Category Archives: Nature

Tampa Bay Crossing

Jenn and cargo ship on Tampa Bay


By Johna Till Johnson; music and video by Jennifer W. Call

It was Jennifer’s first open water crossing.

We were heading across Tampa Bay on a sunny spring Sunday. Our nominal destination was Cockroach Bay to the southwest, around eight nautical miles away. But really, the goal was to paddle in some open water, spend time together, and see how we functioned as a team.

I glanced to the left.

Jenn was slightly farther away than I’d like, but otherwise she seemed fine, cresting a wave with confidence. We’d been in open water for about half an hour, and conditions had picked up a bit. The current was coming from the southwest with the flood, as anticipated, but it didn’t seem to be too strong. The wind, predicted from the same direction, was inexplicably coming from the east. (Florida rules: Expect the unexpected!)

The route

But I was happy about that, because it generated some nice bouncy wind-against-current waves for Jenn to try her skill on.

The prediction had been for “light chop”, but the waves were a bit more than that. Maybe two feet, with the occasional swell to three. Before we’d left I’d reminded Jenn to brace into the waves if she felt unsteady. The reminder seemed almost unnecessary. Although a relatively novice paddler, Jenn seemed to know exactly what she was doing, and she’d completed the Sweetwater symposium training in February with flying colors.

That’s where we met, in fact. Some of the Sweetwater folks had suggested to her that she meet me: “You two think a lot alike,” they’d told her.

We did. From the moment our two Subarus parked next to each other and she leapt out with an infectious smile, I knew we’d be friends. Another single woman, with a Subaru and a Valley boat on top, and a passion for endurance athletics? Yes!

So it made perfect sense for me to fly down to Tampa, where Jennifer lived, two months later for a kayak-camping trip. The grand plan was to complete the Everglades Challenge in 2019 together. But before we did that, we’d have to see if we could get along, and paddle together.

So far things were looking good. Jennifer had accepted my ever-changing work schedule with good grace, even when it cut into our plans. And the night before, we’d had an absolute blast.

Jenn had suggested we camp on the grounds of MacDill Airforce Base, where she worked. She was currently in a civilian role, but was a retired Naval officer, like my father.  So we had that in common.

Meals ready to eat: Complete with candy!

The night before, we’d arrived just before sunset (in time for the mosquitos to come out in full force). We set up our tents (or rather, her tent and my bivvy sack) and broke out dinner: Military “ready to eat” meals (MREs). Jennifer had been curious about them: “In the Navy we didn’t have MREs, we had C-Rations,” she explained.

The difference? MREs come with a self-heating pack: Just add water, and a chemical reaction causes the pack to heat up and warm the food inside. (Clearly a very bad idea in a ship to have devices that explosively heat up upon contact with water, as Jenn pointed out).

So with eager curiosity, we extracted the all the little packets, and took a close look at the very detailed instructions.

What was this? Step #5 was just a diagram of the MRE packet propped up against… “A rock or something.”

Honest-to-god, that’s what it said! I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Rock or something”? Ooookay!

The MREs turned out to be delicious, and we soon trundled off to bed (another point of commonality: We both like to go to bed early, and wake up early).

The next morning, we drove the short distance to the boat ramp and began loading up. A young couple drove up with a trailer and a fishing boat; we exchanged pleasantries.

When they asked, I mentioned we’d be crossing Tampa Bay in our kayaks. They gaped, and asked: “You can do that?”

I pointed out that the original kayakers went out in far bigger seas, in freezing weather. Still, it made me feel a tad more adventurous.

Jenn getting ready to launch

We launched, and I made another pleasant discovery: Jenn’s knowledge of marine navigation was rock-solid, as befitting a former Naval officer. We were using her boats (she had two Valley Etains) and they both had compasses, which she’d installed herself. We’d picked 180 degrees as our point of navigation, to account for the current, which would tend to push us east.

We paused to let a giant cago ship pass, then set into the channel. And here we were out in the middle of the channel, with choppy, occasionally cresting waves.

I glanced over at her again. She looked fine, but just in case.. I mentally calculated how long it would take me to get to her if she capsized. Longer than optimal, but I’d be paddling with the current, and in warm water, the danger of hypothermia is remote.

We paddled through the chop, and kept going. Ahead of us, the shoreline began to grow larger. We’d made it across the bay!

The chop slowly eased, and I drew closer to Jenn. “How’d it go?” I asked, expecting her to be exuberant. She certainly hadn’t seemed to have had a care in the world.

Instead, she smiled warily. “I was a bit… concerned!”

Concerned? This was a woman who’d guest-piloted an F-18 at near-supersonic speeds? Who had first picked up a paddle a few months ago, and was now cresting waves with confidence?

Then I thought back to my first open-water crossing, across New York harbor. By then I had already been paddling for a couple of years. But still when the swell picked up, I, too, was a bit… concerned.

Jenn had acquitted herself spectacularly well. 

Jenn voguing at our lunch spot

The rest of the day ran like an advertisement for Florida paddling. The wind quieted down, and the water shimmered like molten metal. It was cool enough to be comfortable, but the sun behind the peek-a-boo clouds scattered light everywhere. We stopped on an inviting beach for lunch and a photo shoot.

After lunch, we explored the mangroves behind our beach, then turned our bows for home.

A skirt, but not exactly a high-fashion one!

The crossing back was as calm as the crossing over had been choppy; the only excitement was when we had to decide whether to cross in front of the cargo ship that appeared suddenly in the distance. We decided to wait—good thing, as it turned out.

Jenn on mercury water

We reached our campsite later that afternoon, tired but happy. Jenn had her first paddling blisters—first of many, I warned her—and they made an interesting contrast to the calluses she had from rock climbing.

We took a walk to shake out the stiffness, and treated ourselves to ice cream at the camp store. Then we rigged up a three-way clothesline in a cluster of trees—a “triline”, as Jenn pointed out. (I was delighted by the quirkiness and practicality).

The “triline”

There was just one catch. Even though we’d carefully rinsed out our clothing in the showers, it looked like it was due for a second rinse: Clouds loomed ominously, and off in the distance, thunder growled.

We puttered around the campsite getting ready to prepare dinner. And sure enough, as we were ready to start, the skies opened in a torrential downpour.

What to do?

Jenn’s apartment was just five minutes away. But we were here to camp!

We decided to stick it out, but cook under the eaves of the shower/laundry room, where there were benches.

So we chatted and ate our MREs, listening to the rain drumming on the roof overhead and trying not to think about what it would be like in our tents under the thundering waterfall. Would we be in for a wet, uncomfortable night?

The rain refused to let up, so we walked back to tents in the downpour.

As luck would have it, at the exact moment we said goodnight to each other and unzipped our shelters… the rain stopped.

Snug inside the bivvy sack, I enjoyed the luxury of looking up at the slowly-clearing sky, the fresh night air cool against my face.

The next morning we were up before dawn.

“Look!” Jenn whispered suddenly, pointing.

There, in a space perfectly framed by palmettos and trees, was an osprey nest against the rising sun, was an osprey nest, with both parents inside.

We took photos and smiled at each other. It was a hopeful omen.

And it had been a wonderful couple of days.

Ospreys at dawn; photo composition by Jenn W. Call

Jenn likes to make videos of her adventures! So this short clip will give you a sense of the trip. (Special bonus: Yours truly dissolving in giggles over the “rock or something”). Turn the sound up so you can hear Jenn’s original musical composition.

 

Circumnavigating Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel sunrise

By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad and I used to joke that in Florida, the wind and current are always against you: the “Florida rules” of kayaking.

So when I planned a circumnavigation of Sanibel Island (13 nautical miles, give or take), I knew better than to apply “New York rules”. In favorable conditions you can complete a circumnavigation of Manhattan (26 miles) in 6 to 7 leisurely hours (averaging around 4 knots). So in theory, you could zip around Sanibel in four hours, plus stops.

Clockwise around Sanibel Island

But in Florida, you’re lucky if you can average much more than two to three knots, unless you’re doing a one-way run with wind and current consistently in your favor. Even then, Florida conditions have a way of confounding the best-made plans—as I was about to re-discover.

To get around Sanibel Island, I figured a conservative 7 hours, maybe 8, just to be on the safe side. I had picked a perfect day: Not only was the air temp in the 80s,  and water temp in the 70s, but the winds were predicted to be a modest 7 mph (6 knots). If I timed things correctly, I should be able to travel up-coast on the flood and down-coast on the ebb.

The first inkling that Florida planned otherwise came the day before my trip, when I was checking the tides to decide which direction to go (clockwise or counterclockwise) to catch the flood and the ebb as I’d planned.

What was this? The mid-day low tide was missing entirely (see tide chart below). That meant no matter what I did, I’d be paddling against the current for at least half the trip. Still, I figured if I launched by 10 AM with the predicted light breeze, I’d make it home by dark.

Where did the midday low tide go?

Just to be sure, though, I packed a headlamp… and a backup headlamp… and a GPS… and boat lights. Good thing, as it turned out!

That morning, there was a lively dumping surf on the beach; not big waves, but strong ones. So I was pleased to make a successful surf launch, and set off a few minutes after 10. The sun sparkled off the waves, the moderate breeze was behind me, and I was flying up the Gulf towards Captiva Island, propelled by the rising tide.

In what seemed like no time I reached the bridge separating Sanibel from Captiva. I briefly entertained the notion of continuing on toward the next inlet, but it would add miles to the trip, and if my calculations were correct, I’d be traveling against both the wind and the current soon. So I regretfully decided to turn in as originally planned. (Good thing!)

Idle speed, no wake…

As I passed under the bridge, the environment made the usual shift from “outside” to “inside”. Outside—on the Gulf coast—are rolling swells crashing onto long sandy beaches. Inside, the water is placid and peaceful, gently lapping the roots of mangroves.

I paddled past a cormorant blinking lazily on the sun atop an “idle speed” sign. Up ahead… was that a tiny island made up of gray boulders? No, it was a tightly packed flock of pelicans roosting together on a sand bar.

Passel of pelicans

A little further on, I tried to take a photo of some white birds in trees (either ibises or egrets, I couldn’t tell from the distance).  But characteristically, though they tolerated my approach without fear, the sight of the camera sent them flapping away.

I rounded the western point of Sanibel Island and began heading east down the coast. Up ahead I saw a fin lazily slicing through the water. Was that a shark? Dolphins typically arc up and down, disappearing for long moments, then reappearing with somewhere else. But this fin was moving in a level horizontal motion…

It wasn’t until I saw a fine spray and heard the characteristic gasp that I was confident the fin belonged to a dolphin.   I paddled up close and got a shot, then continued on my way.

Not a shark

True to my prediction, I was paddling against both the current and what seemed to be a light, but stronger-than-predicted, breeze. I was now moving quite a bit more slowly, and having to work harder at it. Seemingly endless mangrove swamps and keys unspooled to my right. My mind spun free, and for long stretches of time, all I thought about was the next stroke.

Slowly, a line of electrical poles appeared in front of me, linking Sanibel with the mainland. I remembered with a jolt when I’d seen them last: In the middle of the night during the Everglades Challenge. The first traces of the hallucinations that would dog both me and Vlad at night had just begun; I had begun hallucinating a giant George Washington bridge overhead. (Vlad was seeing pop-up decoy ducks on the waves).

Things looked very different in the bright light of early afternoon, but one thing that hadn’t changed was the frustrating slowness of my pace. I recalled how the Ding Darling preserve seemed to go on forever, the mangroves dark against the starry sky. Now they were dark green against bright blue, but it still seemed as though I was inching along.

And there was something else: The wind was picking up. There were small whitecaps everywhere, and the placid water had become choppy. When I caught sight of a flag on a boat, it was usually straight out and flapping crisply. The predicted 6 knot wind had become more like 16 knots.

It was coming from the south, which meant I could shelter from it by staying close to the mangroves—except where there were shoals. As I drew closer to the embayment right before Tarpon Bay, I realized I had to make a choice: Either cut straight across the embayment (and deal with the full force of the wind), or go a couple miles out of my way to keep out of the wind.

Lighthouse in late afternoon

I decided to cut across.

After a few minutes, maybe half an hour, a boat pulled up to me. “Are you okay?” the captain asked. “It’s pretty windy out!”

I explained that I was fine. (Note to concerned boaters: if a paddler is making steady progress with regular strokes,  not attempting to attract your attention, the chances are extremely good that she is fine. Even if she’s alone. Even if she’s a woman!)

Still, it was good of him to check—and he was right, the wind had picked up. Nearly every swell sported a wind-against-current whitecap. It was definitely bouncy!

Slowly, slowly, I pulled across the embayment, and once again approached land. Thankful for the shelter, I set my sights on the next milestone: The Sanibel causeway. Once again, my mind flashed back to the last time I’d seen it from the water: In the middle of the night, surrounded by bioluminescence. Four years ago.

It seemed like another lifetime.

I passed under the bridge without incident, and began pulling towards the lighthouse. The sun was low in the sky by this time, but I was still fairly confident I’d make it home by dark. How far could it be? An hour, tops?

I stopped to take pictures of the lighthouse, where people and pelicans clustered in a happy riot. Then I rounded the tip of the island, skirting the predictable chop at the point.

Home stretch!  It would be a straight shot up the beach from here. The only challenge would be locating which, among the seemingly identical condos, was the place I was staying.

The wind had died down slightly, and the current was at last with me once more, but I was still riding swell after swell. Trees, houses, and white sandy beach unspooled to my right. And the sun sank slowly in the sky.

I stopped to take a photo as it sank behind Knapps Point. Lovely, but it meant that for sure,  I’d be paddling home in the dark.

Sanibel sunset

I put on the headlamp and kept going, as the sky faded into purplish dusk. Before long  stars began to appear. The moon was waning,  last quarter, so I knew better than to expect the help of moonlight.

Slowly the buildings blurred into the night sky. Where was the condo? Even with the headlamp, the silhouettes of the condos seemed frustratingly similar. Which one was mine?

Finally I picked a location that I thought looked good, and did a surf landing.

I dragged the boat up the beach and looked around. There was a sign: Hurricane House.  I remembered the location: just a bit short of where I was staying.

Could I walk there, pulling  the boat along in the water behind me using the tow rope, as I’d done in the past?

Nope.

The surf was too strong; the first incoming wave swamped the boat. Damn it! Now I had to drag the boat back up the beach and empty it.

After doing that,  I launched again and paddled further up the beach. I glimpsed down at my deck, and realized that the wave that had swamped the boat had also washed away my chart. Double-damn it! (Note to self: When making surf landings in the dark, stow chart inside deck bag.)

Oh well. I could always order another one. I kept paddling, into the deepening night.

After about fifteen minutes, I pulled into shore again. Once again, I dragged the boat up the beach. Once again, I looked around.

This time I saw the silhouette of someone—a woman—on the balcony. I asked her for the street address, which she gave me. Figures! This time I’d overshot.

By now it was pitch dark. I got back into the boat and paddled back in the direction from which I’d come. Suddenly the silhouettes to my left began looking familiar: Two palm trees… a big space… and a cluster of palm trees.

This was it! Third time’s a charm. Sure enough, that was the silhouette of my condo.

I checked my watch after dragging the boat up the beach. 7:45 PM. It had taken me nearly 10 hours to travel a dozen nautical miles (including about 45 minutes of going back and forth in the dark).

I could feel the sunburn on my cheeks, and my hands were blistered.  And of course, I’d lost a chart.

But I was home. And it had been a splendid paddle, “Florida rules” and all!

Berries In the Snow

Berries against the snow, Connecticut

By Johna Till Johnson

Berries in the snow
Bright hopeful against the cold
How long will they last?

Urban Garden Center NYC

Urban Garden Center

By Johna Till Johnson

When it’s cold and snowy out, where does a New Yorker in search of lush greenery go? The Urban Garden Center, of course!

It’s a whimsical wonderland hidden under Park Ave at 116th St., and one of the many crown jewels of Spanish Harlem.  In summer, there are live chickens (because what’s a garden center without chickens?). Children love to come and visit, and feed the chickens.

In winter the fauna are more limited: Teddy bears and mermaids.

Fairyland (with teddy bears!)

And speaking of fairyland, the center’s owner, intrigued by my picture-taking, regaled me with stories of New York “back in the day” (we are pretty much the same age).

My favorite was the time when he, as an 18-year-old from Long Island City, Queens, drove his brand-new Honda CRX right into the middle of a gang war in Spanish Harlem.

As he drove into a narrow alley, the two sides stopped fighting each other and attacked him. They lobbed a Molotov cocktail at his car, lighting the hood on fire.  There was nowhere for him to turn, so he threw the car into reverse and burned rubber backing out of the alleyway, flaming hood and all.

Ah, New York… those were the days!

Fairyland fauna: Mermaid

 

 

Snowfall by the River

East River in snow

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve always loved the East River.

She’s not really a river at all, but rather a connector between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.  That topography accounts for her rapid currents, which are slightly out of sync with those of the Hudson (a tidal estuary). And it also accounts for much of her charm. To me, the East River has always been beautiful, mysterious, and slightly dangerous, with an allure that’s impossible to resist.

Before I learned to kayak, I’d walk along the river and think, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to go into the water?” Crazy thought! In addition to the swift currents, the East River was known in decades past for pollution and the occasional dead body. (These days, the water is much cleaner. There are even dolphins!)

After I took up paddling, I ended up actually in the East River more than once, usually by design (practicing capsizing in current) but one memorable time entirely by accident. And I’ve paddled its length many more times than that—my best count is that I’ve circumnavigated Manhattan around 40 times, and I’ve paddled out to Long Island Sound a handful of times as well.

But as is the case with most true loves, knowing the East River better only increases her allure.

It was natural, then, when a blizzard rolled in, for me to make time to go down to the East River and see what she looked like in snow.  I’m biased, but isn’t she gorgeous?

Sunflowers!

Sunflowers, summer 2011


By Johna Till Johnson

Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Sometimes you need to bring the sun inside. Particularly on a cold winter’s day, it’s good to remember the warmth of the sun, and the brightness of flowers.

What can be better than sunflowers?

Happy New Year!

Snowfall in Washington Square Park

By Johna Till Johnson

The new year has begun, and with it, winter.

Somehow I’m never completely expecting the seasons when they finally arrive. On a sweaty day in July I truly can’t believe the ground will ever be covered in snow again… and yet, predictably, it is.

The beauty is no less delightful for its predictability. In fact, quite the opposite: each new snowfall is both like and unlike all other snowfalls.

Vlad used to say he never got bored, even paddling the same route over and over again. I believe this is partially what he meant: On a familiar route, you can appreciate both the familiar and the new.

May 2018 be full of both anticipated and unanticipated beauty. And may we appreciate it all!