Category Archives: Nature

Happy Easter!

By Johna Till Johnson

Amaryllis blooms

Yes, I know it’s just good Friday. But the new amaryllis (gift from a friend) decided to bloom today. And for some reason, every year Good Friday is sunny and warm, and Easter Sunday is cold and gray.

So I’ll take my cue from the amaryllis and wish everyone a happy Easter, even if it’s early.

Here’s to resurrection and life!

And—if Easter isn’t your thing, or even if it is—here’s to bunnies and robins and flowers and springtime and the promise of summer ahead.

Crooked

By Johna Till Johnson

Crooked

Snow beside the East River, late winter 2017

Bent necks, leaning
Towards the East River
What are they listening
For?  

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part Four

By Johna Till Johnson

Camp Lulu Osprey

Osprey in nest at Camp Lulu

It wasn’t until midmorning that the humorous side of yesterday’s events hit me.

I stopped at a sandy island to make breakfast, and couldn’t stop chuckling.  Of all my fears about paddling alone in the Ten Thousand Islands, the worst thing that had happened to date was my encounter with… Deranged Fart Man.

As if to make up for everything that had happened, the day was splendid: Sunny and cool, with just enough breeze and chop to be interesting. Which was just as well, because I decided I was homeward bound. Originally, I’d planned to camp on Pavilion Key in the Everglades. But the ranger had mentioned I’d be the 18th camper at the site—and after yesterday, I’d had my fill of neighbors. I decided to paddle back through the Ten Thousand Islands at a leisurely pace, and pick an isolated camp spot not too far from the marina where I’d started.

After a few more hours paddling, I found the perfect location at Camp Lulu: A secluded beach, partly facing the gulf, with a meadow and small forest behind me. Best of all, I discovered, there was an osprey nest off in the woods. The “weep weep” of the osprey parents was a cheerful backdrop as I went about setting up camp.

Night fell clear and quiet, and blissfully free of neighborly noises and smells. As I nestled into my bivy sack, I gave thanks for the soft sand. Overhead the stars blazed in a dark velvet sky. I fell asleep to the gentle sound of waves lapping.

Camp Lulu Sunrise Edited

Sunrise at Camp Lulu

The next morning I woke early, and was treated to a spectacular sunrise. I took my time packing up, succumbing to a familiar feeling: the trip was coming to an end, and I didn’t want it to.  So even simple chores took longer and longer, as I tried to delay the inevitable.

Eventually, despite all my delays, I was packed and ready to launch. I waved goodbye to the ospreys (who were no doubt happy to see the interfering human depart), and set off.

The wind was brisk, and I made good time, despite my reluctance for the day to end. To my surprise, I reached the Coon Key marker in early afternoon. In an hour or so, I’d be back at the marina, unpacking and maybe savoring a burger.

Not so fast!

It took longer than I expected to navigate my way through the mangroves to the marina. When I arrived at the boat ramp, everything looked subtly different. The main building seemed set at a different angle than I’d recalled. And the boat dock seemed… larger, somehow.

No matter. I pulled the boat up on the dock and began quickly unloading it, conscious of the fact that powerboat owners might want to use it. A friendly man, a middle-aged midwestern transplant and fellow kayaker, kept me company. We chatted as I worked: about his wife (who was pushing for them to buy a condo in the area), his son (who did technology work at Amazon), about paddling. I made good time unloading the boat, and he helped me carry it to a grassy patch near the boat ramp. Another anomaly: the grass wasn’t exactly where I’d remembered it. And hadn’t there been a tree overhanging it?

Egret in Tree

Egret or (more likely) juvenile Blue Heron (see the green, rather than yellow, legs)

But it wasn’t until I went looking for the car that I grasped the problem.The large, half-full parking lot was completely unfamiliar. “Where’s the big tree?” I asked my new friend, puzzled. “What big tree?” he replied. At the Calusa Island Marina, the helpful woman behind the desk had told me to park “under the big tree”. And indeed, the tree was unmistakeable: Over 100 years old, it towered over a circle of parking spaces. I distinctly remembered parking my white SUV in its shade. Yet it was abundantly clear that there was no big tree to be found.

Somehow I’d managed to arrive at the wrong marina.

It had looked like my marina… but then, I had a foggy recollection of not looking back when I first set out. Big mistake!

What to do? My new friend was as puzzled as I. Then he gestured to a trio of uniformed men. “The police might know,” he said.

I asked, my questioning hampered by the fact that I couldn’t remember the name of the marina I’d started from. They seemed doubtful, but finally gave me directions to “the other marina”. I needed to paddle around the peninsula we were on, go under a bridge, and there it would be.

Something about the directions didn’t seem right—I didn’t recall going under any bridges—but then I hadn’t exactly been paying attention when I set forth. We’d proven that.

I reloaded the boat, said goodbye to my new friend, and set off. As I paddled, I realized the wind and current were both with me. If by any chance this was the wrong direction, returning would be a challenge.

As I paddled, I savored the view of brightly colored waterfront cottages, tiny, but each with its own dock. Several were decorated whimsically, partly for the holidays, but partly with that quirky South Florida bohemian vibe.

Soon I pulled away from the inhabited areas. There was, indeed, a bridge in front of me—but I could swear I’d never seen it before. Surely I hadn’t been that clueless? With a deep sense of foreboding I paddled on. Ahead was a tiny boat dock, by the side of the road, with a few decrepit cars nearby.

It wasn’t where I’d started from. And now I had no idea where that even was, let alone what it was called.

This situation called for the GPS. I turned it on—and got a rude shock. It kept telling me I was at Marco Island, several miles away. And no matter what resolution I set it at, I couldn’t find my missing marina.

There was nothing for it but to go back to the marina that wasn’t mine (which I found out later was called Walker’s Coon Key Marina) and try again.

Which I did. Only paddling against the wind and current, it took me two hours to return, as compared with the 30 minutes or so to paddle out. When I finally arrived in late afternoon back at Walker’s, I was still as stumped as before.  Acting on a hunch, I continued on past the marina. Unlikely as it seemed, maybe there was another marina behind the first?

Indeed there was. If I’d only kept paddling when I’d first arrived, I’d have been at my marina within minutes, instead of taking a three-hour detour.

Moral of the story: Pay close attention to your launch point, so you can be sure to find it again!

I unloaded the boat for the second time, put it on top of the car (yay!), and left the marina, tired but satisfied, around sunset. This particular adventure was over… but stay tuned. More to come!

Edited JTJ Selfie Lulu

Looking onward to the next adventure!

 

 

.

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part Three

By Johna Till Johnson

Faka Union Canal Sunset

Sunset on Faka Union Canal

I awoke to the sound of…not very much at all. A few birds piping, and the rustle of air high up in the leaves.

The front had passed through, but other than the droplets remaining after a late-night shower and a smattering of branches caught in the mosquito netting above, there was little to show for it. The sun was up in a cloudless sky. There was a gentle breeze, and a few whitecaps out in the Gulf.

Nonetheless, it would probably be wisest for me to stay on the “inside” today. If the wind picked up (as predicted), I’d be better off sheltered. Besides, I wanted to explore the marina at the end of the Faka Union Canal.  I’d plotted out the trip the day before.   I’d be traveling with the current if I left before noon and returned by sunset.

I decided to leave the campsite set up, and make this a day trip. I launched late morning, arriving at the marina in early afternoon. After dragging the kayak up the boat ramp and depositing it on a patch of grass,  I explored. There was a small convenience store that sold ice cream and other goodies. There was also a restaurant, which tempted my empty stomach, but it seemed too highbrow for a damp paddler with salt-encrusted clothing. And there was a large hotel-apartment complex overlooking the water.

I returned to the convenience store, had some ice cream, then decided to take a selfie to share with my best friend and business partner. For most of the trip I’d been out of cell phone range, and I knew she was worried about me. This would be a good way to let her know I was fine.

I posed with the boat ramp behind me, and smiled that awkward rictus selfie grin.

“Did you get it?” asked a bystander.

Gator selfie Edited

Gator? What gator? 

I shot him a puzzled look. What’s to “get” in a selfie?

“I mean the gator! There’s a twelve-foot gator on the boat ramp behind you! I thought that’s why you were taking a picture!”

I spun around and saw… nothing. The boat ramp was empty.

I’d almost convinced myself he was making it up when a group of teenage boys came over, chattering excitedly. Yes, there had been a gator. Yes, it had disappeared into the water just seconds ago…

Well, dang! My first encounter with a gator on the trip thus far, and I’d missed it! And I was about to get into the water where it likely lurked.

I forwarded the selfie to my friend,  packed up the phone, and launched.

The paddle back was long and leisurely, as the sun made its way down the western arc of sky. I was still about 45 minutes from home when it set, but I wasn’t worried—I had headlamps, and the campsite was already set up. I paddled through the deepening scarlet and purple skies, and landed just as the first stars were peeking out.

It was while preparing dinner that I first heard the unearthly sound: a bone-chilling screech from the other end of the island, trailing off into angry jabbering. What was it? Not a panther—everyone described a panther’s cry as sounding “like a woman’s scream”. This was harsher, and angrier.

I turned the headlamps on bright and scanned the wall of vegetation at the end of the island. At first, nothing.

Then I saw it: Eyes.

Twin green glittery reflections, low to the ground. An angry screech followed.

Great. Whatever it was now knew exactly where I was.

I banged a couple of pots together and shouted into the darkness: “Go away and leave me alone!”

The screeching ceased—for a few minutes. Then it started up again. I scanned the forest with my headlamp. Was that another set of eyes? Two of them?

My mind raced with the possibilities. What could it be? I kept coming back to one theory: a rabid raccoon. Yesterday, Carolyn had mentioned she’d seen a “sick” raccoon. Would it come over to the campsite in the middle of the night and attack?

But what about the second set of eyes? And the snarling sounded distinctly angry, not sick.  I finally decided it must be two raccoons arguing over food, perhaps a fish. In which case, they were unlikely to bother me.

If I were wrong, it could be unpleasant. But since there wasn’t anything else to do,  I decided to assume I was right. I finished preparing dinner, ate, cleaned up, and went to bed. At some point the snarling ceased, and I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Thankfully, no crazed raccoons had attacked me in the night (though several lines of fresh tracks passed remarkably close to the boat).

I packed up briskly,  because today’s plan called for a long-ish paddle: I had decided to venture into the Everglades. That meant checking in with the ranger station at Everglades City, and continuing on to the nearest available campground. In the Everglades, permits are required, and the rangers limit the permits by campsite to avoid overcrowding. This was “high season”, so my choices were likely limited.

It was a near-perfect paddle: Warm (but not too warm) sun, light chop, and the never-ending panorama of keys to my left. When I reached Indian Key I decided to circumnavigate it and find the campsite Vlad and I had missed in the night during the Everglades Challenge.

To my delight, the sandbar at the inside end of the key held a stunning flock of white pelicans, which I was able to capture on camera.

Indian Key White Pelicans

White pelicans on Indian Key

Continuing on down Indian Key pass to the ranger station, I pleased myself by managing to recall its exact location.  I landed, stripped off my spray skirt, and tromped proudly inside.  My salt-encrusted jacket and squelchy paddle shoes garnered nary a glance from the uninterested tourists. And the rangers were pleasantly accommodating of  the damp footprints.

Their news wasn’t so welcome, however: Apparently the only available campsite was the Lopez River campsite, about five miles away. That wasn’t so bad—the current was with me, and if all went well, I’d arrive by sunset. And I was briefly excited at the thought of camping on a riverbank, rather than a beach.

But then I remembered Lopez River: Vlad and I had attempted to have a picnic lunch there on one of our shakedown cruises, and we’d been driven away by the sulfurous mud and clouds of mosquitos (even at midday). My memories of it were unpleasant enough, and in the evening, it would surely be worse.

Oh well. It was the only option, so I’d take it. As I set off towards Lopez River, I decided I’d plan to spend the least amount of time there I could. I’d sleep in my paddling gear, and launch early in the morning with the current.

True to prediction, I arrived at the campsite just as the sun was setting. There was already a large group at one end of the campsite, with eight or ten kayaks covering the beach, making it impossible to land.

Everglades Park Sign

Special regulations apply…

The only option was the other end, which was occupied by two picnic tables and a lone kayaker, a lean man with long graying hair and an appearance that made me think he was native American. By the looks of his gear, he was also a seasoned camper.

“You have a neighbor!” I announced.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t seem too happy: “There’s no room,” he replied. I explained that the rangers had sent me here, and assured him I’d respect his privacy and do my best to stay out of the way.

As he watched the sunset, I pulled the boat up and decided to pitch my bivy sack in the only available spot, a muddy patch of land between the two picnic tables. His gear was spread out on one, so I used the other.

We chatted briefly as I prepared and ate dinner. He was an artist from the West Coast, at the tail end of a 10-day trip (so my guess about being a seasoned camper was correct).

He seemed nice enough. And he was happy to listen to the weather report on my radio, which called for a mild enough night that I decided to eschew a sleeping bag. Maybe this campsite wouldn’t be so bad after all!

Wrong on all fronts, as I found out over the next few hours.

At first, things were fine.  Yes, the site was buggy, but I’d expected that. The head net kept the skeeters away from my face, and the jacket and waterproof pants protected me to the ankles and wrists.

And yes, the ground was hard and muddy, with just enough mangrove fingers poking up to make it impossible to find a comfortable position. And yes, there was the sulfurous smell I’d remembered.

Mud, bugs, bad smell: It wasn’t perfect, but nothing worse than expected—and I reminded myself again that I’d be launching early, ideally before dawn.

How bad could one night be? I was about to find out.

The first inkling came about 45 minutes after we’d retired to our respective tents. I was just drifting off to sleep when there was a loud, resonant rumble from his tent, so long and loud that it took me a few seconds to figure out what it was.

My neighbor had farted, the loudest, longest fart I’d ever heard.

It took a few seconds for me to realize that with a sound like that, there would also be…

…the smell reached me a moment later, the stench overwhelming the sulfurous mud. Whatever my neighbor had had for dinner obviously disagreed with him. And was now disagreeing with me. A few minutes later, there was another one, long enough that I could count the beats like a freight train.

I turned away and sunk my head as deeply as I could into the collar of my jacket, trying to avoid the fumes.

It was obviously going to be a long night.

But it was only getting started. After my neighbor’s stomach rumblings had subsided, a loud, unearthly moan issued from his tent, startling me. Apparently he was having a nightmare. Over the next few minutes, he thrashed and moaned, sometimes muttering unintelligibly.

I was wide awake, nerves tingling from the adrenaline rush.

After a while, the silences between the moans grew longer, and I relaxed. Maybe the show was over, and I could get some sleep.

I was just drifting off again when he shouted, in a voice full of menace, “You want more? I’ll give you more!”

Now I was actually afraid. There was no possible scenario in which those words, uttered in that tone of voice, could be benign. But he was clearly asleep, I reminded myself. People aren’t responsible for what they dream.

No matter, I wasn’t falling asleep for a long while. Because after the noises subsided, the cold began. Contrary to the predictions, the night got colder… and colder.. and colder. I could tuck my legs up inside my jacket and be warm enough, but after 20 minutes of sleep I was stiff and aching, and had to change position. I could always go get my sleeping bag from the boat, but it would take a while and subject me to the clouds of mosquitos that still whined incessantly outside, despite the chill. Plus, repacking the sleeping bag would delay the morning departure—which I was now awaiting with a mounting crescendo of desperation.

The night stretched on, and on.  Every few minutes I checked my watch to see if it was close enough to morning, and the current’s change, to launch. Then I’d doze for a few more minutes, the mangroves poking into me, my limbs stiff and cramped.. and wake again, to repeat the cycle.

The current was supposed to change around 5 AM. Perversely, when that hour rolled around, I couldn’t bring myself to face the cold outside. As uncomfortable as it was inside the bivy sack, it would be worse outside.

It wasn’t until after six that I hit on the one strategy that forced me out : I let the air out of the air mattress. As my body touched the hard, muddy ground, I suddenly decided the cold outside was preferable to remaining in the bivy sack.

Thankfully, it took very little time to pack and launch. I was on my way in the pre-dawn twilight, never so happy to be back on the water as I was then, despite the exhaustion pounding inside my skull.

Before me, the river was calm as glass. Behind me, the horizon slowly brightened. As I paddled, I thought about the ghastly night I’d just endured.

And then I looked over my shoulder… to the most beautiful sunrise I’d seen in a long time, maybe ever.

It wasn’t until then that I realized what day it was: January 1, 2017.

If the difference between the last night of the old year and the new dawn of this one was any indication of the future, my life was about to take a marked turn for the better.

I paddled onward, my spirits lightening as the sun rose.  I’d survived hidden alligators, crazed raccoons, and Deranged Fart Man…but today was a new day—and the dawn of a whole new year.

Lopez River Jan 1 Sunrise

Sunrise on Lopez River: Jan 1, 2017

 

 

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Island: Part Two

By Johna Till Johnson

panther-key-everything-tree

The “Everything Tree” on Panther Key

In the bright light of full morning, I sat down to make coffee and breakfast… and had a rude shock. The Jetboil, which had worked perfectly well last night (and in pre-trip tests), now would no longer start.

This wasn’t catastrophic, but it was somewhat serious. You can start a Jetboil with a match.. but I’d brought just a handful of stormproof matches with me.  And I only had freezedried food, which required hot water to cook.  So I’d either have to cut short my trip, or curtail my eating—neither of which seemed ideal.

Normally I’d have been panicky. Well, actually, normally we would have fallen back on Vlad’s rickety stove, which he always packed even after we converted to the Jetboil. But there was no longer a “we”, and Vlad’s stove was somewhere back in New York. So that wasn’t an option.

days-2-to-6

From Pumpkin Bay to Fakahatchee and back

Instead of panicking, I took a close look at the mechanism. It basically works by placing a voltage across the gap between two pieces of wire. Current arcs across, and generates a spark. Close inspection revealed that one of the pieces of wire was encrusted with something, which would preclude any sparking.  I carefully filed it off with my knife, and tested.

It worked!

I sat back on my heels and smiled with satisfaction.  Perhaps it was my imagination, I but I could feel Vlad smiling, too.  I would have morning coffee—and a hot breakfast!

And then…what?

As the water for the coffee boiled, I savored a totally unfamiliar sensation: Complete freedom, with no deadlines or constraints.  I could paddle wherever took my fancy, go for as great or small a distance as I chose.

I could… freepaddle.

pumpkin-bay-edited

Paddling on the “inside”: Calm, clear, quiet

Russell had mentioned an Indian shell mound up by Pumpkin Bay, and said you could camp there. After inspecting the charts, I decided that would make a nice excursion for today. If I could find the shell mound (and it was indeed camp-able), I’d spend the night there. En route, I’d check out the other keys to see if they held attractive campsites, in case the shell mound didn’t work out.

I had a plan! And options.

I finished breakfast, packed up, and launched.

Paddling “inside” the Ten Thousand Islands is very different from paddling in the Gulf. The water is quieter, and it can feel almost dreamy at times, as you glide along under the mangroves.  Today was warm and calm, and I arrived at the Indian shell mound earlier than anticipated, in the early afternoon.

More accurately, I overshot the shell mound, going far enough up the Pumpkin River to get tangled in overhead branches before turning around, and ultimately sighting the (very narrow) landing spot. After securely tethering the boat to a mangrove, I scrambled up a short rise and into…

…a field of golden reeds, drying in the sun.

It was eerily quiet.

indian-mound-sea-grass

Reeds at the Pumpkin Bay Indian mound

Not that it’s exactly noisy out among the mangroves, aside from the occasional boat motor or croaking sea bird—but this was a special kind of quietness, charged with a low-key, but very real energy.  It was beautiful, and sad, and…not precisely hostile, but not welcoming.

I wandered around taking pictures, trying to decide if I wanted to camp there, and thinking  about the Calusa Indians who had inhabited the area until the mid-1700s. They were by all accounts quite fierce.  I suspected they would not have appreciated my presence overnight.

It was almost as if they were saying to me, “Thank you for appreciating our space, now go home.” Moreover, Russell had told me about hearing a Florida panther scream one night when he had camped there. I was prepared to deal with sharks and gators… but panthers?

Beautiful  as the place was, I wanted to return to the outer islands.  I decided to return to White Horse Key.

I had no trouble finding my way out of Pumpkin Bay  and arrived at White Horse Key by late afternoon, with plenty of time to make camp, cook dinner, and watch the sun set over my former campsite.

sunset-over-gullivan

Sunset over Gullivan Key

I fell asleep watching Venus glimmering brightly beside the tiny sliver of the waning moon.

The morning dawned clear and beautiful—and noisy! There was the splash of pelicans striking the water as they fished, oblivious to the presence of the kayaker on the beach. That was complemented by the hoarse sound of dolphins breathing, as they arced above the nearly still water.

Once again there was the question of where to go next. This time, there was a complicating factor: a front was predicted to roll down from the north in two or three days, bringing with it rain, and more critically, wind. I’d need to find someplace where I could shelter—not right away, but soon.

I sipped my third cup of coffee and scrutinized the charts. Today’s trip would involve scoping out the only official “inland” campsite, at Fakahatchee Bay. If it turned out to be a good site, I’d shelter there for a couple of nights. If not, I’d continue on.

Satisfied with my vague plans, I prepared to launch.

A small motor boat had landed on the beach, disgorging a handful of people, clearly day-trippers in short and T shirts. One of them approached me.  He asked how far I was headed, and when I told him I had no idea, he was apparently stunned.

I smiled. Then I pushed my boat out into the waves.

There was a light breeze and satisfying chop. The keys drifted by to the left, first the length of White Horse, then Hog Key, and finally Panther Key.

pumpkin-bay-2-edited

Cloud, sky, mangroves…

As I paddled by Panther Key, I felt a pang of disappointment. It looked like a lovely place to camp, with a series of long, low, beaches facing the Gulf. But it was already quite evidently inhabited: tents (some quite large) were up in most of the campsites, and someone had hung a set of Spongebob Squarepants towels out to dry. Camping there didn’t seem to be an option for later that night, not if I wanted solitude.

There were a few empty spaces, though… and anyone who packed Spongebob Squarepants couldn’t be all bad! Maybe having neighbors wouldn’t be a bad thing.

The day passed lazily.  I located the inland campsite with no trouble, but it was clearly an “emergency only” site, at least for kayakers. Instead of a wide swath of beach, there was a short, steep cliff (too high to bring a kayak up, so the boat would have to be tethered on the water, and gear unloaded). And it was covered with vegetation, with no breeze and the persistent hum of mosquitos, even at midday.

Paddling back towards the Gulf, I once again passed Panther Key, with its strip of inhabited campsites.

There was a small fishing boat out front. I swerved out to sea to avoid its fishing lines. “I’ll try to stay clear,” I shouted to the captain, a wild-haired man of indeterminate age. “Oh I’d love to land a kayak,” he replied jovially. “I could mount it on my wall.”

Chuckling to myself I continued along my way, pulling closer to the shore to inspect the campsites. A little further on I encountered a couple of guys, one heavily sunburned and wearing what appeared to be billowing blue Bermuda shorts. He introduced himself as Mark, and we chatted. It turned out the campsites were part of a group of extended family and friends. The group spent a week here every year, relaxing and fishing. “Come join us for dinner!” Mark said. “We’ve caught lots of fish, more than we can eat!” With that, they ambled off down the beach.

I had to admit, the invitation sounded tempting, especially after nearly three days of freeze-dried food. I pulled the boat up on land and started looking for a suitable campsite.

A few minutes later, two women came by and introduced themselves as Carolyn and Eileen. They, too, invited me to stay for dinner—and suddenly, I was decided. I would-why not?

panther-key-first-campsite

The kayak has landed! First campsite on Panther Key

I dragged the boat further up on land and tethered it to a palm tree. There was a nice snug campsite next to the tree, comfortably large enough for a bivy sack. And a nearby sign would provide just the support I needed to string up the mosquito netting I’d brought with me.

As I unpacked, I listened to the marine radio to monitor the progress of the storm front. The prediction had become considerably more dramatic: from 15 knot winds with 20 knot gusts (which I regularly paddled in), it had leapt to 25-knot winds with 30-knot gusts, which I (and most paddlers) didn’t want to get caught in.

Worse, the front was supposed to hit earlier than expected, by tomorrow night—which meant I needed to be holed up someplace safe by then.

One option was to stay where I was. It was actually ideally situated: facing south (the winds were predicted from the north) with a forest behind me. I mentally stored that idea, then finished setting up camp.

panther-key-friends-and-campfire

Panther Key friends

As the sun fell, I made my way over to the campfire that my new friends had started. It was next to the root ball of a gigantic overturned tree, which they used as a kind of ad-hoc storage closet. Hanging from the roots of the “everything tree”, or tucked between them, were plates, cups, cutlery, and various random articles of clothing (sunglasses, hats, flip-flops).

There were around a dozen people: a husband-and-wife couple (Carolyn and Mark), their friend Rob, Carolyn’s friend Eileen, the wild-haired fisherman (Dave),  his partner,  Carolyn and Mark’s 16-year-old daughter Rachel, Rob’s similarly-aged daughter, their boyfriends (who had brought the Spongebob towels), and confusingly, the boyfriend of Rob’s other daughter, who wasn’t there herself. There was also Rob’s dog, Wolfie, and Mark and Carolyn’s dog Bella.

panther-key-bella

Bella in the seat of honor

Rob offered me a beer, which I accepted gratefully. Even more welcome was Carolyn’s homemade smoked mullet chowder, with freshly caught and smoked mullet and made with potatoes, carrots, and peas. There was also fresh-caught shark, grilled over an open fire.

Warmed by the fire, and delighted by the conversation, I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It had been another entirely unexpected day.

A bit later I said goodnight and headed back to my campsite. Cocooned in my bivvy sack and draped in mosquito netting, I was perfectly at peace. Waves lapped the beach close by, and from farther off came the strains of the guitar music and the faint scent of woodsmoke.  Overhead the stars blazed, and I fell asleep under their benign light.

panther-key-sunrise-wolfie

Sunrise on Panther Key (Wolfie and tree)

The next morning I awoke early to take pictures. I’d already decided it would be a “rest day”: Mark had advised that he and the rest of the crew would be heading out about noon, and I could have one of their campsites. It was perfect for riding out the storm front: I’d move to high ground,under the protective forest, out of the wind and any waves that resulted.

panther-key-second-campsite

Second campsite: Snug under trees!

After helping my friends pack and saying goodbye, I moved camp, battening down the hatches (quite literally!) in preparation for the high winds that were supposed to hit that night.

Instead of paddling, I went for a leisurely swim, then napped in the late-afternoon sun.

After an early dinner, I tucked myself in to await the storm.

 

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part One

By Johna Till Johnson

sunrise-over-white-horse-key-edited

Sunrise over White Horse Key

“How far ya headed today?” The speaker was a young man, trendily bald and healthy-looking in the bright morning sunshine.

He and a few other folks had just arrived at the island where I’d spent the night. The rest of his group was walking on the beach through the white powdery sand.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

His mouth opened and his jaw literally sagged. “You have no idea?” he repeated. Clearly, the concept of setting out without a fixed plan and a firm destination wasn’t something that he could comprehend.

“That’s right, none,” I confirmed.

That wasn’t entirely true: I had some idea. I had a chart marked with promising camping locations, and homemade tide charts indicating the optimal time to approach each. But exactly where I’d end up each night, and how far I’d go before I got there—I hadn’t decided. For the first time in my life I was without a fixed plan, other than to stay out in the Ten Thousand Islands for a week or ten days–or however long took my fancy.

Taking your grief into the wilderness is an established literary trope (cf Cheryl Strayed’s Wild). And I’d been desperate to get away from the looming darkness of a New York winter–not to mention to avoid confronting Christmas, which is one of Vlad’s favorite holidays. But I also wanted to find out how well I’d fare on a solo kayaking expedition: Did I have what it took to spend days in the wilderness by myself? Could I find my way? Handle the inevitable emergencies?

And most importantly, could I hoist a kayak onto a car top by myself?

The first step was to make sure I understood the area. The Ten Thousand Islands is a stretch of parkland on Florida’s Gulf Coast that runs south of Cape Romano and north of the Everglades. The name isn’t apocryphal: There are probably at least ten thousand islands—but most of them are mangrove patches, pretty to look at (and home to thousands, probably millions, of birds) but impossible to land at.

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The Ten Thousand Islands

A few of the islands have sandy beaches and are camp-able—the trick is to know which ones, and how to get there. It’s easy to get lost in the mangrove swamps,  where everything you see is a green bubble perched on an expanse of blue-green sea.

Fortunately Vlad had several nautical charts of the area, at different levels of resolution. I selected three to accompany me on the trip (plus a backup). But although they’re important, charts are no substitute for the most critical component of understanding the area: Local knowledge.

To that end, I sat with a friend (Russell Farrow of Sweetwater Kayaks) over a pint or two at one of the many microbreweries in the town of Dunedin.  We discussed the area, and he pointed out several features that weren’t on the charts, including an indian mound at Pumpkin Bay, and many camp-able beaches.

Most crucially, he steered me to a website that listed the tides at several critical points in the Islands. The entire area is extremely tidal, and many routes that are passable at high tide are impossible at low tide. Equally importantly, many sites that appear to be camp-able are not… because the beaches disappear underwater at high tide! So a good knowledge of the tides isn’t just helpful, it’s essential.

After checking online, I faced my first challenge: How to capture the tidal information in a way that I wouldn’t lose it while out on the water? I decided to write them on plastic baggies with a Sharpie. I thought I was brilliant for arriving at this solution, until I found out it’s common among paddlers in the area. Oh well—at least I was headed in the right direction.

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Homemade tide charts

Speaking of heading in the right direction, Russell also recommended Calusa Island Marina as a good launching place, with ample (albeit expensive) parking.  I could leave the car there for the duration of the trip.

About that car… the idea was for me to rent a boat at Sweetwater, load it on to my rented SUV, and unload it when I got there. Simple enough, except I’d never put a boat on a car (much less an SUV) by myself before.

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I did it myself!

Vlad and I could handle it together, but I really wasn’t sure I could do it solo. Not only is my strength lesser, but I simply don’t have the height to hoist the boat onto the car.  “We’ll show you how,” Russell assured me.

Sure enough,  they did. And I could! (The trick, it turns out, is using a piece of carpeting to slide the nose of the boat onto the roof—and standing on a stool.)

My courage bolstered, a few days later I arrived at the marina. It took a surprisingly short time to  unload the boat from the car, pack it, and set off without a backwards glance. (A mistake, as it turns out, but that story comes later).

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Setting off!

I was on the water around 10 AM. The day was warm, but not too hot, with a light wind. I wended my way through the mangrove islands, where the light turned the water green-gold, and headed out towards the open Gulf.

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Green mangroves…

Suddenly I heard a splash, followed by a deep, throaty breath. A dolphin! No, a pair of them! They arced around me, diving and coming up for air, oblivious to the kayaker in the water. Apparently I was paddling over a roiling school of mullet, and the dolphins were enjoying breakfast. It was an auspicious sendoff!

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…and a pair of blue dolphins!

 

I soon pulled past the last of the keys and turned left (roughly southeast), heading down the coast. To my left were the Ten Thousand Islands. To my right was open water, with the sun sparkling off the tips of the waves.Without any particular destination in mind, I kept going for a few more hours, ticking off the various keys as I passed them, pleased with my ability to track them by compass and chart alone (I had yet to turn on the GPS). Around three PM I decided to investigate potential campsites–although the days were longer in Florida than in New York, darkness still came early. The sun would set at 5:45, and I didn’t want to be caught without a campsite.

When I turned towards the keys, I found I had a choice of two keys quite close together: Gullivan, which wasn’t an “official” campsite, but which Russell had marked as quite camp-able; and White Horse. White Horse was bigger, with a long stretch of beach, and higher ground, particularly on the inside tip. But I could see campers there already: at least two large tents, plus what looked like a sailboat anchored nearby.

Gullivan was empty, and for the first night out, I fancied being by myself. So Gullivan it was!

I paddled around the inside end of the island. Just as on the chart, there was a small curved bay, with a sandy bar protecting calmer water. The sand bar didn’t seem high enough to withstand high tide, though, so I continued around the curved end. There, on the side, facing White Horse, was a long sloping beach, with trees, grass, and high ground behind it. An ideal campsite.

I landed the boat, unloaded the water (the heaviest part of the load was the roughly 50 pounds of water I’d packed, in collapsable Platypus bags, and I couldn’t move the boat myself without emptying it of waterbags), and dragged the boat up on shore.

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First campsite on Gullivan Key

Then I set up the campsite, on the highest point I could comfortably manage. It was a couple of feet above the highest high tide mark. High tide would hit around midnight, but with luck I’d be well above it. If not—well, there wasn’t any higher land on the island. So I’d better hope for luck.

“I’ll be fine,” I thought blithely.  The wind was brisk, so since I didn’t have stakes, I used the water bags to weight down the tarp. The breeze would ensure no mosquitos. All in all, I was quite satisfied with the campsite.

After a short walk around my deserted island, I broke out the Jetboil and made dinner. To my delight, I was hungry. I hadn’t had much of an appetite in recent weeks, and though my last meal had been a breakfast croissant nearly 12 hours before, I hadn’t felt hungry yet today. But the smell of the freeze-dried spaghetti with meat sauce was enticing, and it tasted even better than it smelled.  I couldn’t have enjoyed dinner more if it had been a meal at the Four Seasons.

After dinner, I snuggled into my bivy sack.  Comfortably cushioned by the air mattress and two pillows (such luxury!), I was protected from the anticipated late-night chill by my sleeping bag, and from any mosquitos by the netting that covered the bivy sack’s opening.

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A five-star meal on the beach!

And I discovered something wonderful: As the night deepened, I could see stars! In an open bivy sack, your face is exposed directly to the sky–it’s not like being in a tent. So through the wispy veil of mosquito netting, I was looking directly up into the spangled heavens. It was a clear night, and the stars glittered brilliantly–including Venus, which hung close and bright to the fading crescent of a waning moon. My last conscious thought was: “I’m sleeping under the stars!” And then I was.

I awoke a few hours later, in the dark,  to the sound of waves lapping the shore. I looked up and there they were—foaming and frothing just a few feet in front of me. Sure enough, just as predicted, the tide had risen—but when would it stop? It was already strikingly close to where I’d camped (though still below the previous high-tide mark). And high tide was still about an hour in the future. What if it came up higher?

What to do? I could trust to my calculations and assume the tide wouldn’t come up much higher. But if I were wrong… I’d be frantically trying to pack the boat in the dark as water sloshed around everything, perhaps pulling my gear out to sea.  I’d done that once before during the Everglades challenge, and I didn’t want to risk it.

The alternative would be to pack up the boat and, since there was no higher ground on my island, paddle across the short stretch of water to White Horse Key. The night was warm and calm, and I’d paddled at night many times. It wouldn’t be particularly risky… but it would be disruptive. Locating a campsite and setting up camp in the dark would probably consume the rest of the night, and I hoped to get some sleep.

I decided to split the difference. I packed up the boat, changed into my paddling gear… and sat and waited, with my headlamp on. The water was still creeping up the beach, higher than it had been when I first awoke. So I drew a line in the sand. If the water crossed that line, I told myself, I’d launch for White Horse.

It was roughly 11:45 when I drew my Rubicon.  High tide was predicted for around 12:30. So I had 45 minutes to go. I sat up and dozed intermittently, turning the lamp on every five to ten minutes or so to see what the water was doing. By around 12:20 the water had stalled… and by 12:30 it was clearly receding. I gave it another 10 minutes or so to be completely certain… then I unpacked the tarp, bivy sack, air mattresses and pillows, and changed back into my sleep clothes.

I snuggled back into my nest with a feeling of triumph. My calculations had been correct! And if they hadn’t—I was confident I could have made it to White Horse without trouble. In just one day I’d managed to get the boat off the car, navigate my way to an unmarked campsite, and survive the tides. I was on my way!

The next morning, I awoke before dawn. I was sleepy but felt impelled to get up, almost as if Vlad were nudging me. He always liked to take pictures of the sunrise, and of everything else in the clear morning light. I tried to resist the impulse, but like Vlad himself, it was overwhelming. I grabbed the camera and unzipped the mosquito net just in time to see the sky brighten over White Horse into a glorious sunrise…

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The sun rises over White Horse Key… marking a successful night

 

 

In Memoriam: Vladimir Brezina

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo credit: Vlad and Johna in drysuits by Larson Harley, NYC Photographer

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.

Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue —
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space –
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., RCAF (1941)

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Vlad in the East River

Vladimir Brezina slipped the surly bonds of Earth on December 13, 2016 (though I like to think he still checks in from time to time). Although the tumbling mirth on which his eager craft traveled was waves, not clouds, this poem captures his spirit perfectly. Here is a little more about his remarkable life, and the joy with which he lived it:

Vladimir Brezina was born on June 1, 1958 in the outskirts of Prague. His father, also Vladimir Brezina, was a civil engineer who designed several notable bridges. His mother, Vlasta Brezinova, was a psychiatrist and moved in artistic circles; Vlad had memories of family friends who were well-known artists and writers. (Both parents are now deceased.)

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Vlad as a boy in Prague

The family lived in a house (which is still standing) near some woods and a pond, on which he skated in winter. Vlad’s memories of the time were idyllic. He even enjoyed getting punished for his mischief: Apparently his parents would send him to the bathroom for a short “time out”. But the bathroom had a wonderful view and was the warmest room in the house, so it was no hardship—particularly in winter.

Vlad, who was an only child, was close to his extended family. But his comfortable childhood in Prague came to an end when he was 11 years old, when his father took the family on a “vacation” from Czechoslovakia following the Soviet invasion in 1968. Travel into and out of the Soviet-controlled country was becoming difficult, and the time had come for the family to seek its fortunes elsewhere.

Young Vlad waved goodbye to his grandmother as they drove off. He never saw her or his country again.

The family drove through Italy and onward to Libya, where they arrived on August 31, 1969. His father was slated to start a design project, presumably on Monday September 2.

However, on Sunday, September 1, Muammar Gaddafi seized control of the country in a coup d’etat. “Our timing was perfect,” Vlad observed with his characteristic wry humor.

It’s not clear how long the family remained in Libya following the coup, but over the next few years, Vlad lived in Libya and Iraq while his father worked on various projects. The family ultimately settled in the United Kingdom, where they became British citizens, as the Soviets had revoked their citizenship upon departure from Czechoslovakia.

Vlad attended Clifton College, a prestigious boy’s boarding school. At Clifton, Vlad excelled in athletics (he was a rugby player), science, and art. He often told the story of how he re-invigorated the school’s art competition, which his house subsequently won for several years in a row (under his direction), earning him the nickname The Art Fuhrer. Upon graduating from Clifton, Vlad attended Cambridge University (as it was then known) for a year, where he studied art history. He then spent a year at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

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Vlad in graduate school

At some point in that period he held a job picking vegetables for scientific research. He recalled with glee that after the experiments were complete, “You could roast [the experimental subjects] and eat them!” Although the experience piqued his interest in science, he found himself growing tired of the long winters in the UK and Northern Europe.

Enticed partly by the prospect of year-round sunshine, and also by his then-girlfriend, he moved to the United States and enrolled in the University of California San Diego, majoring in biology. He became a US permanent resident in 1983, and adopted America as his home. He ultimately obtained his PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA in 1988, with a focus on understanding how small peptides controlled electrical activity in the neurons of the largish marine sea hare, Aplysia californica, which he harvested with great delight from the tidal waters off Los Angeles. His graduate work would set the stage for what became a lifelong effort to understanding how patterns of electrical signaling in complex neurobiological networks controlled behavior.

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Aplysia research group, Mt. Sinai NYC

Vlad had always intended to settle in New York, which he maintained was the only American city with the right combination of energy and chaos. It had captured his imagination early on, and in short order, the newly minted Dr. Brezina became a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York where he quickly became a card-carrying member of the Aplysia behavioral neurobiology community. In 1990, he joined forces with Klaude Weisz at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, where he rose to the level of associate professor. He remained on the faculty at Mt. Sinai until his death in 2016.

Vlad’s scientific work was both theoretically groundbreaking and experimentally elegant. His area of research was in neuromodulation, which is the way nerves communicate with themselves and with muscles in a constantly changing dynamic process. During his years at Mt. Sinai, he introduced an important new theoretical and experimental concept, that of the neuromuscular transform, which he defined as a sort of ‘filter’ that describes how the activity of motor neurons is converted into a muscle contraction. His critical insight, perhaps deriving initially from his studies on complex mathematical transforms, was that this filter is itself dynamic and nonlinear, rather than static (as some had supposed). Moreover, he demonstrated that this dynamism played an important role in animal learning and behavior, enabling the creature to adapt to an uncertain and ever-changing environment.

Throughout his life, Vlad maintained an avid interest in long-distance, human-powered travel. When he lived in the U.K, he hiked a 100 km trail in the Lake District. The summer he was 16, he made a solo journey by bicycle through France, camping at night by the side of the road for several weeks. During his years in California he was a passionate long-distance hiker.

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The legend begins… Vlad (left) with K-Light

And in New York, in the 1990s, he discovered kayaking.

His first boat was a red Feathercraft K-Light that packed into a backpack weighing a mere 40 pounds. He continued the tradition of red Feathercrafts, getting increasingly larger models that he could pack up and carry on trains and taxis to pursue his adventures. (Sadly, but somehow fittingly, Feathercraft went out of business in December 2016—something Vlad fortunately never knew.)

Vlad quickly became legendary for his knowledge of the New York waterways, and for his feats of endurance in navigating them and others, including New England and later Florida. He discovered many of the now-iconic locations of New York City paddling, including the Yellow Submarine in Brooklyn, the seals on Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, and Alice Austen House and the Graveyard of Ships on Staten Island. (It’s impossible to say who was first to see these from a kayak, but Vlad was among the earliest.)

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At home on the seas

On his excursions, Vlad simply never seemed to get tired. He once completed a combined circumnavigation of Staten Island and Manhattan without leaving his boat for eighteen hours. His explanation for doing so? “I finished the Staten Island circumnavigation and wanted to keep going— and the currents were right for a Manhattan circumnavigation.” He also wrote about a kayak-sailing adventure during which he and a friend covered 100 nautical miles in 22 hours—again without leaving the boat.

One of his favorite trips was a 10-hour journey around the Elizabeth Islands in April 2002, during which he saw a whale. Subsequent adventures included circumnavigating Long Island in nine days in 2012, and the culmination of a long-time dream: Completing the 300-mile Everglades Challenge, a race from Tampa to Key Largo in Florida, in just under eight days in 2014. Fittingly, his “tribe name”—a nickname adopted by each participant in the Everglades Challenge—was Sea Hare, hearkening back to the creature on which he’d focused the majority of his research efforts. Many of his kayaking adventures are chronicled in our blog Wind Against Current.

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Partners in paddling… and life

Vlad also loved contributing his kayaking skills to others’ adventures. He was a longtime supporter of NYCSwim, a group that organized long-distance swims. Vlad served as “kayak support” for many world-class swimmers, several of whom he accompanied on record-setting feats.

Vlad maintained a lifelong love of poetry (with a particular fondness for Yeats and Philip Larkin), and enjoyed and appreciated opera. He also maintained an avid interest in photography all his life. His earliest photos, dating back to when he was a young teenager in the 1970s, demonstrated emotional depth and an elegant sense of detail—traits that characterized his photos in later life. Over several decades he documented his beloved city, New York, as well as his kayaking trips, with unforgettably vivid images.

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Backlit flower, by Vladimir Brezina

Among his blog followers was a group of several dozen photographers, many professionals, who admired his work. Vlad sold a few photographs as book covers and illustrations, but never had any interest in pursuing photography professionally—for him, the work was its own reward.

That attitude was the essence of Vlad, whether in art or science. He often said his defining characteristic was his esthetic sense. Whether paddling, making (or appreciating) art, or conducting science, he always strove always to uncover the eternal and the true. In many respects he lived by Keats’ line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

In addition to his esthetic sense, another defining characteristic was his insatiable intellectual curiosity and love of constructive debate.

I first met Vlad in 2009, when we began paddling together. One of our earliest conversations was about the happiness of ducks.

We were paddling a Manhattan circumnavigation in winter, and I’d noticed ducks swimming energetically—and to all appearances cheerfully—in between the blocks of floating ice in the river. “Why are ducks so happy swimming in ice water?” I asked him.

“How do you know they’re happy?” he countered, and we were off on a wide-ranging discussion that included the subjective/objective problem in neuroscience (how can a brain think objectively about itself?), the biology of ducks (apparently they have an entirely separate circulatory system for their legs and feet), and “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the seminal paper by New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, with which we were both familiar. That conversation lasted the entire six hours of the circumnavigation and continued between us, in various forms, until shortly before his death.

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Wedding day, Oct. 17, 2015

I was far from the only one with whom he had such conversations. His former student and subsequent collaborator, Miguel Fribourg, remembers, “The conversation would start discussing a mathematical method, and end up talking about ethics, physics, or Spanish politics.”

Vlad also was deeply, profoundly, and generously, kind. His students remember his love of teaching, a love that came not from ego, but because he was delighted to share ideas with someone. “I will be forever grateful for his generosity and patience in teaching me how to reason, and interpret facts. I also take as a lifelong lesson from him, how to be humble in science and life in general,” says Miguel. Vlad also extended that generosity to the younger generation; for many years, he enjoyed judging science projects for the WAC Invitational Science Fair, at which dozens of Long Island high schools competed.

Vlad had the wonderful talent—which he awakened in me, and many others who were close to him—of appreciating the moment, regardless of what it held. There were of course life’s joyous moments: a breathtaking sunset or star-spangled summer sky; the sound of inspiring music at the opera; and convivial meals with wine, friends, and good food. And when he and I cooked at home, we’d put on music, dance while cooking, and use the fine china and crystal for everyday celebrations.

But Vlad’s genius was not only enjoying these happy moments, but also ones that could have been less than happy. Wind, cold, and rain never fazed him; nor did sweltering nights or water-laden sleeping bags.

I recall once finding ourselves in the dead of night, in below-freezing temperatures, in the custody of puzzled NYPD officers, trying to explain why we and our kayaks were on a beach under the Verrazano Narrows bridge. We quite possibly could have had our kayaks confiscated, and might even have ended up in Rikers Island prison. Instead of being afraid, I realized I was having fun!

There was also the moment, some months after his cancer diagnosis, when we returned home from a particularly harrowing stint in the emergency room. We’d been in the hospital for nearly 40 hours, and as we opened the door to come home, Vlad exclaimed, “Well, that was fun!” And not only did he truly mean it—he was right. It had been fun.

Finally, it’s impossible to write about Vlad without mentioning his ineffably light, witty, gentle sense of humor that often manifested in his characteristic squeaky laugh. His humor relied on clever turns of phrase and occasional goofiness—it was never at the expense of another person. (He loved to mimic expressions and gestures that struck him as entertaining).

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What will survive of us is love —Philip Larkin

I was privileged to be first his paddling partner, then his life partner, and finally his wife (we were married on October 17, 2015). His legacy to me, and to all who knew him, was showing by example how to live in selfless pursuit of truth, beauty, and love—and to enjoy every moment of that life with zest and humor. It will never be the same without him, but what he gave to the world will live on.