Night on Hart Island

Bronx lights

by Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Anonymous

Note: I wrote the below in “before times” (before Covid).

I’m a law-abiding sort, the kind of person who pays taxes on time and in full, and who doesn’t like to cross the street against the light.

I also have a great imagination.

So when my friend R. handed me a USB stick with photos from an anonymous source apparently taken on Hart Island–where it is highly illegal to land and even more illegal to explore—I couldn’t resist imagining how an exploration
might have gone down, had anyone been reckless enough to risk it.  Here’s my imagined version:

“Directions to….unknown location on unknown street?” Google Maps asked.

It was fitting: I was on my way to a waterfront warehouse somewhere in Brooklyn to meet my friend R. for a clandestine expedition—so clandestine that even Google Maps couldn’t discern the starting location.

It was just after dark on a Saturday evening in late summer.  The plan for the excursion had come together with surprising speed, in one of those serendipitous ways that just tells you the universe works mysteriously in your favor.

We were supposed to be doing a different expedition, a trip down the eastern coast of Staten Island. But then R. sent me a tantalizing note: “Text me on encrypted channel? I’ve got an idea for a mission I don’t want to talk about.”

We connected, and he shared his idea: We would launch from someplace in City Island, paddle to Hart Island and explore.Hart Island has a long and storied history dating back to pre-revolutionary times. It currently serves as New York’s Potters’ Field, where the bodies of those who died unclaimed lie in rest. They are buried by prisoners from Riker’s Island, who arrive each morning on the ferry, and depart at sundown. The island is uninhabited by humans—other than the approximately one-and-a-half million dead—from sundown to sunrise.

Most NYC-area kayakers harbor a secret wish to explore Hart Island, due to its mystery, its historical significance… and also because it’s tantalizingly available yet completely forbidden. For complicated historical reasons, it’s managed by the Department of Corrections. Trespassing on the island is trespassing on prison property, and carries a two-year prison sentence.

Vlad and I had landed on Hart Island many years ago and had lunch on one of the beaches, but I’d never gone further, out of fear of the authorities, and also out of respect for the dead. There’s an air of sadness over the island. Anyone who lies buried there was alone at the end of his or her life, so each grave marks not just a death but a person whose life ended in loneliness and disconnection. 

And that life may have been tragically short: Among the graves on the island is that of the first baby to die in NYC of the then-new AIDS virus in the 1980s. He or she lies buried at the southern tip of the island, in a special area apart from all others. The authorities didn’t understand AIDS then, and feared contact even with the corpse of a baby.

This might be the last chance for such an expedition. R. explained that in October a massive renovation would launch, shoring up the crumbling beaches eroded by storms. 

Apparently during superstorm Sandy in 2012, bodies had washed out into Long Island Sound, ending up on the beaches of well-off waterfront property owners.

There were complaints.

After several years, the city eventually decided to take action.  Details are few, but as part of the renovation they will probably wall off the shoreline, wire the entire island with surveillance cameras, and generally bring it from the 19th into the 21st century. And it would all start in a few weeks.

So this was it: a now-or-never moment.

“I’m in,” I said.

Then I realized he meant we’d go at night.

Wait, what?

How would we see anything?

And… seriously, explore the largest cemetery in the country at night?

But I quickly realized R. was right. If we wanted to avoid detection, it would have to be at night.  If it stayed clear, we’d have the light of the gibbous moon, and we’d have red-spectrum headlamps.

There was more: R. had been planning this trip for a while. He had two Ghillie suits, unworn and ready to go.

Ghillie suit

Snipers and hunters wear Ghillie suits to avoid detection. “You really can’t be seen, even in they shine a spotlight on you. They’re amazing!” R. said.

What he hadn’t said was that you look like Chewbacca covered in Spanish moss when wearing them. And they catch branches and leaves while you’re walking until you feel like you’re part Ent. But that comes later…

We planned to meet up in Brooklyn around 9 PM, then drive out to City Island. We’d locate an acceptable launch spot, paddle out, and explore, making sure to be gone by dawn.

So far all was going well.

Google Maps navigated me efficiently enough to “unknown location on unknown street” on the Brooklyn waterfront.  Sure enough, R. was waiting. We drove off into the quiet Brooklyn night, lit by the lopsided moon in a clear dark sky.

When we got to City Island, we were confronted by an unexpected challenge. Both of us had landed by kayak at City Island at various times over the years, and R. had launched from there more than once. We both had firm recollections of streets dead-ending onto open beaches, so we hadn’t really worried about finding a launch spot.

But this time, inexplicably, there were none.

 For over an hour we explored City Island street by street, only to be confronted with high fences and “Private beach: Keep out!” signs blocking the waterfront access.

After about ninety minutes we’d located a couple of places that weren’t entirely insurmountable; although clearly labeled as private property, the houses nearest the beach seemed uninhabited and it would be possible, with effort, to maneuver loaded boats around and over the barriers.

But both of us were uneasy about the idea, and we kept looking, although our hopes were fading rapidly. Suddenly, R. squinted into the darkness ahead of us. “Wait, is that a Jersey barrier?” he asked. It was. Nice and low, about two-and-a-half feet high, with one corner conveniently worn away so we wouldn’t even have to lift the boats over.

Even better: there were no “No Trespassing” signs. The buildings adjacent were dark and seemingly unoccupied. And the neighborhood had plenty of parking.

We parked and loaded up the boats. Deck bags. Cameras. Hiking shoes. Jacket in case it turned cold. Water. And the Ghillie suits.

Soon we were launched and paddling the moonlit waters of Long Island Sound.

It was a calm, warm night, and the water was clear as glass. The stars, nearly invisible from midtown, twinkled brightly over the Sound.

We kept lights and radios off, but our eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light. We could track each other’s shadowy profiles in the dark.

It was only about a mile to Hart Island, but in the calm night, hearing only the splash of our paddles and the muffled sounds of traffic from the Bronx behind us, the trip seemed to last forever.

Finally we pulled the boats up on the beach. Just as I’d remembered it from a decade before, there was the wreckage of a large motorboat at the north end of the beach.

“We can hide the boats there,” R. whispered.

The word was the deed.

Moving as quickly as we could, we slotted the boats into gaps of the wreckage, and draped tarps over them.  From just a few feet away, they were virtually invisible.

Then we changed into hiking shoes, mounted our headlamps, and pulled on the Ghillie suits, which were surprisingly light considering the bulk. They were made of fine mesh, good for keeping out insects, and would provide an extra barrier against the poison ivy R. said grew copiously on the northern tip of the island.
Then we climbed up the low hill to the grassy meadow.  We were officially on Hart Island!

The first place we visited was a large white cross set into the hillside.  We paused for a moment, letting the solemnity of the space sink in. Then we started walking again, and soon located a grave off to the side. We thought it was the AIDS baby’s, but R. checked the map and realized we were at the wrong end of the island.

We rounded the northern tip and looked out on the dark waters of Long Island Sound. Then we headed south.

Our steps sounded loud; we winced with each crunch and crackle on the dry leaves and sticks. But the Ghillie suits worked as advertised—even from a few feet away, we were invisible to each other in the gloom.

It wasn’t entirely dark. In addition to the moon and starlight, there was the electric glow of New York City low on the horizon. And when we turned on our infrared headlamps, the glow took on a rosy tinge.

But our lights weren’t on when I caught sight of something glowing, just behind my right shoulder.

“R.!” I whispered urgently. “There’s a ghost!”

“I believe it!” he said. For the rest of the evening, I felt the presence and faint glimmer of… something….someone… following behind me.

We stopped to admire a square white obelisk set on a platform, inscribed with a white cross. It was the peace monument, erected by prisoners and staff in 1948 to commemorate those interred on the island (see this account for a brief description.) We continued on. The night swirled with strange gusts of air: at one moment it was cool enough to make our skin prickle, the next warm as if from an oven opening.

“I’ve got chills,” R. whispered. “Me too,” I replied. I couldn’t stop thinking about the million-and-a half people who died alone, either unloved or unfound by frantic friends and relatives, to lie forever in the soft earth lapped by the waters of Long Island Sound.


We kept walking. Soon we came across a clearing, dotted with flat metal plates set into the ground. It was the abandoned Nike missile silos  (See: here, here, and here.)

R. was able to move one of the heavy metal covers and peer down inside. “I’m tempted to go in,” he whispered. R. is a rock climber, capable of athletic feats I can only dream of. Still, I was glad when he decided against it.

We continued on, down the eastern side of the island. As we crunched over broken branches and swished through the tall grass, we caught sight of an American flag rippling over a rectangular plot of land, lined with white marble, on which stood a white obelisk.  It was the Civil War Veteran’s Cemetery The inscription on the obelisk read: “The remains of these veteran Union soldiers and sailors were disinterred on June 9, 1941 and reinterred in the Cypress Hills National Cemetery.”

We stood quietly for a moment with bowed heads. I don’t know what R. thought, but I was imagining the men who had once been buried here.

Then we continued on, doing our best to stay close to the edge of the clearing, with forest on our left.Suddenly we heard something rustle in the woods beside us.

We froze, barely breathing.

There was a loud “thump” and then what sounded like footsteps, moving rapidly away.

“What was that?” we asked each other.  Intellectually we knew it had to be an animal of some sort, possibly a raccoon; R. had been told by someone who’d worked there that there was a large population of raccoons on the island.

But still.

After a bit our heart rates returned to normal, and our palms stopped sweating. Over to the right we could see ruins of old buildings silhouetted dimly against the sky.

We kept on, steering well clear of the operations hub in the center of the island, and the ferry terminal beyond that. If there were cameras or watchers, that’s where they’d be.

We continued on. And on. Through what felt like endless stretches of darkened woods, bordering grassy meadows and walkways. I knew without asking where R. was headed. He wanted to pay his respects to the grave of the AIDS baby.

Once we were safely into the southern portion of the island, we swung inland, to the right. Up ahead loomed a ruined building, windowless. We stopped to peer inside.

R. went first. “Holy shit!” I heard him whisper. On the ledge of the open window was a thick stack of documents, thicker than the palm of my hand is wide, partly destroyed by mold.

“City of Yonkers police department, 1985” we read. R. flipped through the pages quickly, stopping at one with fingerprints of the dead.

We looked through the window, into the building.

The floor was completely covered with stacks of documents. A few filing cabinets stood, drawers open, with more documents within.

What was it? Why had the documents been abandoned? There was no way to know.

The online sources we’d visited said all documents had either been destroyed by fire or removed. But here was an entire building, open to the elements, packed with decaying paper documents.

We kept going, back into the grass and brush.

R. was  a few yards ahead of me when I saw him freeze. “What was that?” he whispered. “I just heard something breathe!”

Just then, some footsteps sounded. The trees rustled. Then silence.

Whatever it had been was gone.

We continued on, until we were nearly at the southern tip of the island. Ahead of us stretched a row of white square posts, each marking the site of dozens, perhaps hundreds of graves.

“This is it,” R. said. Each one had the SC-B (Special Child-Baby) notation, indicating babies were buried there.

We moved along the line of graves, stopping to take a picture of the very first one. We’d found the grave of the AIDS baby.

But something was wrong. Wasn’t the AIDS baby supposed to have been buried alone?

“What’s over that fence?” R. asked suddenly. To our side was a high wire fence, half-covered in greenery, topped with rusting barbed wire.  As soon as we made out what it was in the pale light, we realized what it must be.

We followed the fence to its end, and curved back around, so we were on the other side.

Sure enough, there was a square white marker all by itself, fenced off from the others.  Its location alone told us what we’d found: SC-B1, the first to die of AIDS, then viewed as so contagious that he or she was isolated even in death.

Special Child (SC) Baby (B)-1

We took pictures, and I said a silent prayer for SC-B1, wherever he or she was.

And for the parents of the child, likely long gone themselves. For the frightened prisoners handling what they viewed as the carrier of a highly contagious, perfectly lethal disease. For all the people touched by this disease, those who died and the ones who lost them.

Somehow SC-B1, buried alone on Hart Island, encapsulated all of the tragedy and loss and fear of that period.

We turned to head back, feeling obscurely that no matter what else happened, our mission here was done.

“There’s one more thing I want to see,” R. said. “There’s the remnants of a road, and New York City streetlights.”

We went back across the long field where we’d heard the breaths and footsteps.

Although it was less than an hour ago, it seemed like a different era: Before baby SC-B1.

Suddenly R. froze again. “Look!” he whispered. “A deer!”

My eyes straining, I finally made out what R. was pointing at: The silhouette of a deer, at the end of the meadow, against the twinkling lights of city island.

That must have been what caused the breathing, and the footsteps, and the crashing through the underbrush.  (We later learned that deer had populated the island for at least 200 years; at one point it was a privately owned game preserve. The deer could possibly have been a native inhabitant of the island; or possibly it swam over. )

Now that we’d confirmed there were large animals on the island, some of the mystery left. It almost could have been an ordinary walk on an ordinary meadow on a late-summer night.

But not for long.

After a few minutes, the road appeared in front of us. Concrete, running between two abandoned buildings.  And there, just as R. had said, was a New York City streetlight.  Just beyond it to the right was a beautiful building, with double stairways climbing up to an impressive doorway.

Just opposite it across the road, to the left, was a dark building looming with Gothic curves against the sky.

It was a church.  R. loped over to inspect it. The door was partly ajar, and he slipped inside. A second later he poked his head out: “Come inside, it’s worth it,” he whispered.

I stepped in, walking gingerly over the uneven floor. It was indeed a church, a massive ruined structure. The roof was largely intact, and there was a beautiful, strangely undamaged rose window at the far end.

We later found out it was a Catholic church, built in 1932. (A fascinating religious history of Hart Island and other components of the prison system was written by Episcopal archivist Wayne Kempton in 2006; you can Google it to find a downloadable PDF.)

Catholic church from inside

We lingered for a while in the church, perhaps too long. Even in disuse, its soaring arches and echoing interior conveyed a sense of peaceful melancholy. But finally the skies outside the windows had lightened too much to ignore, and we regretfully took our leave.

By then, we were confident we’d seen most of what Hart Island had to offer.

We were wrong. As we continued through the compound of ruined buildings, we came up to a large square hole, about 20 feet on each side, rimmed with wood.

“It’s an open grave,” R. whispered.

We looked closer. There were pallets, and what might have been simple wooden coffins beneath. We knew that bodies were stacked 3 deep in each plot; this one looked to be about halfway full.

After a moment R. moved to continue on. “Wait,” I whispered. Following an inner compulsion, I bowed my head and said an Our Father. Then I made the sign of the cross over the open grave, wanting to show these unknown people in death the respect that had been denied them in life.

Then we turned and continued on.

The walk back seemed much faster than the walk down; in fact, we overshot our landing spot and went up to the tip of the island again.  After we realized our mistake, we trotted down the hill that led to the white cross embedded in the hillside that we’d seen when we first started out. The sky was definitely lighter, and there was a tinge of rose along the eastern horizon.

Neither of us wanted to leave.  We sat down and tried to pick out the branches and leaves that had accumulated in our “fur”, but it was a hopeless task. We’d done a lot more bushwhacking than the suits were designed for, and our artificial foliage was now augmented permanently with the organic kind.

After a bit, R. lay down on the grass for a micro nap, foliage and all. I sat and watched the sky brighten slowly, the stars dimming imperceptibly out.

Finally, when it was too bright to risk staying any longer, I told R. we needed to go.

A few minutes later, we were back in the boats, safely pushed off from shore. For the first time in several hours, we were no longer afraid of discovery: From here on out, we were just innocent paddlers.

I was relieved, but also sad. As the dark waters of the sound lapped our boats, part of me wanted to stay on Hart Island, with the graves and the ruins and the silence. But it was time to rejoin the world of the living.

We paddled back slowly, looking back over our shoulders often to catch the sunrise.

We passed a few fishing boats out from City Island. A sailboat floated past.

We were a few yards offshore when the rising sun broke over Hart Island, reflecting off the buildings on City Island.

We’d done it, something that very few living people can lay claim to have done: spent a night on Hart Island.

Departing at dawn

Note: If you’re inspired by this imaginary experience to try a real expedition to Hart Island… I’d recommend against it.

For one thing, construction will be underway to renovate and shore up the island.

And did I mention it’s extremely illegal? Cell phones, cameras and the press are banned from the island. Getting caught on Hart Island is considered trespassing on prison property, and carries a sentence of 2 years in prison.

Good sources for more information about Hart Island are here:

Melinda Hunt, an artist who started photographing the toppled grave markers in the early 1990s, started amassing a database that is considered more complete than official records, made through a Freedom of Information Act request. She has also published a book called Hart Island and produced a film called Hart Island: An American Cemetery; these and the database all can be found at the Hart Island Project website.

A recent (but pre-Covid) NYT article:

Fishermen at dawn

Happy Birthday, Vlad!

Sunrise at Calvert Marina

By Johna Till Johnson

Dawn, 5:45 AM. The morning is calm, clear, and cool. The birds chirp and tweet; otherwise all is silent. Slowly the fingers of the rising sun touch the masts of the sailboats across the water.

A perfect near-summer day.

A perfect start to the morning of Vlad’s birthday, echoing that long-ago Sunday in Prague:

The child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay

That he was, all his life.

And loved well, by many who love him still.

Happy birthday, Vlad!

Solo Trip to the Yellow Submarine

Sky of blue and sea of green….

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s May 26, 2020, and the world has changed. So I got to wondering what I was up to last year at this time. By good fortune, I have the photographic record: A solo kayak trip to the yellow submarine in Brooklyn, almost a year ago to the day.

I hadn’t been for almost four years; the last trip was with Vlad in October 2015. (Many links to the history of the yellow submarine appear there.)

The 2019 trip marked a milestone for me, though I didn’t really think of it at the time; I’d begun to embrace my new identity as a solo expedition paddler. It’s a longer, more ambitious trip when launching from Pier 84, the home of Manhattan Kayak Company, than it was from New York Kayak at Pier 40. And of course, it’s always more ambitious to go solo.

The rural-industrial mix of Coney Island Creek

I remember meeting up with a young father and his seven (!) children on the beach at Kaiser Park;  we chatted for a while and I praised his parenting skills… it’s not easy to manage a brood that size, with the smallest in diapers and the oldest burly pre-teens.

Then I continued on down Coney Island Creek; for whatever reason, Vlad and I had never previously explored its full length. It’s a strange combination of bucolic and industrial: Lush greenery sliced through with a subway track, and blocky apartments looming in the background.

The current had turned against me, so it was time to go. The sun was low in the sky as I crossed the anchorage, and the dramatic skylines of Manhattan and Jersey City hove into view.

It seems so long ago now… another world!

Manhattan and Jersey City skylines… seems so long ago and far away

Sail and Sky Composition

Sail and sky composition

By Johna Till Johnson

Blue sky. White sail. Harmony.


The Blues of Battle Creek

Great blue heron and shoreline, Battle Creek

By Johna Till Johnson

They say to start a story in the middle, so here goes:

The sun was slipping towards the tree-covered hills that lined the dark, navy-blue water. The air was fresh, silent except for the occasional chirping of birds, including the “weep-weep” of the ospreys and the deep grunt of the great blue herons*.

I climbed down the ladder from our trimaran, Christina Rose, and stepped carefully into the cockpit of Sisu, my blue, white, and black surfski. I unclipped the carabiner from the bow line, and pushed off, water lapping gently at my bow.

My immediate destination: a tiny golden spit of beach that jutted out from the trees, about 40 yards away. Over the sound of birds chirping I’d heard voices: an adult and a child, and—was that a dog barking?

Sure enough, it was a young family: Mother, father, little girl and naked baby brother, along with their fluffy dog, Houdini. They’d come across the creek in a gleaming brown wooden rowboat, now pulled safely up onto the dunes.

The baby played in the gentle surf under his mother’s watchful eye as I chatted with the father, who pointed out some good places to explore by boat.

The evening before, my partner V. and I had been to the end of Battle Creek, where the deep-blue waters terminated in a spreading misty-green marsh. Today, we decided to head in the opposite direction, to the Patuxent River, into which Battle Creek fed.

We smiled and waved goodbye to the little family, and set off into the slight chop. As we headed south out into the river, the chop increased. We were going against wind and current; nothing particularly strenuous, but new-ish conditions to us in the surfskis. Moreover, following V’s lead, I’d adjusted my wing paddle to its shortest possible length, with a strong feather angle, and I was still familiarizing myself with how it handled.

So we proceeded carefully, with an eye on the conditions. There was a finger of land extending out the eastern shore into the river. We crossed over to it, and paddled along the edge. Green grass and reeds stood out from clumps of mud; in places the water was only inches deep, but lively and bouncy in the wind. A brisk southwest breeze dusted the waves with white froth.

As we got closer, the apparent “finger of land” dissociated into a string of individual islands, with swift channels between each. We rode the waves through one channel and found a quiet oasis beyond, where the water was barely ruffled.

The shoreline was consistent: Green hills dotted with white, brown, and brick houses, many with wooden steps leading down to a dock or two.

Patuxent River shoreline

After a bit we turned around and made our way back through the choppy river back into the sheltered creek. The waves slowed, softened, and evened out. The sun was now low. Its slanting rays illuminated the eastern shore and touched the blue sky beyond with radiance.

Blue creek, blue sky, green trees: In its serene beauty, the shore was very different from my usual urban haunts.

We paddled up the eastern shore of the creek, taking the time to explore every cove, inlet, and tiny marina. In each, we admired the boats: A tiny, sleek powerboat creatively named “Ice Box”; a graceful black sailboat lovingly moored in the center of a cluster of pilings. There were clusters of kayaks, canoes, and dinghies, with the occasional Zodiac, but no people (other than the young family we’d encountered at the start). All was strangely still, and peaceful.

Cranes and herons patrolled the shore; V. saw an otter swimming. Osprey calls were ubiquitous. Every now and again we caught sight of a bald eagle wheeling overhead.

Great blue heron on shore, Battle Creek

After we’d been out about an hour, we turned again and headed back to the Christina Rose. The sun was getting low, and more importantly, we were getting hungry. Back at the boat, a feast of fresh-caught fish awaited us: Earlier that day, V. had caught a catfish and two perch, and made rice and salad as accompaniment.

Within a few minutes we were back at the boat. We lifted the surfskis onto the “wings” of the trimaran and hung our wetsuits to dry on the stays. Then we tucked into our dinner of hot just-fried fish and cold rice and salad, surrounded by the blues of Battle Creek: blue creek, blue river, and deepening blue twilight.

Early morning, Battle Creek

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, this post might leave you with more questions than answers. Who is V.? How did I, a New Yorker, wind up on a river off the Chesapeake Bay in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown? Where did the trimaran come from?

And most importantly… after 12 years committed to sea kayaks, what was I doing paddling a surfski?

All will be revealed, I promise, although it may take a while. I hope you’ll find it entertaining!

* In a previous version of this post, I misidentified a Great Blue Heron as a crane. I actually thought first of a GBH, but didn’t take the thought seriously enough to look it up; for some reason I thought they were too “exotic” for Maryland. My friend Chuck Conley set me straight! 


By Johna Till Johnson

Sometimes an image grabs you so vividly that it demands you stop and pick up the camera. I was hurrying to a meeting in San Francisco when this ghostly convocation caught my eye…

First Paddle of Winter 2019-2020

Palisades facing North

By Johna Till Johnson

Note: I’ve been remiss in blog posting for the past few months; the adventures have been happening faster than my ability to keep up! I look forward to sharing  them with readers over the next little while; there’s quite a lot going on. Please stay tuned!

It’s 3 PM, on a fine winter day. The sky is a clear, pale blue. There’s little wind. The temperature is in the low forties, warm (ish). Three of us—Brian, Richard, and I—have met up for a short paddle celebrating the winter solstice.

Richard and Brian at launch

We launch from Yonkers, heading south with the ebb. Slack is supposed to be at 3:18 at the George Washington Bridge, but I’ve conveniently forgotten the one-hour difference between GWB and Yonkers, so I’m naively assuming it will be slack soon. We set off across the river, and catch sight of a tug-and-barge farther south. Is it coming up the river towards us?

The distance between us appears to be shrinking rapidly, so we put some effort into the crossing, to stay out of the path of the oncoming barge.

Soon enough we’re on the far side of the river, paddling gently with the current, enjoying the sights of the New Jersey shore.

We pass a frozen waterfall. Then Richard spies something in a tree. “Is that a bald eagle?” he asks.

Is it an eagle?

We squint. No, we decide, just a trick of the light and maybe a patch of fungus white against the tree trunk.

Then the “patch of fungus” moves and sure enough, it’s the head of a bald eagle. They’re common sights farther up the river, but this is the first time we’ve seen one this far south.

We stare in awe, nearly holding our breaths. Then just as we go to take a picture, it takes flight, majestic wings flapping gracefully.

It’s an eagle! (White head near center)

We continue down the river, helped by a current that (according to Johna’s faulty calculations) shouldn’t still be ebbing strongly. But it is.

Brian paddles close to the bank to inspect another waterfall. This one leaps majestically from the cliffs, frozen in cascades of ice. Even though the day is warm, the ice warns us of winter to come.

Ice capades

A tug-and-barge announces. Is it the one we passed? No, that one isn’t moving, except to shift with the (finally) changing current. It was anchored after all.

But there’s another one, a barge towed by one of the bright turquoise tugs, the Megan Ann or one of her sisters. It’s heading south to sea, and passing by another tug-and-barge on the eastern shore.

We watch for a while, then turn to cross the river towards home. There’s still a strong ebb in the middle of the river, even though it’s past four. The Manhattan skyline glows pink in the misty sunset, the strange new spires glimmering.

Facing south

We cross over, surfing the waves, and chat a bit as we begin to paddle north, on the East side of the river this time. We admire the new kayak storage at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club.

A flock of seagulls circles overhead, squawking. “Seagulls and eagles,” I joke. “Seagulls and eagle,” Richard corrects me. He’s right. Only one eagle!

Full twilight sets in. I push ahead, working on my forward stroke. “Slow down so we can make the trip last longer,” Brian says. I stop paddling and just drift for a moment, admiring the Yonkers skyline against the darkening sky.

Finally we round the corner and pull up to the boat launch. It’s 5 PM; we’ve been out for almost exactly two hours. Not a marathon trip by any means, but a fine way to welcome winter.

Spires of Manhattan


Back in Black(burn)!

Starting line, Blackburn Challenge 2019

By Johna Till Johnson

Sometimes winning is just about showing up.

“I don’t think I’ll ever do the Blackburn Challenge again,” I said to my friend Jean.

I meant it. The race was too intimately connected to Vlad. It was the first race we’d ever done together, and the only one we’d done repeatedly.  

No, I couldn’t do another Blackburn.

A year went by, and another.

And to my surprise, I heard myself asking Jean, “Are you thinking of doing Blackburn this year?”

She was. Along with her friend B.

So I blocked time on my calendar… and forgot about it.

That is, until B. sent me an email asking for advice. Although she was an accomplished marathoner, Blackburn would be the longest kayak race she’d done, and she had questions: Would conditions be overwhelming? What happens if you bonk midrace? What did I recommend for hydration and food?

It wasn’t until after I’d explained my thoughts on the above that I realized I really would be doing the race, my sixth time.

Launch site (my Solstice is the red boat next to the bag, which holds supplies)

As I planned and prepped for the race, everything was achingly familiar… yet totally different:

The drive up from NYC. As always, I left later than planned (Vlad and I had had many a tension-spat en route north, thanks to the added time pressure.) But this time I was leaving on Thursday, giving myself time and energy to recover on Friday before the race. And of course, there was no one to have a spat with.

The lovely little hotel that Jean had found. Vlad and I had always stayed at The Inn at Babson Court, right downtown; they were full up by the time I committed to go, but the Castle Manor Inn was just as lovely, if less idiosyncratic. And we met up with some Blackburn Challenge competitors, who went out with Jean on a pre-race paddle (I had to stay back at the hotel to get work done).

The early-morning start in the gym at Gloucester High School.  The boats had been loaded and were in place. We were at the captain’s meeting at Gloucester High School, edgy and nervous about the day ahead. But there was plenty of “hurry-up-and-wait” time to chat with fellow contestants, sip coffee, and worry…

Captain’s meeting

And then the start…

Before long we paddled out to the starting line, waiting for our groups to be called up. B. and I were in the same group (Sea Kayaks); Jean was in the surfski class.

They called our numbers, and we each shouted out “here”. Then the horn sounded and we were off.

Starting line

Somewhat to my surprise, B. pulled ahead of me early on. She’d been so worried about her inexperience that I’d assumed she’d be slower.

Well, no matter. I’m known for finishing strong; I’d likely pull ahead towards the end of the race.

The paddle down the Annisquam River was surprisingly challenging; I’d only realize later that I’d gotten the currents mixed up, and we were paddling against the current in the early part of the race.

Like all races, it was both infinitely long and over in the blink of an eye. My memory is a jumbled mix of sunshine and waves… watching (from behind) the strategy of one of my top competitors in the sea kayak class as she paddled out to sea to catch the currents, then rode the currents parallel to the seawall, pulling well ahead of me, propelled by the sea (green line in the course chart.)

The course. Green line is where my competitor went out to sea to surf the current in…

Somewhere close to the end I realized I wasn’t going to pull ahead of either B. or my other competitor, and I slowed way down, finishing in a disappointing 4 hours and 23 minutes, my worst time by far, and well below my most recent sub-4-hours.

Approaching the beach

So it was with decidedly mixed emotions that I pulled up to the colorful beach. I wasn’t happy with my performance, but more than that, two things hit me hard: Vlad wasn’t there to greet me, and a memory stuffed away suddenly surfaced.

On the cold December evening right after he’d died, I’d changed his body into a shirt that reminded me of happier days… And I realized with a shock, for the first time, that it had been his Blackburn Challenge 2102 shirt. Tears filled my eyes and the beach blurred.

Suddenly someone appeared. It was B. “Let me help you with your boat,” she said. Together we hauled it up on the sand.

B. and Jean

A few minutes later, Jean appeared. “Look, you got bling!” she said. It was true. I’d come in third, despite my poor time. B. had won our class (with a brilliant time around three hours and forty minutes!)  and Jean had won hers.

And so had another woman, Melissa, who joined us on the beach and who I vaguely remembered.

Melissa and her first place

“Didn’t you compete in 2013? In a plastic boat of some sort?” I asked her. She had, and done well, coming in third. Six years later she’d graduated to a high-performance sea kayak (Surfski) and had finished at the top of her class.

Scene at the finish line

Melissa was just one of several people I recognized.

As we went through the lunch buffet and gathered for the awards ceremony, I caught up with several others, including Roger, one of my kayaking heroes.

Roger was a good kayaker until he retired from his job as a university professor when he was somewhere in his 60s. Then he became a great kayaker, routinely beating men who were nearly a half-century younger.

I was delighted to spend a few minutes catching up with him, reminiscing about past races and commiserating over this one (he, too, had done less well than he’d hoped.)

“You and Jean seem to know everybody!” B. exclaimed.

She had a point. And it was a happy reminder of one of the things that Vlad and I both loved about the race: the diverse participants. We human-powered boaters are an odd breed, and the people who take delight in seemingly pointless tests of endurance form our own community. (Blackburn would have been pleased!)

Three dories

Vlad is gone, and we will never share another race.

But there will be other Blackburns, other opportunities to connect with my crazy endurance-boater kindred spirits… and maybe to improve on that 4:23 pace.

For now, it’s enough to be back.

Beach umbrellas


Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-Glory Hallelujah!

Johna in front of West Point

By Johna Till Johnson

“Glory, glory hallelujah!” My voice rang out strongly and surprisingly tunefully.

It was late morning, and I was just entering Peekskill Bay. The weather was perfect: Sunny, cool, with just enough breeze to generate a light chop. I felt my pace begin to pick up. A glance at the GPS confirmed it: I was going at least a knot faster than previously.

Ready to launch in the predawn at Denning Point

I’d discovered experientially that singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” made me pick up the pace by a knot or so.

No other song seemed to have that effect. “Eddystone Light” was fun to sing (especially the part about life upon the ro-o-o-o-lling sea) but it didn’t make me any faster. And neither did the various popular songs I could remember bits and pieces of (“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” was a particular favorite).

So here I was out in Peekskill Bay, singing Glory Hallelujah to keep the pace going.

I’d left Denning Point before dawn that morning, paddling against the current as the sun slowly rose. By around 8:20 I’d arrived at West Point.

Predawn on the Hudson

Unbeknownst to me, so had my friend Adam. He and his wife were on the early train into Manhattan, just a few hundred yards from me. He snapped a photo through the window, guessing the lone paddler might be me from the drybag strapped on my rear deck (likely indicating someone camping, rather than on a day trip.)

Just after West Point the current finally turned with me, but I wasn’t picking up much speed. Apparently the days before had tired me out a bit, even the “easy” day yesterday.

That’s when I tried singing, and discovered that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was good for at least an additional knot.

First view of West Point

It wasn’t just the rousing melody. The lyrics were inspiring, and even more so, the meaning. The writer, fellow New Yorker Julia Ward Howe, had created it to inspire Northerners to fight in a hard, ugly, brutal civil war that brought them no direct benefit.

Although I was hardly fighting a war, the idea of doing something difficult for the glory of it resonated.

The shoreline streamed by. The sun was bright, but there was a cool breeze  providing a tailwind. As I made my way around the curve (the river makes a hairpin turn around Peekskill Point), I mentally computed the currents. I’d have the ebb with me until about 3:30 PM, by which time I’d be at the Tappan Zee bridge (or pretty close.)

Then the current would turn against me.

But how bad could it be? The flood was only a knot, maybe a knot and a half. And I’d paddled against the current before. Under normal circumstances it would take maybe 2 hours to get back to Yonkers from the Tappan Zee. So, okay, tack on another hour—I’d be home by 6:30, 7:00 at the latest. Right?

Looking at West Point. Two minutes later, Adam would photograph me…

Of course, there was the question of what happened after that. I’d blithely departed Hudson after making arrangements to leave my car at the B&B where I’d spent the night. The plan was to take the train home from Yonkers.

The catch? I didn’t know exactly where the train station was. There was rumored to be one within walking distance of the boathouse. But the instructions I’d heard were obscure and faintly ominous. “You go through the hole in the fence and climb up on the track.” (No guidance on where the hole in the fence was, or what, precisely, “climbing up on the track” entailed.)

I’d had the presence of mind to jot down the train schedule before I left, so I knew the train stopped at Glenwood en route to Manhattan every hour at 26 minutes past. But finding it would be the trick.

There was the distinct possibility of ending up wandering around Yonkers in the dark with a bunch of camping gear on my back, looking for the mysterious hole in the fence.

Oh well, that was a long way off. And meantime, there was paddling to be done!

Glory, Hallelujah….

I made decent time, and by 3:30 I’d reached the Tappan Zee.

The route home. The “tiny” jig left was where I got out of the current…

As anticipated, the current had just changed, and was ever-so-slightly against me. Annoyingly, so had the wind, which was now coming from its usual direction, southwest. (Vlad : “Murphy’s law of kayaking is that the wind and current are always against you.” Also known as “Florida rules”.)

South of the Tappan Zee, the Hudson is shallow and marshy on the western shore, so that’s where I headed. Generally the current flows more slowly in the shallow parts of a river; and near the shoreline a paddler can take advantage of the back-eddy (where the current strikes protrusions on the shoreline and bounces back, thus going in the opposite direction to the main current).

With these tricks, even with the opposing wind and current, I was able to keep a good 2-3 knot pace, but there was a catch: I wasn’t headed straight home. Instead, to keep out of the wind and stay in the backeddy, I was making a long detour; I estimated it would add two-and-a-half or three miles to the trip. Which meant… another hour.

Now I’d arrive closer to 8 PM than 7 PM, if all went well.

I’d gone over 30 nautical miles by then, and I was feeling it. I paddled strongly, but didn’t manage to do much better than 3 knots. Slowly, the beautiful waterfront houses on the western shore slipped by. Ahead was Piermont Pier, a long spit of land reaching into the Hudson.

One summer, Vlad and I had made an overnight, full moon paddle to Piermont Pier. It’s still one of my most vivid memories. I remember napping on the benches, waiting for the current to change, watching the full moon touch the dark waves with shimmering silver. Dozing.

Vlad shaking me awake, gently: “Come on Johna, it’s time to go.” Paddling back to Manhattan in the gray pre-dawn, arriving at Pier 40 just as the sun was rising…

I’ve been to Piermont Pier a few times since, but it’s always inextricably entwined in my memory with silvery moonlight and dark waves. And Vlad.

Pollepel Island in the early morning

This time couldn’t have been more different. The sun was already low in the sky when I arrived, touching everything with honey-colored light. I turned east at the pier. Sheltered from the current, I was speeding along the length of the pier with the wind at my back, barely needing to paddle.

I marveled at the mix of people out enjoying the late Sunday afternoon. Hispanic families fishing. Orthodox Jewish families taking babies for a stroll. Young couples holding hands. Children waved at me, and I waved back.

Soon enough I’d rounded the pier and turned south again, hugging the shoreline of Piermont Marsh. For the first time my destination was visible in the distance: The twin brick towers of the abandoned power plant just behind JFK marina. It was probably still another hour or two away, but I was almost home!

In the peaceful late-afternoon light, I continued on down the western shore, taking advantage of the backeddy. Past Italian Gardens. Past the rockfalls on the Palisades.

Finally I decided to cross. Too early, as it turned out: The current swept me backwards, and I watched in frustration as landmarks that I passed earlier reappeared. But finally I was across. As the rosy sky began fading to darkness, I wended my way down the shoreline.

Soon there was the buzz of jetski engines, and the thumping sound of music, growing steadily louder.

New problem: the ramp was crowded.

Everyone was pulling jetskis out of water, backing trucks and trailers up to the ramp impatiently. I wouldn’t be able to unpack the boat on the ramp. But it was too heavy for me to carry up without unpacking.

Salvation! One of the guys who manned the marina office appeared, a young man around twenty, with tattoos on both arms. He helped haul the boat to a nearby stretch of grass.

I unpacked as quickly as I could in the gathering darkness, throwing all the camping gear into a giant waterproof backpack that I’d discovered among Vlad’s things. (I had one as well, but this one was nearly twice the size).

Staggering a little, I was able to lift to stand up wearing the pack. I mentally thanked my coach and the months of squats and deadlifts in the gym, then grabbed the nose of the boat (which was already mounted on its wheels) and started off towards the boathouse a quarter mile away. Around me, music blared, styles competing with each other at full volume. Latin. Hiphop. Soft rock. A running undertone was the monotonous jingle of the ice cream truck.

Suddenly the darkness was cut with red-and-blue flashing lights and amplified voices. Yonkers PD had arrived to clear everyone out of the park.

I chuckled at the difference between the previous peaceful days and this in-your-face urban vibe. I loved them both.

I packed up as quickly as possible, leaving most of the camping gear and stuffing just essentials into a small backpack (yes, I have lots of backpacks!)

Now what? It was full dark, and the woods behind the abandoned power plant didn’t look inviting. And Yonkers is an urban area (just north of the Bronx.)

Luck had been on my side the whole trip. Surely it would stay through the end?

I decided to check it out, and plunged into the darkness, lit only by the headlamp. A few minutes later, I was delighted to find…. Not a hole in the fence, but a wide-open pathway leading directly to the station. A few minutes’ investigation yielded the delightful fact that a short ladder climbed the six feet or so to the platform’s edge.

I sat down on the bench to wait, feeling pleased. Glory Hallelujah….

Just over an hour later I was back in my apartment in New York, much to the delight of my cat Mully.

And the next day the email from Adam arrived,  with the subject header: “Is this you?”

Indeed it was! One of the few photos of me on an expedition paddle, now that Vlad is gone.

Glory Hallelujah!

Yonkers at twilight

Special thanks to Henry at YPRC who gave me the encouragement to finally finish this, reminding me that at least one person is reading! Thanks, Henry! 

Down the Hudson-Husdon to Yonkers: The Hardest Easiest Day

Lunch break on the Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson

Somehow the “easy” days always turn out to be the hardest.

When we were circumnavigating Long Island, the “easy” day (from Montauk to Greenport) turned out to be one of the most difficult.

And so it was on this trip.

I spent a lazy morning on Esopus Island. There was no point in launching too far ahead of the slack; I’d just be paddling against the current needlessly.

I was only planning to go 21 nautical miles (24 miles) to Dennings Point, the next campsite. At yesterday’s pace of 3.5 knots, that was barely over 6 hours. I’d be there by midafternoon, even if I left midmorning.

An easy day was a good thing, because last night I’d decided to make a change in plans:

Part of my motivation in doing this trip was to prep for the Everglades Challenge in 2020. Vlad and I had done it in 2014, and it had been the experience of a lifetime. After he died, I swore I’d never do it again, but as with so many things, my thinking evolved.

Now I wanted to do it on my own, partly for him. He had loved everything about the adventure, and it was his last big one before diagnosis. Paddling it again—or at least, trying to—was a way to honor that love.

But also for me.

Tug and barge (with pipes)

I’d never wanted this new identity as a solo expedition paddler; I’d been ecstatic (and honored) to be Vlad’s junior partner. Unfortunately, that role was no longer an option, and finding another partner was highly unlikely.

Kayakers of Vlad’s caliber are rare indeed. And partners of any caliber you can actually stand, for days on end, through bug bites and chafing and sore muscles and no sleep… well, those are rarer still.

So in the past few years I’d slowly come around to my new identity: solo expedition paddler. That meant being a lot more deliberate than I’d ever been before: planning and double-checking the currents and conditions; maintaining gear (and bringing appropriate backups); and making sure I didn’t exceed my physical limits to the point where my judgment was impaired.

Yesterday’s entertainment with the rock was both reassuring and sobering.

I hadn’t panicked; my initial impulse to wait and let the tide lift the boat had been a good one. Still, if Pat and Charles hadn’t shown up, things might not have gone so smoothly. These were the kinds of things I’d need to work through, as a solo expedition paddler.

So part of the purpose of this trip was to test drive that new identity, and prep for next year’s Everglades Challenge, as a solo paddler.

But in that case, I was doing it wrong.

The Everglades Challenge is, no way around it, brutal. It’s approximately 270 nautical miles, depending on route.

More importantly, almost all that distance is against the wind (which can be quite fierce) and current. (Yes, I know, it’s not possible for the entire trip to be against the current… but “Florida rules”!)

In 2014 we averaged between 2 and 2.5 knots per hour, and I couldn’t honestly expect myself to do much better this time.

We only managed to complete the race in the 7 days allotted by… well, you do the math: 270 miles divided by 2 knots is 135 hours. 135 hours divided by 7 days (the approximate time in which you must finish) is… wait for it… 19 paddling hours per day.

That’s 19 hours per day, and five hours for everything else (mostly sleeping.) That’s also just under 40 nautical miles per day, with no help from the current.

Zipping down the Hudson, with no wind and a helpful assist by the current (up to 2.5 knots of ebb) was significantly easier than slogging against the wind and current in Florida.

Which meant that if the goal was to train for the Everglades Challenge, my current trip plan was… too easy.

There was another factor. For the first time, I’d left my cat, Mully (aka “The Cat That  Found Me” ) home alone without any plans for human contact.

He’d be fed through an automatic feeder. But if I didn’t get home until Tuesday morning, he’d be alone four solid days.

He’s a social creature, never more than a few yards away from me when I’m home. If I could do it, it would be better to get home, if only briefly, on Sunday night.

Halvah, breakfast (and lunch, and dinner) of champions!

Hence the new plan:

Today, as previously planned, I’d head to Dennings Point. But tomorrow, instead of stopping at Croton Point, I’d keep going another 13 miles (against the current) to Yonkers, then take the train home that night.

That would mean a trip of roughly 40 nautical miles (44 land miles), about half of which would be against the current. Much more realistic practice for the EC, and I’d get home to Mully.

There was just one catch: I hadn’t yet figured out how to find the train station near JFK Marina in Yonkers. I knew it was close by—the club members had said something about “going through the hole in the fence”—but I’d be wandering around Yonkers after dark looking for the train station, with my camping gear on my back.

Oh well. That would be tomorrow’s problem.

As the Bible says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And today’s “evil” would be downright pleasant, or so I hoped: A short 21-nautical-mile jaunt from Esopus Island to Dennings Point.

I launched from Esopus Point around 9:30. It was low tide as predicted, which was satisfying. There was a slight flood current, but I knew it would shortly reverse to ebb.

Poughkeepsie’s twin bridges

The paddling went quickly, and before long I was in Poughkeepsie, with its landmark twin bridges (one for pedestrians, one for cars).

A tug-and-barge (laden with rusty pipes) passed by on the Western shore. Then the Clinton Point quarry appeared on the Eastern shore.

The morning wore into afternoon. My pace slowed, to 3.4 knots…3.3 knots… 3.2 knots. I could move faster if I paid attention, but I kept getting lazy and distracted. My hands were burning; likely blisters.

As I’d planned, I had a snack on the water. I’d discovered that halvah, a sesame-paste confection, had some ideal characteristics for paddling nutrition: It was calorie-dense (600 calories per bar!), low volume, and impervious to temperature changes. And oh yeah—I like it.

Still, after a few more hours in the boat, I figured a stop might be in order. So when a pleasant-looking beach pulled into view, I landed, stretched my legs (and the rest of me) and had another snack.

By midafternoon I was wondering if this paddle would ever end. It had only been around 18 nautical miles, and I was ready to be done!

Clinton Point quarry

I landed at Dennings Point at 1720 (5:20 PM) and was very glad to get out of the boat. My notes read, “Grueling! Blisters, stiff.” And that was on an “easy” day. Sometimes the “easiest” days are in fact the hardest!

I took my time setting up camp, keeping in mind I’d need to launch as early as possible the next morning. And as the final rays of the sun peeked through the limbs of the trees on Denings Point, I snapped a photo.

Tomorrow would be the big day! Paddling 44 miles and (hopefully) finding the train station in the dark…stay tuned to find out how that turned out.

Sunset at Dennings Point