Category Archives: New York City

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!

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

Christmas, 2018

Candle and ornaments

By Johna Till Johnson

“I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore,” I explained to friends. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was too hard after Vlad died.

It wasn’t just that Vlad loved Christmas. He loved it in such a particular way, with carols (the old-fashioned ones), mulled wine or cider, tasty cookies and candy, and decorations that bordered on the excessive: White lights and colored lights and candles… and tinsel (gold and silver).. and ornaments of all shapes and sizes.

How could I ever recreate the experience? Why would I even try? It would only remind me of everything that was gone….

The universe works in mysterious ways.

“Can we have an American Christmas tree?” my German visitor asked.

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the arrival of a German visitor, much less a 16-year-old girl who loved, loved, loved Christmas and was ecstatic when we put up the wreath. After we put up the wreath, a tree was the logical next step, so of course I agreed.

But what did she mean by “American” tree?

You guessed it: White lights and colored lights… and gold and silver tinsel… lots and lots of ornaments… and candles!

She was over the moon when we added the tinsel. Apparently they didn’t use it at home, despite the fact that tinsel is actually German: It was invented in Nuremberg in 1610. (Fun fact: What Americans call “tinsel” is, properly speaking, “lametta”.)

And if that weren’t enough, both the candles and the candleholders that Vlad and I used were imported from Germany.

But it was still a very American tree!

The American tree in all her glory

About those carols? And the mulled cider? And the tasty treats? Well, her sister, mother, and grandmother paid us a visit (from Germany!) So a few nights before Christmas, we gathered around the tree, sipped cider, ate Christmas cookies, and sang carols (in English and German). My visitor’s mother is a professional soprano and the whole family has excellent voices… so you can imagine the joyous sound!

The culmination of the evening was the candle lighting (with a brand-new fire extinguisher and a bucket of water handy).

This month, after I returned from abroad, I carefully washed the tree stand and packed it and the ornaments away…For next year.

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Park Avenue Christmas Tree Lighting

Light in darkness

By Johna Till Johnson

In December 2016,  Vlad’s best friend Dan came to visit.

Their friendship dated back to the beginning of graduate school. Now it was a lifetime ago. A lifetime that for one of them would soon be over.

I can’t remember why, but Dan and I went out one dark evening to get something. We had to cross Park Avenue. But as we came up to the street, we saw it was crowded with people. There was no traffic.

Voices filled the air, and we realized they were singing… Christmas carols.

People singing Christmas carols! On Park Avenue!

Dan and I turned to each other, delight and wonder in our eyes. Who knew that in cosmopolitan New York City, such a thing could happen?

We stayed with the crowd and sang for a while, savoring the moment’s sweetness. Despite everything that was happening, there was light in darkness.

For a couple of years, that memory remained isolated.

I wondered, but did not know, why one dark December night there would be people on Park Avenue singing Christmas carols. It remained a mystery. But it was enough that it happened.

Life resumed.

This December a small contingent of us from St. Francis de Sales Catholic church were invited to the Christmas party at Brick Church, the Presbyterian church a few blocks away…on Park Avenue.

After the Christmas party, there would be the annual lighting of the trees on Park Avenue. With caroling.

Oh!

Now it all became clear. And a new memory was created. Light in darkness, yes. And also laughter, and cookies, and lemonade, and homemade Christmas tree ornaments.

And caroling on Park Avenue.

(Click on any picture to enlarge it, and scroll through.)

 

The Return of Christmas

Ornaments

By Johna Till Johnson

I didn’t celebrate Christmas after Vlad died. It was too hard. He loved it so much.

But when you have a visitor, a 16-year-old girl from Germany whose favorite holiday is Christmas and whose face lights up with glee at the mere thought of it…the situation calls for re-evaluation.

We attended the Christmas party at Brick Church, which included lemonade, cookies, and do-it-yourself Christmas ornament creation.

Clara made two ornaments.

But.. where to put them? We had no tree, and no plans to get one.

Now, it’s true that we’d agreed to get a wreath. So step one: Buy wreath, and decorate it. Clara affixed bells to bows, and added brass angels (repurposed napkin holders).

Step two: The tree.

Stay tuned!

Clara and Wreath

 

A Wintry Thanksgiving Weekend Paddle on the Hudson

Ice on Haverstraw Bay

By Johna Till Johnson

The plan had evolved, as plans sometimes do.

Originally it was supposed to be a 4-day camping trip over the Thanksgiving holiday. But the polar vortex and its single-digit temperatures, plus a lack of preparation, put the kibash on that idea.

Instead: A Saturday paddle launching from Croton Point headed to parts north. (Ultimately, that turned out to be the Cortlandt Yacht Club just south of Verplanck, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Looking south from George’s Island

Early in the morning, I drove out to the George’s Island State Park boat ramp and took some photos. Then it was south to Croton Point, which has a lovely little launching beach designed specifically for human-powered boats.

Launching from Croton Point

Launch time was 12:15 PM. I meandered up the east side, poking into every nook and cranny. The current was nominally flooding, but flood that far north is fairly weak.

By the George’s Island boat ramp, it was definitely turning to ebb, but I pressed on, curious to see what lay beyond. The chart indicated some sort of marina. And you couldn’t really tell, but it seemed possible to go under a bridge into an inland body of water.

Reeds and red berries

After the long curve of Montrose point, there it was: a complex maze of boats and sea walls, which I later discovered was Cortlandt Yacht Club, Hudson Valley Marine, and Viking Boat Yard. Disappointingly, there was no navigable route to the inland waterway; although there was a low tunnel under the road through which I could glimpse daylight, the sound and sight of roaring water just beyond made me give up any thought of entering it. So I decided instead to have some snacks in preparation for my trip back.

Although many of the boats were put away for winter, there were plenty still in the water. And what a mix! Rusting barges sat cheek-by-jowl with spiffy new yachts. There was a festive yellow boat—whose paint job had seen better days—festooned with tattered flags: The Caribbean Queen. She was far from home, I thought idly as I broke out the food.

To the south, the water shimmered, smooth as glass. The shoreline and tiny island made quivering reflections. All was still.

Autumn reflections…

And then it was time for the return. The current was ebbing fiercely now, so I shot down the middle of the Hudson (keeping a sharp eye out for tug-and-barges, which often travel all the way up to Albany).

I made it back in half the time, nearly overshooting Croton Point, which, like most points, featured a bouncy little tide-rip. Had there been more wind, that part of the paddle would have been positively exciting. But as it was, I rounded the point, then paddled the calm waves gently lapping the beach.

As I landed, I was greeted energetically by two small, fluffy dogs. Their owners (or at least leash-holders) were an elderly couple bundled up against the chill.

The woman, who looked to be in her 90s,  asked if it was possible to walk along the shoreline of Haverstraw Bay.

“No, but you can paddle it,” I said. “Why?”

She wanted to see it, she said. Because of the ghost ships.

Ghost ships?

She explained: As a girl during World War II, she’d lived on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with a view out over the Hudson. During the blackouts, the US naval fleet would travel up the Hudson to shelter in Haverstraw Bay.

As she spoke, her words formed images in my mind: A darkened Manhattan. Ships gliding by, as silently as possible. Ghost ships, black silhouettes against the darker darkness of night. Headed for someplace unknowable to a small child. Someplace with a strange, foreign name: Haverstraw Bay. The place she wanted to see.

I felt sad to disappoint her with the news that condos and sea walls blocked the walk along the shoreline, but by then she didn’t seem to mind. It seemed that having someone listen to the story was enough.

“Thank you,” she said, as she, the dogs, and the man prepared to leave. It wasn’t quite clear what she was thanking me for: Listening to her, perhaps? Or just a moment of human connection on a cold, overcast day?

But I was the one who was grateful, to her for passing along a memory that would soon expire, but now would live another lifetime. A secondhand memory, but still real.

Croton to Verplanck

Craft: Solstice (Tiderace Explore-S)
Paddle Date: 11-24-18
Paddle Launch Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle Launch Time: 12:15 PM
Paddle End Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle End Time: 3:30
Distance Traveled: 7 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3 hr
Time Stopped: 15 minutes
Average Pace: 2.3 knots
Paddlers: Solo
Conditions: Cloudy, calm, cold (35 to start, 45 at finish, approx.). Very little wind.

Morning at the Tappan Zee (seen from the north)

Note: I haven’t been able to find anything about the ghost ships of Haverstraw Bay during World War II. If you do, please let me know. I don’t doubt the old lady’s recollection; it was far too vivid for that. But it’s strange that there seems to be no historical record…

Thanksgiving Day Parade 2018

Eponymous

By Johna Till Johnson

It was pure serendipity, as many wonderful things in life are.

I had just decided, with some regret, that kayak-camping on the Hudson during the single-digit temperatures of a polar vortex was not wise. So at the last minute, I was without plans for the Thanksgiving holiday.

A Boston-based friend I hadn’t seen in decades, but with whom I had a lively Facebook correspondence, wanted to know: Would I like to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—from inside the HBO building? A friend had a spare ticket, and it would be great to reconnect…

It took approximately a nanosecond to decide. Truthfully, I would have jumped at the chance to see her, and meet her teenaged daughter. Meeting her Brooklyn-based friend (who, it turned out, is also a NYC kayaker) would be an added bonus.

But all that and the ability to watch the parade from a high floor in a climate-controlled building? As I said… pure serendipity!

It was wonderful to reconnect with my friend, who doesn’t seem to have changed much since college, except for the deepening of her acerbic wit. Her daughter turned out to be a lovely young woman, and I look forward to spending more time with my new Brooklyn friend.

For me, these were the best takeaways.

But there are also the photos.

Bearing the colors

Run, he’s after us!

Pikachu

Believe

Homewood patriots

Rocking horse and float captain

Marching band

Marching girls

HBO… from the inside!