Tag Archives: Kayaking

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Islands: Part Three

By Johna Till Johnson

Faka Union Canal Sunset

Sunset on Faka Union Canal

I awoke to the sound of…not very much at all. A few birds piping, and the rustle of air high up in the leaves.

The front had passed through, but other than the droplets remaining after a late-night shower and a smattering of branches caught in the mosquito netting above, there was little to show for it. The sun was up in a cloudless sky. There was a gentle breeze, and a few whitecaps out in the Gulf.

Nonetheless, it would probably be wisest for me to stay on the “inside” today. If the wind picked up (as predicted), I’d be better off sheltered. Besides, I wanted to explore the marina at the end of the Faka Union Canal.  I’d plotted out the trip the day before.   I’d be traveling with the current if I left before noon and returned by sunset.

I decided to leave the campsite set up, and make this a day trip. I launched late morning, arriving at the marina in early afternoon. After dragging the kayak up the boat ramp and depositing it on a patch of grass,  I explored. There was a small convenience store that sold ice cream and other goodies. There was also a restaurant, which tempted my empty stomach, but it seemed too highbrow for a damp paddler with salt-encrusted clothing. And there was a large hotel-apartment complex overlooking the water.

I returned to the convenience store, had some ice cream, then decided to take a selfie to share with my best friend and business partner. For most of the trip I’d been out of cell phone range, and I knew she was worried about me. This would be a good way to let her know I was fine.

I posed with the boat ramp behind me, and smiled that awkward rictus selfie grin.

“Did you get it?” asked a bystander.

Gator selfie Edited

Gator? What gator? 

I shot him a puzzled look. What’s to “get” in a selfie?

“I mean the gator! There’s a twelve-foot gator on the boat ramp behind you! I thought that’s why you were taking a picture!”

I spun around and saw… nothing. The boat ramp was empty.

I’d almost convinced myself he was making it up when a group of teenage boys came over, chattering excitedly. Yes, there had been a gator. Yes, it had disappeared into the water just seconds ago…

Well, dang! My first encounter with a gator on the trip thus far, and I’d missed it! And I was about to get into the water where it likely lurked.

I forwarded the selfie to my friend,  packed up the phone, and launched.

The paddle back was long and leisurely, as the sun made its way down the western arc of sky. I was still about 45 minutes from home when it set, but I wasn’t worried—I had headlamps, and the campsite was already set up. I paddled through the deepening scarlet and purple skies, and landed just as the first stars were peeking out.

It was while preparing dinner that I first heard the unearthly sound: a bone-chilling screech from the other end of the island, trailing off into angry jabbering. What was it? Not a panther—everyone described a panther’s cry as sounding “like a woman’s scream”. This was harsher, and angrier.

I turned the headlamps on bright and scanned the wall of vegetation at the end of the island. At first, nothing.

Then I saw it: Eyes.

Twin green glittery reflections, low to the ground. An angry screech followed.

Great. Whatever it was now knew exactly where I was.

I banged a couple of pots together and shouted into the darkness: “Go away and leave me alone!”

The screeching ceased—for a few minutes. Then it started up again. I scanned the forest with my headlamp. Was that another set of eyes? Two of them?

My mind raced with the possibilities. What could it be? I kept coming back to one theory: a rabid raccoon. Yesterday, Carolyn had mentioned she’d seen a “sick” raccoon. Would it come over to the campsite in the middle of the night and attack?

But what about the second set of eyes? And the snarling sounded distinctly angry, not sick.  I finally decided it must be two raccoons arguing over food, perhaps a fish. In which case, they were unlikely to bother me.

If I were wrong, it could be unpleasant. But since there wasn’t anything else to do,  I decided to assume I was right. I finished preparing dinner, ate, cleaned up, and went to bed. At some point the snarling ceased, and I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Thankfully, no crazed raccoons had attacked me in the night (though several lines of fresh tracks passed remarkably close to the boat).

I packed up briskly,  because today’s plan called for a long-ish paddle: I had decided to venture into the Everglades. That meant checking in with the ranger station at Everglades City, and continuing on to the nearest available campground. In the Everglades, permits are required, and the rangers limit the permits by campsite to avoid overcrowding. This was “high season”, so my choices were likely limited.

It was a near-perfect paddle: Warm (but not too warm) sun, light chop, and the never-ending panorama of keys to my left. When I reached Indian Key I decided to circumnavigate it and find the campsite Vlad and I had missed in the night during the Everglades Challenge.

To my delight, the sandbar at the inside end of the key held a stunning flock of white pelicans, which I was able to capture on camera.

Indian Key White Pelicans

White pelicans on Indian Key

Continuing on down Indian Key pass to the ranger station, I pleased myself by managing to recall its exact location.  I landed, stripped off my spray skirt, and tromped proudly inside.  My salt-encrusted jacket and squelchy paddle shoes garnered nary a glance from the uninterested tourists. And the rangers were pleasantly accommodating of  the damp footprints.

Their news wasn’t so welcome, however: Apparently the only available campsite was the Lopez River campsite, about five miles away. That wasn’t so bad—the current was with me, and if all went well, I’d arrive by sunset. And I was briefly excited at the thought of camping on a riverbank, rather than a beach.

But then I remembered Lopez River: Vlad and I had attempted to have a picnic lunch there on one of our shakedown cruises, and we’d been driven away by the sulfurous mud and clouds of mosquitos (even at midday). My memories of it were unpleasant enough, and in the evening, it would surely be worse.

Oh well. It was the only option, so I’d take it. As I set off towards Lopez River, I decided I’d plan to spend the least amount of time there I could. I’d sleep in my paddling gear, and launch early in the morning with the current.

True to prediction, I arrived at the campsite just as the sun was setting. There was already a large group at one end of the campsite, with eight or ten kayaks covering the beach, making it impossible to land.

Everglades Park Sign

Special regulations apply…

The only option was the other end, which was occupied by two picnic tables and a lone kayaker, a lean man with long graying hair and an appearance that made me think he was native American. By the looks of his gear, he was also a seasoned camper.

“You have a neighbor!” I announced.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t seem too happy: “There’s no room,” he replied. I explained that the rangers had sent me here, and assured him I’d respect his privacy and do my best to stay out of the way.

As he watched the sunset, I pulled the boat up and decided to pitch my bivy sack in the only available spot, a muddy patch of land between the two picnic tables. His gear was spread out on one, so I used the other.

We chatted briefly as I prepared and ate dinner. He was an artist from the West Coast, at the tail end of a 10-day trip (so my guess about being a seasoned camper was correct).

He seemed nice enough. And he was happy to listen to the weather report on my radio, which called for a mild enough night that I decided to eschew a sleeping bag. Maybe this campsite wouldn’t be so bad after all!

Wrong on all fronts, as I found out over the next few hours.

At first, things were fine.  Yes, the site was buggy, but I’d expected that. The head net kept the skeeters away from my face, and the jacket and waterproof pants protected me to the ankles and wrists.

And yes, the ground was hard and muddy, with just enough mangrove fingers poking up to make it impossible to find a comfortable position. And yes, there was the sulfurous smell I’d remembered.

Mud, bugs, bad smell: It wasn’t perfect, but nothing worse than expected—and I reminded myself again that I’d be launching early, ideally before dawn.

How bad could one night be? I was about to find out.

The first inkling came about 45 minutes after we’d retired to our respective tents. I was just drifting off to sleep when there was a loud, resonant rumble from his tent, so long and loud that it took me a few seconds to figure out what it was.

My neighbor had farted, the loudest, longest fart I’d ever heard.

It took a few seconds for me to realize that with a sound like that, there would also be…

…the smell reached me a moment later, the stench overwhelming the sulfurous mud. Whatever my neighbor had had for dinner obviously disagreed with him. And was now disagreeing with me. A few minutes later, there was another one, long enough that I could count the beats like a freight train.

I turned away and sunk my head as deeply as I could into the collar of my jacket, trying to avoid the fumes.

It was obviously going to be a long night.

But it was only getting started. After my neighbor’s stomach rumblings had subsided, a loud, unearthly moan issued from his tent, startling me. Apparently he was having a nightmare. Over the next few minutes, he thrashed and moaned, sometimes muttering unintelligibly.

I was wide awake, nerves tingling from the adrenaline rush.

After a while, the silences between the moans grew longer, and I relaxed. Maybe the show was over, and I could get some sleep.

I was just drifting off again when he shouted, in a voice full of menace, “You want more? I’ll give you more!”

Now I was actually afraid. There was no possible scenario in which those words, uttered in that tone of voice, could be benign. But he was clearly asleep, I reminded myself. People aren’t responsible for what they dream.

No matter, I wasn’t falling asleep for a long while. Because after the noises subsided, the cold began. Contrary to the predictions, the night got colder… and colder.. and colder. I could tuck my legs up inside my jacket and be warm enough, but after 20 minutes of sleep I was stiff and aching, and had to change position. I could always go get my sleeping bag from the boat, but it would take a while and subject me to the clouds of mosquitos that still whined incessantly outside, despite the chill. Plus, repacking the sleeping bag would delay the morning departure—which I was now awaiting with a mounting crescendo of desperation.

The night stretched on, and on.  Every few minutes I checked my watch to see if it was close enough to morning, and the current’s change, to launch. Then I’d doze for a few more minutes, the mangroves poking into me, my limbs stiff and cramped.. and wake again, to repeat the cycle.

The current was supposed to change around 5 AM. Perversely, when that hour rolled around, I couldn’t bring myself to face the cold outside. As uncomfortable as it was inside the bivy sack, it would be worse outside.

It wasn’t until after six that I hit on the one strategy that forced me out : I let the air out of the air mattress. As my body touched the hard, muddy ground, I suddenly decided the cold outside was preferable to remaining in the bivy sack.

Thankfully, it took very little time to pack and launch. I was on my way in the pre-dawn twilight, never so happy to be back on the water as I was then, despite the exhaustion pounding inside my skull.

Before me, the river was calm as glass. Behind me, the horizon slowly brightened. As I paddled, I thought about the ghastly night I’d just endured.

And then I looked over my shoulder… to the most beautiful sunrise I’d seen in a long time, maybe ever.

It wasn’t until then that I realized what day it was: January 1, 2017.

If the difference between the last night of the old year and the new dawn of this one was any indication of the future, my life was about to take a marked turn for the better.

I paddled onward, my spirits lightening as the sun rose.  I’d survived hidden alligators, crazed raccoons, and Deranged Fart Man…but today was a new day—and the dawn of a whole new year.

Lopez River Jan 1 Sunrise

Sunrise on Lopez River: Jan 1, 2017

 

 

Freepaddling in the Ten Thousand Island: Part Two

By Johna Till Johnson

panther-key-everything-tree

The “Everything Tree” on Panther Key

In the bright light of full morning, I sat down to make coffee and breakfast… and had a rude shock. The Jetboil, which had worked perfectly well last night (and in pre-trip tests), now would no longer start.

This wasn’t catastrophic, but it was somewhat serious. You can start a Jetboil with a match.. but I’d brought just a handful of stormproof matches with me.  And I only had freezedried food, which required hot water to cook.  So I’d either have to cut short my trip, or curtail my eating—neither of which seemed ideal.

Normally I’d have been panicky. Well, actually, normally we would have fallen back on Vlad’s rickety stove, which he always packed even after we converted to the Jetboil. But there was no longer a “we”, and Vlad’s stove was somewhere back in New York. So that wasn’t an option.

days-2-to-6

From Pumpkin Bay to Fakahatchee and back

Instead of panicking, I took a close look at the mechanism. It basically works by placing a voltage across the gap between two pieces of wire. Current arcs across, and generates a spark. Close inspection revealed that one of the pieces of wire was encrusted with something, which would preclude any sparking.  I carefully filed it off with my knife, and tested.

It worked!

I sat back on my heels and smiled with satisfaction.  Perhaps it was my imagination, I but I could feel Vlad smiling, too.  I would have morning coffee—and a hot breakfast!

And then…what?

As the water for the coffee boiled, I savored a totally unfamiliar sensation: Complete freedom, with no deadlines or constraints.  I could paddle wherever took my fancy, go for as great or small a distance as I chose.

I could… freepaddle.

pumpkin-bay-edited

Paddling on the “inside”: Calm, clear, quiet

Russell had mentioned an Indian shell mound up by Pumpkin Bay, and said you could camp there. After inspecting the charts, I decided that would make a nice excursion for today. If I could find the shell mound (and it was indeed camp-able), I’d spend the night there. En route, I’d check out the other keys to see if they held attractive campsites, in case the shell mound didn’t work out.

I had a plan! And options.

I finished breakfast, packed up, and launched.

Paddling “inside” the Ten Thousand Islands is very different from paddling in the Gulf. The water is quieter, and it can feel almost dreamy at times, as you glide along under the mangroves.  Today was warm and calm, and I arrived at the Indian shell mound earlier than anticipated, in the early afternoon.

More accurately, I overshot the shell mound, going far enough up the Pumpkin River to get tangled in overhead branches before turning around, and ultimately sighting the (very narrow) landing spot. After securely tethering the boat to a mangrove, I scrambled up a short rise and into…

…a field of golden reeds, drying in the sun.

It was eerily quiet.

indian-mound-sea-grass

Reeds at the Pumpkin Bay Indian mound

Not that it’s exactly noisy out among the mangroves, aside from the occasional boat motor or croaking sea bird—but this was a special kind of quietness, charged with a low-key, but very real energy.  It was beautiful, and sad, and…not precisely hostile, but not welcoming.

I wandered around taking pictures, trying to decide if I wanted to camp there, and thinking  about the Calusa Indians who had inhabited the area until the mid-1700s. They were by all accounts quite fierce.  I suspected they would not have appreciated my presence overnight.

It was almost as if they were saying to me, “Thank you for appreciating our space, now go home.” Moreover, Russell had told me about hearing a Florida panther scream one night when he had camped there. I was prepared to deal with sharks and gators… but panthers?

Beautiful  as the place was, I wanted to return to the outer islands.  I decided to return to White Horse Key.

I had no trouble finding my way out of Pumpkin Bay  and arrived at White Horse Key by late afternoon, with plenty of time to make camp, cook dinner, and watch the sun set over my former campsite.

sunset-over-gullivan

Sunset over Gullivan Key

I fell asleep watching Venus glimmering brightly beside the tiny sliver of the waning moon.

The morning dawned clear and beautiful—and noisy! There was the splash of pelicans striking the water as they fished, oblivious to the presence of the kayaker on the beach. That was complemented by the hoarse sound of dolphins breathing, as they arced above the nearly still water.

Once again there was the question of where to go next. This time, there was a complicating factor: a front was predicted to roll down from the north in two or three days, bringing with it rain, and more critically, wind. I’d need to find someplace where I could shelter—not right away, but soon.

I sipped my third cup of coffee and scrutinized the charts. Today’s trip would involve scoping out the only official “inland” campsite, at Fakahatchee Bay. If it turned out to be a good site, I’d shelter there for a couple of nights. If not, I’d continue on.

Satisfied with my vague plans, I prepared to launch.

A small motor boat had landed on the beach, disgorging a handful of people, clearly day-trippers in short and T shirts. One of them approached me.  He asked how far I was headed, and when I told him I had no idea, he was apparently stunned.

I smiled. Then I pushed my boat out into the waves.

There was a light breeze and satisfying chop. The keys drifted by to the left, first the length of White Horse, then Hog Key, and finally Panther Key.

pumpkin-bay-2-edited

Cloud, sky, mangroves…

As I paddled by Panther Key, I felt a pang of disappointment. It looked like a lovely place to camp, with a series of long, low, beaches facing the Gulf. But it was already quite evidently inhabited: tents (some quite large) were up in most of the campsites, and someone had hung a set of Spongebob Squarepants towels out to dry. Camping there didn’t seem to be an option for later that night, not if I wanted solitude.

There were a few empty spaces, though… and anyone who packed Spongebob Squarepants couldn’t be all bad! Maybe having neighbors wouldn’t be a bad thing.

The day passed lazily.  I located the inland campsite with no trouble, but it was clearly an “emergency only” site, at least for kayakers. Instead of a wide swath of beach, there was a short, steep cliff (too high to bring a kayak up, so the boat would have to be tethered on the water, and gear unloaded). And it was covered with vegetation, with no breeze and the persistent hum of mosquitos, even at midday.

Paddling back towards the Gulf, I once again passed Panther Key, with its strip of inhabited campsites.

There was a small fishing boat out front. I swerved out to sea to avoid its fishing lines. “I’ll try to stay clear,” I shouted to the captain, a wild-haired man of indeterminate age. “Oh I’d love to land a kayak,” he replied jovially. “I could mount it on my wall.”

Chuckling to myself I continued along my way, pulling closer to the shore to inspect the campsites. A little further on I encountered a couple of guys, one heavily sunburned and wearing what appeared to be billowing blue Bermuda shorts. He introduced himself as Mark, and we chatted. It turned out the campsites were part of a group of extended family and friends. The group spent a week here every year, relaxing and fishing. “Come join us for dinner!” Mark said. “We’ve caught lots of fish, more than we can eat!” With that, they ambled off down the beach.

I had to admit, the invitation sounded tempting, especially after nearly three days of freeze-dried food. I pulled the boat up on land and started looking for a suitable campsite.

A few minutes later, two women came by and introduced themselves as Carolyn and Eileen. They, too, invited me to stay for dinner—and suddenly, I was decided. I would-why not?

panther-key-first-campsite

The kayak has landed! First campsite on Panther Key

I dragged the boat further up on land and tethered it to a palm tree. There was a nice snug campsite next to the tree, comfortably large enough for a bivy sack. And a nearby sign would provide just the support I needed to string up the mosquito netting I’d brought with me.

As I unpacked, I listened to the marine radio to monitor the progress of the storm front. The prediction had become considerably more dramatic: from 15 knot winds with 20 knot gusts (which I regularly paddled in), it had leapt to 25-knot winds with 30-knot gusts, which I (and most paddlers) didn’t want to get caught in.

Worse, the front was supposed to hit earlier than expected, by tomorrow night—which meant I needed to be holed up someplace safe by then.

One option was to stay where I was. It was actually ideally situated: facing south (the winds were predicted from the north) with a forest behind me. I mentally stored that idea, then finished setting up camp.

panther-key-friends-and-campfire

Panther Key friends

As the sun fell, I made my way over to the campfire that my new friends had started. It was next to the root ball of a gigantic overturned tree, which they used as a kind of ad-hoc storage closet. Hanging from the roots of the “everything tree”, or tucked between them, were plates, cups, cutlery, and various random articles of clothing (sunglasses, hats, flip-flops).

There were around a dozen people: a husband-and-wife couple (Carolyn and Mark), their friend Rob, Carolyn’s friend Eileen, the wild-haired fisherman (Dave),  his partner,  Carolyn and Mark’s 16-year-old daughter Rachel, Rob’s similarly-aged daughter, their boyfriends (who had brought the Spongebob towels), and confusingly, the boyfriend of Rob’s other daughter, who wasn’t there herself. There was also Rob’s dog, Wolfie, and Mark and Carolyn’s dog Bella.

panther-key-bella

Bella in the seat of honor

Rob offered me a beer, which I accepted gratefully. Even more welcome was Carolyn’s homemade smoked mullet chowder, with freshly caught and smoked mullet and made with potatoes, carrots, and peas. There was also fresh-caught shark, grilled over an open fire.

Warmed by the fire, and delighted by the conversation, I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It had been another entirely unexpected day.

A bit later I said goodnight and headed back to my campsite. Cocooned in my bivvy sack and draped in mosquito netting, I was perfectly at peace. Waves lapped the beach close by, and from farther off came the strains of the guitar music and the faint scent of woodsmoke.  Overhead the stars blazed, and I fell asleep under their benign light.

panther-key-sunrise-wolfie

Sunrise on Panther Key (Wolfie and tree)

The next morning I awoke early to take pictures. I’d already decided it would be a “rest day”: Mark had advised that he and the rest of the crew would be heading out about noon, and I could have one of their campsites. It was perfect for riding out the storm front: I’d move to high ground,under the protective forest, out of the wind and any waves that resulted.

panther-key-second-campsite

Second campsite: Snug under trees!

After helping my friends pack and saying goodbye, I moved camp, battening down the hatches (quite literally!) in preparation for the high winds that were supposed to hit that night.

Instead of paddling, I went for a leisurely swim, then napped in the late-afternoon sun.

After an early dinner, I tucked myself in to await the storm.

 

In Memoriam: Vladimir Brezina

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo credit: Vlad and Johna in drysuits by Larson Harley, NYC Photographer

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.

Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue —
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space –
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., RCAF (1941)

vlad-smiling-with-paddles-and-bridge

Vlad in the East River

Vladimir Brezina slipped the surly bonds of Earth on December 13, 2016 (though I like to think he still checks in from time to time). Although the tumbling mirth on which his eager craft traveled was waves, not clouds, this poem captures his spirit perfectly. Here is a little more about his remarkable life, and the joy with which he lived it:

Vladimir Brezina was born on June 1, 1958 in the outskirts of Prague. His father, also Vladimir Brezina, was a civil engineer who designed several notable bridges. His mother, Vlasta Brezinova, was a psychiatrist and moved in artistic circles; Vlad had memories of family friends who were well-known artists and writers. (Both parents are now deceased.)

young-vlad-edited

Vlad as a boy in Prague

The family lived in a house (which is still standing) near some woods and a pond, on which he skated in winter. Vlad’s memories of the time were idyllic. He even enjoyed getting punished for his mischief: Apparently his parents would send him to the bathroom for a short “time out”. But the bathroom had a wonderful view and was the warmest room in the house, so it was no hardship—particularly in winter.

Vlad, who was an only child, was close to his extended family. But his comfortable childhood in Prague came to an end when he was 11 years old, when his father took the family on a “vacation” from Czechoslovakia following the Soviet invasion in 1968. Travel into and out of the Soviet-controlled country was becoming difficult, and the time had come for the family to seek its fortunes elsewhere.

Young Vlad waved goodbye to his grandmother as they drove off. He never saw her or his country again.

The family drove through Italy and onward to Libya, where they arrived on August 31, 1969. His father was slated to start a design project, presumably on Monday September 2.

However, on Sunday, September 1, Muammar Gaddafi seized control of the country in a coup d’etat. “Our timing was perfect,” Vlad observed with his characteristic wry humor.

It’s not clear how long the family remained in Libya following the coup, but over the next few years, Vlad lived in Libya and Iraq while his father worked on various projects. The family ultimately settled in the United Kingdom, where they became British citizens, as the Soviets had revoked their citizenship upon departure from Czechoslovakia.

Vlad attended Clifton College, a prestigious boy’s boarding school. At Clifton, Vlad excelled in athletics (he was a rugby player), science, and art. He often told the story of how he re-invigorated the school’s art competition, which his house subsequently won for several years in a row (under his direction), earning him the nickname The Art Fuhrer. Upon graduating from Clifton, Vlad attended Cambridge University (as it was then known) for a year, where he studied art history. He then spent a year at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

young-vlad-at-dan-and-lisas-wedding-cropped

Vlad in graduate school

At some point in that period he held a job picking vegetables for scientific research. He recalled with glee that after the experiments were complete, “You could roast [the experimental subjects] and eat them!” Although the experience piqued his interest in science, he found himself growing tired of the long winters in the UK and Northern Europe.

Enticed partly by the prospect of year-round sunshine, and also by his then-girlfriend, he moved to the United States and enrolled in the University of California San Diego, majoring in biology. He became a US permanent resident in 1983, and adopted America as his home. He ultimately obtained his PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA in 1988, with a focus on understanding how small peptides controlled electrical activity in the neurons of the largish marine sea hare, Aplysia californica, which he harvested with great delight from the tidal waters off Los Angeles. His graduate work would set the stage for what became a lifelong effort to understanding how patterns of electrical signaling in complex neurobiological networks controlled behavior.

aplysiaresearchgroup2003

Aplysia research group, Mt. Sinai NYC

Vlad had always intended to settle in New York, which he maintained was the only American city with the right combination of energy and chaos. It had captured his imagination early on, and in short order, the newly minted Dr. Brezina became a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York where he quickly became a card-carrying member of the Aplysia behavioral neurobiology community. In 1990, he joined forces with Klaude Weisz at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, where he rose to the level of associate professor. He remained on the faculty at Mt. Sinai until his death in 2016.

Vlad’s scientific work was both theoretically groundbreaking and experimentally elegant. His area of research was in neuromodulation, which is the way nerves communicate with themselves and with muscles in a constantly changing dynamic process. During his years at Mt. Sinai, he introduced an important new theoretical and experimental concept, that of the neuromuscular transform, which he defined as a sort of ‘filter’ that describes how the activity of motor neurons is converted into a muscle contraction. His critical insight, perhaps deriving initially from his studies on complex mathematical transforms, was that this filter is itself dynamic and nonlinear, rather than static (as some had supposed). Moreover, he demonstrated that this dynamism played an important role in animal learning and behavior, enabling the creature to adapt to an uncertain and ever-changing environment.

Throughout his life, Vlad maintained an avid interest in long-distance, human-powered travel. When he lived in the U.K, he hiked a 100 km trail in the Lake District. The summer he was 16, he made a solo journey by bicycle through France, camping at night by the side of the road for several weeks. During his years in California he was a passionate long-distance hiker.

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The legend begins… Vlad (left) with K-Light

And in New York, in the 1990s, he discovered kayaking.

His first boat was a red Feathercraft K-Light that packed into a backpack weighing a mere 40 pounds. He continued the tradition of red Feathercrafts, getting increasingly larger models that he could pack up and carry on trains and taxis to pursue his adventures. (Sadly, but somehow fittingly, Feathercraft went out of business in December 2016—something Vlad fortunately never knew.)

Vlad quickly became legendary for his knowledge of the New York waterways, and for his feats of endurance in navigating them and others, including New England and later Florida. He discovered many of the now-iconic locations of New York City paddling, including the Yellow Submarine in Brooklyn, the seals on Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, and Alice Austen House and the Graveyard of Ships on Staten Island. (It’s impossible to say who was first to see these from a kayak, but Vlad was among the earliest.)

happy-vlad-on-blue-water

At home on the seas

On his excursions, Vlad simply never seemed to get tired. He once completed a combined circumnavigation of Staten Island and Manhattan without leaving his boat for eighteen hours. His explanation for doing so? “I finished the Staten Island circumnavigation and wanted to keep going— and the currents were right for a Manhattan circumnavigation.” He also wrote about a kayak-sailing adventure during which he and a friend covered 100 nautical miles in 22 hours—again without leaving the boat.

One of his favorite trips was a 10-hour journey around the Elizabeth Islands in April 2002, during which he saw a whale. Subsequent adventures included circumnavigating Long Island in nine days in 2012, and the culmination of a long-time dream: Completing the 300-mile Everglades Challenge, a race from Tampa to Key Largo in Florida, in just under eight days in 2014. Fittingly, his “tribe name”—a nickname adopted by each participant in the Everglades Challenge—was Sea Hare, hearkening back to the creature on which he’d focused the majority of his research efforts. Many of his kayaking adventures are chronicled in our blog Wind Against Current.

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Partners in paddling… and life

Vlad also loved contributing his kayaking skills to others’ adventures. He was a longtime supporter of NYCSwim, a group that organized long-distance swims. Vlad served as “kayak support” for many world-class swimmers, several of whom he accompanied on record-setting feats.

Vlad maintained a lifelong love of poetry (with a particular fondness for Yeats and Philip Larkin), and enjoyed and appreciated opera. He also maintained an avid interest in photography all his life. His earliest photos, dating back to when he was a young teenager in the 1970s, demonstrated emotional depth and an elegant sense of detail—traits that characterized his photos in later life. Over several decades he documented his beloved city, New York, as well as his kayaking trips, with unforgettably vivid images.

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Backlit flower, by Vladimir Brezina

Among his blog followers was a group of several dozen photographers, many professionals, who admired his work. Vlad sold a few photographs as book covers and illustrations, but never had any interest in pursuing photography professionally—for him, the work was its own reward.

That attitude was the essence of Vlad, whether in art or science. He often said his defining characteristic was his esthetic sense. Whether paddling, making (or appreciating) art, or conducting science, he always strove always to uncover the eternal and the true. In many respects he lived by Keats’ line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

In addition to his esthetic sense, another defining characteristic was his insatiable intellectual curiosity and love of constructive debate.

I first met Vlad in 2009, when we began paddling together. One of our earliest conversations was about the happiness of ducks.

We were paddling a Manhattan circumnavigation in winter, and I’d noticed ducks swimming energetically—and to all appearances cheerfully—in between the blocks of floating ice in the river. “Why are ducks so happy swimming in ice water?” I asked him.

“How do you know they’re happy?” he countered, and we were off on a wide-ranging discussion that included the subjective/objective problem in neuroscience (how can a brain think objectively about itself?), the biology of ducks (apparently they have an entirely separate circulatory system for their legs and feet), and “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the seminal paper by New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, with which we were both familiar. That conversation lasted the entire six hours of the circumnavigation and continued between us, in various forms, until shortly before his death.

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Wedding day, Oct. 17, 2015

I was far from the only one with whom he had such conversations. His former student and subsequent collaborator, Miguel Fribourg, remembers, “The conversation would start discussing a mathematical method, and end up talking about ethics, physics, or Spanish politics.”

Vlad also was deeply, profoundly, and generously, kind. His students remember his love of teaching, a love that came not from ego, but because he was delighted to share ideas with someone. “I will be forever grateful for his generosity and patience in teaching me how to reason, and interpret facts. I also take as a lifelong lesson from him, how to be humble in science and life in general,” says Miguel. Vlad also extended that generosity to the younger generation; for many years, he enjoyed judging science projects for the WAC Invitational Science Fair, at which dozens of Long Island high schools competed.

Vlad had the wonderful talent—which he awakened in me, and many others who were close to him—of appreciating the moment, regardless of what it held. There were of course life’s joyous moments: a breathtaking sunset or star-spangled summer sky; the sound of inspiring music at the opera; and convivial meals with wine, friends, and good food. And when he and I cooked at home, we’d put on music, dance while cooking, and use the fine china and crystal for everyday celebrations.

But Vlad’s genius was not only enjoying these happy moments, but also ones that could have been less than happy. Wind, cold, and rain never fazed him; nor did sweltering nights or water-laden sleeping bags.

I recall once finding ourselves in the dead of night, in below-freezing temperatures, in the custody of puzzled NYPD officers, trying to explain why we and our kayaks were on a beach under the Verrazano Narrows bridge. We quite possibly could have had our kayaks confiscated, and might even have ended up in Rikers Island prison. Instead of being afraid, I realized I was having fun!

There was also the moment, some months after his cancer diagnosis, when we returned home from a particularly harrowing stint in the emergency room. We’d been in the hospital for nearly 40 hours, and as we opened the door to come home, Vlad exclaimed, “Well, that was fun!” And not only did he truly mean it—he was right. It had been fun.

Finally, it’s impossible to write about Vlad without mentioning his ineffably light, witty, gentle sense of humor that often manifested in his characteristic squeaky laugh. His humor relied on clever turns of phrase and occasional goofiness—it was never at the expense of another person. (He loved to mimic expressions and gestures that struck him as entertaining).

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What will survive of us is love —Philip Larkin

I was privileged to be first his paddling partner, then his life partner, and finally his wife (we were married on October 17, 2015). His legacy to me, and to all who knew him, was showing by example how to live in selfless pursuit of truth, beauty, and love—and to enjoy every moment of that life with zest and humor. It will never be the same without him, but what he gave to the world will live on.

Look Up

By Vladimir Brezina

Look up, and there they are!

Look Up 1

Of course, they also come at you at sea level…

Look Up 2

… and sometimes seem to think that the water is all theirs

Look Up 3

A contribution to a recent Photo Challenge, Look Up.

New Jersey Weird and Wonderful

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

This trip dates from last fall, but took us this long to post in part because we wanted to include a lot of detail to guide paddlers who might want to go to these places, which are very accessible to NYC paddlers of all skill levels. 

So each photo is numbered, and the third image down is a map showing where each photo was taken, so you can associate the photo with the location. The  body of the post includes only a small selection of the photos; for the rest, see the slideshow at the bottom.

And don’t miss the special bonus: A link to a GoPro video from the trip, at the very end of the post!

New Jersey Weird and Wonderful 47

47. Beautiful day at the Sims Scrap Metal Yard

The currents weren’t really right for any of our usual trips, ebbing most of the day, and turning back to flood around 4:30 PM. So a long trip to points south would mean returning close to midnight, which neither of us wanted to do.

But it was an effervescent fall day, with a gusty breeze, blue skies, and sunlight sparkling over the waves. We wanted to do something a little out of the ordinary, for us, at least.

“Why not visit Port Liberté, and meander down the Jersey side of the harbor?” Vlad suggested.

New Jersey Weird and Wonderful 15

15. Port Liberté

What a splendid idea! Port Liberté is one of the many weird and wonderful things on the New Jersey side. Vlad calls it “the would-be Venice of New Jersey,” and it truly is: According to Wikipedia, it was designed in the 1980s as a waterfront community patterned after a similar one in Saint-Tropez, France, complete with canals lined with docks and waterfront walkways.

The idea is, to my mind at least, flawless: Imagine living right on the waterfront, with your own personal dock, just a few minutes by ferry or private boat from Manhattan! Unfortunately, though, the market crash of the late 80s ended the development plans, and what remains, though beautiful, is just a wistful indication of what might have been.

We’d last been to Port Liberté several years ago—maybe as far back as 2011. So it was time for another look. Then we’d continue down the Jersey side of the harbor, our moods and the currents permitting, until it was time to turn back. Come to think of it, despite our many years of paddling in the harbor, neither Vlad nor I had ever really properly explored all the ins and outs of the Jersey side.

Continue reading

Come One, Come All… to the Ghostship Ball!

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Vlad & Johna (photo by Larson Harley)We are getting our presentation ready!

It’s billed as “True Tales of Mystery, Majesty, and Mishap Mere Inches from the Water”. We think we can supply all of that…

Ghostship Ball

… and if the prospect of hearing us share our kayaking adventure stories isn’t enough, come for the live music, acrobats, and a growing roster of additional entertainment.

Hope to see you there!

Half-Light

By Vladimir Brezina

Half-Light 1

From the molten dyes of the water
Bring the burnished nature of fire
… Rain flakes of gold on the water

—Ezra Pound, The Alchemist

Half-Light 2Half-Light 3

A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Half-Light.