Category Archives: Life

Happy Birthday, Vlad!

Sunrise at Calvert Marina

By Johna Till Johnson

Dawn, 5:45 AM. The morning is calm, clear, and cool. The birds chirp and tweet; otherwise all is silent. Slowly the fingers of the rising sun touch the masts of the sailboats across the water.

A perfect near-summer day.

A perfect start to the morning of Vlad’s birthday, echoing that long-ago Sunday in Prague:

The child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay

That he was, all his life.

And loved well, by many who love him still.

Happy birthday, Vlad!

Solo Trip to the Yellow Submarine

Sky of blue and sea of green….

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s May 26, 2020, and the world has changed. So I got to wondering what I was up to last year at this time. By good fortune, I have the photographic record: A solo kayak trip to the yellow submarine in Brooklyn, almost a year ago to the day.

I hadn’t been for almost four years; the last trip was with Vlad in October 2015. (Many links to the history of the yellow submarine appear there.)

The 2019 trip marked a milestone for me, though I didn’t really think of it at the time; I’d begun to embrace my new identity as a solo expedition paddler. It’s a longer, more ambitious trip when launching from Pier 84, the home of Manhattan Kayak Company, than it was from New York Kayak at Pier 40. And of course, it’s always more ambitious to go solo.

The rural-industrial mix of Coney Island Creek

I remember meeting up with a young father and his seven (!) children on the beach at Kaiser Park;  we chatted for a while and I praised his parenting skills… it’s not easy to manage a brood that size, with the smallest in diapers and the oldest burly pre-teens.

Then I continued on down Coney Island Creek; for whatever reason, Vlad and I had never previously explored its full length. It’s a strange combination of bucolic and industrial: Lush greenery sliced through with a subway track, and blocky apartments looming in the background.

The current had turned against me, so it was time to go. The sun was low in the sky as I crossed the anchorage, and the dramatic skylines of Manhattan and Jersey City hove into view.

It seems so long ago now… another world!

Manhattan and Jersey City skylines… seems so long ago and far away

Sail and Sky Composition

Sail and sky composition

By Johna Till Johnson

Blue sky. White sail. Harmony.

Happiness!

The Blues of Battle Creek

Great blue heron and shoreline, Battle Creek

By Johna Till Johnson

They say to start a story in the middle, so here goes:

The sun was slipping towards the tree-covered hills that lined the dark, navy-blue water. The air was fresh, silent except for the occasional chirping of birds, including the “weep-weep” of the ospreys and the deep grunt of the great blue herons*.

I climbed down the ladder from our trimaran, Christina Rose, and stepped carefully into the cockpit of Sisu, my blue, white, and black surfski. I unclipped the carabiner from the bow line, and pushed off, water lapping gently at my bow.

My immediate destination: a tiny golden spit of beach that jutted out from the trees, about 40 yards away. Over the sound of birds chirping I’d heard voices: an adult and a child, and—was that a dog barking?

Sure enough, it was a young family: Mother, father, little girl and naked baby brother, along with their fluffy dog, Houdini. They’d come across the creek in a gleaming brown wooden rowboat, now pulled safely up onto the dunes.

The baby played in the gentle surf under his mother’s watchful eye as I chatted with the father, who pointed out some good places to explore by boat.

The evening before, my partner V. and I had been to the end of Battle Creek, where the deep-blue waters terminated in a spreading misty-green marsh. Today, we decided to head in the opposite direction, to the Patuxent River, into which Battle Creek fed.

We smiled and waved goodbye to the little family, and set off into the slight chop. As we headed south out into the river, the chop increased. We were going against wind and current; nothing particularly strenuous, but new-ish conditions to us in the surfskis. Moreover, following V’s lead, I’d adjusted my wing paddle to its shortest possible length, with a strong feather angle, and I was still familiarizing myself with how it handled.

So we proceeded carefully, with an eye on the conditions. There was a finger of land extending out the eastern shore into the river. We crossed over to it, and paddled along the edge. Green grass and reeds stood out from clumps of mud; in places the water was only inches deep, but lively and bouncy in the wind. A brisk southwest breeze dusted the waves with white froth.

As we got closer, the apparent “finger of land” dissociated into a string of individual islands, with swift channels between each. We rode the waves through one channel and found a quiet oasis beyond, where the water was barely ruffled.

The shoreline was consistent: Green hills dotted with white, brown, and brick houses, many with wooden steps leading down to a dock or two.

Patuxent River shoreline

After a bit we turned around and made our way back through the choppy river back into the sheltered creek. The waves slowed, softened, and evened out. The sun was now low. Its slanting rays illuminated the eastern shore and touched the blue sky beyond with radiance.

Blue creek, blue sky, green trees: In its serene beauty, the shore was very different from my usual urban haunts.

We paddled up the eastern shore of the creek, taking the time to explore every cove, inlet, and tiny marina. In each, we admired the boats: A tiny, sleek powerboat creatively named “Ice Box”; a graceful black sailboat lovingly moored in the center of a cluster of pilings. There were clusters of kayaks, canoes, and dinghies, with the occasional Zodiac, but no people (other than the young family we’d encountered at the start). All was strangely still, and peaceful.

Cranes and herons patrolled the shore; V. saw an otter swimming. Osprey calls were ubiquitous. Every now and again we caught sight of a bald eagle wheeling overhead.

Great blue heron on shore, Battle Creek

After we’d been out about an hour, we turned again and headed back to the Christina Rose. The sun was getting low, and more importantly, we were getting hungry. Back at the boat, a feast of fresh-caught fish awaited us: Earlier that day, V. had caught a catfish and two perch, and made rice and salad as accompaniment.

Within a few minutes we were back at the boat. We lifted the surfskis onto the “wings” of the trimaran and hung our wetsuits to dry on the stays. Then we tucked into our dinner of hot just-fried fish and cold rice and salad, surrounded by the blues of Battle Creek: blue creek, blue river, and deepening blue twilight.

Early morning, Battle Creek

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, this post might leave you with more questions than answers. Who is V.? How did I, a New Yorker, wind up on a river off the Chesapeake Bay in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown? Where did the trimaran come from?

And most importantly… after 12 years committed to sea kayaks, what was I doing paddling a surfski?

All will be revealed, I promise, although it may take a while. I hope you’ll find it entertaining!

* In a previous version of this post, I misidentified a Great Blue Heron as a crane. I actually thought first of a GBH, but didn’t take the thought seriously enough to look it up; for some reason I thought they were too “exotic” for Maryland. My friend Chuck Conley set me straight! 

Convocation

By Johna Till Johnson

Sometimes an image grabs you so vividly that it demands you stop and pick up the camera. I was hurrying to a meeting in San Francisco when this ghostly convocation caught my eye…

First Paddle of Winter 2019-2020

Palisades facing North

By Johna Till Johnson

Note: I’ve been remiss in blog posting for the past few months; the adventures have been happening faster than my ability to keep up! I look forward to sharing  them with readers over the next little while; there’s quite a lot going on. Please stay tuned!

It’s 3 PM, on a fine winter day. The sky is a clear, pale blue. There’s little wind. The temperature is in the low forties, warm (ish). Three of us—Brian, Richard, and I—have met up for a short paddle celebrating the winter solstice.

Richard and Brian at launch

We launch from Yonkers, heading south with the ebb. Slack is supposed to be at 3:18 at the George Washington Bridge, but I’ve conveniently forgotten the one-hour difference between GWB and Yonkers, so I’m naively assuming it will be slack soon. We set off across the river, and catch sight of a tug-and-barge farther south. Is it coming up the river towards us?

The distance between us appears to be shrinking rapidly, so we put some effort into the crossing, to stay out of the path of the oncoming barge.

Soon enough we’re on the far side of the river, paddling gently with the current, enjoying the sights of the New Jersey shore.

We pass a frozen waterfall. Then Richard spies something in a tree. “Is that a bald eagle?” he asks.

Is it an eagle?

We squint. No, we decide, just a trick of the light and maybe a patch of fungus white against the tree trunk.

Then the “patch of fungus” moves and sure enough, it’s the head of a bald eagle. They’re common sights farther up the river, but this is the first time we’ve seen one this far south.

We stare in awe, nearly holding our breaths. Then just as we go to take a picture, it takes flight, majestic wings flapping gracefully.

It’s an eagle! (White head near center)

We continue down the river, helped by a current that (according to Johna’s faulty calculations) shouldn’t still be ebbing strongly. But it is.

Brian paddles close to the bank to inspect another waterfall. This one leaps majestically from the cliffs, frozen in cascades of ice. Even though the day is warm, the ice warns us of winter to come.

Ice capades

A tug-and-barge announces. Is it the one we passed? No, that one isn’t moving, except to shift with the (finally) changing current. It was anchored after all.

But there’s another one, a barge towed by one of the bright turquoise tugs, the Megan Ann or one of her sisters. It’s heading south to sea, and passing by another tug-and-barge on the eastern shore.

We watch for a while, then turn to cross the river towards home. There’s still a strong ebb in the middle of the river, even though it’s past four. The Manhattan skyline glows pink in the misty sunset, the strange new spires glimmering.

Facing south

We cross over, surfing the waves, and chat a bit as we begin to paddle north, on the East side of the river this time. We admire the new kayak storage at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club.

A flock of seagulls circles overhead, squawking. “Seagulls and eagles,” I joke. “Seagulls and eagle,” Richard corrects me. He’s right. Only one eagle!

Full twilight sets in. I push ahead, working on my forward stroke. “Slow down so we can make the trip last longer,” Brian says. I stop paddling and just drift for a moment, admiring the Yonkers skyline against the darkening sky.

Finally we round the corner and pull up to the boat launch. It’s 5 PM; we’ve been out for almost exactly two hours. Not a marathon trip by any means, but a fine way to welcome winter.

Spires of Manhattan

 

Back in Black(burn)!

Starting line, Blackburn Challenge 2019

By Johna Till Johnson

Sometimes winning is just about showing up.

“I don’t think I’ll ever do the Blackburn Challenge again,” I said to my friend Jean.

I meant it. The race was too intimately connected to Vlad. It was the first race we’d ever done together, and the only one we’d done repeatedly.  

No, I couldn’t do another Blackburn.

A year went by, and another.

And to my surprise, I heard myself asking Jean, “Are you thinking of doing Blackburn this year?”

She was. Along with her friend B.

So I blocked time on my calendar… and forgot about it.

That is, until B. sent me an email asking for advice. Although she was an accomplished marathoner, Blackburn would be the longest kayak race she’d done, and she had questions: Would conditions be overwhelming? What happens if you bonk midrace? What did I recommend for hydration and food?

It wasn’t until after I’d explained my thoughts on the above that I realized I really would be doing the race, my sixth time.

Launch site (my Solstice is the red boat next to the bag, which holds supplies)

As I planned and prepped for the race, everything was achingly familiar… yet totally different:

The drive up from NYC. As always, I left later than planned (Vlad and I had had many a tension-spat en route north, thanks to the added time pressure.) But this time I was leaving on Thursday, giving myself time and energy to recover on Friday before the race. And of course, there was no one to have a spat with.

The lovely little hotel that Jean had found. Vlad and I had always stayed at The Inn at Babson Court, right downtown; they were full up by the time I committed to go, but the Castle Manor Inn was just as lovely, if less idiosyncratic. And we met up with some Blackburn Challenge competitors, who went out with Jean on a pre-race paddle (I had to stay back at the hotel to get work done).

The early-morning start in the gym at Gloucester High School.  The boats had been loaded and were in place. We were at the captain’s meeting at Gloucester High School, edgy and nervous about the day ahead. But there was plenty of “hurry-up-and-wait” time to chat with fellow contestants, sip coffee, and worry…

Captain’s meeting

And then the start…

Before long we paddled out to the starting line, waiting for our groups to be called up. B. and I were in the same group (Sea Kayaks); Jean was in the surfski class.

They called our numbers, and we each shouted out “here”. Then the horn sounded and we were off.

Starting line

Somewhat to my surprise, B. pulled ahead of me early on. She’d been so worried about her inexperience that I’d assumed she’d be slower.

Well, no matter. I’m known for finishing strong; I’d likely pull ahead towards the end of the race.

The paddle down the Annisquam River was surprisingly challenging; I’d only realize later that I’d gotten the currents mixed up, and we were paddling against the current in the early part of the race.

Like all races, it was both infinitely long and over in the blink of an eye. My memory is a jumbled mix of sunshine and waves… watching (from behind) the strategy of one of my top competitors in the sea kayak class as she paddled out to sea to catch the currents, then rode the currents parallel to the seawall, pulling well ahead of me, propelled by the sea (green line in the course chart.)

The course. Green line is where my competitor went out to sea to surf the current in…

Somewhere close to the end I realized I wasn’t going to pull ahead of either B. or my other competitor, and I slowed way down, finishing in a disappointing 4 hours and 23 minutes, my worst time by far, and well below my most recent sub-4-hours.

Approaching the beach

So it was with decidedly mixed emotions that I pulled up to the colorful beach. I wasn’t happy with my performance, but more than that, two things hit me hard: Vlad wasn’t there to greet me, and a memory stuffed away suddenly surfaced.

On the cold December evening right after he’d died, I’d changed his body into a shirt that reminded me of happier days… And I realized with a shock, for the first time, that it had been his Blackburn Challenge 2102 shirt. Tears filled my eyes and the beach blurred.

Suddenly someone appeared. It was B. “Let me help you with your boat,” she said. Together we hauled it up on the sand.

B. and Jean

A few minutes later, Jean appeared. “Look, you got bling!” she said. It was true. I’d come in third, despite my poor time. B. had won our class (with a brilliant time around three hours and forty minutes!)  and Jean had won hers.

And so had another woman, Melissa, who joined us on the beach and who I vaguely remembered.

Melissa and her first place

“Didn’t you compete in 2013? In a plastic boat of some sort?” I asked her. She had, and done well, coming in third. Six years later she’d graduated to a high-performance sea kayak (Surfski) and had finished at the top of her class.

Scene at the finish line

Melissa was just one of several people I recognized.

As we went through the lunch buffet and gathered for the awards ceremony, I caught up with several others, including Roger, one of my kayaking heroes.

Roger was a good kayaker until he retired from his job as a university professor when he was somewhere in his 60s. Then he became a great kayaker, routinely beating men who were nearly a half-century younger.

I was delighted to spend a few minutes catching up with him, reminiscing about past races and commiserating over this one (he, too, had done less well than he’d hoped.)

“You and Jean seem to know everybody!” B. exclaimed.

She had a point. And it was a happy reminder of one of the things that Vlad and I both loved about the race: the diverse participants. We human-powered boaters are an odd breed, and the people who take delight in seemingly pointless tests of endurance form our own community. (Blackburn would have been pleased!)

Three dories

Vlad is gone, and we will never share another race.

But there will be other Blackburns, other opportunities to connect with my crazy endurance-boater kindred spirits… and maybe to improve on that 4:23 pace.

For now, it’s enough to be back.

Beach umbrellas