By Johna Till Johnson
Sometimes an image grabs you so vividly that it demands you stop and pick up the camera. I was hurrying to a meeting in San Francisco when this ghostly convocation caught my eye…
By Johna Till Johnson
Sometimes an image grabs you so vividly that it demands you stop and pick up the camera. I was hurrying to a meeting in San Francisco when this ghostly convocation caught my eye…
By Johna Till Johnson
Note: I’ve been remiss in blog posting for the past few months; the adventures have been happening faster than my ability to keep up! I look forward to sharing them with readers over the next little while; there’s quite a lot going on. Please stay tuned!
It’s 3 PM, on a fine winter day. The sky is a clear, pale blue. There’s little wind. The temperature is in the low forties, warm (ish). Three of us—Brian, Richard, and I—have met up for a short paddle celebrating the winter solstice.
We launch from Yonkers, heading south with the ebb. Slack is supposed to be at 3:18 at the George Washington Bridge, but I’ve conveniently forgotten the one-hour difference between GWB and Yonkers, so I’m naively assuming it will be slack soon. We set off across the river, and catch sight of a tug-and-barge farther south. Is it coming up the river towards us?
The distance between us appears to be shrinking rapidly, so we put some effort into the crossing, to stay out of the path of the oncoming barge.
Soon enough we’re on the far side of the river, paddling gently with the current, enjoying the sights of the New Jersey shore.
We pass a frozen waterfall. Then Richard spies something in a tree. “Is that a bald eagle?” he asks.
We squint. No, we decide, just a trick of the light and maybe a patch of fungus white against the tree trunk.
Then the “patch of fungus” moves and sure enough, it’s the head of a bald eagle. They’re common sights farther up the river, but this is the first time we’ve seen one this far south.
We stare in awe, nearly holding our breaths. Then just as we go to take a picture, it takes flight, majestic wings flapping gracefully.
We continue down the river, helped by a current that (according to Johna’s faulty calculations) shouldn’t still be ebbing strongly. But it is.
Brian paddles close to the bank to inspect another waterfall. This one leaps majestically from the cliffs, frozen in cascades of ice. Even though the day is warm, the ice warns us of winter to come.
A tug-and-barge announces. Is it the one we passed? No, that one isn’t moving, except to shift with the (finally) changing current. It was anchored after all.
But there’s another one, a barge towed by one of the bright turquoise tugs, the Megan Ann or one of her sisters. It’s heading south to sea, and passing by another tug-and-barge on the eastern shore.
We watch for a while, then turn to cross the river towards home. There’s still a strong ebb in the middle of the river, even though it’s past four. The Manhattan skyline glows pink in the misty sunset, the strange new spires glimmering.
We cross over, surfing the waves, and chat a bit as we begin to paddle north, on the East side of the river this time. We admire the new kayak storage at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club.
A flock of seagulls circles overhead, squawking. “Seagulls and eagles,” I joke. “Seagulls and eagle,” Richard corrects me. He’s right. Only one eagle!
Full twilight sets in. I push ahead, working on my forward stroke. “Slow down so we can make the trip last longer,” Brian says. I stop paddling and just drift for a moment, admiring the Yonkers skyline against the darkening sky.
Finally we round the corner and pull up to the boat launch. It’s 5 PM; we’ve been out for almost exactly two hours. Not a marathon trip by any means, but a fine way to welcome winter.
By Johna Till Johnson
Sometimes winning is just about showing up.
“I don’t think I’ll ever do the Blackburn Challenge again,” I said to my friend Jean.
I meant it. The race was too intimately connected to Vlad. It was the first race we’d ever done together, and the only one we’d done repeatedly.
No, I couldn’t do another Blackburn.
A year went by, and another.
And to my surprise, I heard myself asking Jean, “Are you thinking of doing Blackburn this year?”
She was. Along with her friend B.
So I blocked time on my calendar… and forgot about it.
That is, until B. sent me an email asking for advice. Although she was an accomplished marathoner, Blackburn would be the longest kayak race she’d done, and she had questions: Would conditions be overwhelming? What happens if you bonk midrace? What did I recommend for hydration and food?
It wasn’t until after I’d explained my thoughts on the above that I realized I really would be doing the race, my sixth time.
As I planned and prepped for the race, everything was achingly familiar… yet totally different:
The drive up from NYC. As always, I left later than planned (Vlad and I had had many a tension-spat en route north, thanks to the added time pressure.) But this time I was leaving on Thursday, giving myself time and energy to recover on Friday before the race. And of course, there was no one to have a spat with.
The lovely little hotel that Jean had found. Vlad and I had always stayed at The Inn at Babson Court, right downtown; they were full up by the time I committed to go, but the Castle Manor Inn was just as lovely, if less idiosyncratic. And we met up with some Blackburn Challenge competitors, who went out with Jean on a pre-race paddle (I had to stay back at the hotel to get work done).
The early-morning start in the gym at Gloucester High School. The boats had been loaded and were in place. We were at the captain’s meeting at Gloucester High School, edgy and nervous about the day ahead. But there was plenty of “hurry-up-and-wait” time to chat with fellow contestants, sip coffee, and worry…
And then the start…
Before long we paddled out to the starting line, waiting for our groups to be called up. B. and I were in the same group (Sea Kayaks); Jean was in the surfski class.
They called our numbers, and we each shouted out “here”. Then the horn sounded and we were off.
Somewhat to my surprise, B. pulled ahead of me early on. She’d been so worried about her inexperience that I’d assumed she’d be slower.
Well, no matter. I’m known for finishing strong; I’d likely pull ahead towards the end of the race.
The paddle down the Annisquam River was surprisingly challenging; I’d only realize later that I’d gotten the currents mixed up, and we were paddling against the current in the early part of the race.
Like all races, it was both infinitely long and over in the blink of an eye. My memory is a jumbled mix of sunshine and waves… watching (from behind) the strategy of one of my top competitors in the sea kayak class as she paddled out to sea to catch the currents, then rode the currents parallel to the seawall, pulling well ahead of me, propelled by the sea (green line in the course chart.)
Somewhere close to the end I realized I wasn’t going to pull ahead of either B. or my other competitor, and I slowed way down, finishing in a disappointing 4 hours and 23 minutes, my worst time by far, and well below my most recent sub-4-hours.
So it was with decidedly mixed emotions that I pulled up to the colorful beach. I wasn’t happy with my performance, but more than that, two things hit me hard: Vlad wasn’t there to greet me, and a memory stuffed away suddenly surfaced.
On the cold December evening right after he’d died, I’d changed his body into a shirt that reminded me of happier days… And I realized with a shock, for the first time, that it had been his Blackburn Challenge 2102 shirt. Tears filled my eyes and the beach blurred.
Suddenly someone appeared. It was B. “Let me help you with your boat,” she said. Together we hauled it up on the sand.
A few minutes later, Jean appeared. “Look, you got bling!” she said. It was true. I’d come in third, despite my poor time. B. had won our class (with a brilliant time around three hours and forty minutes!) and Jean had won hers.
And so had another woman, Melissa, who joined us on the beach and who I vaguely remembered.
“Didn’t you compete in 2013? In a plastic boat of some sort?” I asked her. She had, and done well, coming in third. Six years later she’d graduated to a high-performance sea kayak (Surfski) and had finished at the top of her class.
Melissa was just one of several people I recognized.
As we went through the lunch buffet and gathered for the awards ceremony, I caught up with several others, including Roger, one of my kayaking heroes.
Roger was a good kayaker until he retired from his job as a university professor when he was somewhere in his 60s. Then he became a great kayaker, routinely beating men who were nearly a half-century younger.
I was delighted to spend a few minutes catching up with him, reminiscing about past races and commiserating over this one (he, too, had done less well than he’d hoped.)
“You and Jean seem to know everybody!” B. exclaimed.
She had a point. And it was a happy reminder of one of the things that Vlad and I both loved about the race: the diverse participants. We human-powered boaters are an odd breed, and the people who take delight in seemingly pointless tests of endurance form our own community. (Blackburn would have been pleased!)
Vlad is gone, and we will never share another race.
But there will be other Blackburns, other opportunities to connect with my crazy endurance-boater kindred spirits… and maybe to improve on that 4:23 pace.
For now, it’s enough to be back.
By Johna Till Johnson
“Glory, glory hallelujah!” My voice rang out strongly and surprisingly tunefully.
It was late morning, and I was just entering Peekskill Bay. The weather was perfect: Sunny, cool, with just enough breeze to generate a light chop. I felt my pace begin to pick up. A glance at the GPS confirmed it: I was going at least a knot faster than previously.
I’d discovered experientially that singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” made me pick up the pace by a knot or so.
No other song seemed to have that effect. “Eddystone Light” was fun to sing (especially the part about life upon the ro-o-o-o-lling sea) but it didn’t make me any faster. And neither did the various popular songs I could remember bits and pieces of (“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” was a particular favorite).
So here I was out in Peekskill Bay, singing Glory Hallelujah to keep the pace going.
I’d left Denning Point before dawn that morning, paddling against the current as the sun slowly rose. By around 8:20 I’d arrived at West Point.
Unbeknownst to me, so had my friend Adam. He and his wife were on the early train into Manhattan, just a few hundred yards from me. He snapped a photo through the window, guessing the lone paddler might be me from the drybag strapped on my rear deck (likely indicating someone camping, rather than on a day trip.)
Just after West Point the current finally turned with me, but I wasn’t picking up much speed. Apparently the days before had tired me out a bit, even the “easy” day yesterday.
That’s when I tried singing, and discovered that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was good for at least an additional knot.
It wasn’t just the rousing melody. The lyrics were inspiring, and even more so, the meaning. The writer, fellow New Yorker Julia Ward Howe, had created it to inspire Northerners to fight in a hard, ugly, brutal civil war that brought them no direct benefit.
Although I was hardly fighting a war, the idea of doing something difficult for the glory of it resonated.
The shoreline streamed by. The sun was bright, but there was a cool breeze providing a tailwind. As I made my way around the curve (the river makes a hairpin turn around Peekskill Point), I mentally computed the currents. I’d have the ebb with me until about 3:30 PM, by which time I’d be at the Tappan Zee bridge (or pretty close.)
Then the current would turn against me.
But how bad could it be? The flood was only a knot, maybe a knot and a half. And I’d paddled against the current before. Under normal circumstances it would take maybe 2 hours to get back to Yonkers from the Tappan Zee. So, okay, tack on another hour—I’d be home by 6:30, 7:00 at the latest. Right?
Of course, there was the question of what happened after that. I’d blithely departed Hudson after making arrangements to leave my car at the B&B where I’d spent the night. The plan was to take the train home from Yonkers.
The catch? I didn’t know exactly where the train station was. There was rumored to be one within walking distance of the boathouse. But the instructions I’d heard were obscure and faintly ominous. “You go through the hole in the fence and climb up on the track.” (No guidance on where the hole in the fence was, or what, precisely, “climbing up on the track” entailed.)
I’d had the presence of mind to jot down the train schedule before I left, so I knew the train stopped at Glenwood en route to Manhattan every hour at 26 minutes past. But finding it would be the trick.
There was the distinct possibility of ending up wandering around Yonkers in the dark with a bunch of camping gear on my back, looking for the mysterious hole in the fence.
Oh well, that was a long way off. And meantime, there was paddling to be done!
I made decent time, and by 3:30 I’d reached the Tappan Zee.
As anticipated, the current had just changed, and was ever-so-slightly against me. Annoyingly, so had the wind, which was now coming from its usual direction, southwest. (Vlad : “Murphy’s law of kayaking is that the wind and current are always against you.” Also known as “Florida rules”.)
South of the Tappan Zee, the Hudson is shallow and marshy on the western shore, so that’s where I headed. Generally the current flows more slowly in the shallow parts of a river; and near the shoreline a paddler can take advantage of the back-eddy (where the current strikes protrusions on the shoreline and bounces back, thus going in the opposite direction to the main current).
With these tricks, even with the opposing wind and current, I was able to keep a good 2-3 knot pace, but there was a catch: I wasn’t headed straight home. Instead, to keep out of the wind and stay in the backeddy, I was making a long detour; I estimated it would add two-and-a-half or three miles to the trip. Which meant… another hour.
Now I’d arrive closer to 8 PM than 7 PM, if all went well.
I’d gone over 30 nautical miles by then, and I was feeling it. I paddled strongly, but didn’t manage to do much better than 3 knots. Slowly, the beautiful waterfront houses on the western shore slipped by. Ahead was Piermont Pier, a long spit of land reaching into the Hudson.
One summer, Vlad and I had made an overnight, full moon paddle to Piermont Pier. It’s still one of my most vivid memories. I remember napping on the benches, waiting for the current to change, watching the full moon touch the dark waves with shimmering silver. Dozing.
Vlad shaking me awake, gently: “Come on Johna, it’s time to go.” Paddling back to Manhattan in the gray pre-dawn, arriving at Pier 40 just as the sun was rising…
I’ve been to Piermont Pier a few times since, but it’s always inextricably entwined in my memory with silvery moonlight and dark waves. And Vlad.
This time couldn’t have been more different. The sun was already low in the sky when I arrived, touching everything with honey-colored light. I turned east at the pier. Sheltered from the current, I was speeding along the length of the pier with the wind at my back, barely needing to paddle.
I marveled at the mix of people out enjoying the late Sunday afternoon. Hispanic families fishing. Orthodox Jewish families taking babies for a stroll. Young couples holding hands. Children waved at me, and I waved back.
Soon enough I’d rounded the pier and turned south again, hugging the shoreline of Piermont Marsh. For the first time my destination was visible in the distance: The twin brick towers of the abandoned power plant just behind JFK marina. It was probably still another hour or two away, but I was almost home!
In the peaceful late-afternoon light, I continued on down the western shore, taking advantage of the backeddy. Past Italian Gardens. Past the rockfalls on the Palisades.
Finally I decided to cross. Too early, as it turned out: The current swept me backwards, and I watched in frustration as landmarks that I passed earlier reappeared. But finally I was across. As the rosy sky began fading to darkness, I wended my way down the shoreline.
Soon there was the buzz of jetski engines, and the thumping sound of music, growing steadily louder.
New problem: the ramp was crowded.
Everyone was pulling jetskis out of water, backing trucks and trailers up to the ramp impatiently. I wouldn’t be able to unpack the boat on the ramp. But it was too heavy for me to carry up without unpacking.
Salvation! One of the guys who manned the marina office appeared, a young man around twenty, with tattoos on both arms. He helped haul the boat to a nearby stretch of grass.
I unpacked as quickly as I could in the gathering darkness, throwing all the camping gear into a giant waterproof backpack that I’d discovered among Vlad’s things. (I had one as well, but this one was nearly twice the size).
Staggering a little, I was able to lift to stand up wearing the pack. I mentally thanked my coach and the months of squats and deadlifts in the gym, then grabbed the nose of the boat (which was already mounted on its wheels) and started off towards the boathouse a quarter mile away. Around me, music blared, styles competing with each other at full volume. Latin. Hiphop. Soft rock. A running undertone was the monotonous jingle of the ice cream truck.
Suddenly the darkness was cut with red-and-blue flashing lights and amplified voices. Yonkers PD had arrived to clear everyone out of the park.
I chuckled at the difference between the previous peaceful days and this in-your-face urban vibe. I loved them both.
I packed up as quickly as possible, leaving most of the camping gear and stuffing just essentials into a small backpack (yes, I have lots of backpacks!)
Now what? It was full dark, and the woods behind the abandoned power plant didn’t look inviting. And Yonkers is an urban area (just north of the Bronx.)
Luck had been on my side the whole trip. Surely it would stay through the end?
I decided to check it out, and plunged into the darkness, lit only by the headlamp. A few minutes later, I was delighted to find…. Not a hole in the fence, but a wide-open pathway leading directly to the station. A few minutes’ investigation yielded the delightful fact that a short ladder climbed the six feet or so to the platform’s edge.
I sat down on the bench to wait, feeling pleased. Glory Hallelujah….
Just over an hour later I was back in my apartment in New York, much to the delight of my cat Mully.
And the next day the email from Adam arrived, with the subject header: “Is this you?”
Indeed it was! One of the few photos of me on an expedition paddle, now that Vlad is gone.
Special thanks to Henry at YPRC who gave me the encouragement to finally finish this, reminding me that at least one person is reading! Thanks, Henry!
By Johna Till Johnson
Somehow the “easy” days always turn out to be the hardest.
When we were circumnavigating Long Island, the “easy” day (from Montauk to Greenport) turned out to be one of the most difficult.
And so it was on this trip.
I spent a lazy morning on Esopus Island. There was no point in launching too far ahead of the slack; I’d just be paddling against the current needlessly.
I was only planning to go 21 nautical miles (24 miles) to Dennings Point, the next campsite. At yesterday’s pace of 3.5 knots, that was barely over 6 hours. I’d be there by midafternoon, even if I left midmorning.
An easy day was a good thing, because last night I’d decided to make a change in plans:
Part of my motivation in doing this trip was to prep for the Everglades Challenge in 2020. Vlad and I had done it in 2014, and it had been the experience of a lifetime. After he died, I swore I’d never do it again, but as with so many things, my thinking evolved.
Now I wanted to do it on my own, partly for him. He had loved everything about the adventure, and it was his last big one before diagnosis. Paddling it again—or at least, trying to—was a way to honor that love.
But also for me.
I’d never wanted this new identity as a solo expedition paddler; I’d been ecstatic (and honored) to be Vlad’s junior partner. Unfortunately, that role was no longer an option, and finding another partner was highly unlikely.
Kayakers of Vlad’s caliber are rare indeed. And partners of any caliber you can actually stand, for days on end, through bug bites and chafing and sore muscles and no sleep… well, those are rarer still.
So in the past few years I’d slowly come around to my new identity: solo expedition paddler. That meant being a lot more deliberate than I’d ever been before: planning and double-checking the currents and conditions; maintaining gear (and bringing appropriate backups); and making sure I didn’t exceed my physical limits to the point where my judgment was impaired.
Yesterday’s entertainment with the rock was both reassuring and sobering.
I hadn’t panicked; my initial impulse to wait and let the tide lift the boat had been a good one. Still, if Pat and Charles hadn’t shown up, things might not have gone so smoothly. These were the kinds of things I’d need to work through, as a solo expedition paddler.
So part of the purpose of this trip was to test drive that new identity, and prep for next year’s Everglades Challenge, as a solo paddler.
But in that case, I was doing it wrong.
The Everglades Challenge is, no way around it, brutal. It’s approximately 270 nautical miles, depending on route.
More importantly, almost all that distance is against the wind (which can be quite fierce) and current. (Yes, I know, it’s not possible for the entire trip to be against the current… but “Florida rules”!)
In 2014 we averaged between 2 and 2.5 knots per hour, and I couldn’t honestly expect myself to do much better this time.
We only managed to complete the race in the 7 days allotted by… well, you do the math: 270 miles divided by 2 knots is 135 hours. 135 hours divided by 7 days (the approximate time in which you must finish) is… wait for it… 19 paddling hours per day.
That’s 19 hours per day, and five hours for everything else (mostly sleeping.) That’s also just under 40 nautical miles per day, with no help from the current.
Zipping down the Hudson, with no wind and a helpful assist by the current (up to 2.5 knots of ebb) was significantly easier than slogging against the wind and current in Florida.
Which meant that if the goal was to train for the Everglades Challenge, my current trip plan was… too easy.
There was another factor. For the first time, I’d left my cat, Mully (aka “The Cat That Found Me” ) home alone without any plans for human contact.
He’d be fed through an automatic feeder. But if I didn’t get home until Tuesday morning, he’d be alone four solid days.
He’s a social creature, never more than a few yards away from me when I’m home. If I could do it, it would be better to get home, if only briefly, on Sunday night.
Hence the new plan:
Today, as previously planned, I’d head to Dennings Point. But tomorrow, instead of stopping at Croton Point, I’d keep going another 13 miles (against the current) to Yonkers, then take the train home that night.
That would mean a trip of roughly 40 nautical miles (44 land miles), about half of which would be against the current. Much more realistic practice for the EC, and I’d get home to Mully.
There was just one catch: I hadn’t yet figured out how to find the train station near JFK Marina in Yonkers. I knew it was close by—the club members had said something about “going through the hole in the fence”—but I’d be wandering around Yonkers after dark looking for the train station, with my camping gear on my back.
Oh well. That would be tomorrow’s problem.
As the Bible says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And today’s “evil” would be downright pleasant, or so I hoped: A short 21-nautical-mile jaunt from Esopus Island to Dennings Point.
I launched from Esopus Point around 9:30. It was low tide as predicted, which was satisfying. There was a slight flood current, but I knew it would shortly reverse to ebb.
The paddling went quickly, and before long I was in Poughkeepsie, with its landmark twin bridges (one for pedestrians, one for cars).
A tug-and-barge (laden with rusty pipes) passed by on the Western shore. Then the Clinton Point quarry appeared on the Eastern shore.
The morning wore into afternoon. My pace slowed, to 3.4 knots…3.3 knots… 3.2 knots. I could move faster if I paid attention, but I kept getting lazy and distracted. My hands were burning; likely blisters.
As I’d planned, I had a snack on the water. I’d discovered that halvah, a sesame-paste confection, had some ideal characteristics for paddling nutrition: It was calorie-dense (600 calories per bar!), low volume, and impervious to temperature changes. And oh yeah—I like it.
Still, after a few more hours in the boat, I figured a stop might be in order. So when a pleasant-looking beach pulled into view, I landed, stretched my legs (and the rest of me) and had another snack.
By midafternoon I was wondering if this paddle would ever end. It had only been around 18 nautical miles, and I was ready to be done!
I landed at Dennings Point at 1720 (5:20 PM) and was very glad to get out of the boat. My notes read, “Grueling! Blisters, stiff.” And that was on an “easy” day. Sometimes the “easiest” days are in fact the hardest!
I took my time setting up camp, keeping in mind I’d need to launch as early as possible the next morning. And as the final rays of the sun peeked through the limbs of the trees on Denings Point, I snapped a photo.
Tomorrow would be the big day! Paddling 44 miles and (hopefully) finding the train station in the dark…stay tuned to find out how that turned out.
By Johna Till Johnson
I’d just snapped a photo of a sunlit tug-and-barge across the river when I heard the sounds no kayaker ever wants to hear: Thump. Crunch!
Just like that, I’d hit a rock. That “crunch” sound? The rock grinding through the gelcoat outer layer of the kayak.
But there was worse. I was stuck on top of the rock. I tried shifting my weight, no luck. A few paddle strokes to maneuver the boat… and I almost got stuck on another rock.
I sat back and considered my options.
I was near the eastern bank of the Hudson River, about two miles south of the town of Hudson, where I’d put in. This was to be a 100-mile trip from Hudson to Yonkers (one of my home ports).
But not if I couldn’t get off this rock.
I probed the depth of the water with my paddle. Not too bad; maybe 2 feet or so. If I could get out of the boat without damaging it further, I could easily stand.
That was a big if.
The problem with doing anything—maneuvering the boat, shifting my weight, attempting to get out—was that it might damage the boat still further, turning a minor “ding” into an impact on seaworthiness.
Sometimes the best action to take is no action.
The tide was rising. In another little while, it might lift the boat off the rock naturally. As the saying goes: “A rising tide lifts all boats”… even kayaks stuck on rocks. And Vlad and I had successfully deployed that strategy to get unstuck from a mangrove swamp in Florida.
I tried maneuvering again, gently. No luck. Well, I’d give it a bit more time.
I sat back to enjoy the view… and gasped.
Just like that, two paddlers had appeared, out of nowhere, headed upriver. They were Pat and Charles. After a bit of happy small-talk about boats and trips. I said, “Ummm… mind helping me get off this rock?”
One gentle lift from Charles and I was free!
This was just one of the many serendipitous events that marked this trip, not least of which was the weather: three days of highs in the 80s and lows in the sixties (!) in the midst of our standard steamy July heat.
Another was timing.
Because of work complexity, I ended up launching a day later than I’d planned. But when I called up the B&B in Hudson to try to sort out my nonrefundable reservation, the owner was not only happy to accept the changes, but he suggested he switch my second night to Monday—giving me ample time for the trip. (Thank you Duncan at Croff House in Hudson!)
An auspicious start indeed!
I launched on a cool, foggy morning from the boat ramp in Hudson. Vlad and I had used it as the start of many adventures, by ourselves and with companions.
The plan was to paddle down the Hudson, arriving in Yonkers around midday Monday, where I’d leave the boat at its berth in the boathouse. Then I’d catch the train back to Hudson, have dinner, spend the night, and drive home early Tuesday before work.
That would have me covering an estimated 99 miles (86 nautical miles) in three-and-a-half days, with three nights camping.
I’d broken it down into segments. The first day would be the longest, if I could do it: Hudson to Esopus Island, around 34 miles (30 nautical miles). Then an easy day, Esopus to Dennings Point, roughly 25 miles (22 nautical miles). Another easy day from Dennings Point to Croton Point (again, about 25 miles/22 nautical miles). And finally, the 14-mile (12 nautical mile) stretch from Croton Point home.
I’d done the entire route once before with Vlad in 2011 and about half the route on a trip last September with friends. I’d marked out backup camping points, and a couple of bailout points where I could leave the boat safely and head back for my car.
And I’d spent several hours mapping the tides and currents for each day at several points along the route.
So I was pretty well prepared.
But as the saying goes, the best-laid plans….
However, that story’s to come.
Meanwhile, 90 minutes after launch, I was once again moving freely. If there was damage to the boat, I’d find out at the next stop; for now, there didn’t seem to be a leak.
I waved goodbye to Charles and Pat and kept going.
The day had turned out to be lovely; the morning’s fog had dissipated, and the sun sparkled off the water. There was just enough breeze to keep the heat at bay.
As the miles wore by, my mind spun free. Sometimes I focused on my forward stroke. It’s a form of meditation, the repetitive thoughts and motions, each time trying to improve just a tiny bit.
Other times thoughts would flash into my mind, scraps of ideas, plans for projects I could design. (This time I’d had the sense to bring waterproof paper, along with a pen, so I could jot down the most promising ones. We’ll see if any pan out!)
But mostly my mind was filled with sunshine and air, the scent of the river and the periodic wails of the train. There are trains on both sides of the river; CSX runs commercial traffic on the West and Amtrak runs passenger trains up the East. Further south, from Poughkeepsie to NYC, there’s also Metro-North on the East.
At first I was paddling against the current, but as the morning wore on, the flood ended and ebb began, and soon I was gliding along effortlessly with the current. My pace had picked up, from just over three knots to over four.
In early afternoon I passed the first backup camping spot at Magdalen Island; a little while later I was past the second, at Cruger Island. I was just under 2/3 of the way through the trip. Now I was committed to Esopus Island!
Sooner than I’d expected, I could see it off in the distance. Then the river turned and hid the island.
But surprise! As I rounded the bend, a lovely lighthouse appeared. I recognized it from the previous trip (Vlad had taken several photos) but couldn’t recall its name (Esopus Meadows lighthouse).
I arrived at Esopus Island just past five PM.
With stops, it had taken just under 10 hours; my average paddling pace (according to the GPS) was 3.5 knots, or just over four miles per hour. (It would never be that good again on the trip, but I didn’t know that at that point!)
I unloaded the boat and lifted it up to one of the moss-covered rock ledges that are such a lovely characteristic of Esopus Island. As I turned the boat over, I saw the two new “dings” from this morning’s adventure on the rock. Not great, but nothing fatal (and nothing worse than what was already there).
Since I had plenty of time, I washed my clothes and hung them out to dry, and had a leisurely dinner before setting up camp. I’d seen a state police boat zoom by earlier, and since I’m not quite sure about the legality of camping there, I didn’t want to advertise my presence.
Kept company by the ravens*, who occasionally called out, “Uh huh! Uh huh!” I scouted for campsites. There was a lovely patch of moss under a tree but near enough to the water to catch breezes; it was so soft I almost didn’t need the air mattress. And in the morning, I’d be able to watch the sun rise.
I was very tired, but just a little stiff. Not bad for 34 miles!
I fell asleep around dusk. It had been an auspicious start.
Start: Hudson NY, Friday July 26 2019 about 7:30 AM
Finish: Esopus Island, Friday July 26 2019 about 17:20 PM
Distance: 30 nautical miles (34.5 land miles).
Paddling time: 8.5 hours
Stopped time: About 90 minutes
Average paddling speed: 3.5 knots
* There is a funny story about the ravens on Esopus Island, recounted briefly here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esopus_Island
Apparently just over a hundred years ago, occultist Aleister Crowley spent a “magical retreat” on Esopus Island—for which he brought painting and climbing supplies but no food, saying he would be “fed by ravens”. He was indeed fed—but by his friends, who brought over food in a rowboat.
I always wonder if the ravens that live there now are the descendants of the ones Crowley thought would feed him, and if so, what they thought of the scheme.
By Johna Till Johnson
My first solo-kayak-camping trip in the NYC area.
I’ve solo-camped (hiking) in the Catskills, solo-kayak-camped in Florida, and kayak-camped (with companions) in the NYC area and elsewhere.
But until now I’d never planned and executed a solo-kayak-camping expedition in my own backyard (so to speak).
I put into a still and misty river at Hudson just after sunrise on Friday. It was cool, calm, and quiet. The fresh scent of early morning rose from the grass and water. I was cheerful, relaxed, but a bit edgy.
I took out 100 miles later on Sunday evening in a sweltering Yonkers sunset to the earsplitting beat of Latin music and the scent of vapes and barbeque. I was stiff, chafed, and blistered… and overwhelmingly happy.
In between were accidents, surprises, detours, and serendipity.
This is the best photo of the trip. I took it right before sunrise on Esopus Island. Consider it a sneak preview of writeups to come…