By Johna Till Johnson
Blue sky. White sail. Harmony.
By Johna Till Johnson
Blue sky. White sail. Harmony.
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.
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!
(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!)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
By Johna Till Johnson
Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong…
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.
By Johna Till Johnson
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.
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?
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!
By Johna Till Johnson
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!