Category Archives: Nature

Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-Glory Hallelujah!

Johna in front of West Point

By Johna Till Johnson

“Glory, glory hallelujah!” My voice rang out strongly and surprisingly tunefully.

It was late morning, and I was just entering Peekskill Bay. The weather was perfect: Sunny, cool, with just enough breeze to generate a light chop. I felt my pace begin to pick up. A glance at the GPS confirmed it: I was going at least a knot faster than previously.

Ready to launch in the predawn at Denning Point

I’d discovered experientially that singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” made me pick up the pace by a knot or so.

No other song seemed to have that effect. “Eddystone Light” was fun to sing (especially the part about life upon the ro-o-o-o-lling sea) but it didn’t make me any faster. And neither did the various popular songs I could remember bits and pieces of (“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” was a particular favorite).

So here I was out in Peekskill Bay, singing Glory Hallelujah to keep the pace going.

I’d left Denning Point before dawn that morning, paddling against the current as the sun slowly rose. By around 8:20 I’d arrived at West Point.

Predawn on the Hudson

Unbeknownst to me, so had my friend Adam. He and his wife were on the early train into Manhattan, just a few hundred yards from me. He snapped a photo through the window, guessing the lone paddler might be me from the drybag strapped on my rear deck (likely indicating someone camping, rather than on a day trip.)

Just after West Point the current finally turned with me, but I wasn’t picking up much speed. Apparently the days before had tired me out a bit, even the “easy” day yesterday.

That’s when I tried singing, and discovered that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was good for at least an additional knot.

First view of West Point

It wasn’t just the rousing melody. The lyrics were inspiring, and even more so, the meaning. The writer, fellow New Yorker Julia Ward Howe, had created it to inspire Northerners to fight in a hard, ugly, brutal civil war that brought them no direct benefit.

Although I was hardly fighting a war, the idea of doing something difficult for the glory of it resonated.

The shoreline streamed by. The sun was bright, but there was a cool breeze  providing a tailwind. As I made my way around the curve (the river makes a hairpin turn around Peekskill Point), I mentally computed the currents. I’d have the ebb with me until about 3:30 PM, by which time I’d be at the Tappan Zee bridge (or pretty close.)

Then the current would turn against me.

But how bad could it be? The flood was only a knot, maybe a knot and a half. And I’d paddled against the current before. Under normal circumstances it would take maybe 2 hours to get back to Yonkers from the Tappan Zee. So, okay, tack on another hour—I’d be home by 6:30, 7:00 at the latest. Right?

Looking at West Point. Two minutes later, Adam would photograph me…

Of course, there was the question of what happened after that. I’d blithely departed Hudson after making arrangements to leave my car at the B&B where I’d spent the night. The plan was to take the train home from Yonkers.

The catch? I didn’t know exactly where the train station was. There was rumored to be one within walking distance of the boathouse. But the instructions I’d heard were obscure and faintly ominous. “You go through the hole in the fence and climb up on the track.” (No guidance on where the hole in the fence was, or what, precisely, “climbing up on the track” entailed.)

I’d had the presence of mind to jot down the train schedule before I left, so I knew the train stopped at Glenwood en route to Manhattan every hour at 26 minutes past. But finding it would be the trick.

There was the distinct possibility of ending up wandering around Yonkers in the dark with a bunch of camping gear on my back, looking for the mysterious hole in the fence.

Oh well, that was a long way off. And meantime, there was paddling to be done!

Glory, Hallelujah….

I made decent time, and by 3:30 I’d reached the Tappan Zee.

The route home. The “tiny” jig left was where I got out of the current…

As anticipated, the current had just changed, and was ever-so-slightly against me. Annoyingly, so had the wind, which was now coming from its usual direction, southwest. (Vlad : “Murphy’s law of kayaking is that the wind and current are always against you.” Also known as “Florida rules”.)

South of the Tappan Zee, the Hudson is shallow and marshy on the western shore, so that’s where I headed. Generally the current flows more slowly in the shallow parts of a river; and near the shoreline a paddler can take advantage of the back-eddy (where the current strikes protrusions on the shoreline and bounces back, thus going in the opposite direction to the main current).

With these tricks, even with the opposing wind and current, I was able to keep a good 2-3 knot pace, but there was a catch: I wasn’t headed straight home. Instead, to keep out of the wind and stay in the backeddy, I was making a long detour; I estimated it would add two-and-a-half or three miles to the trip. Which meant… another hour.

Now I’d arrive closer to 8 PM than 7 PM, if all went well.

I’d gone over 30 nautical miles by then, and I was feeling it. I paddled strongly, but didn’t manage to do much better than 3 knots. Slowly, the beautiful waterfront houses on the western shore slipped by. Ahead was Piermont Pier, a long spit of land reaching into the Hudson.

One summer, Vlad and I had made an overnight, full moon paddle to Piermont Pier. It’s still one of my most vivid memories. I remember napping on the benches, waiting for the current to change, watching the full moon touch the dark waves with shimmering silver. Dozing.

Vlad shaking me awake, gently: “Come on Johna, it’s time to go.” Paddling back to Manhattan in the gray pre-dawn, arriving at Pier 40 just as the sun was rising…

I’ve been to Piermont Pier a few times since, but it’s always inextricably entwined in my memory with silvery moonlight and dark waves. And Vlad.

Pollepel Island in the early morning

This time couldn’t have been more different. The sun was already low in the sky when I arrived, touching everything with honey-colored light. I turned east at the pier. Sheltered from the current, I was speeding along the length of the pier with the wind at my back, barely needing to paddle.

I marveled at the mix of people out enjoying the late Sunday afternoon. Hispanic families fishing. Orthodox Jewish families taking babies for a stroll. Young couples holding hands. Children waved at me, and I waved back.

Soon enough I’d rounded the pier and turned south again, hugging the shoreline of Piermont Marsh. For the first time my destination was visible in the distance: The twin brick towers of the abandoned power plant just behind JFK marina. It was probably still another hour or two away, but I was almost home!

In the peaceful late-afternoon light, I continued on down the western shore, taking advantage of the backeddy. Past Italian Gardens. Past the rockfalls on the Palisades.

Finally I decided to cross. Too early, as it turned out: The current swept me backwards, and I watched in frustration as landmarks that I passed earlier reappeared. But finally I was across. As the rosy sky began fading to darkness, I wended my way down the shoreline.

Soon there was the buzz of jetski engines, and the thumping sound of music, growing steadily louder.

New problem: the ramp was crowded.

Everyone was pulling jetskis out of water, backing trucks and trailers up to the ramp impatiently. I wouldn’t be able to unpack the boat on the ramp. But it was too heavy for me to carry up without unpacking.

Salvation! One of the guys who manned the marina office appeared, a young man around twenty, with tattoos on both arms. He helped haul the boat to a nearby stretch of grass.

I unpacked as quickly as I could in the gathering darkness, throwing all the camping gear into a giant waterproof backpack that I’d discovered among Vlad’s things. (I had one as well, but this one was nearly twice the size).

Staggering a little, I was able to lift to stand up wearing the pack. I mentally thanked my coach and the months of squats and deadlifts in the gym, then grabbed the nose of the boat (which was already mounted on its wheels) and started off towards the boathouse a quarter mile away. Around me, music blared, styles competing with each other at full volume. Latin. Hiphop. Soft rock. A running undertone was the monotonous jingle of the ice cream truck.

Suddenly the darkness was cut with red-and-blue flashing lights and amplified voices. Yonkers PD had arrived to clear everyone out of the park.

I chuckled at the difference between the previous peaceful days and this in-your-face urban vibe. I loved them both.

I packed up as quickly as possible, leaving most of the camping gear and stuffing just essentials into a small backpack (yes, I have lots of backpacks!)

Now what? It was full dark, and the woods behind the abandoned power plant didn’t look inviting. And Yonkers is an urban area (just north of the Bronx.)

Luck had been on my side the whole trip. Surely it would stay through the end?

I decided to check it out, and plunged into the darkness, lit only by the headlamp. A few minutes later, I was delighted to find…. Not a hole in the fence, but a wide-open pathway leading directly to the station. A few minutes’ investigation yielded the delightful fact that a short ladder climbed the six feet or so to the platform’s edge.

I sat down on the bench to wait, feeling pleased. Glory Hallelujah….

Just over an hour later I was back in my apartment in New York, much to the delight of my cat Mully.

And the next day the email from Adam arrived,  with the subject header: “Is this you?”

Indeed it was! One of the few photos of me on an expedition paddle, now that Vlad is gone.

Glory Hallelujah!

Yonkers at twilight

Special thanks to Henry at YPRC who gave me the encouragement to finally finish this, reminding me that at least one person is reading! Thanks, Henry! 

Down the Hudson-Husdon to Yonkers: The Hardest Easiest Day

Lunch break on the Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson

Somehow the “easy” days always turn out to be the hardest.

When we were circumnavigating Long Island, the “easy” day (from Montauk to Greenport) turned out to be one of the most difficult.

And so it was on this trip.

I spent a lazy morning on Esopus Island. There was no point in launching too far ahead of the slack; I’d just be paddling against the current needlessly.

I was only planning to go 21 nautical miles (24 miles) to Dennings Point, the next campsite. At yesterday’s pace of 3.5 knots, that was barely over 6 hours. I’d be there by midafternoon, even if I left midmorning.

An easy day was a good thing, because last night I’d decided to make a change in plans:

Part of my motivation in doing this trip was to prep for the Everglades Challenge in 2020. Vlad and I had done it in 2014, and it had been the experience of a lifetime. After he died, I swore I’d never do it again, but as with so many things, my thinking evolved.

Now I wanted to do it on my own, partly for him. He had loved everything about the adventure, and it was his last big one before diagnosis. Paddling it again—or at least, trying to—was a way to honor that love.

But also for me.

Tug and barge (with pipes)

I’d never wanted this new identity as a solo expedition paddler; I’d been ecstatic (and honored) to be Vlad’s junior partner. Unfortunately, that role was no longer an option, and finding another partner was highly unlikely.

Kayakers of Vlad’s caliber are rare indeed. And partners of any caliber you can actually stand, for days on end, through bug bites and chafing and sore muscles and no sleep… well, those are rarer still.

So in the past few years I’d slowly come around to my new identity: solo expedition paddler. That meant being a lot more deliberate than I’d ever been before: planning and double-checking the currents and conditions; maintaining gear (and bringing appropriate backups); and making sure I didn’t exceed my physical limits to the point where my judgment was impaired.

Yesterday’s entertainment with the rock was both reassuring and sobering.

I hadn’t panicked; my initial impulse to wait and let the tide lift the boat had been a good one. Still, if Pat and Charles hadn’t shown up, things might not have gone so smoothly. These were the kinds of things I’d need to work through, as a solo expedition paddler.

So part of the purpose of this trip was to test drive that new identity, and prep for next year’s Everglades Challenge, as a solo paddler.

But in that case, I was doing it wrong.

The Everglades Challenge is, no way around it, brutal. It’s approximately 270 nautical miles, depending on route.

More importantly, almost all that distance is against the wind (which can be quite fierce) and current. (Yes, I know, it’s not possible for the entire trip to be against the current… but “Florida rules”!)

In 2014 we averaged between 2 and 2.5 knots per hour, and I couldn’t honestly expect myself to do much better this time.

We only managed to complete the race in the 7 days allotted by… well, you do the math: 270 miles divided by 2 knots is 135 hours. 135 hours divided by 7 days (the approximate time in which you must finish) is… wait for it… 19 paddling hours per day.

That’s 19 hours per day, and five hours for everything else (mostly sleeping.) That’s also just under 40 nautical miles per day, with no help from the current.

Zipping down the Hudson, with no wind and a helpful assist by the current (up to 2.5 knots of ebb) was significantly easier than slogging against the wind and current in Florida.

Which meant that if the goal was to train for the Everglades Challenge, my current trip plan was… too easy.

There was another factor. For the first time, I’d left my cat, Mully (aka “The Cat That  Found Me” ) home alone without any plans for human contact.

He’d be fed through an automatic feeder. But if I didn’t get home until Tuesday morning, he’d be alone four solid days.

He’s a social creature, never more than a few yards away from me when I’m home. If I could do it, it would be better to get home, if only briefly, on Sunday night.

Halvah, breakfast (and lunch, and dinner) of champions!

Hence the new plan:

Today, as previously planned, I’d head to Dennings Point. But tomorrow, instead of stopping at Croton Point, I’d keep going another 13 miles (against the current) to Yonkers, then take the train home that night.

That would mean a trip of roughly 40 nautical miles (44 land miles), about half of which would be against the current. Much more realistic practice for the EC, and I’d get home to Mully.

There was just one catch: I hadn’t yet figured out how to find the train station near JFK Marina in Yonkers. I knew it was close by—the club members had said something about “going through the hole in the fence”—but I’d be wandering around Yonkers after dark looking for the train station, with my camping gear on my back.

Oh well. That would be tomorrow’s problem.

As the Bible says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And today’s “evil” would be downright pleasant, or so I hoped: A short 21-nautical-mile jaunt from Esopus Island to Dennings Point.

I launched from Esopus Point around 9:30. It was low tide as predicted, which was satisfying. There was a slight flood current, but I knew it would shortly reverse to ebb.

Poughkeepsie’s twin bridges

The paddling went quickly, and before long I was in Poughkeepsie, with its landmark twin bridges (one for pedestrians, one for cars).

A tug-and-barge (laden with rusty pipes) passed by on the Western shore. Then the Clinton Point quarry appeared on the Eastern shore.

The morning wore into afternoon. My pace slowed, to 3.4 knots…3.3 knots… 3.2 knots. I could move faster if I paid attention, but I kept getting lazy and distracted. My hands were burning; likely blisters.

As I’d planned, I had a snack on the water. I’d discovered that halvah, a sesame-paste confection, had some ideal characteristics for paddling nutrition: It was calorie-dense (600 calories per bar!), low volume, and impervious to temperature changes. And oh yeah—I like it.

Still, after a few more hours in the boat, I figured a stop might be in order. So when a pleasant-looking beach pulled into view, I landed, stretched my legs (and the rest of me) and had another snack.

By midafternoon I was wondering if this paddle would ever end. It had only been around 18 nautical miles, and I was ready to be done!

Clinton Point quarry

I landed at Dennings Point at 1720 (5:20 PM) and was very glad to get out of the boat. My notes read, “Grueling! Blisters, stiff.” And that was on an “easy” day. Sometimes the “easiest” days are in fact the hardest!

I took my time setting up camp, keeping in mind I’d need to launch as early as possible the next morning. And as the final rays of the sun peeked through the limbs of the trees on Denings Point, I snapped a photo.

Tomorrow would be the big day! Paddling 44 miles and (hopefully) finding the train station in the dark…stay tuned to find out how that turned out.

Sunset at Dennings Point

Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-An Auspicious Beginning

Tug and barge near Roger’s Island

By Johna Till Johnson

I’d just snapped a photo of a sunlit tug-and-barge across the river when I heard the sounds no kayaker ever wants to hear: Thump. Crunch!

Just like that, I’d hit a rock. That “crunch” sound? The rock grinding through the gelcoat outer layer of the kayak.

But there was worse. I was stuck on top of the rock. I tried shifting my weight, no luck. A few paddle strokes to maneuver the boat… and I almost got stuck on another rock.

I sat back and considered my options.

I was near the eastern bank of the Hudson River, about two miles south of the town of Hudson, where I’d put in. This was to be a 100-mile trip from Hudson to Yonkers (one of my home ports).

But not if I couldn’t get off this rock.

I probed the depth of the water with my paddle. Not too bad; maybe 2 feet or so. If I could get out of the boat without damaging it further, I could easily stand.

That was a big if.

The problem with doing anything—maneuvering the boat, shifting my weight, attempting to get out—was that it might damage the boat still further, turning a minor “ding” into an impact on seaworthiness.

Hmmm.

Sometimes the best action to take is no action.

The tide was rising. In another little while, it might lift the boat off the rock naturally. As the saying goes: “A rising tide lifts all boats”… even kayaks stuck on rocks. And Vlad and I had successfully deployed that strategy to get unstuck from a mangrove swamp in Florida.

I tried maneuvering again, gently. No luck. Well, I’d give it a bit more time.

I sat back to enjoy the view… and gasped.

Just like that, two paddlers had appeared, out of nowhere, headed upriver. They were Pat and Charles. After a bit of happy small-talk about boats and trips. I said, “Ummm… mind helping me get off this rock?”

Rescuer Pat

One gentle lift from Charles and I was free!

This was just one of the many serendipitous events that marked this trip, not least of which was the weather: three days of highs in the 80s and lows in the sixties (!) in the midst of our standard steamy July heat.

Rescuer Charles

Another was timing.

Because of work complexity, I ended up launching a day later than I’d planned. But when I called up the B&B in Hudson to try to sort out my nonrefundable reservation, the owner was not only happy to accept the changes, but he suggested he switch my second night to Monday—giving me ample time for the trip. (Thank you Duncan at Croff House in Hudson!)

An auspicious start indeed!

I launched on a cool, foggy morning from the boat ramp in Hudson. Vlad and I had used it as the start of many adventures, by ourselves and with companions.

The launch site Friday morning

The plan was to paddle down the Hudson, arriving in Yonkers around midday Monday, where I’d leave the boat at its berth in the boathouse. Then I’d catch the train back to Hudson, have dinner, spend the night, and drive home early Tuesday before work.

That would have me covering an estimated 99 miles (86 nautical miles) in three-and-a-half days, with three nights camping.

I’d broken it down into segments. The first day would be the longest, if I could do it: Hudson to Esopus Island, around 34 miles (30 nautical miles). Then an easy day, Esopus to Dennings Point, roughly 25 miles (22 nautical miles). Another easy day from Dennings Point to Croton Point (again, about 25 miles/22 nautical miles). And finally, the 14-mile (12 nautical mile) stretch from Croton Point home.

I’d done the entire route once before with Vlad in 2011 and about half the route on a trip last September with friends. I’d marked out backup camping points, and a couple of bailout points where I could leave the boat safely and head back for my car.

And I’d spent several hours mapping the tides and currents for each day at several points along the route.

So I was pretty well prepared.

But as the saying goes, the best-laid plans….

However, that story’s to come.

Hudson Power Boat Association in early-morning fog

Meanwhile, 90 minutes after launch, I was once again moving freely. If there was damage to the boat, I’d find out at the next stop; for now, there didn’t seem to be a leak.

I waved goodbye to Charles and Pat and kept going.

The day had turned out to be lovely; the morning’s fog had dissipated, and the sun sparkled off the water. There was just enough breeze to keep the heat at bay.

As the miles wore by, my mind spun free. Sometimes I focused on my forward stroke. It’s a form of meditation, the repetitive thoughts and motions, each time trying to improve just a tiny bit.

Other times thoughts would flash into my mind, scraps of ideas, plans for projects I could design. (This time I’d had the sense to bring waterproof paper, along with a pen, so I could jot down the most promising ones. We’ll see if any pan out!)

 

Esopus Meadows lighthouse (one of Vlad’s favorites)

But mostly my mind was filled with sunshine and air, the scent of the river and the periodic wails of the train. There are trains on both sides of the river; CSX runs commercial traffic on the West and Amtrak runs passenger trains up the East. Further south, from Poughkeepsie to NYC, there’s also Metro-North on the East.

At first I was paddling against the current, but as the morning wore on, the flood ended and ebb began, and soon I was gliding along effortlessly with the current. My pace had picked up, from just over three knots to over four.

In early afternoon I passed the first backup camping spot at Magdalen Island; a little while later I was past the second, at Cruger Island. I was just under 2/3 of the way through the trip. Now I was committed to Esopus Island!

Sooner than I’d expected, I could see it off in the distance. Then the river turned and hid the island.

But surprise! As I rounded the bend, a lovely lighthouse appeared. I recognized it from the previous trip (Vlad had taken several photos) but couldn’t recall its name (Esopus Meadows lighthouse).

Esopus birds on a rock

I arrived at Esopus Island just past five PM.

With stops, it had taken just under 10 hours; my average paddling pace (according to the GPS) was 3.5 knots, or just over four miles per hour. (It would never be that good again on the trip, but I didn’t know that at that point!)

I unloaded the boat and lifted it up to one of the moss-covered rock ledges that are such a lovely characteristic of Esopus Island. As I turned the boat over, I saw the two new “dings” from this morning’s adventure on the rock. Not great, but nothing fatal (and nothing worse than what was already there).

Since I had plenty of time, I washed my clothes and hung them out to dry, and had a leisurely dinner before setting up camp. I’d seen a state police boat zoom by earlier, and since I’m not quite sure about the legality of camping there, I didn’t want to advertise my presence.

Kept company by the ravens*, who occasionally called out, “Uh huh! Uh huh!” I scouted for campsites. There was a lovely patch of moss under a tree but near enough to the water to catch breezes; it was so soft I almost didn’t need the air mattress. And in the morning, I’d be able to watch the sun rise.

I was very tired, but just a little stiff. Not bad for 34 miles!

I fell asleep around dusk. It had been an auspicious start.

Early dawn at Esopus

Start: Hudson NY, Friday July 26 2019 about 7:30 AM
Finish: Esopus Island, Friday July 26 2019 about 17:20 PM
Distance: 30 nautical miles (34.5 land miles).
Paddling time: 8.5 hours
Stopped time: About 90 minutes
Average paddling speed: 3.5 knots

The route (star showing rock incident)

* There is a funny story about the ravens on Esopus Island, recounted briefly here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esopus_Island

Apparently just over a hundred years ago, occultist Aleister Crowley spent a “magical retreat” on Esopus Island—for which he brought painting and climbing supplies but no food, saying he would be “fed by ravens”. He was indeed fed—but by his friends, who brought over food in a rowboat.

I always wonder if the ravens that live there now are the descendants of the ones Crowley thought would feed him, and if so, what they thought of the scheme.

Sun-dappled Esopus morning

 

Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-Preview

By Johna Till Johnson

My first solo-kayak-camping trip in the NYC area.

I’ve solo-camped (hiking) in the Catskills, solo-kayak-camped in Florida, and kayak-camped (with companions) in the NYC area and elsewhere.

But until now I’d never planned and executed a solo-kayak-camping expedition in my own backyard (so to speak).

I put into a still and misty river at Hudson just after sunrise on Friday. It was cool, calm, and quiet. The fresh scent of early morning rose from the grass and water. I was cheerful, relaxed, but a bit edgy.

I took out 100 miles later on Sunday evening in a sweltering Yonkers  sunset to the earsplitting beat of Latin music and the scent of vapes and barbeque. I was stiff, chafed, and blistered… and overwhelmingly happy.

In between were accidents, surprises, detours, and serendipity.

This is the best photo of the trip. I took it right before sunrise on Esopus Island. Consider it a sneak preview of writeups to come…

Early dawn at Esopus Island

A Summer Evening In Central Park

By Johna Till Johnson

A sweltering Sunday evening calls for a walk in the park…

Central Park silhouette

After a brief cloudburst, the sun emerges from the clouds, lighting up the flowers…

Flower

And setting the raindrops on the leaves to sparkling…

Raindrops and flowers

The skies darken..

Twilight

The lights come on, reminding me of an iconic children’s story…

Narnia in summertime…

… And the last of the light catches the retreating thunderheads.

Clouds

 

 

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