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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)

 

Windfall

By Johna Till Johnson

windfall-three-birds-crop-1-effects

Three Birds Enjoy a Windfall on a Summer’s Day

Every so often, something wonderful comes into your life unexpectedly. You didn’t wish for it, or ask for it–it just appeared, providing you with great and wholly unanticipated joy.

For these three birds, the sudden appearance of breadcrumbs (perhaps a loaf from the grocery store across the street) must have represented the purest sort of windfall. Who knows who left the bounty, and why?  But there was no mistaking their happiness as the birds pecked away with great animation.

It’s a happiness I felt, too, when my greatest windfall appeared. Knowing Vlad was so unexpected, so out of the ordinary run of my life, that I couldn’t have conceived of it before it happened. Now that he is gone, there is indeed a “before” and “after” in my life–but not the usual kind. For most who have suffered a loss, the boundary between “before” and “after” is the loss.

My “before” and “after” is marked by meeting Vlad, not by losing him.

Before I met him, I looked at life in a prosaic and utilitarian way. Yes, twinklings and inklings of beauty crept in–sometimes I would pause on a summer’s morning, overtaken by feel of the balmy air and the rustling of bright leaves.

But I harbored the sneaking suspicion that appreciating beauty was something you grew out of. Proper adults didn’t forget their responsibilities and concerns just to gasp in wonder at the V of migrating geese across a brilliant blue sky. And they certainly didn’t go off for days or weeks in a kayak just to lose themselves in the briny air and expanse of ocean. Kayaking was something you fit into your days, not something you built your days (let alone life) around.

Vlad changed all that. Although his passion was science, his life was poetry. He sought–and found–the beauty in all things. And he was happiest spending days and nights in that marathon pursuit. Whether it was hunting down an elusive signal in the lab, or following a waterway to see where it led, his life was a full-throated, unabashed pursuit of beauty.

His legacy to me, and to all who knew him, was showing by example how to upend the usual conventions. Instead of fitting science, art, and poetry into neat boxes in your life, you spent your life exploring them, and following where they led. (And yes, love as well. He loved as he did all things: wholeheartedly and with great generosity.)

That legacy–of love, beauty, poetry, and the willingness to lose oneself in them–that legacy is my windfall. The lines from Tosca recurred to me in the hours and days after his death:

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!

I lived for art, I lived for love
I never harmed a living soul!

Before I met Vlad, those lines made no sense to me. Afterwards…ah, afterwards was entirely different. Meeting Vlad was my windfall.

Goodbye, Vlad

By Johna Till Johnson

I’m terribly sorry to have to report that my best friend, paddle partner, husband, and love, Vladimir Brezina, died  Tuesday, December 13, at 7:20 PM, after surviving for 2.5 years with cancer.

My heart breaks, and a light has gone out in the world. But I have vowed to embody Vlad’s spirit of generosity, love of adventure and exploration, and appreciation of beauty in all forms. It will never be the same without him, but what he gave to the world will live on.

I plan to post a proper obituary in the days (maybe weeks) to come. And I plan to continue WindAgainstCurrent, but alas the quality of the photography will never be the same, as I don’t have Vlad’s brilliant eye and editing patience.

vlad-smiling-with-paddles-and-bridge-cropped

Vladimir Brezina 6/1/58-12/13/16