Category Archives: Culture

Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-An Auspicious Beginning

Tug and barge near Roger’s Island

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.

Hmmm.

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?”

Rescuer Pat

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.

Rescuer Charles

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 launch site Friday morning

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.

Hudson Power Boat Association in early-morning fog

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!)

 

Esopus Meadows lighthouse (one of Vlad’s favorites)

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).

Esopus birds on a rock

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.

Early dawn at Esopus

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

The route (star showing rock incident)

* 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.

Sun-dappled Esopus morning

 

Of Art and Beauty

Spring on 5th Avenue

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Why should anyone make art?

I’m sitting on the window seat on a blue-and-gold morning, sipping coffee. The breeze is warm, and there’s the sound of chirping birds competing with the blare of horns outside.

My glance runs up and down the potted ficus on the windowsill. There are new furled leaves waiting to bloom. It is spring.

What’s the point of art, and why should anyone devote his or her life to it, let alone squander precious hours of the few we’re all given?

Pondering the question, I realize I’ve unconsciously internalized a set of ideas: Art is frivolous, unimportant. Beauty is nice, but not necessary. Proper adults concern themselves with more important things.

But those are just ideas.

As I look around, reality seems to be otherwise.

I’m surrounded by beauty: The green-gold leaves of the ficus as they catch the sunlight. The geometric play of shadows on buildings. The lush greenery of the new foliage outside, sharp against the sky.

The world is beautiful, I realize. Nature is beautiful. And cities are beautiful, in their own terrible, savage, and dirty ways.

Humans are part of nature, and if Nature strives for beauty, shouldn’t humans? Isn’t the ache for beauty foundational somehow, built into our very cells?

There isn’t just one form of beauty. There’s an infinite variety, depending on how you look at things. Anything can be beautiful, from the rainbows on an oil slick to the multi-jointed machinery of an insect.

I think about Vlad, and his feelings about ants.

He hated the idea of killing them, not out of a reverence for life, but out of a reverence for beauty and the deep sense that we should conserve beauty wherever possible. “It’s just such a waste,” he said, in explanation. “That entire little intricate system (the ant) wiped out in an instant.”

If art is a deep-seated desire to reach for beauty, and Nature and the Universe is constantly creating beauty… then isn’t the desire to create art a way to align with the deepest forces of Nature and the Universe?

I feel a bubble of hope rising in my chest. Maybe creating art isn’t frivolous at all, but rather a way to authentically align with Nature…

But wait. Isn’t “beauty” just a human-made construct? Would the leaves of the ficus, or the rainbows in an oil slick, be beautiful if I weren’t here to see them, and declare them so?

The bubble begins to deflate.

If beauty is just a human construct, then the creation art is just another one of those activities we humans impose on ourselves to feel purposeful and to feed our egos…

Belief in beauty is a bit like belief in God, I realize. You posit that an idea greater than yourself exists and gives meaning, and search for evidence that it exists.

And then I remember something: The nine-year-old autistic boy who let out an audible “wow!” at the end of a Mozart concert.

David Snead, President of the Handel and Haydn society described it like this: “While [conductor] Harry Christophers was holding the audience rapt in pin-drop silence following the music’s end, what sounded like a child of about six years of age couldn’t hold back and gave out a ‘Wow!’ heard round the hall,” Snead wrote. “The crowd cheered in enthusiastic agreement.

The boy, Ronan Mattin, apparently didn’t normally communicate his emotions, according to his grandfather, Stephen Mattin, who took him to the concert: “I can count on one hand the number of times that [he’s] spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he’s feeling.

If a nine-year-old boy whose mind and emotions are wired differently from most people’s can perceive the beauty in Mozart, isn’t that proof that it objectively exists?

Not proof, perhaps, but evidence, I correct myself.

And there is plenty of additional evidence, if you know where to look for it. By some accounts, plants can perceive and respond to music. And humans and animals alike respond to certain sounds and shapes, even across cultures. Physicists talk about using “elegance” as a good metric for assessing which theories are more likely to be true.

I think about how closely beauty and the impulse towards spirituality are linked in history. Why does the “love of God” inspire people to create, say, the Cathedral of Notre Dame?

And the suspicion grows on me, not for the first time: What if I’ve gotten everything exactly backward? What if art and the creation of beauty aren’t just nice incidentals, but the most important thing? I think of Tosca’s plaintive aria: “I lived for art, I lived for love.” Was she right?

I circle back to the question of why anyone should create art.

Because we’re hard-wired for it. Nature creates beauty, and humans are part of Nature. It’s what we do. And when we’re prevented from it (or prevent ourselves from it), our lives are constricted and constrained. Creating beauty (however we conceive of it) is part of living fully.

The bubble of hope is very large and light now. It feels almost large enough to carry me.

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.

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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

 

A Wintry Thanksgiving Weekend Paddle on the Hudson

Ice on Haverstraw Bay

By Johna Till Johnson

The plan had evolved, as plans sometimes do.

Originally it was supposed to be a 4-day camping trip over the Thanksgiving holiday. But the polar vortex and its single-digit temperatures, plus a lack of preparation, put the kibash on that idea.

Instead: A Saturday paddle launching from Croton Point headed to parts north. (Ultimately, that turned out to be the Cortlandt Yacht Club just south of Verplanck, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Looking south from George’s Island

Early in the morning, I drove out to the George’s Island State Park boat ramp and took some photos. Then it was south to Croton Point, which has a lovely little launching beach designed specifically for human-powered boats.

Launching from Croton Point

Launch time was 12:15 PM. I meandered up the east side, poking into every nook and cranny. The current was nominally flooding, but flood that far north is fairly weak.

By the George’s Island boat ramp, it was definitely turning to ebb, but I pressed on, curious to see what lay beyond. The chart indicated some sort of marina. And you couldn’t really tell, but it seemed possible to go under a bridge into an inland body of water.

Reeds and red berries

After the long curve of Montrose point, there it was: a complex maze of boats and sea walls, which I later discovered was Cortlandt Yacht Club, Hudson Valley Marine, and Viking Boat Yard. Disappointingly, there was no navigable route to the inland waterway; although there was a low tunnel under the road through which I could glimpse daylight, the sound and sight of roaring water just beyond made me give up any thought of entering it. So I decided instead to have some snacks in preparation for my trip back.

Although many of the boats were put away for winter, there were plenty still in the water. And what a mix! Rusting barges sat cheek-by-jowl with spiffy new yachts. There was a festive yellow boat—whose paint job had seen better days—festooned with tattered flags: The Caribbean Queen. She was far from home, I thought idly as I broke out the food.

To the south, the water shimmered, smooth as glass. The shoreline and tiny island made quivering reflections. All was still.

Autumn reflections…

And then it was time for the return. The current was ebbing fiercely now, so I shot down the middle of the Hudson (keeping a sharp eye out for tug-and-barges, which often travel all the way up to Albany).

I made it back in half the time, nearly overshooting Croton Point, which, like most points, featured a bouncy little tide-rip. Had there been more wind, that part of the paddle would have been positively exciting. But as it was, I rounded the point, then paddled the calm waves gently lapping the beach.

As I landed, I was greeted energetically by two small, fluffy dogs. Their owners (or at least leash-holders) were an elderly couple bundled up against the chill.

The woman, who looked to be in her 90s,  asked if it was possible to walk along the shoreline of Haverstraw Bay.

“No, but you can paddle it,” I said. “Why?”

She wanted to see it, she said. Because of the ghost ships.

Ghost ships?

She explained: As a girl during World War II, she’d lived on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with a view out over the Hudson. During the blackouts, the US naval fleet would travel up the Hudson to shelter in Haverstraw Bay.

As she spoke, her words formed images in my mind: A darkened Manhattan. Ships gliding by, as silently as possible. Ghost ships, black silhouettes against the darker darkness of night. Headed for someplace unknowable to a small child. Someplace with a strange, foreign name: Haverstraw Bay. The place she wanted to see.

I felt sad to disappoint her with the news that condos and sea walls blocked the walk along the shoreline, but by then she didn’t seem to mind. It seemed that having someone listen to the story was enough.

“Thank you,” she said, as she, the dogs, and the man prepared to leave. It wasn’t quite clear what she was thanking me for: Listening to her, perhaps? Or just a moment of human connection on a cold, overcast day?

But I was the one who was grateful, to her for passing along a memory that would soon expire, but now would live another lifetime. A secondhand memory, but still real.

Croton to Verplanck

Craft: Solstice (Tiderace Explore-S)
Paddle Date: 11-24-18
Paddle Launch Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle Launch Time: 12:15 PM
Paddle End Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle End Time: 3:30
Distance Traveled: 7 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3 hr
Time Stopped: 15 minutes
Average Pace: 2.3 knots
Paddlers: Solo
Conditions: Cloudy, calm, cold (35 to start, 45 at finish, approx.). Very little wind.

Morning at the Tappan Zee (seen from the north)

Note: I haven’t been able to find anything about the ghost ships of Haverstraw Bay during World War II. If you do, please let me know. I don’t doubt the old lady’s recollection; it was far too vivid for that. But it’s strange that there seems to be no historical record…

Thanksgiving Day Parade 2018

Eponymous

By Johna Till Johnson

It was pure serendipity, as many wonderful things in life are.

I had just decided, with some regret, that kayak-camping on the Hudson during the single-digit temperatures of a polar vortex was not wise. So at the last minute, I was without plans for the Thanksgiving holiday.

A Boston-based friend I hadn’t seen in decades, but with whom I had a lively Facebook correspondence, wanted to know: Would I like to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—from inside the HBO building? A friend had a spare ticket, and it would be great to reconnect…

It took approximately a nanosecond to decide. Truthfully, I would have jumped at the chance to see her, and meet her teenaged daughter. Meeting her Brooklyn-based friend (who, it turned out, is also a NYC kayaker) would be an added bonus.

But all that and the ability to watch the parade from a high floor in a climate-controlled building? As I said… pure serendipity!

It was wonderful to reconnect with my friend, who doesn’t seem to have changed much since college, except for the deepening of her acerbic wit. Her daughter turned out to be a lovely young woman, and I look forward to spending more time with my new Brooklyn friend.

For me, these were the best takeaways.

But there are also the photos.

Bearing the colors

Run, he’s after us!

Pikachu

Believe

Homewood patriots

Rocking horse and float captain

Marching band

Marching girls

HBO… from the inside!