Category Archives: New York City

Blown Away

Vlad as a child

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s 11:30 on a sweltering summer weekday. I’m on my way to a client meeting downtown. I step into the subway car, grateful there’s a seat and working air conditioning. The people in the car are the usual mix of ages, races, genders. We avoid eye contact.

At the next stop, a heavyset young man gets in, with a little boy, about three, in a stroller. The man settles into a seat across from me, and I glance at the little boy.

He’s adorable. There’s something hauntingly familiar about his expression: placid yet worried, with his brows drawn up in a look of concern. I smile at him and try to get his attention. Out of shyness or embarrassment he looks away, towards his father. Or maybe he’s put off by my unnatural hair color and the giant, bug-eyed sunglasses covering half my face.

“Can you wave hello?” the father asks, but the boy won’t turn towards me. “It’s ok,” I say, smiling, to the father. “He doesn’t have to wave at the strange lady.”

Then I suddenly realize, with a pang, why the child’s expression is so familiar.

I turn to the woman next to me, a kind-looking middle-aged Hispanic woman. She’s also smiling at the little boy.

“My husband has a photo of himself at about that age, with that same expression,” I say to her. “So sweet!” I notice I’m speaking of Vlad in the present tense, but don’t bother to correct myself.

“So sweet,” the lady agrees, and tries to get the boy to look at her, but he won’t.

The familiar wave of grief washes over me. I feel my eyes watering, and I’m grateful for the sunglasses hiding my face. To distract myself, I look at the people across from me. There’s a couple, sitting close together. Both are looking down at their phones, oblivious. The only way I know they’re a couple is how close they’re sitting. A couple. Another pang.

A few moments later, my stop is approaching. In preparation, I get up and head towards the door. As I do, I hear the people around me start to stir and murmur, but I’m not paying attention. Then the man who was across from me says, “Ma’am, look!”

I turn, and the boy is reaching out for me, his hand a starfish, his body straining against the stroller straps. He says nothing, but the beseeching look on his face is clear, and clearly directed at me.

“He doesn’t want you to leave!” the woman gasps in surprise. We all exchange looks of wonder.

The subway doors open. I step off the train, glad once again for the oversized sunglasses.

Trip 8: Hudson River, Peekskill to Yonkers

Text and photos by Vladimir Brezina

Winter sunset at Yonkers

Sunday, 5 December 1999

7:43 a.m. Metro-North train to Peekskill. Launched by 9:30 a.m. Hazy and windless morning; water like glass. Relatively warm for December (later in the day, temperature up to 60°F). (Note: The scientist in him, and also the world citizen, would always make a point of including units. Most Americans, and nearly all American nonscientists, would assume Fahrenheit to be understood.)

Paddled against flooding current (for first two hours) down to the entrance to Haverstraw Bay, then directly across to Croton Point. No wind at all, water like a mirror, reflecting sun struggling through banks of clouds at first, then becoming a steady diffuse bright glow in a pale blue sky, with outlines of opposite shore and Croton Point in front very hazy. Very few other boats: a few fishing motorboats and the usual tugs and barges; a couple of kayakers around Croton Point.

Tappan Zee in the mist

Past Croton Point around noon and south through the Tappan Zee. A mile or so north of the Tappan Zee Bridge wind suddenly picked up to 15-20 knots from the south. (Note: In later years, Vlad used to cite Murphy’s Law for paddlers, “The wind is always against you, no matter which direction you’re traveling.” It seems to be true surprisingly often. Perhaps it should be called “Brezina’s Law”?). Waves soon built up to 2 feet (wind now against ebbing current). Progress considerably slowed by the wind and waves. Stopped at Irvington around 2 p.m. to reassess situation (met another pair of kayakers, somewhat unprepared for the conditions), then down to Dobbs Ferry (another pair of kayakers). Wind gusts up to 20 knots, waves (not even in middle of channel) up to 4 feet. Larger waves much more pleasant, less bouncy, than short 2-foot chop. South to Yonkers; now (4 p.m.) sun setting behind orange and blood red clouds, soon to be dark, so took out. Train back to New York. (Note: This entry is very close to home as Brian, Vlad’s former student, and I paddled from Yonkers to Croton Point and back this past Sunday—under very different conditions. It was warm, sunny, and just enough bounce to be fun. It’s also interesting to note Vlad’s decision to take out. In later years he might well have opted to continue on, as he had no issues with paddling at night, and four-foot waves were less intimidating. That said, he clearly made the right decision for his level of expertise. That sensible quality stayed with him all his life.)

Daily Post: Dormant

By Johna Till Johnson, photo by Vladimir Brezina

Today’s daily post is Dormant.

Several years ago—I am not entirely sure how many—Vlad and I decided to go to the Central Park Zoo. I can’t recall at this point where the idea came from, but when we discovered that neither of us had ever been there (despite a combined residence in Manhattan of over half a century), the decision was made.

Thanks to our trips to Florida, Vlad at that point had begun getting quite serious about photographing animals, particularly birds. But of course wildlife photography is challenging, because the animals tend to run (or fly) away when they realize they’re being observed.

So he was delighted to be in an environment where the animals had no fear of humans. He took a number of quite amazing shots (which apparently we haven’t blogged about yet! Stay tuned!). This one captures today’s theme in what I hope is a slightly different way.

For the record, “dormant” comes from the Latin word “dormire”, which means to sleep:

To sleep, perchance to dream;

I wonder what this orange bird is dreaming of?

Trip 5: Hudson River, Manhattan to Irvington, October 1999

Text and Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Autumn colors

Saturday, 30 October

Met John and Kathy at Dyckman Street. Put boats together and launched at 11:30 a.m. around the predicted beginning of flood current. Warm for late October. Fog still not burned off completely, but sun gradually appearing. At first light wind from the north, then calm.

Palisades very colorful in the thinning fog. Lunch at Alpine. Stopped at Italian Gardens (waterfall and foliage very picturesque) then crossed over to Irvington. Arrived around 4 p.m.; took out at convenient boat ramp in parking lot by the train station. Briefly saw Kathy’s show at the gallery, then Metro-North train back to New York.

(Note: It’s nice to see that Vlad sometimes went on short and sweet paddles, as well as the longer ones he was known for. And Italian Gardens site was a favored destination for us from Pier 40, though we often failed to make it that far–somehow we constantly managed to underestimate the time required!)

Trip 3: Hudson River, Albany to Rhinecliff, October 1999

Text and Photos by Vladimir Brezina

View of the Catskills

Saturday, 2 October
7:10 a.m. Amtrak train to Albany, then taxi to boat launch in Corning Preserve just north of railroad bridge. Launched  just before 11 a.m.

Sunny with some high clouds, still reasonably warm. Favorable ebb current through the afternoon, but persistent head wind from the south, at first only 10 knots, but increasing to 15-20 knots at times. Chop increasing in places to 1-1.5 feet, with whitecaps. Water distinctly cool now: brief initial shock on stepping into it.

The route: Albany to Rhinebeck

Foliage colorful now along this section of the river. (From the train could see that it is still predominantly green further south.) Even here still not quite at its peak. In few places a riot of yellows, oranges, and reds (hanging vines, especially, provide bright red accents). Mostly, however, more subtle—one flame-orange branch or tree among shades of green.

Paddled south past Papscanee Island (lunch opposite), then Campbell Island, Schodack Island, Houghtaling Island, Bronck Island (looked for HRWA campground, but couldn’t identify it), Rattlesnake Island, Coxsackie Island. Then crossed to Nutten Hook (here wind gusts up to 20-25 knots, many whitecaps, although waves relatively small), past Gays Point (deluxe campground with dock, grass, water (?) occupied) down to campground at northern tip of Stockport Middle Ground. Nobody there. Campground has picnic tables, barbecues, fire pits, two outhouses. (Picnic tables and barbecues also in a number of the bays of the beach just north, on Gays Point. This area has quite a number of comfortable camping possibilities.) Beautiful views north up to Coxsackie Island, west across the river (arrived at 5:30 p.m., an hour before sunset, so could sit at picnic table and eat dinner while watching the sun set) as well as east, for sunrise.

View from Stockport

Quite warm until sunset, then cooling. But still warm enough in old sleeping bag (with sweatshirt, long pants and socks, thought).

Sunday, 3 October

Some sun visible at sunrise, then clouds moving in and becoming overcast. Light north wind starting up. Left around 9 a.m. Still strong flood current against, so kept to shore of Stockport Middle Ground, then crossed to western shore of river. Started to rain; light to moderate showers for the next couple of hours. But foliage more deeply colorful against the gray.

Took some pictures, but with this camera will probably come out flat without direct sun. Paddled down the western branch of the river past Athens and the lighthouse south of Middle Ground Flats. Overtook group of kayakers out of Hudson going to the marshes south of Catskill. Current now turning to ebb and north wind increasing; making good progress. Becoming sunny again.

Fall colors

Past Catskill to mouth of Roeliff Jansen Kill (lunch around 12 noon), then down main channel to Saugerties (second lunch, 2 p.m.). In shallows and flats along the eastern shore of the river over the several miles before Saugerties, many duck blinds; heard occasional shots. Second lunch on Cruger Island (2:30 p.m.) then down main, western channel and finally east again to Rhinecliff (4:30 p.m.) Amtrak train back to New York City.

Total distance paddled 46+ nm, about 14 hours.

(Note: It’s reassuring to read about Vlad’s pauses for lunch and “second lunch”. Years later he became famous for his ability and desire to spend extended hours in his boat without stopping (20 or more, in some cases). But it’s good to know he didn’t start out that way!

That “second lunch” will also bring a smile to the face of anyone who knew Vlad’s legendary delight in eating. I’ve never known anyone with such an uncomplicated love of food. He wasn’t a food snob. He enjoyed everything from the finest aged steak to McDonald’s hamburgers, but with a definite preference for whole, natural foods.  Perfectly ripe fresh pears and peaches, ice cold from the fridge, were a particular favorite. He ate everything with gusto, eyes sparkling: “This is soooo good!” he would exclaim. )

Trip 2: Hudson Highlands, September 1999

Ardent Point looking south

Text and photos by Vladimir Brezina

Saturday, 25 September 1999

Metro-North train to Beacon. Launched around 2:15 p.m. Sunny, temperature in the 70s. Ebb just starting (spring-tide currents this weekend), light north wind in favor. Water still warm-ish especially in certain places, but clearly cooling. Some floating debris still left from Hurricane Floyd ten days ago, but water generally back to its normal degree of green-gray murkiness; coffee color gone.

Out and back from Beacon, camping at Arden Point

Paddled south along the eastern shore, past Denning Point and Bannerman’s Island, then crossed over to western shore. Ebb current now seemingly 2-3 knots, tail wind intensifying to 15 knots. Moderate following sea.

Paddled into lagoon behind railway under Storm King Mt. Then south past Cold Spring, crossed back east into Foundry Cove and Constitution Marsh. Miniature rapids under the railway on stream ebbing out of the marsh. (The same elsewhere: the strongest currents on the whole river may be those sweeping in and out of these marshes and lagoons with every flood and ebb.) Finally south past West Point and Garrison to Arden Point campground.

The view from Arden Point

Everywhere trees mostly still green, but some kinds already yellowing, noticeably more than last weekend. beautiful contrasts of yellow and occasionally orange or red foliage picked out by the sunshine from the green, against the blue sky. Took pictures. Many orange and black monarch butterflies fluttering over the water on their migration south.

Arrived at Arden Point about 6 p. m, just as sun disappeared behind hills on western side of river. The campsite (south end of Arden Point) has every natural amenity (no man-made ones). Stony beaches either side of a group of rocks elevated over the river with views both south to Bear Mt. Bridge and north to West Point; flat areas, some with moss, on several levels under tall trees just behind. West-facing: great location to view sunset and moon over the river, though cold in the morning as sun does not reach the campsite until some time after sunrise.

At midnight woken by full moon shining brightly right in my face. Somewhat cold in old sleeping bag toward the morning: now definitely need warmer sleeping bag, and warm, dry camp clothes and shoes. A little stove to make coffee or chocolate on a cold morning?

(Johna: By the time I knew him, Vlad never camped anywhere without his trusty stove. We had a mixed relationship: I swore by the Jetboil, and he tolerated it, but secretly held the stove in reserve should the Jetboil fail. However, he really did enjoy coffee in the morning and hot chocolate at night, which I was happy to make. So it makes me smile to see his musings about the “little stove to make coffee… on a cold morning?” )

Eagle alights!

Sunday, 26 September
Left around 8:15 a.m. Sunny at first, then broken overcast. Paddled south with the waning ebb, and moderate tail wind, almost to Bear Mt. Bridge. Went into Popolopen Creek (steep wooded sides above still water, very picturesque) , then into the marsh just north of Iona Island. Many hawks (?) circling overhead everywhere (Johna: Could also have been eagles; the photo here was taken not too far away, over ten years later. ) especially along edge of woods; later saw one capture a pigeon-sized bird in flight, with much squawking. Current now starting to flood. Becoming sunny once more. North back to Arden Point (lunch around 12 noon) then through World’s End. Just before, heard two deep hoots, and an enormous red-yellow ship, followed by a tug, emerged very slowly to turn downriver past West Point. North past Cold Spring, then hugging shore all the way back to Beacon. Now wind from the south, moderate following seas. Shore-line woods very colorful; took many pictures. Many kayakers and canoeists, mostly solo or in pairs, on the water. Beacon around 3:30 p.m.

Trip 1: Hudson River, Rhinecliff to Ossining, September 1999

Text and Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Early morning colors on the river

Note: After Vlad died, I was astonished to discover that he’d meticulously maintained logs of nearly 300 kayak excursions he made, alone and with others, from 1999 to 2011. He only stopped when this blog became the official chronicle of our journeys.

Although they are true nautical logs, with observations on the weather, conditions, and mileage, they are also written in his characteristic style, with whimsical musings and droll asides sprinkled throughout, so they make for surprisingly lively reading.

Best of all, he also worked in the last months of his life to preserve his vast collection of photographs, so I’m able to pair the logs with photographic illustrations of the same areas. They are not necessarily from the same trips (though some almost certainly are). Wherever possible, I’ve attempted to match for season and conditions.

I plan to publish one each Thursday for the next year or so (not all logs are long enough to make into standalone blog posts). I’ve edited the logs minimally; you’re reading almost exactly what Vlad wrote.  —Johna Till Johnson

18-19 September, Rhinecliff to Ossining
Saturday, 18 September

(Editor’s note: Vlad traveled south from Rhinecliff, which is the starting point roughly in Kingston. The Denning Point campsite is marked, as is his destination at Ossining, a bit north of Rt 287 on the map.)

7:10 Amtrak train to Rhinecliff. The train was delayed by the possibility of water and downed trees on the tracks—Hurricane Floyd hit the area on Thursday night—and I was able to launch only around 11 a.m. Sunny, temperature in the 70s, light north wind, calm water. Water very muddy, with swirls of mud, like light unstirred coffee. Visibility only a few inches. Other signs of hurricane: in some places accumulated masses of floating debris, mainly old driftwood and dead branches presumably swept off beaches. Later I saw some downed trees and numerous beached boats.

Just north of Middle Hudson River (Esopus) Lighthouse, I saw a seal. (Although this far up the river the water is completely fresh.) First it was following in the wake of a sailboat motoring in the other direction, then a few minutes later I saw that it had turned and was following me.

I stopped paddling and watched. The seal kept diving and surfacing, poking its head out of the water. Once it arched its back out of the water like a dolphin. It kept to a distance of about 10 yards. I started slowly paddling twards its position while it was submerged to get closer for a picture. I got slightly closer, but then the seal (apparently unable to see underwater because of the mud) surfaced by chance about two feet off the port side. It must have panicked and gone into an emergency dive; all I saw was an enormous splash, like a huge fish jumping, and was soaked with spray. (Another argument for a waterproof camera.) After that the seal did not surface for a while, and then kept to about 30 yards.

Camp at Denning Point

Good ebb current (1-2 knots?) plus tail wind (10 knots?) in favor. Keeping in the middle of the river, I reached Pougheepsie about 2 p.m. Then the current slacked off. I was hoping that with the runoff water the ebb would be prolonged and the flood abbreviated. This was probably the case to some extent, but nevertheless soon when I stopped I found myself unmistakably drifting backward, despite the tail wind. So I continued along the shore.

I reached Beacon about 6:30 PM, then continued to the camp at the southern tip of Denning Island, arriving around 7 p. m., just before sunset. I briefly explored the trails inland, but could not find the grassy area near ruins described in the HRWA guide. So I camped on a level sandy spot, under trees and behind big driftwood logs, just on the point, with good visibility both west across the river and south to Bannerman’s Island. It got dark, lights came up across the river and a quarter moon: bright moonlight, sharp moon shadows, I could almost read.

Outdoor Research bivy sack with Thermarest inflatable pad, on flat, level ground, very comfortable. Good ventilation, quick and easy to set up. (Editor’s note: I have what I believe is that original OR bivy sack, though I’ve upgraded to a newer model for my own use. I very much agree with Vlad’s assessment!)  Old sleeping bag still adequate this time, but probably too light for any significantly colder temperatures. Also too small—need to get larger, mummy-style bag with hood. Need tarp that I can spread out, too, otherwise sand gets into everything.

Morning fog

Sunday, 19 September

Morning somewhat brisk—fall is definitely coming. Mist rising from the river, drifting over with the north wind, but now and again glimpse some blue sky. Took a number of pictures of trees in the mist around the campsite. Left about 8 a. am. Across the Fishkill Creek estuary south from Denning Point, paddled completely surrounded in fog. Took pictures while paddling along the opposite shore: trees emerging from the fog. Bannerman’s Castle.

Cold Spring

South toward Cold Spring, the fog began to lift. Mist and clouds, but now also sunshine and increasing patches of blue sky, dramatic views of the Highlands. Trees still for the most part green, although here and there one already turning. With Bannerman’s Castle, could almost have been Scotland. (Editor’s note: As some readers are aware, Vlad spent several years as an adolescent in Scotland.)

Bannerman’s Castle

Gusts of stronger north wind (15 knots?), some following seas building as always here. Past Cold Spring, West Point with increasing current in favor. Peekskill at about 11 a. m. White beaches of Verplanck (lunch in someone’s homemade hammock overlooking the beach). Across Haverstraw Bay. Lots of motorboats and sailboats criss-crossing the bay.

White beaches of Verplanck

(Editor’s note: The other photos may or may not have been from this exact trip; at least one is not, because it’s a later boat model. However, this photo is almost certainly from this trip; it’s Vlad’s first boat and paddle, and its album caption is “White beaches of Verplanck”—a phrase that appears to be unique to him, and that he seemed to have coined on this trip. )

Now good sailing breeze: onshore breeze building from the south, waves negligible at first but by Croton Point 1-1.5 feet. Ebb current fading too. Making relatively slow progress into the wind. Significant area of higher breaking waves (2 feet) south of Teller’s Point. Boat filling up on water. Effects on handling quite noticeable: boat wallows with and through the waves rather than bouncing over them as usual. Made for the south shore of Croton Point to bail out the water, then across Croton Bay to Ossining. Arrived about 4 p.m. 5:30 train to New York City.

Must seam-seal and Scotchguard deck, shorten paddle-leash and eliminate Velcro paddle attachment.

Whole trip about 50 nm, paddling time about 16 hours.