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.
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.
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.
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!
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.