Author Archives: Johna Till Johnson

Long Island Sound, Ahoy!

Winter sun in the Harlem River

By Johna Till Johnson

The police car slowed, then stopped.

Busted!

We’d just landed on the beach at SUNY Maritime College. Julie seemed confident that it was permitted, but I wasn’t so sure. “I’ll go over and talk to him,” she said.  “We might just have to show some i.d.” I followed her, more to provide moral support than anything else.

The police officer watched as we approached. Clad in bright yellow, red, and orange drysuits, we made quite the sight,  but his eyes seemed inquisitive rather than accusing.

We had started in Inwood, Julie explained. His eyes widened. “That’s a long way!” he exclaimed. (13 nautical miles, but who’s counting?)

The route

“We’re planning to have lunch, then catch the current back,” I said. “We figure the East River will start ebbing around 1 PM.”

“So you know what you’re doing.” The officer’s response was more a statement than a question. I confirmed enthusiastically: “Oh yes! We’ve done this many times!”

For a moment, I remembered all the summer mornings when Vlad and I had gone out to Long Island Sound from Pier 40, returning after dark. Paddling down the East River with the current under a star-spangled sky, interrupted by the occasional airplane roaring in for its final descent at La Guardia airport.

The memories faded.

“Julie’s a coach, ” I added, to bolster our aura of expertise.

Julie looked down at her feet bashfully, but it was true.

I’d asked her to lead this expedition so I could become more familiar with the currents in the Harlem River and Bronx Kill (not to be confused with the Bronx River). My goal was to paddle out to Long Island Sound once again, from my new launch in Yonkers. But the currents were tricky, and I needed to become familiar with them.

The police officer seemed satisfied with our answers. He wished us a pleasant lunch. As we turned to leave, he added, “And you know… the cafeteria’s open!”

Cafeteria?

Although it was late autumn by the calendar, the day was positively wintry. That morning, as we’d set out, the water had formed icicles on my deck bag. Though the temperature had risen a few degrees (the icicles were melted) and the sun occasionally peeked through the clouds, the thought of a warm meal, out of the chill, was enticing.

Julie and Dave

We confirmed with the police officer that “outsiders” were permitted in the cafeteria, and brought the joyful news to Dave, the third member of our party. We quickly piled the boats up against the pylon of the Throgs Neck Bridge, against which the beach abutted, and headed in to campus, following the officer’s directions.

It was just after noon; we’d been paddling since 8:15 AM (an hour after our planned launch). The current was behaving with one of its patented quirks: Ebbing down the Harlem River and Bronx Kill, but flooding up the East River into Long Island Sound.

The Harlem is one of my favorite paddles, largely because it’s almost always calm and peaceful, compared with the  the churn and traffic of the East River or the wind-against-current chop in the Hudson. But I’d only paddled the Bronx Kill twice before, once on a cheerful sunny day with Vlad, and once last year with Julie.

Bronx Kill bridge

The launch was cold but uneventful. The sun burned through the clouds, a dramatic pinpoint overhead. There was a light breeze, occasionally gusting as high as 10 knots.

We glided past the familiar landmarks: Spuyten Duyvil bridge, the Bette Middler boathouse. A light breeze danced around us; I estimated that it gusted to 10 knots here and there. There were a few frothy whitecaps on the water, nothing more.

Soon enough we came to the left turn into the Bronx Kill.

“We’ll need to be careful that the water’s not too low on the return, “Julie said. “Sometimes we have to portage.”  I nodded and thought guiltily about our late start. We’d planned to be on the water at 7 AM, but I was late, and between this and that… we’d launched at 8:15.

But no matter! Soon enough, we scooted under the bridge and were in the East River. We meandered along, passing between the Brother Islands and then hugging the northern shore. We passed the blue-and-white Rikers Island barge. “Sometimes you can see the inmates playing basketball,” I said to Dave.  It was his first time out in this part of the East River. We paddled closer, but not so close that we’d alarm the guards.

Julie and Empire State

Sure enough, there were inmates visible. But they weren’t playing basketball. They just started at us through the wire mesh. As always, I felt a wave of empathetic sadness, imagining what it must be like to see, from behind bars,  kayakers floating by in freedom.

“What’s that?” Dave asked suddenly. I looked where he was pointing. Silvery pinpoints of light sparkled and danced off the ferry terminal. We watched, entranced, for a few minutes. We figured out it was sunlight reflecting from the waves–but it wasn’t something any of us had ever seen before.

We paddled on, under the Whitestone Bridge, our destination the Throgs Neck bridge separating the East River from Long Island Sound. Once under that, we could say we made it from Innwood to Long Island Sound.

As we drew close to the SUNY Maritime Campus, Julie paddled ahead to the Empire State, the training ship moored near the campus. It will be replaced by 2022 with a new training ship (also known as the Empire State).

Tug and Barge at the Whitestone Bridge

Then we passed under the Throgs Neck bridge and landed on the beach… to encounter the campus police.

Encouraged by the police officer, we headed up to the cafeteria. Much to our surprise, the sight of us in our drysuits garnered nary a glance from the sleepy students. It’s a maritime college after all… and it was also exam season. The students had other things to focus on!

Fortified by a hot meal and some delightful cocoa, we headed back to the boats for our return trip.  The waves had died down, but a passing tug-and-barge provided Julie and Dave with some lively wake to surf.

As we turned into the Bronx Kill, Julie wondered aloud again if we’d need to portage. Perhaps… but meantime, there was whitewater!

Julie and Dave in Bronx Kill whitewater

The shallow flooding river had generated some delightful whitewater ahead of us, including a miniature waterfall. Dave (a whitewater paddler) was in his element. Julie and I both took turns paddling over the shallow falls, then I pulled over and took photos as Dave played.

Finally we regretfully concluded we were finished, and paddled on… until suddenly my boat stopped. Just as Julie feared, I’d run aground.

Fortunately the sand was solid, so I hopped out and pulled the boat over to where Julie and Dave were. The water was an inch or two deeper there, just enough to stay afloat. But we’d cut it close!

Harlem River at twilight

We paddled on as the sun sank low. The sky darkened, and as we entered the Harlem River, the streetlights and traffic lights took on a magical air.

It was full-on evening by the time we re-entered the Hudson. The wind had grown chill, and we paddled briskly to make it back to the warmth of Innwood. Working quickly, we cleaned off and stowed the boats, then changed and warmed up with some cocoa we’d brought along (but hadn’t needed, thanks to the lunch break). I thanked Julie for her guidance, and said goodbye to them both.

It had been a lovely trip.

Home in the Hudson

Craft: Red Gemini SP (belonging to Julie)
Paddle Date: 12-09-18 Paddle
Launch Point: Innwood Canoe Club
Paddle Launch Time: 8:15
Paddle End Point: Innwood Canoe Club
Paddle End Time: 17:15
Distance Traveled: 25 nm/28 statute miles
Time Paddling: 8 hrs
Time Stopped: 1 hr
Average Pace: 3 kt/3.45 mph
Paddlers: Julie McCoy, David Rosenfeld, JTJ
Conditions: Cold (below freezing upon launch, icicles on deck bag). Calm. Overcast. Got back right after dark, very close to freezing. Virtually no wind or chop. Whitewater in Bronx Kill on return.

Click on any of the photos below to enlarge!

Paradise Found

Open water

By Johna Till Johnson

It seemed like a lifetime ago. And for one of us, it was.

In our third shakedown paddle for the 2014 Florida Everglades Challenge, we were headed across Florida Bay to Key Largo. We had a camping permit for a site five miles offshore, but we decided that would be packing too much into the next morning: we had to break camp, paddle to Key Largo, and disassemble Vlad’s boat, all before noon, when our friend was planning to pick us up.

Instead, we planned to make straight for Key Largo and sort out lodging when we got there. Surely there’d be a motel room… or a campsite… or something.

We’d neglected to take into consideration the fact that it was the busiest season of the year, between Christmas and New Years.

There was nothing available, we discovered. But Vlad remembered a small county park with a boat ramp… if we could find it.

When we reached Key Largo, we managed to miss the park on the first try. We paddled for several hours in the deepening darkness, scanning the shoreline with our headlamps and occasionally asking passersby.

Nobody had heard of the park.

Finally we reversed our route and went back along the shoreline we’d previously traversed. And at 9:00 PM… there it was!

The Blue Yonder

From our blog post at the time:

We pulled up onto a narrow cement boat ramp, got out, and looked around. It was a small, quiet park. Bordering it was a small road, with no sidewalks or streetlamps, with houses on the far side.

There was a concrete slab next to the boat ramp, with a picnic table and a trash can, and several large trees. Vlad said there was a fence around the park, but I couldn’t see that far into the darkness.

We quickly found a good spot to set up the tent—near the picnic table but not too close to the trash can, which smelled faintly of fish. Nobody would see us in the darkness… we hoped.

And they didn’t. The next morning, we were treated to a glorious sunrise and a visit from a friendly dog named Wilson (and his human companion). And while Vlad took apart his boat, I discovered some wonderful coffee and key lime pie at the nearby Key Lime Cafe.

The Blue Yonder Redux

It was a fitting end to a wonderful adventure. As I wrote at the conclusion of the post:

And just like that, the trip was over. Only memories remained: sunrises and sunsets, jewel-eyed spiders and pitch-black darkness. Mangroves, mosquitoes, and sandy beaches. And stars. And endless sun, wind, and waves.

Fast forward five years. Vlad was gone. My company had decided to hold our annual retreat at Key Largo. 

And I wondered.. was that county park still there? Had it survived the hurricane that decimated parts of the Keys?

On the last day of our retreat I found myself with some extra time before my flight back. So on a whim, I drove down the main road,  searching for the park. (I could have just looked up my own blog post, which had the name. But I didn’t remember that I’d recorded the name, since we often didn’t do that to avoid publicizing semi-legal campsites.)

I’d tried several side roads and was on the verge of giving up. Maybe the park was gone, eaten up by development, or demolished by the hurricane.

Then I saw the sign. I turned, and… yes, the road was right there. Yes, there was a mesh fence. And there was my park!

It was just after 8 AM and the park was empty. I wandered around, taking photos. It looked much the same, though the picnic area seemed newer, and the giant trash can was gone.

It doesn’t say “no camping”….!

An SUV pulled up, and out jumped a man with two dogs. We got to talking. It wasn’t Wilson and his owner, but it was much the same feeling: A friendly man with stories to tell.

After they left, I took a few more photos. Then I left, making a U turn just past the Key Lime Cafe. Sadly, the cafe had closed.

But the park was still there: A handkerchief-sized piece of paradise. A memory of adventures past and a promise of adventures to come.

Jade water and mangroves

 

 

An Unpaddle

North along the ice-bound Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson

It was the first weekend in February. I was back in town. Brian’s broken elbow had healed. It was a beautiful day: Sunny, windless, relatively warm.

So we headed to Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club to take out our boats for the first time in… too long.

“It might be iced in,” I cautioned as we drove. But I didn’t really think so. Yes, there’d been the Polar Vortex and its sub-freezing temperatures earlier in the week. But we’d had several days of warmth.

Surely everything was melted by now?

Er, no.

As we gazed at the ice-locked boat ramp, the only thing we could do was laugh. “We’re not going out today!” I said. “Nope!” Brian agreed.

Brian laughing

Instead, we went out to the end of the pier and took pictures of each other and the frozen Hudson. And laughed in the sunshine.

Johna at end of dock

We drove back to Brooklyn along the West Side highway, watching the ice in the river diminish as we headed south. Inwood, where Julie paddles, was still packed in, but the river was mostly ice-free by the George Washington Bridge. The embayment at Pier 84 was wide open; had my Avocet been seaworthy, I could have taken it out. And I later learned that Bonnie had had a lovely paddle that same weekend in Jamaica Bay. Yonkers was just slightly too far north to permit us to go out.

Ice ice baby!

But we didn’t mind! We had a lovely excursion in the sun and mild air, and saw ice floes in the Hudson. Next time….

Johna looking south

First Paddle of the New Year!

Sunrise and crescent moon, Key Largo

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s been cold and icy in the Northeast. Between the weather, and travel, I hadn’t made it out out on the water this month.

Now it was the last day of January.

I was in Key Largo for a work function, and had a free afternoon. The sit-on-top boats were piled in a stack on the beach. There were a few more hours of daylight left, so I rented one.

And so I found myself once again on the waters of Florida Bay in the waning afternoon light. I paddled southwest down the coast for a bit, until I came to a long stretch of mangroves. Then out into the bay, against the wind and a slight chop, heading back northeast.

Cormorants on lighthouse at sunset

Florida Bay never ceases to surprise. Although it was windy and bouncy out in the open, as I came up to the coastline and headed southwest once more, the water grew calm and glassy. And what was that ahead? To my astonishment, a sight more common in NY harbor: A tug and barge. I paddled up close, trying to discern what it was up to, but couldn’t figure it out. The sun was setting, so at last I gave up and headed back home.

I didn’t take the time to grab the waterproof camera, so you’ll have to make do with other photos from the trip. But 2019 started off on the right foot!

Because every palm tree needs a missile!

(And no, I haven’t the vaguest idea why this palm tree is strapped to a missile. That’s the fun thing about the keys: unexpected weirdness abounds!)

Christmas, 2018

Candle and ornaments

By Johna Till Johnson

“I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore,” I explained to friends. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was too hard after Vlad died.

It wasn’t just that Vlad loved Christmas. He loved it in such a particular way, with carols (the old-fashioned ones), mulled wine or cider, tasty cookies and candy, and decorations that bordered on the excessive: White lights and colored lights and candles… and tinsel (gold and silver).. and ornaments of all shapes and sizes.

How could I ever recreate the experience? Why would I even try? It would only remind me of everything that was gone….

The universe works in mysterious ways.

“Can we have an American Christmas tree?” my German visitor asked.

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the arrival of a German visitor, much less a 16-year-old girl who loved, loved, loved Christmas and was ecstatic when we put up the wreath. After we put up the wreath, a tree was the logical next step, so of course I agreed.

But what did she mean by “American” tree?

You guessed it: White lights and colored lights… and gold and silver tinsel… lots and lots of ornaments… and candles!

She was over the moon when we added the tinsel. Apparently they didn’t use it at home, despite the fact that tinsel is actually German: It was invented in Nuremberg in 1610. (Fun fact: What Americans call “tinsel” is, properly speaking, “lametta”.)

And if that weren’t enough, both the candles and the candleholders that Vlad and I used were imported from Germany.

But it was still a very American tree!

The American tree in all her glory

About those carols? And the mulled cider? And the tasty treats? Well, her sister, mother, and grandmother paid us a visit (from Germany!) So a few nights before Christmas, we gathered around the tree, sipped cider, ate Christmas cookies, and sang carols (in English and German). My visitor’s mother is a professional soprano and the whole family has excellent voices… so you can imagine the joyous sound!

The culmination of the evening was the candle lighting (with a brand-new fire extinguisher and a bucket of water handy).

This month, after I returned from abroad, I carefully washed the tree stand and packed it and the ornaments away…For next year.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Park Avenue Christmas Tree Lighting

Light in darkness

By Johna Till Johnson

In December 2016,  Vlad’s best friend Dan came to visit.

Their friendship dated back to the beginning of graduate school. Now it was a lifetime ago. A lifetime that for one of them would soon be over.

I can’t remember why, but Dan and I went out one dark evening to get something. We had to cross Park Avenue. But as we came up to the street, we saw it was crowded with people. There was no traffic.

Voices filled the air, and we realized they were singing… Christmas carols.

People singing Christmas carols! On Park Avenue!

Dan and I turned to each other, delight and wonder in our eyes. Who knew that in cosmopolitan New York City, such a thing could happen?

We stayed with the crowd and sang for a while, savoring the moment’s sweetness. Despite everything that was happening, there was light in darkness.

For a couple of years, that memory remained isolated.

I wondered, but did not know, why one dark December night there would be people on Park Avenue singing Christmas carols. It remained a mystery. But it was enough that it happened.

Life resumed.

This December a small contingent of us from St. Francis de Sales Catholic church were invited to the Christmas party at Brick Church, the Presbyterian church a few blocks away…on Park Avenue.

After the Christmas party, there would be the annual lighting of the trees on Park Avenue. With caroling.

Oh!

Now it all became clear. And a new memory was created. Light in darkness, yes. And also laughter, and cookies, and lemonade, and homemade Christmas tree ornaments.

And caroling on Park Avenue.

(Click on any picture to enlarge it, and scroll through.)

 

The Return of Christmas

Ornaments

By Johna Till Johnson

I didn’t celebrate Christmas after Vlad died. It was too hard. He loved it so much.

But when you have a visitor, a 16-year-old girl from Germany whose favorite holiday is Christmas and whose face lights up with glee at the mere thought of it…the situation calls for re-evaluation.

We attended the Christmas party at Brick Church, which included lemonade, cookies, and do-it-yourself Christmas ornament creation.

Clara made two ornaments.

But.. where to put them? We had no tree, and no plans to get one.

Now, it’s true that we’d agreed to get a wreath. So step one: Buy wreath, and decorate it. Clara affixed bells to bows, and added brass angels (repurposed napkin holders).

Step two: The tree.

Stay tuned!

Clara and Wreath