Author Archives: Johna Till Johnson

Dawn, November 12 2018


On the Pulse of Morning
by Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers- 
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

© Maya Angelou 1993

Lock

An unusual use for a carabiner…

By Johna Till Johnson

Both clever and absurd: The carabiner fits perfectly, but does nothing to secure the contents of the locker.

I took this outside the restroom at Serra, the rooftop restaurant at Eataly. There was a row of lockers where the waitstaff apparently stored their belongings. Some were locked, others were unlocked (I peeked inside one to confirm it was in use). And one was secured insecurely with a carabiner…

Vlad Photos

Yellow Submarine Paddle 24

Satisfied with our visit… a great blue heron keeps watch on top of the wreck behind (photo by Johna)’

By Johna Till Johnson

As the season fades towards winter, I find myself combing through memories, both physical documents and online.

I don’t know why I started a post called “Vlad Photos” or what I meant to say when I created this draft in early 2017.

There were no words, just photographs.

So here they are, with words added.

The 2015 kayaking photos were from our penultimate paddle, New Jersey Weird and Wonderful.  (The last paddle was a circumnavigation of Manhattan in November 2015. Fortunately neither of us had any idea it would be the last!)

New Jersey Weird and Wonderful 24

24. Time to paddle on (photo by Johna)

This is Halloween 2015. He was taking photos at the Carnegie Hill Halloween Spooktacular; the photos are here.

Vlad making faces

This was Christmas 2015/New Year 2016, our last Christmas together. By then we had some inkling of the difficulties to come, but you can see how happy we were nonetheless…

DSC_0033

And then there were the photos from earlier, even happier times.

I can’t recall when the photo below was taken, but I want to say it was a springtime camping trip on Long Island Sound in either 2011 or 2012.

I can tell it’s a camping trip because of the gear on Vlad’s back deck; his boat is capacious enough that under ordinary circumstances during a day trip he would never have needed the back deck. And he’s wearing a jacket, which means the weather was cool. Also the thermos on top was for hot tea—a staple for our cold-weather paddles.

I don’t know why the caption reads “more or less intact”; the conditions are so calm. Perhaps there was a storm earlier?

In any event, his tolerant half-smile says, as it often did, “Oh all right, go ahead and take my picture!”

I loved the way his expressions and body language telegraphed his mood.  I could tell from a quarter-mile away whether he was enjoying a paddle (usually the case) or feeling out of sorts. Here he was having a splendid time, except for having to stop paddling while I took the shot!

Vlad (photo by Johna)

Vlad still more or less intact (photo by Johna)

And this is one of my all-time favorite photos of him.We were on Egmont Key during our first shakedown cruise for the Everglades Challenge. I don’t remember why, but he looked at me with such sweetness as I took this…

IMGP1503 cropped small

Under the cabbage palms at Egmont Key

Halloween 2018

Black roses

By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad loved Halloween.

He enjoyed the sense of manic festivity, the candy, the preparations…but most of all the opportunity  for taking dramatic, colorful photographs.

It used to be my favorite holiday, but last year I couldn’t bring myself to go out—too many memories. This year, I was ready: A friend and I went to the Carnegie Hill “Spooktacular” block party, which Vlad and I had attended almost since its inception.

“This is what Halloween is supposed to be like!” she exclaimed as she watched the whirl of trick-or-treating children, set to the booming beat of the party’s DJ.

Ghoul

Holding Hands

Littlest Angel

M14

Masque

NYPD 2

Portrait

Rainbow Dancer 1

Rainbow Dancer 2

Rainbow Dancer 3

Skeleton trio

Sweetie

Treats for all

 

Rain and Sunshine on the Connecticut River

Boathouse on the Connecticut River

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve never understood why people don’t like to paddle in the rain.

Wind? Sure. Once it’s over about 15 knots sustained, it’s not a paddle, it’s an endurance test. Even a steady 10-knot breeze can create substantial “chop” and bouncy conditions, which you might or might not be in the mood for. (I usually am).

But rain? You’re afraid you might… get wet or something?

Come on, people!

Kayaking is a water sport. If you’re doing it right, you’re wearing clothing that keeps you warm whether you’re wet or dry. That’s actually kind of the point: frolicking in the waves and rain with impunity.

So the steady drizzle on a recent Saturday morning didn’t bother me a bit.

I loaded Cinnamon, my little red Gemini, on top of the car in the parking lot of my mother’s retirement community in Connecticut. I was visiting for the weekend, to enjoy dinner with the “Friday night girls”, a group of fascinating women in their 90s, spend time with my mother…and of course paddle.

I haven’t yet found a great source of current information for the Connecticut River (if you have one, please let me know in the comments!) so I winged it based on the tides, making the simplifying assumption that slack would fall at or around high and low tides.

High tide would be about 3 PM, so if I launched at noon, that would give me a good three hours of flood, assuming high tide and slack coincided.

Or, actually, of minimal ebb current. One of the sites I’d found (and later, frustratingly, lost) warned in big letters: “There is no flood in the Connecticut river.”

In other words, it was a proper river, not a tidal estuary like the Hudson.

So I wouldn’t count on a flood. I’d cross over to the Eastern side and meander up the side of the river, staying out of the current and exploring the little coves I’d passed before.

If the current wasn’t too strongly against me, I’d paddle up Selden Creek, a peaceful wonderland that wended its way through the reeds and rocks, and eventually rejoined the Connecticut River up north.

By 11:45 I was at the charming little boat ramp in Essex. It took just a few minutes to unload and gear up, and as hoped there was street parking within eyesight of the ramp.

Seagull eyes me warily

By 12:15 I was launched.

As forecast, the rain had subsided, but clouds roiled overhead. It was the tail end of Hurricane Michael, which had headed well out over the north Atlantic to the northeast, but whose effects could still be felt. Fortunately the wind was minimal; a few gusts up to 10 knots, but the rest a fresh northerly breeze.

As I pulled out of the marina, I passed close by a seagull perched on a piling. Atypically, it didn’t move as I stopped for a photograph. It just regarded me warily out of one eye.

My guess at the current seemed correct. Though there wasn’t much ebb, there definitely was no current against me crossing the river.  Some sailboats skidded by like white leaves born on the breeze.

Sailboats and grey skies

The far shore was festooned with rocks and reeds. Soon I came to one of my favorite landmarks, a red wooden boathouse jutting out on the water. As I paused for photographs, I noticed the tide was quite high. Surely there had been a few more feet of clearance last time?

The thought disappeared as quickly as it came.

But it would be back…

Cinnamon finds some friends!

I took my time paddling up the river’s eastern shore, watching for rocks and breathing the cool, fresh air. It was unseasonably chilly, in the high 40s, but even with the wind bearing down from the north, the effort of paddling kept me warm. Then I turned right and headed into the little embayment I’d noticed before.

My plan was to explore it. The chart called it “Hamburg Cove”, but it was more than just a cove. There was a sheltered marina, and then a creek meandered off to the right, into the hills.

Almost of her own volition, Cinnamon hugged the rightmost shore. There was a splash of color on the green bank that seemed to exert a magnetic pull. Cinnamon nosed right up: Two little kayaks, one red, one blue, huddled in a companionable pile.

We continued on. Suddenly a flash of white caught my eye. Two swans were gliding noiselessly on the calm green water.

Swans and autumn foliage

I didn’t dare come up close (swans can attack) but took as many shots as I could.
Farther along, another creature appeared, gliding almost as silently: A woman in a canoe, with a small child in front. I gasped with delight. They seemed like an apparition, the woman ageless, with flowing gray hair, and the little boy bubbling over with incandescent delight.

Mimi and Lucas

She was Mimi. The boy was Lucas. And she let me take their picture.

I continued on. There were boats moored at marinas, shabby-chic in the early fall colors. The water widened, then narrowed, then widened again.

I went around a bend and stopped to take a shot of a house on the water…

High tide

…whose front lawn was almost submerged.

Hurricane Michael’s impacts reached far. The hurricane that had recently devastated parts of North Carolina had reached all the way up into inland Connecticut. Wow!

Ahead, the water narrowed. There was a beautiful white-gold bridge with three arches spanning the creek. I paddled underneath, stopping only for the classic “kayak entering a bridge” photo.

Bridge and tunnel… :-)

On the other side, the current seemed to have turned. Little flecks of foam drifted towards me. Current… foam… there was probably a waterfall ahead!

I kept paddling, through the ever-narrowing creek. Tree limbs draped over the water, and rocks poked up, the current rushing and roiling against their sleek heads.

I came to a big rock, sluiced with roaring water. The creek turned sharply right, and beyond it was… whitewater.

Even my nimble Gemini wasn’t truly a whitewater boat, I concluded. Maybe there was a waterfall past the rock—but I would wait to see it another day.

With a little difficulty, I turned around amidst the rocks and rushing water, and sailed back down the creek, carried by the current. I passed the boathouse where I’d seen Mimi and Lucas, waved at the swans (still gliding majestically) and proceeded along the north shore until I popped back out into the main river.

I turned northward once more.

River, sky, reeds…

My destination was the mouth of Selden Creek, a calm and peaceful path that paralleled the river to the east, carving off the island of Selden Neck State Park. Last time I’d missed this entrance, so I scanned the shore carefully.

Sure enough, the weather continued to brighten, and before long I found the entrance to Selden Creek, marked by golden reeds and a bright patch of sky.

Selden Creek has a different personality from the rest of the river. It’s calm and peaceful, with few signs of human habitation: just water, reeds, trees, rocks, and sky. It’s a “vacation inside a vacation”… a peaceful oasis inside the journey.

Cinnamon meandered slowly through the reeds, as the sky slowly cleared and the sunlight broke through. The current against us was getting stronger; the flood had evidently begun. I checked my watch a bit nervously—would I get back to the boat ramp before dark? I’ve paddled after dark alone before, but this time I’d promised my mother I’d be home by dark, and we had restaurant reservations.

The entrance to Selden Creek

I stopped near the northernmost point of Selden Creek  for a quick bite and drink of water, without getting out of the boat. Then a quick paddle west and Cinnamon and I rejoined the main Connecticut river, now bathed in sunlight.

The flood was much stronger, and the boat fairly flew downstream. We passed a rescue vessel towing a motorboat. I thought of the book I’m reading, The Grey Seas Under, by Farley Mowat, about a Canadian salvage vessel in the 1940s. It gave me a new respect for this small towboat on the placid Connecticut River.

Rescue at sea

The trip down was fast, with a ripping current, and I rounded the corner to Essex boatramp just after five, as I expected.

At rest

We pulled ashore. Cinnamon looked jaunty on the dock, but appeared faintly sorry the trip had ended. Next time, little boat.

Working quickly, I unloaded my gear. The Connecticut River Museum was having its annual gala that night, and although I was on the public road, I didn’t want to block traffic.

A couple strolled by on the pier above me. The man was quite interested, and asked a few questions about the boat. The woman looked skeptical.

“Was it nice out today?” she asked.

It had been lovely, I assured her. Her face wrinkled in disbelief. “But it was raining!” she protested.

I just laughed.

Home port

Trip details:

Paddle Name: Connecticut River 10-13-18
Craft: Cinnamon (red Valley Gemini SP)
Paddle Date: 10-13-18
Paddle Launch Point: Essex Boat Ramp
Paddle Launch Time: 12:15
Paddle End Point: Essex Boat Ramp
Paddle End Time: Approx 17:15
Distance Traveled: Approx 15 nautical/17 statute
Time Paddling: 5 hrs
Average Pace: 3 kt

Autumn Sunrise

Upper East Side, 10-26-18

 

By Johna Till Johnson

Twice a year I can watch the sun rise.

It happens in late fall and early winter—around early November and again in February—as the Earth tilts away from, then towards, the Sun.

The sunrise migrates Northwards and hides behind the big building on the left in December and January. It peeks out again in February on its Southward path, an early sign of Spring to come.

Sometimes a sunrise is more than a sunrise. These words from a poem by Adrienne Rich spring to mind:

Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Rebirth: Amaryllis


By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad had an amaryllis that he loved.

It was a constant source of surprise and delight to him. He chronicled its astonishing growth. And he often used it as a photographic subject.  He loved its extravagant color and brilliance, strange voluptuous shape, and the way it always chose its own time to surprise us.

After he died, I treasured and cared for it, along with all the other plants we’d shared.

Then came the Great Fungus Gnat Plague.

If you don’t know about fungus gnats… you’re lucky. True to the name, they’re little gnats whose larvae can damage or kill houseplants by attacking their roots.

Every plant got infested. I spent a couple of weekends treating soil (one way to kill fungus gnats is to bake the soil; another is to spray with toxic chemicals) and repotting plants. When the dust settled, every plant was safely repotted in dry, gnat-free soil—except one.

For whatever reason, the amaryllis had gotten the brunt of the attack.

The outer layers of its bulb had rotted, and the bulb itself seemed dead. I mourned, and prepared to throw it out.

But a friend advised cleaning it off and putting it in the refrigerator.  She told me the cool darkness sometimes helped them to recover.

I took her advice and promptly forgot about it. Well, not entirely: occasionally I would notice it as I reached down for something-or-other, and think, “I’ve got to do something about the amaryllis.” But it made me too sad to think about, so I did nothing.

Then one day I reached down… and saw the amaryllis had grown a stalk!

It was pale, like albino asparagus, and bent, forced sideways by the refrigerator shelving.

But it was recognizably a flower stalk, and…

… was that a tiny bulb at the tip?

Barely able to contain my excitement, I repotted the amaryllis in clean, dry soil, watered it thoroughly, and placed it in the sun.

I didn’t have long to wait.

Within a couple of days the stalk had turned a vibrant green, and the bulb began to open. And here she is, back to her full glory, with two brilliant flowers glowing crimson in the early-autumn sun!