlad used to cite Murphy’s Law for paddlers, “The wind is always against you, no matter which direction you’re traveling.” It seems to be true surprisingly often. Perhaps it should be called “Brezina’s Law”?). Waves soon built up to 2 feet (wind now against ebbing current). Progress considerably slowed by the wind and waves. Stopped at Irvington around 2 p.m. to reassess situation (met another pair of kayakers, somewhat unprepared for the conditions), then down to Dobbs Ferry (another pair of kayakers). Wind gusts up to 20 knots, waves (not even in middle of channel) up to 4 feet. Larger waves much more pleasant, less bouncy, than short 2-foot chop. South to Yonkers; now (4 p.m.) sun setting behind orange and blood red clouds, soon to be dark, so took out. Train back to New York. (Note: This entry is very close to home as Brian, Vlad’s former student, and I paddled from Yonkers to Croton Point and back this past Sunday—under very different conditions. It was warm, sunny, and just enough bounce to be fun. It’s also interesting to note Vlad’s decision to take out. In later years he might well have opted to continue on, as he had no issues with paddling at night, and four-foot waves were less intimidating. That said, he clearly made the right decision for his level of expertise. That sensible quality stayed with him all his life.)

Daily Post: Dormant

By Johna Till Johnson, photo by Vladimir Brezina

Today’s daily post is Dormant.

Several years ago—I am not entirely sure how many—Vlad and I decided to go to the Central Park Zoo. I can’t recall at this point where the idea came from, but when we discovered that neither of us had ever been there (despite a combined residence in Manhattan of over half a century), the decision was made.

Thanks to our trips to Florida, Vlad at that point had begun getting quite serious about photographing animals, particularly birds. But of course wildlife photography is challenging, because the animals tend to run (or fly) away when they realize they’re being observed.

So he was delighted to be in an environment where the animals had no fear of humans. He took a number of quite amazing shots (which apparently we haven’t blogged about yet! Stay tuned!). This one captures today’s theme in what I hope is a slightly different way.

For the record, “dormant” comes from the Latin word “dormire”, which means to sleep:

To sleep, perchance to dream;

I wonder what this orange bird is dreaming of?

Trip 7: Hudson River, Albany to Hudson

Text by Vladimir Brezina
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

After the leaves have fallen

13-14 November 1999

Saturday, 13 November
6:10 a.m. Amtrak train to Albany. Launched by 9:30 a.m. Ebb current, little or no wind, river calm. Overcast and grey. Almost all leaves are now gone from trees. Very little color left; only here and there a solitary vine on a tree-trunk still orange.

Paddles south past the Port of Albany; herd of white-tailed deer running through the waste ground between the petrochemical tank farms on the eastern bank. Eventually, lunch on the shore of Houghtaling Island. Extreme low tide; muddy along the shore line. Onward past Coxsackie. Current now starting to flood, but a slight north wind helping. Overcast beginning to break to show patches of blue sky between the banks of white and grey; streaks of sunlight on the water.

Down to the campground at Stockport Middle Ground, but a hunters’ boat anchored offshore. Back to the deluxe campground at Gays Point. Arrived around 4 p.m. First thing after landing, two hunters in camouflage outfits, with guns, drove out of the brush in a eight-wheeled armored-car-type vehicle to draw a bucket of water from the river. Many ducks and geese flying and honking overhead; occasional shots.

(Note: Another semi-comic reference to hunters–note the “camouflage outfits, with guns” and the “eight-wheeled armored-car-type vehicle”…. all that costuming and heavy equipment just to “draw a bucket of water from the river”.  Vlad’s dry sense of humor at play! As I’ve mentioned before, Vlad had many traits in common with many hunters, including a deep libertarian streak, and of course the love of the outdoors. But in his narratives hunters always seem to come across as slightly goofy. I think it’s the paramilitary costuming and equipment that he finds a bit over-the-top…)

Camped right on the beach, protected from the north wind, rather than on the elevated grassy area. Drifts of dry brown leaves everywhere, and dry twigs and driftwood on the beach. Lit a fire in the ring on the beach before getting into the sleeping bag; provided pleasant warmth against the evening chill, now considerable. Brilliant brief sunset: vivid purple, red, and blue against the banks of grey cloud, reflected off the water, with a crescent moon high in the blue above, and the bright fire below.

A campfire for warmth..

Sunday 14 November

Just after midnight, awakened by gusts of wind from the south. Very soon the wind increased to what seemed like 15-20 knots, with strong gusts. Leaves and even some sand flying past, trees, even though bare of leaves, swaying prominently. Moved tarp and bivy-sack to slightly different spot, where no danger of being crushed by a falling tree. (Especially several right on the edge of the water seemed not very securely rooted in the sand. Shores around here littered with trees fallen in previous storms.) Otherwise very snug and comfortable in the bivy-sack.

(Note: It’s reassuring to me that Vlad encountered the same situation that I’ve often run into: camping under trees that might come crashing down in a high wind. I never remember until it’s too late, and then find myself moving the bivy in the middle of the night, as he did. In future years he will learn to check the weather on the maritime radio, and thus have early warning about  an oncoming front, which this was. I also like the way he hyphenates “bivy-sack”. And his joy in feeling “snug and comfortable” also resonates. Neither of us are in the slightest claustrophobic.)

Morning: wind from the south at 20-25 knots, whitecapped waves up to 3 feet in the main channel. (Current starting to ebb against the wind.) Almost exact reprise of windy day with John and Kathy in this spot a few weeks ago, except that today not sunny. Campground not well protected against a south wind. Was a little cold through breakfast (eaten while moving to keep warm) and getting into the wetsuit, etc., still slightly—but thanks to the quick-drying material, only slightly—wet from yesterday. Will be much more uncomfortable to do this when it is really cold; drysuit a lot better in this respect.

Once in the boat and on the water, however, much warmer and more enjoyable. Left around 9 a.m. Sure progress with the current, but slow against the headwind. Waves fun (but wet). (Note: Hence the genesis of the name of our blog: WindAgainstCurrent). Went through the eastern channel around Stockport Middle Ground (only very brief protection against the wind). Arrived at Hudson around 10:30 a.m. With strong headwind, forecast for strong cold front later in the day, and early winter sunset, further paddling options limited. Decided to take 12:25 p.m. Amtrak train back to New York.

Vlad in Albany: Similar day, different season

Daily Post: Savor

By Johna Till Johnson, photo by Vladimir Brezina

Today’s daily post is Savor. 

Ready for breakfast

This was the first cup of coffee when we camped on a chickee during the Everglades Challenge Shakedown in 2013. Nothing ever tastes quite as good as that first cup of coffee the morning after a long day paddling!

And we savored everything about that trip—even the parts that were challenging. In retrospect, I have to smile at our naive assumption that we’d find lodging in the Florida Keys on the weekend between Christmas and New Year, aka “the busiest week of the year”.

But we did, even if it was a bit unorthodox.  Moral of the story: Savor the good stuff. And it’s all good stuff.

Trip 6: Hudson Highlands, October 1999

Text and Photos by Vladimir Brezina

More autumn colors

Sunday, 31 October

7:43 (?) a.m. Metro-North train to Beacon. Launched around 10 a.m. Sunny, but somewhat hazy all day. Ebb current in favor, but 10-knot head wind. Paddled south past Denning Point, Pollepel Island, Cold Spring, West Point, Arden Point. Foliage spectacular in this section of the river (all different colors, from flame red to bright yellow to various shades of brown), still close to its peak although a few trees here and there already bare. Leaves noticeably dropping in the wind.

Stopped for lunch and exploration at Con Hook, an island (joined to the western shore by a marsh) a mile or so south of Highland Falls. Picturesque miniature island, with varied rocky topography—miniature steep cliffs and hollows—and a great variety of tree species, now of many different colors. Even birches, pines, and wild cherries (?) but mainly oaks and aspens. On the ground, soft moss and red blueberry-type bushes. Great views through the trees across the river, and on the western side, across the marsh.

Autumn vine

Current now flooding, so back north along the same route. Spectacular embankments of yellow and orange trees on the mountainside along the eastern shore just north of Little Stony Point. Numerous solo and groups of kayakers on the water; even more so than ever in the summer. Sun setting behind thickening clouds. Back at Beacon around 4:45 PM, with last fading light (today first day back on Standard Time). Train to New York.

Note: Vlad’s scientific mind and emphasis on precision shows in those parenthetical (?)’s, which of course indicate a guess rather than confident knowledge. Those who knew Vlad well remember his often-repeated comment: “Details matter!”—in science, art, writing, and life. His emphasis on getting the details exactly right usually illuminates his writing and brings it to life. But we sometimes argued over his tendency to include too many details, which in my view slows down the narrative. (He usually agreed.) 

It’s also worth noting that this adventure happened the day after the last one—nothing made Vlad happier after a long kayaking trip than another long kayaking trip! Even on our multi-day camping excursions, he would settle into the boat each morning and exclaim, “Feels SO good to be back in the boat!”