Category Archives: Kayaking

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!)

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…

Afternoon Jaunt to “Chromium Beach”

Chromium Beach Sunset

By Johna Till Johnson

They call it  “Chromium Beach”, not entirely in jest.  Back in the first half of the 1900s, a company called Mutual Chemical contaminated swathes of New Jersey with hexavalent chromium. One of those areas was in Liberty State Park, the green area to the west of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where there’s a lovely sandy beach on the Hudson shore.

Chromium Beach is a popular destination for Manhattan kayakers, due to its proximity, its topology, and the scenic views it provides. It’s close enough to be an easy afternoon trip (assuming the currents are in your favor), and the beach landing is in calm, protected water.

And the views! Oh, the views!

Manhattan

So it was a reasonable destination for the first day of December. I hadn’t paddled from Pier 84 in months, and was missing the bustle and churn of paddling in the New York waterways.

I set south around 12:15 with no clear destination in mind. By my calculations it was almost exactly slack, so I crossed over to New Jersey shore and wound my way down, hoping to use the back-eddy to combat the anticipated adverse current. My plan, such as it was, was to keep paddling until either the current or my inclination caused me to turn around.

There was still a reasonably strong ebb,  so I glided downriver at a fairly  rapid clip. The maritime radio was on, with the crackle and calls of a busy day on the water: “See you on two whistles, Cap’n?” “That’ll be fine! Two whistles.” “Okay, have a good day, Cap’n!”

I zipped under the bridge connecting Ellis Island to the New Jersey mainland. It was newly re-opened to kayak traffic after the 9/11 security closures, and I savored the opportunity to go around the calmer back waters to the west of Ellis and Liberty Islands.

A ghostly memory surfaced: Early one summer morning,  Vlad and I had stopped at a sandbar near the beach on the way to points south.  The sun was just rising, and baby hermit crabs had left tracks on the sand. I remember saying, “Look, Vlad, crabs!” (One of his research studies used crabs as subjects, and he was fascinated by the creatures.) For a moment, the air seemed touched with the shimmering golden promise of that morning.

Statue of Liberty and Helicopter

Then the golden memory faded, and I was back in the reality of a gray, chilly winter day. There was no wind, and the water was calm, but brisk (temperature around 42 degrees). The air wasn’t much warmer. I was glad for the wool I was wearing under the drysuit.

My stomach growled, and the thought of hot cocoa took shape. I’d brought a thermos of it, and it seemed like a delightful idea to stop on Chromium Beach for a hot drink and a look at the view.

The late-afternoon light tinged the sky peach and gilded the skyline of Manhattan. Behind me: trees, grass, and parkland. In front of me: the lapping waves and some of the most iconic images in the country.

Soon after, I was back in the boat and heading North, keeping a sharp eye out for ferries. The flood was late and a bit sluggish, but the growing momentum gave a nice assist, and soon the skylines of New York and New Jersey were streaming by.

Pier 84 at Launch

I arrived back at Pier 84 at 3:45, happy and satisfied. It had been an ordinary trip. But no paddle is truly ordinary. Even the most prosaic is touched with magic!

Trip details:
Paddle Name: Chromium Beach 12-01-18
Craft: Photon (Valley Avocet)
Paddle Date: Dec 01, 2018
Paddle Launch Point: Pier 84, Manhattan Paddle
Launch Time: 12:15 PM 
End Point: Pier 84, Manhattan (went down to Chromium beach behind SOL and back)
Paddle End Time: 3:40 PM
Distance Traveled: 11 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3.25 hours
Time Stopped: 10 minutes (cocoa on beach)
Average Pace: 3.38 knots

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