Category Archives: Nature

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!

Daily Post: Calling

Winter is calling!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Today’s daily post is Calling.

Tomorrow is winter solstice. Days will begin to get longer, and it’s a good time to  reflect about the year gone by as we’re about to bid it farewell.

For today’s post, I decided to look for one of the many photos Vlad took of an animal with its mouth open. When I came across this one I immediately realized it had the right seasonal “feel” (even though Gus the polar bear is actually yawning.)

But the story itself calls to me, or rather the story-within-a-story: About six years ago Vlad and I went to the Central Park Zoo, along with my best friend and two of her daughters. Vlad brought the good camera and took some memorable photos. We remarked at the time what “characters” these animals were—quintessential New Yorkers!

Vlad also wrote a later blog post just about Gus, the polar bear. Apparently, like all true New Yorkers, Gus was neurotic: For no reason that anyone could understand, he took up obsessively swimming laps in the pool.

For 12 hours a day.

The zookeepers got him therapy, and eventually his symptoms tapered off (though they never disappeared entirely). He died in the summer of 2013 and was greatly mourned.

A part of old New York passed away back then, and has never been replaced. There are no longer polar bears at the Central Park Zoo, which many would say is a good thing for them, if not us.

And of course, Vlad is now gone too, and with him another small part of old New York.

So really, it’s the past that calls to me in this image.

A past of sunny spring days full of vanished polar bears and other animal “characters” vamping for the camera, and of the careful, enthusiastic eye that took the photos. A past filled with unexpected discoveries and pleasant surprises.

As Vlad himself put it in the comments, “In happier times, as they say in biographies that end badly (as they all do)…”

Later on Vlad writes, “Sorry to have lost him.”

Indeed!

Daily Post: Compass

Compass on deck.. and a chart in the case!

By Johna Till Johnson

Today’s daily post is “Compass”.

I almost always paddle with one, even when there’s almost no chance of getting lost. (Hint: If you’re going south on the Hudson River, Manhattan is to your left!).

A compass can be useful in many ways. You can practice guessing the directions, and checking your guess against the compass: “The sun is behind me, and it’s an afternoon in the winter, so the sun is in the southwest which means I’m pointing… Northeast? Yes!”

You can also use one to precisely locate objects, particularly when paddling with a friend:  “See that bird on our left? About 90 degrees?”

And believe it or not, a compass often comes in handy when you least expect it. I’ve had fog so thick that I couldn’t see the Manhattan side of the Hudson from New Jersey—I was happy to have a compass then!

Because I have several boats, I have a compass that clips on to the deck lines, so I take it from boat to boat. (Actually, I have two compasses; I inherited one from Vlad). Many paddlers have the compass physically attached to their boats, so they don’t have to worry about traveling with one.

And, oh yeah, here’s a tip: Don’t put your compass on top of the deck bag in which you also have your car keys. The metal and electronics in the key will mess up the compass… and, as happened to me on a recent trip, you’ll wonder why the compass always tells you you’re pointing north!

An Autumn Paddle in New England

The source: Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures

By Johna Till Johnson

October 7, 2017

To me, Rhode Island is New England’s quirky little brother.

In the New England family, Massachusetts is the corporate CEO:  rich, polished, well-connected, and casually dominant.

Connecticut is the suburban matron with pearl stud earrings, perfectly pressed khakis, 2.5 blond kids and a white picket fence.

Vermont is the crunchy-granola hippie sister, with flowing locks and skirts and beads.

New Hampshire is the gruff older brother with flannel shirts, pickup truck with a gun rack, and the “live free or die” bumpersticker.

Maine… that’s the far-off cousin I’ve never properly met, distant, mysterious, and cold.

But Rhode Island is the bright, tattooed little brother with grommet earrings who’s working as a barista while waiting for his band to hit the big time.

The person I’d naturally gravitate to at Thanksgiving dinner, in other words, because he’s likely to have the most interesting stories and unusual perspectives.

So when the email arrived notifying me that the paddles I’d ordered had arrived at Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures, it was a no-brainer for me  to decide to drive up and pick them up. My weekend had come unexpectedly free, with an unusually warm and sunny Saturday forecast. A visit to Rhode Island seemed like a brilliant idea.

Technically, Osprey Sea Kayak isn’t in Rhode Island. It’s in southern Massachusetts, on the banks of the eastern fork of the Westport River.  But the owners, Carl and Samantha Ladd, live in Rhode Island, and it’s always seemed like a Rhode Island institution to me.

I’d never paddled the Westport before. Whenever I’d headed up to Rhode Island for past trips, the whole point had been to play in ocean surf. In fact, I’d barely noticed that the tiny “creek” behind the kayak shop was actually a river.

But it is, and like Rhode Island itself, it’s an under-appreciated gem. See for yourself: Click on any of the photos below to see the vistas from that day. And you can read about my timely discovery of the boat named “Sea Hare” here.

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