Tag Archives: Hudson River

Long Island Sound, Ahoy!

Winter sun in the Harlem River

By Johna Till Johnson

The police car slowed, then stopped.

Busted!

We’d just landed on the beach at SUNY Maritime College. Julie seemed confident that it was permitted, but I wasn’t so sure. “I’ll go over and talk to him,” she said.  “We might just have to show some i.d.” I followed her, more to provide moral support than anything else.

The police officer watched as we approached. Clad in bright yellow, red, and orange drysuits, we made quite the sight,  but his eyes seemed inquisitive rather than accusing.

We had started in Inwood, Julie explained. His eyes widened. “That’s a long way!” he exclaimed. (13 nautical miles, but who’s counting?)

The route

“We’re planning to have lunch, then catch the current back,” I said. “We figure the East River will start ebbing around 1 PM.”

“So you know what you’re doing.” The officer’s response was more a statement than a question. I confirmed enthusiastically: “Oh yes! We’ve done this many times!”

For a moment, I remembered all the summer mornings when Vlad and I had gone out to Long Island Sound from Pier 40, returning after dark. Paddling down the East River with the current under a star-spangled sky, interrupted by the occasional airplane roaring in for its final descent at La Guardia airport.

The memories faded.

“Julie’s a coach, ” I added, to bolster our aura of expertise.

Julie looked down at her feet bashfully, but it was true.

I’d asked her to lead this expedition so I could become more familiar with the currents in the Harlem River and Bronx Kill (not to be confused with the Bronx River). My goal was to paddle out to Long Island Sound once again, from my new launch in Yonkers. But the currents were tricky, and I needed to become familiar with them.

The police officer seemed satisfied with our answers. He wished us a pleasant lunch. As we turned to leave, he added, “And you know… the cafeteria’s open!”

Cafeteria?

Although it was late autumn by the calendar, the day was positively wintry. That morning, as we’d set out, the water had formed icicles on my deck bag. Though the temperature had risen a few degrees (the icicles were melted) and the sun occasionally peeked through the clouds, the thought of a warm meal, out of the chill, was enticing.

Julie and Dave

We confirmed with the police officer that “outsiders” were permitted in the cafeteria, and brought the joyful news to Dave, the third member of our party. We quickly piled the boats up against the pylon of the Throgs Neck Bridge, against which the beach abutted, and headed in to campus, following the officer’s directions.

It was just after noon; we’d been paddling since 8:15 AM (an hour after our planned launch). The current was behaving with one of its patented quirks: Ebbing down the Harlem River and Bronx Kill, but flooding up the East River into Long Island Sound.

The Harlem is one of my favorite paddles, largely because it’s almost always calm and peaceful, compared with the  the churn and traffic of the East River or the wind-against-current chop in the Hudson. But I’d only paddled the Bronx Kill twice before, once on a cheerful sunny day with Vlad, and once last year with Julie.

Bronx Kill bridge

The launch was cold but uneventful. The sun burned through the clouds, a dramatic pinpoint overhead. There was a light breeze, occasionally gusting as high as 10 knots.

We glided past the familiar landmarks: Spuyten Duyvil bridge, the Bette Middler boathouse. A light breeze danced around us; I estimated that it gusted to 10 knots here and there. There were a few frothy whitecaps on the water, nothing more.

Soon enough we came to the left turn into the Bronx Kill.

“We’ll need to be careful that the water’s not too low on the return, “Julie said. “Sometimes we have to portage.”  I nodded and thought guiltily about our late start. We’d planned to be on the water at 7 AM, but I was late, and between this and that… we’d launched at 8:15.

But no matter! Soon enough, we scooted under the bridge and were in the East River. We meandered along, passing between the Brother Islands and then hugging the northern shore. We passed the blue-and-white Rikers Island barge. “Sometimes you can see the inmates playing basketball,” I said to Dave.  It was his first time out in this part of the East River. We paddled closer, but not so close that we’d alarm the guards.

Julie and Empire State

Sure enough, there were inmates visible. But they weren’t playing basketball. They just started at us through the wire mesh. As always, I felt a wave of empathetic sadness, imagining what it must be like to see, from behind bars,  kayakers floating by in freedom.

“What’s that?” Dave asked suddenly. I looked where he was pointing. Silvery pinpoints of light sparkled and danced off the ferry terminal. We watched, entranced, for a few minutes. We figured out it was sunlight reflecting from the waves–but it wasn’t something any of us had ever seen before.

We paddled on, under the Whitestone Bridge, our destination the Throgs Neck bridge separating the East River from Long Island Sound. Once under that, we could say we made it from Innwood to Long Island Sound.

As we drew close to the SUNY Maritime Campus, Julie paddled ahead to the Empire State, the training ship moored near the campus. It will be replaced by 2022 with a new training ship (also known as the Empire State).

Tug and Barge at the Whitestone Bridge

Then we passed under the Throgs Neck bridge and landed on the beach… to encounter the campus police.

Encouraged by the police officer, we headed up to the cafeteria. Much to our surprise, the sight of us in our drysuits garnered nary a glance from the sleepy students. It’s a maritime college after all… and it was also exam season. The students had other things to focus on!

Fortified by a hot meal and some delightful cocoa, we headed back to the boats for our return trip.  The waves had died down, but a passing tug-and-barge provided Julie and Dave with some lively wake to surf.

As we turned into the Bronx Kill, Julie wondered aloud again if we’d need to portage. Perhaps… but meantime, there was whitewater!

Julie and Dave in Bronx Kill whitewater

The shallow flooding river had generated some delightful whitewater ahead of us, including a miniature waterfall. Dave (a whitewater paddler) was in his element. Julie and I both took turns paddling over the shallow falls, then I pulled over and took photos as Dave played.

Finally we regretfully concluded we were finished, and paddled on… until suddenly my boat stopped. Just as Julie feared, I’d run aground.

Fortunately the sand was solid, so I hopped out and pulled the boat over to where Julie and Dave were. The water was an inch or two deeper there, just enough to stay afloat. But we’d cut it close!

Harlem River at twilight

We paddled on as the sun sank low. The sky darkened, and as we entered the Harlem River, the streetlights and traffic lights took on a magical air.

It was full-on evening by the time we re-entered the Hudson. The wind had grown chill, and we paddled briskly to make it back to the warmth of Innwood. Working quickly, we cleaned off and stowed the boats, then changed and warmed up with some cocoa we’d brought along (but hadn’t needed, thanks to the lunch break). I thanked Julie for her guidance, and said goodbye to them both.

It had been a lovely trip.

Home in the Hudson

Craft: Red Gemini SP (belonging to Julie)
Paddle Date: 12-09-18 Paddle
Launch Point: Innwood Canoe Club
Paddle Launch Time: 8:15
Paddle End Point: Innwood Canoe Club
Paddle End Time: 17:15
Distance Traveled: 25 nm/28 statute miles
Time Paddling: 8 hrs
Time Stopped: 1 hr
Average Pace: 3 kt/3.45 mph
Paddlers: Julie McCoy, David Rosenfeld, JTJ
Conditions: Cold (below freezing upon launch, icicles on deck bag). Calm. Overcast. Got back right after dark, very close to freezing. Virtually no wind or chop. Whitewater in Bronx Kill on return.

Click on any of the photos below to enlarge!

An Unpaddle

North along the ice-bound Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson

It was the first weekend in February. I was back in town. Brian’s broken elbow had healed. It was a beautiful day: Sunny, windless, relatively warm.

So we headed to Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club to take out our boats for the first time in… too long.

“It might be iced in,” I cautioned as we drove. But I didn’t really think so. Yes, there’d been the Polar Vortex and its sub-freezing temperatures earlier in the week. But we’d had several days of warmth.

Surely everything was melted by now?

Er, no.

As we gazed at the ice-locked boat ramp, the only thing we could do was laugh. “We’re not going out today!” I said. “Nope!” Brian agreed.

Brian laughing

Instead, we went out to the end of the pier and took pictures of each other and the frozen Hudson. And laughed in the sunshine.

Johna at end of dock

We drove back to Brooklyn along the West Side highway, watching the ice in the river diminish as we headed south. Inwood, where Julie paddles, was still packed in, but the river was mostly ice-free by the George Washington Bridge. The embayment at Pier 84 was wide open; had my Avocet been seaworthy, I could have taken it out. And I later learned that Bonnie had had a lovely paddle that same weekend in Jamaica Bay. Yonkers was just slightly too far north to permit us to go out.

Ice ice baby!

But we didn’t mind! We had a lovely excursion in the sun and mild air, and saw ice floes in the Hudson. Next time….

Johna looking south

A Wintry Thanksgiving Weekend Paddle on the Hudson

Ice on Haverstraw Bay

By Johna Till Johnson

The plan had evolved, as plans sometimes do.

Originally it was supposed to be a 4-day camping trip over the Thanksgiving holiday. But the polar vortex and its single-digit temperatures, plus a lack of preparation, put the kibash on that idea.

Instead: A Saturday paddle launching from Croton Point headed to parts north. (Ultimately, that turned out to be the Cortlandt Yacht Club just south of Verplanck, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Looking south from George’s Island

Early in the morning, I drove out to the George’s Island State Park boat ramp and took some photos. Then it was south to Croton Point, which has a lovely little launching beach designed specifically for human-powered boats.

Launching from Croton Point

Launch time was 12:15 PM. I meandered up the east side, poking into every nook and cranny. The current was nominally flooding, but flood that far north is fairly weak.

By the George’s Island boat ramp, it was definitely turning to ebb, but I pressed on, curious to see what lay beyond. The chart indicated some sort of marina. And you couldn’t really tell, but it seemed possible to go under a bridge into an inland body of water.

Reeds and red berries

After the long curve of Montrose point, there it was: a complex maze of boats and sea walls, which I later discovered was Cortlandt Yacht Club, Hudson Valley Marine, and Viking Boat Yard. Disappointingly, there was no navigable route to the inland waterway; although there was a low tunnel under the road through which I could glimpse daylight, the sound and sight of roaring water just beyond made me give up any thought of entering it. So I decided instead to have some snacks in preparation for my trip back.

Although many of the boats were put away for winter, there were plenty still in the water. And what a mix! Rusting barges sat cheek-by-jowl with spiffy new yachts. There was a festive yellow boat—whose paint job had seen better days—festooned with tattered flags: The Caribbean Queen. She was far from home, I thought idly as I broke out the food.

To the south, the water shimmered, smooth as glass. The shoreline and tiny island made quivering reflections. All was still.

Autumn reflections…

And then it was time for the return. The current was ebbing fiercely now, so I shot down the middle of the Hudson (keeping a sharp eye out for tug-and-barges, which often travel all the way up to Albany).

I made it back in half the time, nearly overshooting Croton Point, which, like most points, featured a bouncy little tide-rip. Had there been more wind, that part of the paddle would have been positively exciting. But as it was, I rounded the point, then paddled the calm waves gently lapping the beach.

As I landed, I was greeted energetically by two small, fluffy dogs. Their owners (or at least leash-holders) were an elderly couple bundled up against the chill.

The woman, who looked to be in her 90s,  asked if it was possible to walk along the shoreline of Haverstraw Bay.

“No, but you can paddle it,” I said. “Why?”

She wanted to see it, she said. Because of the ghost ships.

Ghost ships?

She explained: As a girl during World War II, she’d lived on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with a view out over the Hudson. During the blackouts, the US naval fleet would travel up the Hudson to shelter in Haverstraw Bay.

As she spoke, her words formed images in my mind: A darkened Manhattan. Ships gliding by, as silently as possible. Ghost ships, black silhouettes against the darker darkness of night. Headed for someplace unknowable to a small child. Someplace with a strange, foreign name: Haverstraw Bay. The place she wanted to see.

I felt sad to disappoint her with the news that condos and sea walls blocked the walk along the shoreline, but by then she didn’t seem to mind. It seemed that having someone listen to the story was enough.

“Thank you,” she said, as she, the dogs, and the man prepared to leave. It wasn’t quite clear what she was thanking me for: Listening to her, perhaps? Or just a moment of human connection on a cold, overcast day?

But I was the one who was grateful, to her for passing along a memory that would soon expire, but now would live another lifetime. A secondhand memory, but still real.

Croton to Verplanck

Craft: Solstice (Tiderace Explore-S)
Paddle Date: 11-24-18
Paddle Launch Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle Launch Time: 12:15 PM
Paddle End Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle End Time: 3:30
Distance Traveled: 7 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3 hr
Time Stopped: 15 minutes
Average Pace: 2.3 knots
Paddlers: Solo
Conditions: Cloudy, calm, cold (35 to start, 45 at finish, approx.). Very little wind.

Morning at the Tappan Zee (seen from the north)

Note: I haven’t been able to find anything about the ghost ships of Haverstraw Bay during World War II. If you do, please let me know. I don’t doubt the old lady’s recollection; it was far too vivid for that. But it’s strange that there seems to be no historical record…

Mitsuwa…And More

Sunset at Pier 84

By Johna Till Johnson

Maybe this isn’t such a great idea.

I’m sitting on the dock at Pier 84 on a sunny—but cold—Sunday afternoon in early spring.

I’m wearing a drysuit, and my feet are in the seat of my kayak, which is bobbing up and down with the wake-driven waves.

The dock is around18 inches above the waterline, and I’ve just remembered that I’ve never been able to get into my boat from the dock unaided before.

It’s a tricky launch. The boat has a habit of getting caught under the dock’s overhang and slammed into it by the waves (there’s a nasty crack on the hull that I think resulted from such a crunch). Between the height and the waves, there’s a good risk of unbalancing and landing in the water. Every other time there’s been someone around to steady the boat for me—and I’ve needed it.

A further thought occurs to me: I’ve never actually paddled solo in winter weather before.

I’ve done an 8-day solo kayak camping trip in Florida’s 10,000 islands. I’ve solo-circumnavigated Manhattan. But it’s always been in warm water.

Right now, despite the wetsuit and several layers of insulation, I have maybe an hour or two of survival after capsizing in the 40-degree water.

More importantly, my hands, which are uncovered, will go numb after about four minutes—which makes getting back into the boat a challenge unless I manage a flawless roll.

And climbing back up onto the dock could be a nonstarter if I happen to fall in while getting into the boat.

To Mitsuwa and back (est 9 nautical miles)

Yeah. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

But at the back of my mind the knowledge gnaws at me: If I don’t launch now, I will probably give up on solo winter launches from this pier. It’s too easy to find excuses for what you’re afraid of.

And that’s not something I’m willing to give up on. Not just yet.

So I’m sitting with my feet in the boat, feeling it bob up and down, waiting for my heart rate to drop and my hands to stop sweating. I have time. All the time in the world. I just need to relax and think things through.

After a bit, I realize: Why do I never have trouble getting out of the boat onto the dock?

Instantaneously, the answer comes: Because I keep my weight low and throw my body belly-down on the dock. I look ridiculous and ungainly, like seal flopping up onto land, but it works.

And if it works for getting out… it should work for getting in!

I roll the idea around in my head.

Yeah.  Yeah. I can do this!

So I flip over onto my stomach and slide my feet into the cockpit, keeping as balanced as possible, with my weight on my hands on the dock. When I feel my center of gravity move out over the water, I slide into the boat, as neatly as a knife going into its sheath. The boat barely wobbles.

Elation. I did it!

I push off from the dock and begin tucking my storm cag over the coaming.

Just then, my radio crackles to life, announcing the Norwegian Breakaway, the cruise ship that usually launches from Pier 88 on Sunday afternoons.

At Pier 84, right next to the Intrepid, I’m going to be in a prime location to watch it go by. I paddle slowly forward in the embayment, and take several pictures as the Breakaway slowly appears, colorful and majestic, flanked by a NYPD vessel. To complete the photo opportunity, a NY Waterways taxi arrives on the scene.

The Norwegian Breakaway… and companions!

An auspicious sendoff, I decide, and paddle out into the Hudson.

Earlier, I’d encountered a group of hardy kayakers and paddleboarders, who warned there was tug-and-barge activity just north of me on the Manhattan side. So I decide to cross over to the New Jersey side and paddle north.

My notional destination is Mitsuwa, the Japanese grocery store located a few miles up on the Jersey shore. It has a convenient beach and is known to be paddler-friendly, with spacious restrooms and a plethora of tasty groceries and restaurant options.

But I’m not sure I’ll make it that far, and I’m not sure I’ll even bother to get out if I do. The goal today is simply to launch, paddle for a bit, and get back onto the pier in one piece. If I accomplish that, I’ll have proven to myself that I’m able to solo paddle in winter.

I’m traveling with the current, but the flood is never strong in the spring—the snowmelt from upstate overpowers it. There’s also a strong and steady northern wind—about 15 knots, I calculate. Enough to create a little wind-against-current chop, and to slow down my progress.

Bicycles and blooming forsythia

I slowly wend my way up the New Jersey shore, mourning a bit for the wreck of the Binghamton,  which left this world just after Vlad did. It’s strange how attached you can get to an inanimate object with which you have no direct connection. And it’s hard to escape the sense of loss as I think of the many things that now live on only in my memory…

But it’s a new spring day, and the sunlight sparkles cheerfully on the waves. The forsythia’s out, I realize, and stop to snap a photo of a bush in bloom, appearing to lead a parade of bicycles. Across the river, the buildings are awash with light.

After a couple of hours of paddling, I arrive at Mitsuwa. Bobbing just off the little beach, I think to myself that there’s no reason to disembark. I’m not particularly hungry, and getting in and out of the boat just seems a bother.

But curiosity nibbles at my mind. It’s been years since I stopped here.

The last time might have been with Vlad, who refused to get out (the beach can be muddy). We had a small spat, and I left him floating in the river while I went inside for a pit stop and supplies. When I returned, we ate sushi and drank sake in the boats while the current carried us downstream. I remember how we laughed, the argument forgotten.

That was years ago, four or five at least. Was it still the same? And… I have a vague memory of tempura. My stomach rumbles. I’m decided. I paddle the boat up on the beach, threading gingerly between the pilings. I pull off my spray skirt, tuck it into the cockpit, and climb over the fence into the parking lot.

Small boat, big city

Inside, the supermarket is as clean and spacious as I remember, filled with (mostly) Japanese shoppers. But something’s different… I finally realize a row of food stalls has replaced what used to be the restroom area (temporary bathrooms are port-o-potties out front while construction finishes).

And one of the food stalls features… tempura! I place my order and wait patiently in line, making faces with the baby and his young parents in front of me. Finally it arrives, hot and fragrant.

Tempura!

I take my order outside where there are low stone tables and chairs. From here I can see the beach where my boat rests, and look at the steak house that sits out over the water. It’s not paddler-friendly, I’ve been told: Too upscale to tolerate muddy boots and smelly drysuits.

The food is delicious. As I eat, I notice the buds are out on the trees. The steakhouse has flowers in its flowerbeds. Spring is really going to arrive!

Lunch (or rather “linner”, as Vlad called that late-afternoon meal that’s neither lunch nor dinner) complete, I pack up and launch. As anticipated, the current has turned, and I’m traveling with the wind and current. I cross over to the Manhattan side and watch the shoreline ripple by. It takes me less than half the time to return that it did paddling out—about 45 minutes, compared with two hours on the trip up.

Japanese flowers

Just as I get close to Pier 84, I remember the tugs and barges the other paddlers warned me about. I assume they’ve called off work by now—it’s late on a Sunday afternoon. But what’s that ahead?

Sure enough, two turquoise tugs appear, each maneuvering a barge. They look like the Megan Ann and one of her sisters (see some footage of the Megan Ann in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkBjlRkwMP8)

One steams north upriver, but the other appears to be turning. Towards me? Yikes!

Fortunately it’s not—it’s heading into the embayment just in front of me.
I pull up, and wait for the tug to pull her barge out of the way.

I peek out cautiously. The tug-and-barge seem to be anchored. So I cross the embayment and continue on towards home.

I  turn into Pier 84 just under the bow of the anchored Intrepid (which never fails to thrill me—how many paddlers come home to a famous air craft carrier?). I pull up to the dock.

There’s no one in sight as I start to clamber out of the kayak. I’ve got this—getting out of the boat is easy, right?

Not so fast. I lose my balance and nearly capsize. The boat rights itself, but it’s carrying water—several inches at least, making it less stable. Slowly, cautiously, I pull myself forward onto my stomach on the dock. My heart pounds. Close call.

I’m up… but can I get the boat up, full of water as it is, without breaking it?

I pump some water out, then give up. There’s just too much. I grab the bow, and give it a pull. The boat slides up on the dock, in one piece. I flip it over and watch as it drains.

I’ve done it. Launched and landed, and made it up the river and back. In winter conditions.

I will do this again, I realize.

I stand up and look out over the water… just in time to capture a photo of the setting sun.

This turned out to be a great idea!

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Tappan Zee Redux!

Unfinished span of the new Tappan Zee

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo composition by Brian Fulton-Howard

Four years ago this month, I wrote about the “New bridge over the Hudson” that was to replace the Tappan Zee. At the time, it was hard to believe the bridge would really be built; the project had been in discussions since 1999. At  $3.9 billion, the new construction would represent one of the largest infrastructure investments in New York this century. And it would be the first new bridge to be constructed since the Verrazano-Narrows in 1964.

A daunting prospect; skepticism was warranted.

Guess what? It’s here! And astonishingly, it was completed on time and on budget, as governor Andrew Cuomo was quick to point out.  The grand opening of the new bridge was last summer (though one span remains to be completed in 2018).

Right after it opened, on a bright summer day, Brian and I paddled up to see it. As we bounced over the slight waves, the twin peaks of the bridge’s profile (a cable-stayed design) slowly emerged from a dusting of clouds.

It looked strangely familiar…

The profile of the bridge emerges…

… Of course!  It was remarkably similar to the original artist’s rendering, below:

Artist’s rendering (New York Times)

I think the actual bridge is even prettier than the original conception, but it’s hard to say, as it’s still surrounded by the original Tappan Zee, which won’t be torn down until sometime this year.

As Brian and I paddled closer to the bridge, we were struck by the sight of the unfinished span that appeared in cross-section in the middle of the combined infrastructure.

It’s not every day you get to literally see the guts of a bridge as it’s being built, so we struggled to stay stable in the strong flood current as I took shot after shot. Brian finally figured out the exact location from which the unfinished span was framed perfectly (see photo above).

 

You’ll notice I’ve referred throughout to “the new Tappan Zee” and “the bridge”. The official name of the bridge, as of late last year, is the “Mario Cuomo bridge”, named after the three-term governor (and the current governor’s father). However, there’s a petition circulating to keep the original name.

As the petitioners explain, it’s nothing against Mario Cuomo, who “may be deserving of having something named after him.” (Don’t you love that “may be”?)

The problem is simply esthetic, petitioners assert. It sounds cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Tappan Zee,” the petition reads. “It does not sound cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Cuomo.”

I have to give them the point—”the Tappan Zee” sounds way cooler.  I doubt the petition will succeed, but I’m not sure the official name will stick, either. New Yorkers can be stubborn, and  even Google Maps still refers (confusingly to out-of-towners) to the Triboro Bridge rather than its official name of  RFK Bridge.

In any event, with my Tiderace now living happily at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club, I look forward to many more trips to the, ahem, Tappan Zee.

Meantime, here’s a photo of Brian in the sunshine, just to remind everyone that summer will indeed return!

Brian in the sunshine (view looking north)

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Daily Post: Compass

Compass on deck.. and a chart in the case!

By Johna Till Johnson

Today’s daily post is “Compass”.

I almost always paddle with one, even when there’s almost no chance of getting lost. (Hint: If you’re going south on the Hudson River, Manhattan is to your left!).

A compass can be useful in many ways. You can practice guessing the directions, and checking your guess against the compass: “The sun is behind me, and it’s an afternoon in the winter, so the sun is in the southwest which means I’m pointing… Northeast? Yes!”

You can also use one to precisely locate objects, particularly when paddling with a friend:  “See that bird on our left? About 90 degrees?”

And believe it or not, a compass often comes in handy when you least expect it. I’ve had fog so thick that I couldn’t see the Manhattan side of the Hudson from New Jersey—I was happy to have a compass then!

Because I have several boats, I have a compass that clips on to the deck lines, so I take it from boat to boat. (Actually, I have two compasses; I inherited one from Vlad). Many paddlers have the compass physically attached to their boats, so they don’t have to worry about traveling with one.

And, oh yeah, here’s a tip: Don’t put your compass on top of the deck bag in which you also have your car keys. The metal and electronics in the key will mess up the compass… and, as happened to me on a recent trip, you’ll wonder why the compass always tells you you’re pointing north!

A Winter Nighttime Paddle on the Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Brian Fulton-Howard (see note)

George Washington Bridge from the north

December 3, 2017

It was to be Brian’s first winter paddle. That is, even though it wasn’t quite winter yet, the air and water temperatures told us it was time to don drysuits—something Brian had never done before.

The conditions were perfect: the forecast was for a misty overcast day, with air temperatures in the 50s and water temperatures in the 40s, with virtually no wind.

And thanks to the “supermoon”—a larger-than-usual moon due to the moon’s close orbit to Earth—we’d have king tides, bringing currents of between 2 and 3 knots in the Hudson. That meant an easy paddle in both directions, if we kept with the current. (Currents that strong and stronger are common in the East River, but more typically in the Hudson they range from 1 to 2 knots).

There was just one catch.

To travel with the current in both directions, we had two choices for our launch from Yonkers: A predawn launch heading north to the Tappan Zee bridge, or a midafternoon launch heading south to the George Washington.

Realistically, I couldn’t picture getting up early enough for a pre-dawn launch.

But if we took the latter option, we’d be spending most of the trip in darkness.

Was that really wise?

One of my good friends and coaches, Taino, likes to illustrate kayaking risks with a slot machine metaphor: Each risk may be acceptable individually… but if enough of them line up—disaster.

So what were these risks? Well, it was Brian’s first time paddling in a drysuit. And it was winter paddling (paddling in cold water is always riskier than in warm). And paddling in the dark.

But countering that were the near-perfect conditions (particularly the lack of wind). There was fact that we were two paddlers (two are always better off than one). Also, Brian is a strong paddler, with a level head and good judgment. And we both felt healthy, with no injuries or ailments.

The deciding factor was esthetic: The morning was predicted to be cloudy, with little chance of a beautiful sunrise. But if we opted for the evening paddle, there was at least the chance the clouds would part and we’d get to see the supermoon as it rose.

The evening paddle it was!

Brian arrived at my apartment around 2, and we prepared to pack. Hot, sweet tea: Check. Plenty of chocolate (Brian’s contribution): check. All the usual cold-weather gear: hats, gloves, “space blankets”: check.

Except for one thing…

As Brian pulled on his drysuit (discovering in the process that it fit perfectly), I asked, “So you brought your neoprene booties, right?”

Ahhh… nope!

Brian hadn’t realized drysuits need shoes (or some kind of foot covering) to avoid getting punctured. (Drysuits basically consist of GoreTex, zippers, and gaskets—you need to wear insulating clothing underneath, and put on some kind of foot covering.)

But Brian is nothing if not resourceful. “Got any duct tape?” he asked. I did, along with the cardboard and Sharpie he requested. And in a few minutes, he’d made himself a pair of cardboard-and-duct-tape “sandals”—not super fancy, but enough to protect the soles of his drysuit from damage.

That problem solved, we proceeded to Yonkers, where we managed to launch around 3:30 PM. Manhattan was visible in a haze of pink as the last hour of daylight slowly faded into dusk.

Manhattan in a haze of pink

We paddled south with the current (which was roughly 2 kt at that point). We stopped to have a look at the Riverdale Yacht Club, a beautiful structure on the eastern shore of the Hudson. Brian explained it had formerly been the Riverdale train station on the Metro-North line. (Apparently, there’s even a book about the Riverdale Yacht Club!)

Riverdale Yacht Club

We paddled on, and arrived at the Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge  guarding the Harlem River just around sunset. We’d previously discussed taking a gander down the Harlem, so in we went. The current was with us, and growing stronger as we went forward.

We had our radios on, as a standard precautionary measure. Suddenly there was a crackle as a tugboat—the Kenny G—announced it wanted to bring a barge through the bridge.

We paddled closer to the southern shore of the Harlem, and I radioed back a message to the captain: “Securité, securité, two kayaks in the Harlem river, we know you’re there and we’re staying close to shore until you pass.”

The captain acknowledged, and we continued down the Harlem with an accelerating current.

Sure enough, the tug and barge soon passed, steaming by at 12-15 kt, or maybe even more.

We paddled on for a few more minutes, but decided that the accelerating current was just a bit too risky. So we crossed over to the north side and paddled back to the bridge, helped along by a healthy back-eddy.

We stopped at the mouth of Harlem, inside the bridge in a protected, mostly still patch of water, to have chocolate and rest. By then it was full dark, but with the lights of Manhattan all around, we could see fairly well. We turned on our deck lights and I donned a headlamp (Brian would do so later on).

When we exited the Harlem, I glanced back over my shoulder, and gasped. “Look, Brian!” I shouted. The clouds had cleared, and the supermoon was rising over the Bronx.

Supermoon rising over the Bronx

I took as many photos as I could, and then we continued south to the George Washington. Rather arbitrarily, we’d chosen the little red lighthouse as our turnaround point.

We arrived at the lighthouse right around 6:30, which was by our calculations right at slack. After several tries, I succeeded in getting a shot of the lighthouse flashing, though I couldn’t convince Brian to get in the picture.

Little Red Lighthouse (and little red kayak)

We paddled back in full darkness, glad of the extra visibility provided by our headlamps. True to prediction, the current increased slowly: 0.8 kt, 1.0 kt, 1.2 kt, 1.8 kt.

A conga line of tug-and-barges heading south on our left took us a bit by surprise, as we’d initially thought they were anchored (though there no danger as we were well out of their way). And the moon, by now high in the sky, was visible for most of the way.

We arrived back in Yonkers just past 8 PM, meaning we’d spent about 4.5 hours on the water. We’d paddled 18 statute miles (15.5 nautical miles) at an average pace of 4 mph, or 3.5 kt. –including the time we’d spent enjoying chocolate. The power of the king tides!

All in all… a very successful first winter paddle for Brian. Here’s to many more!

(Note: Regular readers of this blog may be forgiven for wondering who this mysterious “Brian” is. He was formerly one of Vlad’s grad students, and is now a post-doctoral researcher in his own right. He and I have paddled several times this year, though this is the first time I’ve been able to do a writeup. He, his wife Tyna, and I have become quite good friends.)

See slideshow below for more photos. Click on the arrows to move back or forward!

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