Category Archives: Life

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!

 

 

The Red Herring Rides Again!

Ron Ripple in the Red Herring

By Johna Till Johnson
Photographs by Ron Ripple

It was a cold rainy day last May when I bid farewell to Vlad’s beloved folding kayak,  the Feathercraft Red Heron, which we called “Red Herring”.

Brian and I had spent two futile weekends attempting to dismantle the boat, but unfortunately the aluminum skeleton had fused, and the boat would no longer come apart. And it had to be moved—New York Kayak Company was shutting its doors at the end of the month after a quarter-century of operations at Pier 40.

So as Brian began to hacksaw the aluminum poles, I cried silently, my tears mingling with the rain. It seemed like the end of everything.

Not just Vlad, but the Red Herring, Feathercraft itself (which went out of business the month Vlad died) and New York Kayak Company were vanishing into history.

Except Red Herring wasn’t vanishing.

It was headed to Oklahoma, where its new owner, a professor named Ron Ripple, wanted it for a trip to Alaska. (He needed a folding boat to take on the plane from Oklahoma.) I’d also sold him the tiny K-Light, Vlad’s first-ever boat, which I had paddled for our first Florida Everglades Challenge shakedown trip.  It fit Ron’s wife Ellen perfectly, and I was glad my “Baby Vulcan” had  found a happy home in Oklahoma.

Red Heron on Esther Island

I’d kept Ron apprised of the Herring’s state, including that we’d hoped to dismantle it, but if not, we’d ship it as best we could. He hoped he’d be able to machine the missing parts.

That didn’t happen. Ron wasn’t able to get the boat fixed in time for the Alaska trip. But he went anyway, with another boat, and was particularly happy to be able to re-connect with one of his oldest paddling partners.

We stayed in touch sporadically, glad to have found kindred kayaking spirits. I vaguely remembered he’d made plans to paddle with his friend again this year, in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  He also said something about having been able to repair the Red Heron.

Earl Cove on Inian Island

And then I got these photos, along with a note from Ron:

“Here are a few photos from the trip with the Heron.

The first one is the beach of my first camp site on Esther Island at the mouth of Lisianski Strait while I was solo.

The second is at our camp site in Earl Cove on Inian Island, which sits between Cross Sound and Icy Strait.

And the third is setting out into the fog on our last paddling day heading across Icy Strait from Pt. Adolphus to Gustavus.

While the water appears very calm, there were very dynamic eddies, boils, and swirls that moved our kayaks substantially; about 2/3 of the crossing was in the fog using GPS and deck compasses.

It was a great trip, and the Heron performed exceptionally. I am very happy with the Heron, and we are already planning next year’s trip.”

Red Heron in fog on Icy Strait

I cried again, but this time with happiness.

The Heron has found an owner worthy of it—and together they will go on many more exciting adventures.

Adventures In Glacier Bay (Red pointer marks approximate location of photos)

 

The Cat that Found Me

Mully and Spider Plants

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

“You don’t go out and get a cat, ” Vlad would say. “The cat will find you!”

He’d had three cats that he loved dearly: Sergei, April, and Clara. They were memories of happier times, when he’d lived in the first throes of romance with his then-wife in a New York apartment. I don’t think I ever knew how Sergei found him, but April and Clara were abandoned kittens that his wife discovered crying in the street, and which adopted her on the spot.

That marriage ended, and one by one the cats grew old and died. He buried each of them in Central Park (which of course is highly illegal.)

He told the story hilariously: “There I was, in a black leather jacket and skullcap, carrying a shovel and a dead cat in a duffel bag. Its feet were sticking out, already stiff with rigor mortis. It was the middle of the night–I don’t know why the cops never stopped me!”

But it was laughter tinged with sadness, as the last vestiges of his once-happy existence ended and he remained alone in the apartment that had once been vibrant with life. Not coincidentally, that was when he began to take ever-longer kayak excursions, and ultimately met me.

So it was natural that we discussed getting a cat together. I’d had cats for most of my life (despite being allergic), and we both thought a cat would be the perfect addition to our household.

Just one problem: Vlad’s adamant stance that you don’t get a cat. The cat gets you.

And unsurprisingly, given the amount of time we spent on the water, no cat managed to find us.

After Vlad died, I sometimes thought about getting a cat. But I live in a high floor in an apartment building with a doorman: how was a cat going to find me?

Online, as it turned out, just like so many things in this world.

Despite Vlad’s death, I’ve stayed engaged in the Facebook cancer forums that were so helpful to us while he was alive–in no small part because people dealing with cancer are some of the funniest, most honest, and best people around. Cancer has a way of stripping the superficial and extraneous out of people’s souls. If it doesn’t destroy you, it leaves you with a greater appreciation of the world’s beauty–and a much lower tolerance for daily B.S.

One of my forum friends had been keeping us all entertained with her online saga about a feral black cat that appeared on her deck one day this spring.

She promptly named him “Mully”, after a nearby brewpub, Mully’s Brewery.  Over time, Mully went from showing up to be fed to sleeping in a crate that she put out for him.  He allowed himself to be petted, gingerly at first, then with full enthusiasm (and a throaty purr).

In short, he adopted her.

Mully on Bed

Just one problem: The family already had five dogs and another cat, and my friend’s husband, not unreasonably, put his foot down when it came to a seventh animal.  Mully could  be a “porch cat”, nothing more.

My friend started looking for a permanent home for him, with no luck. For several weeks he continued living on the porch.

Then one day he disappeared.

Mully reappeared days later, sick and bleeding. He had puncture wounds in three of his paws and was running a fever. He’d come back to the only place of safety and care that he’d ever known, begging for help. (The puncture wounds, we found out later, were from some kind of attack. Whatever creature had gone after him, Mully had fought back fiercely.)

My friend took him to the vet, where they treated his wounds and infection, dewormed him, and vaccinated him. When he came home, she put him in the guest room, against her husband’s wishes.

“Porch cat” had become “guest room cat”.

But the situation couldn’t last. Mully had to go. The husband was adamant.

My friend posted again on Facebook, asking for any takers for an “indoor-only cat”. She explained that he’d already exhausted several of his nine lives, and needed to spend the rest of them indoors.

Indoor-only? I could do that, I thought, as I read her post.

The only problem: how to go get him? She lived 200 miles away, in southern Maryland. Moreover, I’d be out of town for several weeks, and not able to pick him up.

We made tentative plans for me to drive down on my first free Saturday. Then I ended up unexpectedly spending that weekend in Los Angeles, and we missed the date.

The husband wouldn’t budge. My friend couldn’t keep Mully any longer. He had to be out of the house that week, no more extensions.

She made plans to send him to a foster  home. “Unless,” she wrote, “You could pick him up Friday?”

I couldn’t, but by this time neither of us were willing to give up. She came up with a plan: She’d bring the cat up to her daughter’s on Friday, and I’d pick him up from there on Saturday.

That’s how I found myself on a sunny summer morning, driving down the familiar stretch of I-95 once more, this time in pursuit of the cat that found me.

I realize I’d fallen in love with him long before that day. “How is our Mully?” I’d written, earlier that spring. And “I think I love this cat,” another time. Not only was he adorable, but his feistiness and spunk were undeniable.

And with everything that he’d survived, his sunny and loving disposition was still intact. When I met him for the first time, he crawled into my lap and began to purr, nestling his face into my arm.

Vlad was right: The cat finds you.

Sergei (RIP) Photo by Vladimir Brezina