Category Archives: Travel

Sheltering at Sea, Part 3: Staten Island to Atlantic City

Moon over Atlantic City

Sunday, April 5, 2000 HR (8 PM)

It’s not too cold. I’m not wearing my wool cap, and my nose and hands are warm. I’m in the stern cabin. Through the thick plexiglass port I can see a blurry moon.

We’re starting our second night in Great Kills Harbor in Staten Island. We arrived midafternoon yesterday. To Vov’s delight, we were able to anchor in the same spot he’d kept Nemo. The mooring field is empty-ish; there were a few boats moored, but most haven’t come out of their winter quarters yet. We could see a few people in the spit of land surrounding the mooring field, but they were distant and far off.

We used the time to catch our breath, and do some basic housekeeping. Vov fished, and caught five shad. We boiled them and ate them with mayonnaise. They were delicious, despite the mouthful of bones.

Fishing in Staten Island

It was surreal watching Vlad fish within the borders of New York City. Technically we didn’t need to, of course. We had plenty of food.

But it was a sort of test-drive for times to come… as was our laundry routine. Today was sunny, and we hadn’t had the opportunity to wash clothes for a week before we launched. So we washed laundry on the wings of the boat, and hung the clothes up to dry. To wash, we used buckets filled with seawater and biodegradeable soap, with our limited freshwater reserved for the final rinse.

Vov also repaired the rudder on my kayak; he’d brought his tools and fiberglass repair kit along with. Not something I would have thought of!

Meanwhile, I curled in my tiny cabin and worked. The aft cabin isn’t large enough to stand up in, although I can sit up straight (with crossed legs) in the middle, on the cushion that covers the entire floor. Most of the time I brace myself with my back against one wall and my feet against the far wall, balancing the laptop against my knees. It’s more comfortable than it sounds, and Mully often likes to crouch in the cave under my knees.

Today Mully explored the boat a bit more. He also ate (and by all appearances, greatly enjoyed) the shad. Now he’s with me in bed, alternately sitting on me, walking over me, and perched in very unlikely positions on the slanting walls.

Vov is asleep already in the main cabin.

We haven’t really talked about where we’re headed next, other than that the next sheltered anchorage is Atlantic City, a 90-to-100 mile straight shot down the coast. Vov thinks it shouldn’t be too difficult to do all in one go with the right wind, which should arrive very early tomorrow morning (between one AM and three AM). That sounds grueling, but he’s up for it; and not so long ago, during the Everglades Challenge, we were both sailing through the night as a matter of course. So he’s gone to be bed early to catch a few hours of sleep.

We both have a strong strong sense of urgency to get down south.

Staten Island to Atlantic City

Partly it’s the weather, which can be variable this time of year. Supposedly we’re getting snow again in the northeast, and high winds are on the way.

Partly is that we we won’t be into a really comfortable harbor until we’re in the Chesapeake Bay. And partly it’s the same uncanny premonition that’s driven both of us since before we met, the feeling that something bad was going to happen, and we needed to be prepared. What, exactly, that “preparedness” entailed we were still discovering. But heading south seems to be part of it.

Mully is restless. I need to let him out a bit more. But not just yet….

It’s quiet except for the sound of tires. Someone is driving on the spit of land close by. And the whir of the air vent that sounds like crickets.

The boat rocks in someone’s wake. It’s the last thing I feel before falling asleep.

Staten Island Sunset

Tuesday April 7. 2138 HR (9:38 PM)

Sound of tiller scraping across hull, lines slapping gently against mast. Beautiful full moon rising over the water. Wind blowing in background.

Yesterday was difficult. We sailed 95 miles from Staten Island to Atlantic City. It was sunny and clear (ish) but cold, with chop. Vov woke up and and launched at 0230 HR. I couldn’t sleep much after we launched, so I got up and tried to work. That didn’t go so well. I felt seasick staring at the screen, so I abandoned the attempt and clambered into the cockpit to keep Vov company.

We arrived in Atlantic City around 1730 and moored. It had been an… exciting ride. We’d averaged between 6 and 7 knots due south, but gone faster over the water when you factored in the jibing. (Jibing is like tacking, except you do it downwind, not into the wind). When the trimaran heels, only two of its hulls are in the water; the other one slices through the air above the waves. And (I would later learn), jibing is the most dangerous type of sailing. So all in all, it was.. exciting.

Today we rested. I worked (depleted all the batteries!) while V napped, showered, and strategized about the trip. For dinner tonight we had sardines and “rice salad” : Garlic, onion, corn, dill, rice, and mayo. I’m calm. Not yet sleepy. I work until midnight, until my laptop runs out of juice.

Atlantic City Sunrise

Weds April 8 0900 HR (9:00 AM)

Cool, overcast, light wind. Preparing to take shower, out on the wings. There’s enough privacy where we are anchored. To shower, we will heat water on the stove, and pump it through the 1-gallon manual pressure sprayer.

This morning when I woke up, there was a feeling of sunshine in the world beyond. Even though it was gray and cold outside, it felt like the sun was rising somewhere.

I felt Mully warm and solid against my stomach, a warm weight between my ribs and hipbone. He sleeps inside the sleeping bag in the mornings. We plan to sail to Cape May today, then anchor for a few days to wait out the winds.

A strong storm front is coming; 50-knot winds are predicted. It will be my first storm at sea (on a sailboat at least.)

Mully and sky

Sheltering at Sea, Part 2: Escape from New York

Christina Rose (lower left, with sail) passing Manhattan. Photo by A.A.

We wake early.

So far, so good. Christina Rose had handled fine during the 7-mile Hudson crossing to Croton Point. We’d travelled at a speed of 8-10 knots, with a gusty, 20-kt wind. It was bouncy, but manageable.

Mully hadn’t enjoyed the trip.

He spent the crossing in his hull tunnel, a tunnel that ran about 10 feet from the stern cabin under one of the shelves in the main cabin. We couldn’t reach him there, but we could hear him (he would occasionally emit a quiet “miaow” in response to our frantic calling). He must have been cold and terrified, but after we anchored he crawled out and snuggled in the sleeping bag with me.

Now he’s sound asleep, and complains a little in his sleep when I try to pet him. The boat is creaking, with water sloshing around me. And the wind is alternately howling and huffing. The sky is gray and lowering, the water has ominous gray and white ripples.

But the barometer on my watch says the weather will soon improve…

Vov is doing something in the main cabin, I can hear him.

Moving carefully so as not to disturb Mully, I open one of the door panels and peer out.

Ah.

Vov’s dicing onions at the tiny sink. Breakfast will be potatoes with onions, bacon, and eggs.

The plan for today is to sail down the Hudson to Staten Island. Vov had an anchorage there, in Great Kills Harbor. It was where he’d kept his sailboat, Nemo, for many years. It was about 50 miles, a straight shot down the Hudson and New York Harbor.

The route. Today’s in yellow.

Then again, there was no guarantee we’d make it that far.

Was Christina Rose even seaworthy? She’d survived several nights in the water and the 7-mile crossing, but this would be her first real test.

And was it even legal to sail in New York, given the shutdown? Would we get stopped by the police? A few days before, the Coast Guard had issued a notification saying, effectively, that it would not be imposing any controls on boating traffic due to the pandemic. But New York City was, as promised, shutting down everything–including marinas, and so far as we knew, waterways.

If we made it… then what? We hadn’t really decided. The plan was to get out of the Northeast, but we hadn’t had much time to put more thought into it. We had friends in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. And there was always Florida.

But for now, the goal was to get past New York.

After breakfast, around 7:30, we set off. It was gray, raw, and overcast. We huddled in the cockpit, sipping the coffee V had made.

Manhattan ho!


It was strange sailing down the route I’d paddled so often. Under the Tappan Zee, the George Washington in the distance. Even for a spring morning, the traffic was unnervingly absent. The radio was silent, only the occasional crackle of life.

When would I paddle this route again?

As we approached the George Washington bridge, a thought occurred to me. My friend A.A. lived in Hoboken, a few blocks from the river. On impulse, I called her.

She was repairing her air conditioner, but dropped everything when she heard we were headed downriver. We wouldn’t be able to stop and visit, but at least she would see us as we passed Manhattan.

And, as it so happened, document the event (see top photo). We were almost too far apart to recognize each other, but we waved frantically and shouted.

The goodbyes, we later agreed, felt strange and solemn and scary.

We’d sailed from Croton Point to the George Washington bridge, but after the bridge we put on the motor. The goal was to get out of New York waterways as quickly as possible, before the police stopped us.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although it was impossible to miss us. We were the only boat on the water, which was uncharacteristically calm, with a glassy ripple. I’d never seen the river so empty, even in the dead of winter.

The familiar landmarks slipped by. Then an unfamiliar white box shape caught my eye. It was the hospital ship, the USNS “Comfort”, docked at Pier 90, just a few blocks from one of my paddling “home ports”.

Hospital ship on the Hudson

It was an eerie, science-fictional feeling to glide past a military hospital ship docked in Manhattan. We had no idea how bad the pandemic would turn out to be, but if the authorities believed we needed a hospital ship… that wasn’t good.

We continued down the Hudson, past the Battery, past Governor’s Island. True to my watch’s barometric predictions, the weather had cleared and it was a warm, slightly gusty spring day. Once we were fully in New York Harbor we cut the motor and returned to sailing. Although we hadn’t arrived in Staten Island yet, we were past the most sensitive area. If the police were going to stop us anywhere, it would have been in the Hudson near Manhattan. That they didn’t was a good omen.

One that we hoped would last for the rest of the trip!

We made it! Under sail once more.

Sheltering at Sea, Part 1: Taking the Leap

We’re off!

“We could shelter at sea.”

The idea sounded crazy. Launch a sailboat from New York City, head south, and live aboard it for an unknown amount of time?

But then, the world had gone crazy.

It was March 15, 2020. Vov and I had just completed the Everglades Challenge, his 7th (or 8th, we aren’t quite sure), my second. We were driving up from Key Largo, Florida to New York, catching up on the news.

We’d been out of contact with the outside world for over a week. Things seemed to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse: Apparently New York City was on the verge of being shut down due to the pandemic.

What did that even mean, “shut down”?

Would they close the bridges and tunnels? The downside to living on an island is that during a crisis, you can be trapped. I remembered what happened on 9/11, and fought back a rising sense of claustrophobia.

Over the 20-hour drive, we obsessively scanned the news and discussed our options.

We could shelter in my apartment, the larger of the two. We’d be reasonably comfortable.

But my apartment is just a few blocks from what was shaping up to be Ground Zero for the pandemic: Mt. Sinai hospital.

If this disease were as contagious as reported, we’d have an increased chance of catching it in the narrow aisles of the grocery store, in the apartment lobby, in the elevator…

There was always Vov’s apartment in Nyack. That felt safer, and it was just a block away from the Hudson River.

But it was a one-room efficiency; no way could I manage to work there if we were both staying there.

As we ticked off the miles on I-95, the idea of sheltering at sea made more sense. Particularly if, as Vov feared, the pandemic were merely a harbinger of total societal collapse.

I didn’t think that would happen, but I couldn’t say it wouldn’t. And even if it didn’t, things could get pretty grim. I’d read John Barry’s account of the 1918 flu. At least on board a sailboat, we could leave the country if things got really bad.

More realistically, we could head south, out of the early-spring gloom. Although we didn’t know much about this virus, it’s true that ultraviolet rays are generally anti-viral and anti-microbial. And even though the phrase “social distancing” was just emerging, it’s safer to be miles away from your neighbors than breathing the same air.

Still. Living on board a sailboat? For an extended, indefinite period of time? Vov had spent over a decade living on a sailboat, so the idea made sense to him. But me? Despite the fact that I’d spent the past five days as crew on an inflatable catamaran, I didn’t even begin to know how to sail. Could I work? What about Mully, the cat that found me?

We talked through the details. Mully could live on the boat with us. We could bring the kayaks, both for recreation and as dinghies to get from the anchored boat to land. We’d get solar panels, and batteries, so I could work. We’d stay near the coastline, so we’d be within range of cellular Internet services.

As the miles ticked away, the idea of sheltering at sea began to make more and more sense.

The only question was which sailboat.

Christina Rose

Vov had a sailboat, but it was in dry dock. It needed repairs to be fully seaworthy, and with a pandemic closing everything down, getting the equipment (not to mention launching the boat) seemed risky. We could afford a used sailboat, and Vov had the model in mind: an F-27 Corsair trimaran. The wings would provide stability for me to work (trimarans don’t heel the way monohulls do), plus extra living and storage space.

But could we buy and outfit a boat fast enough?

As I drove, Vov researched. We found five boats that might work: Two in Florida (now hundreds of miles behind us, and receding rapidly). One in Ohio. And two in Massachusetts. Ohio, like Florida, seemed too far away.

Vov made inquiries about the Massachusetts boats.

We arrived in NY late Sunday morning. By Monday afternoon we’d picked Mully up from the vet where I’d boarded him. We made a hurried sweep through the apartment and grabbed what I thought we might use.

Then we headed for Nyack: Mully, gear, and all.

Less than a week later, on Saturday March 21, we were in the yard of a friendly man named Dave, in Massachusets. We met his price for the Corsair, Christina Rose. He said we could pick it up as soon as the check cleared. We drove back to Nyack and began stocking up frantically.

Three days later, Vov drove to Massachusetts, put a fast coat of bottom paint on the boat, and drove back down to Nyack.

Meanwhile, I made a final visit to the NYC apartment and picked up anything I thought we could use. Before I locked the apartment up I took a long look around. When would I see it again?

No time to wonder. Curfew would start that evening, and the rumor was that the marinas would be shut down, too. We’d pulled the two kayaks out of John F. Kennedy Marina where we kept them, just hours before the authorities closed it.

But the private marina where we were keeping Christina Rose was beginning to push back. We needed to launch, and fast.

We got her into the water on March 27. We worked frantically finish stocking it, peripherally becoming aware of the illogical grocery store shortages: Water was rationed. Toilet paper was nowhere to be had (fortunately Vov had a supply of marine toilet paper.) Hand sanitizer was gone, but rubbing alcohol was plentiful (so we stocked up.) We also bought plenty of on canned vegetables and fish, along with rice and pasta. We’d bought a supply of freeze-dried food on the way north from Florida, so we had that.

By April 1 we were ready to launch. It was a cold, gloomy afternoon. With some trepidation, we motored out of the marina. Once out on the Hudson, Vov raised the sail. We were en route!

Who is “Vov”? How did I come to be completing another Everglades Challenge, this time on a sailboat? And how did we fare sheltering at sea?

Stay tuned…

Setting sail!

Sail and Sky Composition

Sail and sky composition

By Johna Till Johnson

Blue sky. White sail. Harmony.

Happiness!

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!)

The Red Herring Rides Again!

Ron Ripple in the Red Herring

By Johna Till Johnson
Photographs by Ron Ripple

It was a cold rainy day last May when I bid farewell to Vlad’s beloved folding kayak,  the Feathercraft Red Heron, which we called “Red Herring”.

Brian and I had spent two futile weekends attempting to dismantle the boat, but unfortunately the aluminum skeleton had fused, and the boat would no longer come apart. And it had to be moved—New York Kayak Company was shutting its doors at the end of the month after a quarter-century of operations at Pier 40.

So as Brian began to hacksaw the aluminum poles, I cried silently, my tears mingling with the rain. It seemed like the end of everything.

Not just Vlad, but the Red Herring, Feathercraft itself (which went out of business the month Vlad died) and New York Kayak Company were vanishing into history.

Except Red Herring wasn’t vanishing.

It was headed to Oklahoma, where its new owner, a professor named Ron Ripple, wanted it for a trip to Alaska. (He needed a folding boat to take on the plane from Oklahoma.) I’d also sold him the tiny K-Light, Vlad’s first-ever boat, which I had paddled for our first Florida Everglades Challenge shakedown trip.  It fit Ron’s wife Ellen perfectly, and I was glad my “Baby Vulcan” had  found a happy home in Oklahoma.

Red Heron on Esther Island

I’d kept Ron apprised of the Herring’s state, including that we’d hoped to dismantle it, but if not, we’d ship it as best we could. He hoped he’d be able to machine the missing parts.

That didn’t happen. Ron wasn’t able to get the boat fixed in time for the Alaska trip. But he went anyway, with another boat, and was particularly happy to be able to re-connect with one of his oldest paddling partners.

We stayed in touch sporadically, glad to have found kindred kayaking spirits. I vaguely remembered he’d made plans to paddle with his friend again this year, in Glacier Bay, Alaska.  He also said something about having been able to repair the Red Heron.

Earl Cove on Inian Island

And then I got these photos, along with a note from Ron:

“Here are a few photos from the trip with the Heron.

The first one is the beach of my first camp site on Esther Island at the mouth of Lisianski Strait while I was solo.

The second is at our camp site in Earl Cove on Inian Island, which sits between Cross Sound and Icy Strait.

And the third is setting out into the fog on our last paddling day heading across Icy Strait from Pt. Adolphus to Gustavus.

While the water appears very calm, there were very dynamic eddies, boils, and swirls that moved our kayaks substantially; about 2/3 of the crossing was in the fog using GPS and deck compasses.

It was a great trip, and the Heron performed exceptionally. I am very happy with the Heron, and we are already planning next year’s trip.”

Red Heron in fog on Icy Strait

I cried again, but this time with happiness.

The Heron has found an owner worthy of it—and together they will go on many more exciting adventures.

Adventures In Glacier Bay (Red pointer marks approximate location of photos)

 

Zlarin: Anchors at Sunset

The double anchors of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Last September I paddled the Croatian Adriatic coast with Peak and Paddle Croatia. It was enchanting.

For the first part of the trip, we stayed on the island Zlarin.  It’s a small island (winter population of 284), but has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and is famous for its coral divers.

This double-anchor monument was erected in 1977 to honor Zlarin sailors and emigrants. (Interestingly enough, that group includes Anthony Maglica, the founder of Maglite, who was born in New York City of Croatian parents, but returned to their hometown of Zlarin during World War II.)

I took the photo from the kayak at sunset, after one of our first trips. Stories are to come!

All Roads Lead Home

Wooden house in North Carolina

By Johna Till Johnson

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong…
—John Denver

It was almost as if my apps were in collusion to bring me home.

It started when I turned on the Pandora station in the car last spring.

The trip ahead was long: 1200 miles, from New York to Florida, where I hoped to pick up my boat and spend a few days camping and paddling. Music would keep me from getting bored.

The Pandora algorithm isn’t complex—in fact, I could probably write the code myself. The app starts by playing the music you’ve asked for (a particular artist or genre). Then for maybe 10% of the songs, it gradually inserts other artists that are “sort of like” the artist you selected. As you indicate your likes and dislikes of the material by clicking the thumbs up/thumbs down button, it adjusts the selection it plays.

So after a while, the station reflects your favorites.

I’d expected that.

What I hadn’t expected was the way the algorithm had mixed favorites from all different times of my life, creating a kaleidoscope of memories as I drove.

While the endless gray-and-green strips of landscape unfurled outside the car, references and long-forgotten images flashed through my brain.

There was the song I played repeatedly when I went out running on the hot autumn nights in Texas when my father lay dying.

Then there was the song I associated with falling in love with Vlad. And the song that comforted me in the shattered weeks after his death.

But there were songs from earlier times, as well.

Songs from the time, years past, that I played on the car radio during my late-night and early-morning commute between New York and Connecticut to my job as a hotshot technology executive at an engineering company…

Songs from my arrival in New York, years earlier, with ripped jeans and a meager budget, in the time when I still skateboarded in Union Square, and a female skateboarder was still a novelty: “Look! It’s a chick skater!” someone yelled once…

And songs from the years before that, in Florida. As the wife of a young professor, a freelance writer, and a new homeowner, I lived out a kind of delayed adolescence, hanging out with a group of bright underachieving perennial undergraduates at punk clubs and science fiction conventions…

There were the songs I listened to at those clubs, and also the songs I played on my headphones in those years as I ran, lithe and tan, near my house on the trail through the green-and-grey Florida woods (since paved over for a shopping mall).

And farther back still, during my college and graduate school years, the songs I listened to on an aging boom box, songs that were simultaneously upbeat and cynical, or preternaturally moody and depressed.

Yes, I was prepared for the mix of favorites—but I wasn’t quite prepared for the memories they’d summon.

And it wasn’t just Pandora. Google Maps appeared to be in on the plot, because for some reason, it  ingeniously routed me past nearly every place I’d ever lived in the continental US.

Yes, it helps that many of the places I’d lived were along the I-95 corridor.  But Google went out of its way to take me right by former homes.  Instead of zooming down the relatively straight line between Baltimore (where I’d lived for my college years) and Richmond, for instance, it took me on the spur towards Annapolis, where I’d lived between the years of eight and 11.

And then past the suburban Maryland enclave, where a few years later, I’d spent time as a surly, sullen adolescent. (Apparently my parents didn’t understand me. What a surprise! )

There was also the Virginia suburb where I lived as a very young child, and the exit where my then-husband and I had lived for one of the summers he worked at NASA.

Over the hours, I realized again and again how many places I called “home”.

It got to be almost a joke: I’d get out of the car somewhere—say the rest stop just outside Baltimore where I’d stopped on trips to, from, and past that city—breathe deeply, and say out loud: “I’m home!”

And I really meant it. I was home. These were all the places I’d lived, to which my memories were attached.

Those of us—like me and like Vlad—who have lived in many places don’t have the same experience of those who have grown up in a single place, imbued and invested with all our emotions and memories.

Yes, Vlad spoke of his home in Prague—which I visited (sadly, solo) the year before his death.

But he’d left there at the age of ten, and between then and when I’d met him in New York, “home” for him had been Libya, Iraq, Scotland, London, Heidelberg, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

Just as for me there had been California, South Carolina, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland, Rochester, New Jersey, Florida, and New York City—not to mention Norway and Italy.

I can close my eyes and summon all the “homes” where I’ve lived: The garden in Naples. The terrace in Rome. The dark trees by the house in Oslo. The majestic four-story white house on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

And on this trip, it seemed like the Universe was working to visit almost all of them, through memory and proximity.

The place I was traveling to—St Petersburg, Florida—was also home. Although I’ve never lived there, one of my boats now does. And it had served as the center of my kayaking existence outside New York for nearly a decade.

It was there that, much to my surprise, I managed to pass the challenging British Canoe Union (BCU) test to become a three-star paddler, as part of the Sweetwater Kayak symposium.

And it was there that served as the launch point for the Everglades Challenge Vlad and I completed in 2014, and for which we conducted multiple “shakedown” (practice) trips. Not by pure coincidence, it was also there that my company had elected to hold its annual conference for the past several years.
So when I arrived at long last at Fort De Soto campground, I stepped out of the car, took a deep breath and said (once again): “Ahh. I’m home!”

And then I had to smile at the number of times I’d said that on this trip.

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part Four

By Johna Till Johnson

Camp Lulu Osprey

Osprey in nest at Camp Lulu

It wasn’t until midmorning that the humorous side of yesterday’s events hit me.

I stopped at a sandy island to make breakfast, and couldn’t stop chuckling.  Of all my fears about paddling alone in the Ten Thousand Islands, the worst thing that had happened to date was my encounter with… Deranged Fart Man.

As if to make up for everything that had happened, the day was splendid: Sunny and cool, with just enough breeze and chop to be interesting. Which was just as well, because I decided I was homeward bound. Originally, I’d planned to camp on Pavilion Key in the Everglades. But the ranger had mentioned I’d be the 18th camper at the site—and after yesterday, I’d had my fill of neighbors. I decided to paddle back through the Ten Thousand Islands at a leisurely pace, and pick an isolated camp spot not too far from the marina where I’d started.

After a few more hours paddling, I found the perfect location at Camp Lulu: A secluded beach, partly facing the gulf, with a meadow and small forest behind me. Best of all, I discovered, there was an osprey nest off in the woods. The “weep weep” of the osprey parents was a cheerful backdrop as I went about setting up camp.

Night fell clear and quiet, and blissfully free of neighborly noises and smells. As I nestled into my bivy sack, I gave thanks for the soft sand. Overhead the stars blazed in a dark velvet sky. I fell asleep to the gentle sound of waves lapping.

Camp Lulu Sunrise Edited

Sunrise at Camp Lulu

The next morning I woke early, and was treated to a spectacular sunrise. I took my time packing up, succumbing to a familiar feeling: the trip was coming to an end, and I didn’t want it to.  So even simple chores took longer and longer, as I tried to delay the inevitable.

Eventually, despite all my delays, I was packed and ready to launch. I waved goodbye to the ospreys (who were no doubt happy to see the interfering human depart), and set off.

The wind was brisk, and I made good time, despite my reluctance for the day to end. To my surprise, I reached the Coon Key marker in early afternoon. In an hour or so, I’d be back at the marina, unpacking and maybe savoring a burger.

Not so fast!

It took longer than I expected to navigate my way through the mangroves to the marina. When I arrived at the boat ramp, everything looked subtly different. The main building seemed set at a different angle than I’d recalled. And the boat dock seemed… larger, somehow.

No matter. I pulled the boat up on the dock and began quickly unloading it, conscious of the fact that powerboat owners might want to use it. A friendly man, a middle-aged midwestern transplant and fellow kayaker, kept me company. We chatted as I worked: about his wife (who was pushing for them to buy a condo in the area), his son (who did technology work at Amazon), about paddling. I made good time unloading the boat, and he helped me carry it to a grassy patch near the boat ramp. Another anomaly: the grass wasn’t exactly where I’d remembered it. And hadn’t there been a tree overhanging it?

Egret in Tree

Egret or (more likely) juvenile Blue Heron (see the green, rather than yellow, legs)

But it wasn’t until I went looking for the car that I grasped the problem.The large, half-full parking lot was completely unfamiliar. “Where’s the big tree?” I asked my new friend, puzzled. “What big tree?” he replied. At the Calusa Island Marina, the helpful woman behind the desk had told me to park “under the big tree”. And indeed, the tree was unmistakeable: Over 100 years old, it towered over a circle of parking spaces. I distinctly remembered parking my white SUV in its shade. Yet it was abundantly clear that there was no big tree to be found.

Somehow I’d managed to arrive at the wrong marina.

It had looked like my marina… but then, I had a foggy recollection of not looking back when I first set out. Big mistake!

What to do? My new friend was as puzzled as I. Then he gestured to a trio of uniformed men. “The police might know,” he said.

I asked, my questioning hampered by the fact that I couldn’t remember the name of the marina I’d started from. They seemed doubtful, but finally gave me directions to “the other marina”. I needed to paddle around the peninsula we were on, go under a bridge, and there it would be.

Something about the directions didn’t seem right—I didn’t recall going under any bridges—but then I hadn’t exactly been paying attention when I set forth. We’d proven that.

I reloaded the boat, said goodbye to my new friend, and set off. As I paddled, I realized the wind and current were both with me. If by any chance this was the wrong direction, returning would be a challenge.

As I paddled, I savored the view of brightly colored waterfront cottages, tiny, but each with its own dock. Several were decorated whimsically, partly for the holidays, but partly with that quirky South Florida bohemian vibe.

Soon I pulled away from the inhabited areas. There was, indeed, a bridge in front of me—but I could swear I’d never seen it before. Surely I hadn’t been that clueless? With a deep sense of foreboding I paddled on. Ahead was a tiny boat dock, by the side of the road, with a few decrepit cars nearby.

It wasn’t where I’d started from. And now I had no idea where that even was, let alone what it was called.

This situation called for the GPS. I turned it on—and got a rude shock. It kept telling me I was at Marco Island, several miles away. And no matter what resolution I set it at, I couldn’t find my missing marina.

There was nothing for it but to go back to the marina that wasn’t mine (which I found out later was called Walker’s Coon Key Marina) and try again.

Which I did. Only paddling against the wind and current, it took me two hours to return, as compared with the 30 minutes or so to paddle out. When I finally arrived in late afternoon back at Walker’s, I was still as stumped as before.  Acting on a hunch, I continued on past the marina. Unlikely as it seemed, maybe there was another marina behind the first?

Indeed there was. If I’d only kept paddling when I’d first arrived, I’d have been at my marina within minutes, instead of taking a three-hour detour.

Moral of the story: Pay close attention to your launch point, so you can be sure to find it again!

I unloaded the boat for the second time, put it on top of the car (yay!), and left the marina, tired but satisfied, around sunset. This particular adventure was over… but stay tuned. More to come!

Edited JTJ Selfie Lulu

Looking onward to the next adventure!

 

 

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Excelsior

By Johna Till Johnson

excelsior-edited

72nd St Subway Station-Q Line

What makes photography interesting is the eye invested with feelings. That was the advice I’d gotten on finding my own photographic style. Strive not for esthetic perfection, but for conveying the emotions and narrative of the moment.

Tall order for someone still figuring out how to keep the camera steady enough to focus!

I was game for the challenge, though I suspected it would be an upwards struggle. One problem presented itself when I ventured out on a recent weekend: the world outside didn’t seem to match my feelings. It was a grey day in midwinter, but I was feeling… buoyant.

How—and where—would I find something that would convey my mood?

I took several shots outdoors before I stumbled across the perfect subject: the brand-new 72nd street subway station. Readers of the blog already know that I love subways. And I’m particularly in love with the 72nd Street station, with its high, gleaming arches, still-pristine walls, and glittering, realistic, slightly larger-than-life mosaic portraits.

Yes, I decided, the subway station would be perfect. Especially since I was taking the subway anyway to run my errands.

I had just about finished up a series of  photos when I noticed someone else doing the same thing: A young man in a puffy black jacket carrying a serious camera—with a long, impressive lens—was across the way, apparently preparing for a close-up of one of the mosaic portraits.

He had long hair and a distracted, somewhat hostile, expression. When he caught me looking at him, his eyes narrowed a bit, in that classic New York scowl. I could almost hear him thinking, “Whaddaya looking at?”

I leaned over the railing towards him. “We’re doing the same thing—only you’re a real photographer!” The scowl disappeared and his face lit up with an almost bashful smile. “I’m trying!” he said.

I smiled back and turned to leave.

Then it hit me: That was my shot. I turned around and steadied myself, hoping he wasn’t looking at me. No danger of that: he was leaning backwards against the railing,  carefully studying his subject. Carefully, quickly, I took the picture, then stepped back to frame it again.

It wasn’t until I’d taken a couple different shots that I noticed something I hadn’t previously seen: the word Excelsior in raised lettering on a concrete bar above the staircase. It’s Latin for “ever upward”, and it’s the New York State motto. I hadn’t even known it was there until I examined my photo.

Whoever elected to put it over a staircase obviously had a sense of humor. But I was delighted to discover something new in my favorite subway station—and struck by the appropriateness of the message.

Ever upward, indeed!