Category Archives: Architecture

A Winter Nighttime Paddle on the Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Brian Fulton-Howard (see note)

George Washington Bridge from the north

December 3, 2017

It was to be Brian’s first winter paddle. That is, even though it wasn’t quite winter yet, the air and water temperatures told us it was time to don drysuits—something Brian had never done before.

The conditions were perfect: the forecast was for a misty overcast day, with air temperatures in the 50s and water temperatures in the 40s, with virtually no wind.

And thanks to the “supermoon”—a larger-than-usual moon due to the moon’s close orbit to Earth—we’d have king tides, bringing currents of between 2 and 3 knots in the Hudson. That meant an easy paddle in both directions, if we kept with the current. (Currents that strong and stronger are common in the East River, but more typically in the Hudson they range from 1 to 2 knots).

There was just one catch.

To travel with the current in both directions, we had two choices for our launch from Yonkers: A predawn launch heading north to the Tappan Zee bridge, or a midafternoon launch heading south to the George Washington.

Realistically, I couldn’t picture getting up early enough for a pre-dawn launch.

But if we took the latter option, we’d be spending most of the trip in darkness.

Was that really wise?

One of my good friends and coaches, Taino, likes to illustrate kayaking risks with a slot machine metaphor: Each risk may be acceptable individually… but if enough of them line up—disaster.

So what were these risks? Well, it was Brian’s first time paddling in a drysuit. And it was winter paddling (paddling in cold water is always riskier than in warm). And paddling in the dark.

But countering that were the near-perfect conditions (particularly the lack of wind). There was fact that we were two paddlers (two are always better off than one). Also, Brian is a strong paddler, with a level head and good judgment. And we both felt healthy, with no injuries or ailments.

The deciding factor was esthetic: The morning was predicted to be cloudy, with little chance of a beautiful sunrise. But if we opted for the evening paddle, there was at least the chance the clouds would part and we’d get to see the supermoon as it rose.

The evening paddle it was!

Brian arrived at my apartment around 2, and we prepared to pack. Hot, sweet tea: Check. Plenty of chocolate (Brian’s contribution): check. All the usual cold-weather gear: hats, gloves, “space blankets”: check.

Except for one thing…

As Brian pulled on his drysuit (discovering in the process that it fit perfectly), I asked, “So you brought your neoprene booties, right?”

Ahhh… nope!

Brian hadn’t realized drysuits need shoes (or some kind of foot covering) to avoid getting punctured. (Drysuits basically consist of GoreTex, zippers, and gaskets—you need to wear insulating clothing underneath, and put on some kind of foot covering.)

But Brian is nothing if not resourceful. “Got any duct tape?” he asked. I did, along with the cardboard and Sharpie he requested. And in a few minutes, he’d made himself a pair of cardboard-and-duct-tape “sandals”—not super fancy, but enough to protect the soles of his drysuit from damage.

That problem solved, we proceeded to Yonkers, where we managed to launch around 3:30 PM. Manhattan was visible in a haze of pink as the last hour of daylight slowly faded into dusk.

Manhattan in a haze of pink

We paddled south with the current (which was roughly 2 kt at that point). We stopped to have a look at the Riverdale Yacht Club, a beautiful structure on the eastern shore of the Hudson. Brian explained it had formerly been the Riverdale train station on the Metro-North line. (Apparently, there’s even a book about the Riverdale Yacht Club!)

Riverdale Yacht Club

We paddled on, and arrived at the Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge  guarding the Harlem River just around sunset. We’d previously discussed taking a gander down the Harlem, so in we went. The current was with us, and growing stronger as we went forward.

We had our radios on, as a standard precautionary measure. Suddenly there was a crackle as a tugboat—the Kenny G—announced it wanted to bring a barge through the bridge.

We paddled closer to the southern shore of the Harlem, and I radioed back a message to the captain: “Securité, securité, two kayaks in the Harlem river, we know you’re there and we’re staying close to shore until you pass.”

The captain acknowledged, and we continued down the Harlem with an accelerating current.

Sure enough, the tug and barge soon passed, steaming by at 12-15 kt, or maybe even more.

We paddled on for a few more minutes, but decided that the accelerating current was just a bit too risky. So we crossed over to the north side and paddled back to the bridge, helped along by a healthy back-eddy.

We stopped at the mouth of Harlem, inside the bridge in a protected, mostly still patch of water, to have chocolate and rest. By then it was full dark, but with the lights of Manhattan all around, we could see fairly well. We turned on our deck lights and I donned a headlamp (Brian would do so later on).

When we exited the Harlem, I glanced back over my shoulder, and gasped. “Look, Brian!” I shouted. The clouds had cleared, and the supermoon was rising over the Bronx.

Supermoon rising over the Bronx

I took as many photos as I could, and then we continued south to the George Washington. Rather arbitrarily, we’d chosen the little red lighthouse as our turnaround point.

We arrived at the lighthouse right around 6:30, which was by our calculations right at slack. After several tries, I succeeded in getting a shot of the lighthouse flashing, though I couldn’t convince Brian to get in the picture.

Little Red Lighthouse (and little red kayak)

We paddled back in full darkness, glad of the extra visibility provided by our headlamps. True to prediction, the current increased slowly: 0.8 kt, 1.0 kt, 1.2 kt, 1.8 kt.

A conga line of tug-and-barges heading south on our left took us a bit by surprise, as we’d initially thought they were anchored (though there no danger as we were well out of their way). And the moon, by now high in the sky, was visible for most of the way.

We arrived back in Yonkers just past 8 PM, meaning we’d spent about 4.5 hours on the water. We’d paddled 18 statute miles (15.5 nautical miles) at an average pace of 4 mph, or 3.5 kt. –including the time we’d spent enjoying chocolate. The power of the king tides!

All in all… a very successful first winter paddle for Brian. Here’s to many more!

(Note: Regular readers of this blog may be forgiven for wondering who this mysterious “Brian” is. He was formerly one of Vlad’s grad students, and is now a post-doctoral researcher in his own right. He and I have paddled several times this year, though this is the first time I’ve been able to do a writeup. He, his wife Tyna, and I have become quite good friends.)

See slideshow below for more photos. Click on the arrows to move back or forward!

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A Prayer for Puerto Rico

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Crescent moon high above the Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Vlad loved Puerto Rico. One of his dreams was that we’d go there together some day, perhaps even circumnavigate the island by kayak (though he warned me about sharks).

Vlad knew the island well. For many years, he collaborated with a colleague at the Institute for Neurobiology at the University of Puerto Rico. That meant taking regular trips to Puerto Rico, at least annually, sometimes more often. And he took advantage of those trips to explore the island and its environs.

View of La Perla from the Institute of Neurobiology

Entirely aside from the exciting work he did with his colleagues, Vlad really loved the place itself: the warm, moist tropical air, the vivid colors, and most of all, the people.  He often told stories about his time there. One of my favorites was about the “palmetto bugs” that scientists caught from the lab floor for experiments (apparently it was cheaper and easier to catch your own than to order them from suppliers.)

View from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro

But my all-time favorite story was when he talked about how the scientists in his lab were almost universally young, beautiful women. I didn’t believe him, so he forwarded a photo “as evidence” (as he put it). Unfortunately I can no longer find it, but the photo indeed featured a half-dozen or so mini-skirt-clad young women holding martini glasses and smiling at the camera (it was an evening outing of the lab). Not exactly the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of “a gathering of neuroscientists”–no wonder Vlad was enamored of the place!

Beyond the sheer physical beauty of the island and its inhabitants, Vlad also appreciated its many biological wonders. Among  them: the bioluminescent bay
at Vieques Island, the bat caves, and the El Yunque Rain Forest.

Clouds after sunset, San Juan, Puerto Rico

I know he would be deeply saddened by the devastation that Hurricane Maria has wreaked on Puerto Rico. Fortunately the Institute for Neurobiology has reported that it has survived; but recovery will be a long, slow, painful process for them, and for everyone affected by the storm.

If you want to contribute, here is a list of charities that have been highly rated by CharityWatch and are contributing to Irma relief in Puerto Rico.

Excelsior

By Johna Till Johnson

excelsior-edited

72nd St Subway Station-Q Line

What makes photography interesting is the eye invested with feelings. That was the advice I’d gotten on finding my own photographic style. Strive not for esthetic perfection, but for conveying the emotions and narrative of the moment.

Tall order for someone still figuring out how to keep the camera steady enough to focus!

I was game for the challenge, though I suspected it would be an upwards struggle. One problem presented itself when I ventured out on a recent weekend: the world outside didn’t seem to match my feelings. It was a grey day in midwinter, but I was feeling… buoyant.

How—and where—would I find something that would convey my mood?

I took several shots outdoors before I stumbled across the perfect subject: the brand-new 72nd street subway station. Readers of the blog already know that I love subways. And I’m particularly in love with the 72nd Street station, with its high, gleaming arches, still-pristine walls, and glittering, realistic, slightly larger-than-life mosaic portraits.

Yes, I decided, the subway station would be perfect. Especially since I was taking the subway anyway to run my errands.

I had just about finished up a series of  photos when I noticed someone else doing the same thing: A young man in a puffy black jacket carrying a serious camera—with a long, impressive lens—was across the way, apparently preparing for a close-up of one of the mosaic portraits.

He had long hair and a distracted, somewhat hostile, expression. When he caught me looking at him, his eyes narrowed a bit, in that classic New York scowl. I could almost hear him thinking, “Whaddaya looking at?”

I leaned over the railing towards him. “We’re doing the same thing—only you’re a real photographer!” The scowl disappeared and his face lit up with an almost bashful smile. “I’m trying!” he said.

I smiled back and turned to leave.

Then it hit me: That was my shot. I turned around and steadied myself, hoping he wasn’t looking at me. No danger of that: he was leaning backwards against the railing,  carefully studying his subject. Carefully, quickly, I took the picture, then stepped back to frame it again.

It wasn’t until I’d taken a couple different shots that I noticed something I hadn’t previously seen: the word Excelsior in raised lettering on a concrete bar above the staircase. It’s Latin for “ever upward”, and it’s the New York State motto. I hadn’t even known it was there until I examined my photo.

Whoever elected to put it over a staircase obviously had a sense of humor. But I was delighted to discover something new in my favorite subway station—and struck by the appropriateness of the message.

Ever upward, indeed!

Pipes at Grand Central Station

By Johna Till Johnson

pipes-1-edited-3

Pipes at Grand Central Station

Friday morning, midwinter.

O-dark-hundred, as they say in the military: early in the pre-dawn darkness. I’m at Grand Central Station, traveling north for a business event.

I pass by the track where my train is supposed to arrive in 20 minutes. The track is dark, deserted, with no sign indicating an imminent arrival. Plus the track is filled with what looks like junk. In some places there’s barely a walkway for the passengers. Could there be some mistake?

Buying my ticket I ask the booth agent: “Is this really the correct track?” He checks the monitor, nods. So I take my ticket down to the track. Still no sign, but there are now a few guys driving carts up and down, past the piles of junk.

I walk towards the end of the track, my mind and eye trying to make sense of what I’m seeing. Banks of carts. Wire containers. And is that an old office chair standing by itself? Where did it come from, and what is it doing here?

I pass by a brick building with a sign:  Grand Central Station Mailroom. A mailroom, improbably located on a train track?  Who knew?

The building is lit indoors, but empty. The sign on the door says it opens at 7 AM, but it’s not yet seven.  I peer inside. Tables, printers, bins for sorting.

I keep going, towards the darkness of the tunnel at the far end of the track.  The piles of junk thin out, replaced by banks of cables and pipes, soaring into the cavernous darkness overhead.

There’s a conductor at the far end, standing by himself. He’s a young man, trim, with a tired look on his face. I approach him, wonder in my eyes, excitement in my voice. “This is amazing! Is it always like this?”

“Like what?” he asks.

“All this… ” I gesture to the clutter, the pipes, the darkness.

He laughs. “Every day!”

“There’s so much to look at!”

“Yeah… I guess there is…” His voice takes on a wistful tone. “You don’t really notice it when you see it every day.”

I nod, understanding what he means. Then my attention is captured by a perfect arch of pipes, rising into the overhead darkness.

I reach into my backpack for the camera.

Festive

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

The city is always magical at night…

Illuminations

Midtown Illuminations

A contribution to today’s daily post word: Festive.

Grid

By Vladimir Brezina

New York City architecture is ruled by rigid grids. But often the result is surprisingly fluid…

Grid 1Grid 2Grid 3Grid 4

A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Grid.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

By Vladimir Brezina

Gone…

Twin Towers

… but not forgotten.

Twin Towers Memorial

But memories are not enough—the new Tower has risen!

New World Trade Center tower 1
New World Trade Center tower 2

A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Gone, But Not Forgotten.