Tag Archives: Hudson River

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

Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-An Auspicious Beginning

Tug and barge near Roger’s Island

By Johna Till Johnson

I’d just snapped a photo of a sunlit tug-and-barge across the river when I heard the sounds no kayaker ever wants to hear: Thump. Crunch!

Just like that, I’d hit a rock. That “crunch” sound? The rock grinding through the gelcoat outer layer of the kayak.

But there was worse. I was stuck on top of the rock. I tried shifting my weight, no luck. A few paddle strokes to maneuver the boat… and I almost got stuck on another rock.

I sat back and considered my options.

I was near the eastern bank of the Hudson River, about two miles south of the town of Hudson, where I’d put in. This was to be a 100-mile trip from Hudson to Yonkers (one of my home ports).

But not if I couldn’t get off this rock.

I probed the depth of the water with my paddle. Not too bad; maybe 2 feet or so. If I could get out of the boat without damaging it further, I could easily stand.

That was a big if.

The problem with doing anything—maneuvering the boat, shifting my weight, attempting to get out—was that it might damage the boat still further, turning a minor “ding” into an impact on seaworthiness.

Hmmm.

Sometimes the best action to take is no action.

The tide was rising. In another little while, it might lift the boat off the rock naturally. As the saying goes: “A rising tide lifts all boats”… even kayaks stuck on rocks. And Vlad and I had successfully deployed that strategy to get unstuck from a mangrove swamp in Florida.

I tried maneuvering again, gently. No luck. Well, I’d give it a bit more time.

I sat back to enjoy the view… and gasped.

Just like that, two paddlers had appeared, out of nowhere, headed upriver. They were Pat and Charles. After a bit of happy small-talk about boats and trips. I said, “Ummm… mind helping me get off this rock?”

Rescuer Pat

One gentle lift from Charles and I was free!

This was just one of the many serendipitous events that marked this trip, not least of which was the weather: three days of highs in the 80s and lows in the sixties (!) in the midst of our standard steamy July heat.

Rescuer Charles

Another was timing.

Because of work complexity, I ended up launching a day later than I’d planned. But when I called up the B&B in Hudson to try to sort out my nonrefundable reservation, the owner was not only happy to accept the changes, but he suggested he switch my second night to Monday—giving me ample time for the trip. (Thank you Duncan at Croff House in Hudson!)

An auspicious start indeed!

I launched on a cool, foggy morning from the boat ramp in Hudson. Vlad and I had used it as the start of many adventures, by ourselves and with companions.

The launch site Friday morning

The plan was to paddle down the Hudson, arriving in Yonkers around midday Monday, where I’d leave the boat at its berth in the boathouse. Then I’d catch the train back to Hudson, have dinner, spend the night, and drive home early Tuesday before work.

That would have me covering an estimated 99 miles (86 nautical miles) in three-and-a-half days, with three nights camping.

I’d broken it down into segments. The first day would be the longest, if I could do it: Hudson to Esopus Island, around 34 miles (30 nautical miles). Then an easy day, Esopus to Dennings Point, roughly 25 miles (22 nautical miles). Another easy day from Dennings Point to Croton Point (again, about 25 miles/22 nautical miles). And finally, the 14-mile (12 nautical mile) stretch from Croton Point home.

I’d done the entire route once before with Vlad in 2011 and about half the route on a trip last September with friends. I’d marked out backup camping points, and a couple of bailout points where I could leave the boat safely and head back for my car.

And I’d spent several hours mapping the tides and currents for each day at several points along the route.

So I was pretty well prepared.

But as the saying goes, the best-laid plans….

However, that story’s to come.

Hudson Power Boat Association in early-morning fog

Meanwhile, 90 minutes after launch, I was once again moving freely. If there was damage to the boat, I’d find out at the next stop; for now, there didn’t seem to be a leak.

I waved goodbye to Charles and Pat and kept going.

The day had turned out to be lovely; the morning’s fog had dissipated, and the sun sparkled off the water. There was just enough breeze to keep the heat at bay.

As the miles wore by, my mind spun free. Sometimes I focused on my forward stroke. It’s a form of meditation, the repetitive thoughts and motions, each time trying to improve just a tiny bit.

Other times thoughts would flash into my mind, scraps of ideas, plans for projects I could design. (This time I’d had the sense to bring waterproof paper, along with a pen, so I could jot down the most promising ones. We’ll see if any pan out!)

 

Esopus Meadows lighthouse (one of Vlad’s favorites)

But mostly my mind was filled with sunshine and air, the scent of the river and the periodic wails of the train. There are trains on both sides of the river; CSX runs commercial traffic on the West and Amtrak runs passenger trains up the East. Further south, from Poughkeepsie to NYC, there’s also Metro-North on the East.

At first I was paddling against the current, but as the morning wore on, the flood ended and ebb began, and soon I was gliding along effortlessly with the current. My pace had picked up, from just over three knots to over four.

In early afternoon I passed the first backup camping spot at Magdalen Island; a little while later I was past the second, at Cruger Island. I was just under 2/3 of the way through the trip. Now I was committed to Esopus Island!

Sooner than I’d expected, I could see it off in the distance. Then the river turned and hid the island.

But surprise! As I rounded the bend, a lovely lighthouse appeared. I recognized it from the previous trip (Vlad had taken several photos) but couldn’t recall its name (Esopus Meadows lighthouse).

Esopus birds on a rock

I arrived at Esopus Island just past five PM.

With stops, it had taken just under 10 hours; my average paddling pace (according to the GPS) was 3.5 knots, or just over four miles per hour. (It would never be that good again on the trip, but I didn’t know that at that point!)

I unloaded the boat and lifted it up to one of the moss-covered rock ledges that are such a lovely characteristic of Esopus Island. As I turned the boat over, I saw the two new “dings” from this morning’s adventure on the rock. Not great, but nothing fatal (and nothing worse than what was already there).

Since I had plenty of time, I washed my clothes and hung them out to dry, and had a leisurely dinner before setting up camp. I’d seen a state police boat zoom by earlier, and since I’m not quite sure about the legality of camping there, I didn’t want to advertise my presence.

Kept company by the ravens*, who occasionally called out, “Uh huh! Uh huh!” I scouted for campsites. There was a lovely patch of moss under a tree but near enough to the water to catch breezes; it was so soft I almost didn’t need the air mattress. And in the morning, I’d be able to watch the sun rise.

I was very tired, but just a little stiff. Not bad for 34 miles!

I fell asleep around dusk. It had been an auspicious start.

Early dawn at Esopus

Start: Hudson NY, Friday July 26 2019 about 7:30 AM
Finish: Esopus Island, Friday July 26 2019 about 17:20 PM
Distance: 30 nautical miles (34.5 land miles).
Paddling time: 8.5 hours
Stopped time: About 90 minutes
Average paddling speed: 3.5 knots

The route (star showing rock incident)

* There is a funny story about the ravens on Esopus Island, recounted briefly here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esopus_Island

Apparently just over a hundred years ago, occultist Aleister Crowley spent a “magical retreat” on Esopus Island—for which he brought painting and climbing supplies but no food, saying he would be “fed by ravens”. He was indeed fed—but by his friends, who brought over food in a rowboat.

I always wonder if the ravens that live there now are the descendants of the ones Crowley thought would feed him, and if so, what they thought of the scheme.

Sun-dappled Esopus morning

 

Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-Preview

By Johna Till Johnson

My first solo-kayak-camping trip in the NYC area.

I’ve solo-camped (hiking) in the Catskills, solo-kayak-camped in Florida, and kayak-camped (with companions) in the NYC area and elsewhere.

But until now I’d never planned and executed a solo-kayak-camping expedition in my own backyard (so to speak).

I put into a still and misty river at Hudson just after sunrise on Friday. It was cool, calm, and quiet. The fresh scent of early morning rose from the grass and water. I was cheerful, relaxed, but a bit edgy.

I took out 100 miles later on Sunday evening in a sweltering Yonkers  sunset to the earsplitting beat of Latin music and the scent of vapes and barbeque. I was stiff, chafed, and blistered… and overwhelmingly happy.

In between were accidents, surprises, detours, and serendipity.

This is the best photo of the trip. I took it right before sunrise on Esopus Island. Consider it a sneak preview of writeups to come…

Early dawn at Esopus Island

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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