Category Archives: Nature

Long Island Sound, Ahoy!

Winter sun in the Harlem River

By Johna Till Johnson

The police car slowed, then stopped.

Busted!

We’d just landed on the beach at SUNY Maritime College. Julie seemed confident that it was permitted, but I wasn’t so sure. “I’ll go over and talk to him,” she said.  “We might just have to show some i.d.” I followed her, more to provide moral support than anything else.

The police officer watched as we approached. Clad in bright yellow, red, and orange drysuits, we made quite the sight,  but his eyes seemed inquisitive rather than accusing.

We had started in Inwood, Julie explained. His eyes widened. “That’s a long way!” he exclaimed. (13 nautical miles, but who’s counting?)

The route

“We’re planning to have lunch, then catch the current back,” I said. “We figure the East River will start ebbing around 1 PM.”

“So you know what you’re doing.” The officer’s response was more a statement than a question. I confirmed enthusiastically: “Oh yes! We’ve done this many times!”

For a moment, I remembered all the summer mornings when Vlad and I had gone out to Long Island Sound from Pier 40, returning after dark. Paddling down the East River with the current under a star-spangled sky, interrupted by the occasional airplane roaring in for its final descent at La Guardia airport.

The memories faded.

“Julie’s a coach, ” I added, to bolster our aura of expertise.

Julie looked down at her feet bashfully, but it was true.

I’d asked her to lead this expedition so I could become more familiar with the currents in the Harlem River and Bronx Kill (not to be confused with the Bronx River). My goal was to paddle out to Long Island Sound once again, from my new launch in Yonkers. But the currents were tricky, and I needed to become familiar with them.

The police officer seemed satisfied with our answers. He wished us a pleasant lunch. As we turned to leave, he added, “And you know… the cafeteria’s open!”

Cafeteria?

Although it was late autumn by the calendar, the day was positively wintry. That morning, as we’d set out, the water had formed icicles on my deck bag. Though the temperature had risen a few degrees (the icicles were melted) and the sun occasionally peeked through the clouds, the thought of a warm meal, out of the chill, was enticing.

Julie and Dave

We confirmed with the police officer that “outsiders” were permitted in the cafeteria, and brought the joyful news to Dave, the third member of our party. We quickly piled the boats up against the pylon of the Throgs Neck Bridge, against which the beach abutted, and headed in to campus, following the officer’s directions.

It was just after noon; we’d been paddling since 8:15 AM (an hour after our planned launch). The current was behaving with one of its patented quirks: Ebbing down the Harlem River and Bronx Kill, but flooding up the East River into Long Island Sound.

The Harlem is one of my favorite paddles, largely because it’s almost always calm and peaceful, compared with the  the churn and traffic of the East River or the wind-against-current chop in the Hudson. But I’d only paddled the Bronx Kill twice before, once on a cheerful sunny day with Vlad, and once last year with Julie.

Bronx Kill bridge

The launch was cold but uneventful. The sun burned through the clouds, a dramatic pinpoint overhead. There was a light breeze, occasionally gusting as high as 10 knots.

We glided past the familiar landmarks: Spuyten Duyvil bridge, the Bette Middler boathouse. A light breeze danced around us; I estimated that it gusted to 10 knots here and there. There were a few frothy whitecaps on the water, nothing more.

Soon enough we came to the left turn into the Bronx Kill.

“We’ll need to be careful that the water’s not too low on the return, “Julie said. “Sometimes we have to portage.”  I nodded and thought guiltily about our late start. We’d planned to be on the water at 7 AM, but I was late, and between this and that… we’d launched at 8:15.

But no matter! Soon enough, we scooted under the bridge and were in the East River. We meandered along, passing between the Brother Islands and then hugging the northern shore. We passed the blue-and-white Rikers Island barge. “Sometimes you can see the inmates playing basketball,” I said to Dave.  It was his first time out in this part of the East River. We paddled closer, but not so close that we’d alarm the guards.

Julie and Empire State

Sure enough, there were inmates visible. But they weren’t playing basketball. They just started at us through the wire mesh. As always, I felt a wave of empathetic sadness, imagining what it must be like to see, from behind bars,  kayakers floating by in freedom.

“What’s that?” Dave asked suddenly. I looked where he was pointing. Silvery pinpoints of light sparkled and danced off the ferry terminal. We watched, entranced, for a few minutes. We figured out it was sunlight reflecting from the waves–but it wasn’t something any of us had ever seen before.

We paddled on, under the Whitestone Bridge, our destination the Throgs Neck bridge separating the East River from Long Island Sound. Once under that, we could say we made it from Innwood to Long Island Sound.

As we drew close to the SUNY Maritime Campus, Julie paddled ahead to the Empire State, the training ship moored near the campus. It will be replaced by 2022 with a new training ship (also known as the Empire State).

Tug and Barge at the Whitestone Bridge

Then we passed under the Throgs Neck bridge and landed on the beach… to encounter the campus police.

Encouraged by the police officer, we headed up to the cafeteria. Much to our surprise, the sight of us in our drysuits garnered nary a glance from the sleepy students. It’s a maritime college after all… and it was also exam season. The students had other things to focus on!

Fortified by a hot meal and some delightful cocoa, we headed back to the boats for our return trip.  The waves had died down, but a passing tug-and-barge provided Julie and Dave with some lively wake to surf.

As we turned into the Bronx Kill, Julie wondered aloud again if we’d need to portage. Perhaps… but meantime, there was whitewater!

Julie and Dave in Bronx Kill whitewater

The shallow flooding river had generated some delightful whitewater ahead of us, including a miniature waterfall. Dave (a whitewater paddler) was in his element. Julie and I both took turns paddling over the shallow falls, then I pulled over and took photos as Dave played.

Finally we regretfully concluded we were finished, and paddled on… until suddenly my boat stopped. Just as Julie feared, I’d run aground.

Fortunately the sand was solid, so I hopped out and pulled the boat over to where Julie and Dave were. The water was an inch or two deeper there, just enough to stay afloat. But we’d cut it close!

Harlem River at twilight

We paddled on as the sun sank low. The sky darkened, and as we entered the Harlem River, the streetlights and traffic lights took on a magical air.

It was full-on evening by the time we re-entered the Hudson. The wind had grown chill, and we paddled briskly to make it back to the warmth of Innwood. Working quickly, we cleaned off and stowed the boats, then changed and warmed up with some cocoa we’d brought along (but hadn’t needed, thanks to the lunch break). I thanked Julie for her guidance, and said goodbye to them both.

It had been a lovely trip.

Home in the Hudson

Craft: Red Gemini SP (belonging to Julie)
Paddle Date: 12-09-18 Paddle
Launch Point: Innwood Canoe Club
Paddle Launch Time: 8:15
Paddle End Point: Innwood Canoe Club
Paddle End Time: 17:15
Distance Traveled: 25 nm/28 statute miles
Time Paddling: 8 hrs
Time Stopped: 1 hr
Average Pace: 3 kt/3.45 mph
Paddlers: Julie McCoy, David Rosenfeld, JTJ
Conditions: Cold (below freezing upon launch, icicles on deck bag). Calm. Overcast. Got back right after dark, very close to freezing. Virtually no wind or chop. Whitewater in Bronx Kill on return.

Click on any of the photos below to enlarge!

Paradise Found

Open water

By Johna Till Johnson

It seemed like a lifetime ago. And for one of us, it was.

In our third shakedown paddle for the 2014 Florida Everglades Challenge, we were headed across Florida Bay to Key Largo. We had a camping permit for a site five miles offshore, but we decided that would be packing too much into the next morning: we had to break camp, paddle to Key Largo, and disassemble Vlad’s boat, all before noon, when our friend was planning to pick us up.

Instead, we planned to make straight for Key Largo and sort out lodging when we got there. Surely there’d be a motel room… or a campsite… or something.

We’d neglected to take into consideration the fact that it was the busiest season of the year, between Christmas and New Years.

There was nothing available, we discovered. But Vlad remembered a small county park with a boat ramp… if we could find it.

When we reached Key Largo, we managed to miss the park on the first try. We paddled for several hours in the deepening darkness, scanning the shoreline with our headlamps and occasionally asking passersby.

Nobody had heard of the park.

Finally we reversed our route and went back along the shoreline we’d previously traversed. And at 9:00 PM… there it was!

The Blue Yonder

From our blog post at the time:

We pulled up onto a narrow cement boat ramp, got out, and looked around. It was a small, quiet park. Bordering it was a small road, with no sidewalks or streetlamps, with houses on the far side.

There was a concrete slab next to the boat ramp, with a picnic table and a trash can, and several large trees. Vlad said there was a fence around the park, but I couldn’t see that far into the darkness.

We quickly found a good spot to set up the tent—near the picnic table but not too close to the trash can, which smelled faintly of fish. Nobody would see us in the darkness… we hoped.

And they didn’t. The next morning, we were treated to a glorious sunrise and a visit from a friendly dog named Wilson (and his human companion). And while Vlad took apart his boat, I discovered some wonderful coffee and key lime pie at the nearby Key Lime Cafe.

The Blue Yonder Redux

It was a fitting end to a wonderful adventure. As I wrote at the conclusion of the post:

And just like that, the trip was over. Only memories remained: sunrises and sunsets, jewel-eyed spiders and pitch-black darkness. Mangroves, mosquitoes, and sandy beaches. And stars. And endless sun, wind, and waves.

Fast forward five years. Vlad was gone. My company had decided to hold our annual retreat at Key Largo. 

And I wondered.. was that county park still there? Had it survived the hurricane that decimated parts of the Keys?

On the last day of our retreat I found myself with some extra time before my flight back. So on a whim, I drove down the main road,  searching for the park. (I could have just looked up my own blog post, which had the name. But I didn’t remember that I’d recorded the name, since we often didn’t do that to avoid publicizing semi-legal campsites.)

I’d tried several side roads and was on the verge of giving up. Maybe the park was gone, eaten up by development, or demolished by the hurricane.

Then I saw the sign. I turned, and… yes, the road was right there. Yes, there was a mesh fence. And there was my park!

It was just after 8 AM and the park was empty. I wandered around, taking photos. It looked much the same, though the picnic area seemed newer, and the giant trash can was gone.

It doesn’t say “no camping”….!

An SUV pulled up, and out jumped a man with two dogs. We got to talking. It wasn’t Wilson and his owner, but it was much the same feeling: A friendly man with stories to tell.

After they left, I took a few more photos. Then I left, making a U turn just past the Key Lime Cafe. Sadly, the cafe had closed.

But the park was still there: A handkerchief-sized piece of paradise. A memory of adventures past and a promise of adventures to come.

Jade water and mangroves

 

 

An Unpaddle

North along the ice-bound Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson

It was the first weekend in February. I was back in town. Brian’s broken elbow had healed. It was a beautiful day: Sunny, windless, relatively warm.

So we headed to Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club to take out our boats for the first time in… too long.

“It might be iced in,” I cautioned as we drove. But I didn’t really think so. Yes, there’d been the Polar Vortex and its sub-freezing temperatures earlier in the week. But we’d had several days of warmth.

Surely everything was melted by now?

Er, no.

As we gazed at the ice-locked boat ramp, the only thing we could do was laugh. “We’re not going out today!” I said. “Nope!” Brian agreed.

Brian laughing

Instead, we went out to the end of the pier and took pictures of each other and the frozen Hudson. And laughed in the sunshine.

Johna at end of dock

We drove back to Brooklyn along the West Side highway, watching the ice in the river diminish as we headed south. Inwood, where Julie paddles, was still packed in, but the river was mostly ice-free by the George Washington Bridge. The embayment at Pier 84 was wide open; had my Avocet been seaworthy, I could have taken it out. And I later learned that Bonnie had had a lovely paddle that same weekend in Jamaica Bay. Yonkers was just slightly too far north to permit us to go out.

Ice ice baby!

But we didn’t mind! We had a lovely excursion in the sun and mild air, and saw ice floes in the Hudson. Next time….

Johna looking south

First Paddle of the New Year!

Sunrise and crescent moon, Key Largo

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s been cold and icy in the Northeast. Between the weather, and travel, I hadn’t made it out out on the water this month.

Now it was the last day of January.

I was in Key Largo for a work function, and had a free afternoon. The sit-on-top boats were piled in a stack on the beach. There were a few more hours of daylight left, so I rented one.

And so I found myself once again on the waters of Florida Bay in the waning afternoon light. I paddled southwest down the coast for a bit, until I came to a long stretch of mangroves. Then out into the bay, against the wind and a slight chop, heading back northeast.

Cormorants on lighthouse at sunset

Florida Bay never ceases to surprise. Although it was windy and bouncy out in the open, as I came up to the coastline and headed southwest once more, the water grew calm and glassy. And what was that ahead? To my astonishment, a sight more common in NY harbor: A tug and barge. I paddled up close, trying to discern what it was up to, but couldn’t figure it out. The sun was setting, so at last I gave up and headed back home.

I didn’t take the time to grab the waterproof camera, so you’ll have to make do with other photos from the trip. But 2019 started off on the right foot!

Because every palm tree needs a missile!

(And no, I haven’t the vaguest idea why this palm tree is strapped to a missile. That’s the fun thing about the keys: unexpected weirdness abounds!)

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!