Tag Archives: Spring

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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Trip 16: Hudson River, Manhattan to Ossining

By Vladimir Brezina

Winter waves (same time of year, some years later)

Saturday, 8 April 2000

Launched at Dyckman St. just after 8 a.m. Sunny day, with some haze at first. Current still ebbing, so paddled across the river and north along the Palisades. Warm spring weather; later, air temperature in the 60s, even 70s away from the water.

First day not wearing drysuit, although water temperature (in the high 40s, perhaps around 50 in places) still marginal. First butterfly over the river. Some trees on the Palisades already putting out the first light green leaves, others still bare. Completely windless at first (although small craft advisory) but then wind progressively picking up from the south. By Irvington tail wind of about 15 knots, 1-ft following seas; smaller than otherwise with this wind as current now flooding strongly.

Lunch on the little promontory cut off by the railway just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Then continued through the Tappan Zee. Wind and waves building. By Ossining wind up to 20 knots with higher gusts (and forecast to get stronger still as the promised front came in) following seas 2-2 ½ feet, covered in whitecaps. Very impressive glittering against the sun.

Good practice; some difficulty keeping boat from broaching. Need much more practice with automatic braces. Around 2 p.m., rode up to the Ossining boat ramp on large, steep following waves. As conditions likely to get worse, train back to New York.

Note: To non-kayakers, this may seem like a matter-of-fact trip report. But hidden in those last few sentences—both by Vlad’s laconic delivery and his choice of nautical terms—is some real excitement. “Some difficulty keeping boat from broaching” translates to “I was about to capsize multiple times”. Vlad was using the sailing definition of broaching, which is, “”to slew around on a wave front…so as to present the ship’s side to oncoming large waves [and]… capsize and enter a “death roll”. Not exactly what you want to have happen when you’re alone on 40-degree water in a gathering storm!

And “need much more practice with automatic braces” says, in effect, “My skill level was not up to keeping the boat upright”. “Bracing” is a way that kayakers hold the paddle to prevent capsize in, among other things, high waves; as the kayaker becomes more skilled, he or she gets better at bracing automatically, to keep the boat upright.

The giveaway here is the word “much”—Vlad clearly felt the conditions were at or beyond his skill level. So, in effect, Vlad is saying here that he ran into what was for him at the time (and likely for most paddlers at any time) conditions beyond what he could paddle. He doesn’t say, but it appears from his last sentence that he’d intended to go farther than Ossining, but pulled out due to conditions (a show of good judgment I’m always happy to see).

Finally, spring is the most dangerous time for paddlers; the combination of cold water and temptingly warm air leads to underdressing, which can be fatal in the event of a capsize. And in the Hudson, there’s often snowmelt, which increases the current (though that didn’t apply here, as the current was flooding, or heading upriver).

I suspect Vlad subsequently realized he had been underdressed for the conditions; in any event, by the time we paddled together, he would not have gone out without a drysuit on a warm day in spring, as made clear in this story. Needless to say, his automatic bracing—and other paddling techniques–had also improved considerably by then!

Trip 15: Hudson River, Manhattan-Piermont-Ellis Island

By Vladimir Brezina

The (old) Tappan Zee bridge

Saturday, 1 April 2000

Launched at Dyckman St. around 6:30 a.m. Half-hour after sunrise; sun lighting up Palisades. Sunny all day, with some high clouds. Air and water warming up now, but both still cold enough for drysuit. Paddled north with flood current, crossing over to west side of the river, past Alpine, Italian Gardens, up to Piermont Pier.

Turned around with the current and paddled back south along the Palisades. Wind now picking up from the south. Lunch, around 11:30 a.m., just south of Englewood. Then continued south along the New Jersey shore. South wind 10-15 knots, whitecaps in main channel.

Opposite the last few miles of Manhattan, great view, but many delays for ferries.  At least four or five ferry landing points; NY Waterways ferries and Ellis Island/Liberty boats very active, though still few other boats. Ellis Island around 2 p.m. Still significant wind from the south.

Met two kayakers from the Boathouse, going to the Statue. Current, at least around the back of Ellis Island, already turning against me, so went with the wind back along the New Jersey Shore to the level of the Holland Tunnel ventilator. Then crossed over to the Manhattan side. Waves in the main channel fun: already longer, 2-3 ft, some breaking.

Whole scene in this section of the river always exhilarating, full of energy: great views of the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan and opening south into the harbor; waves and wind; boats of all kinds criss-crossing the river.

Took out at the public dock on Pier 24. Paddling time around 8 hours; 36 nm.

(Note: Once again, this is an unusual route, one that most Manhattan-area kayakers would not have thought of paddling. Usually on the Hudson one either goes North (towards the Tappan Zee, now Mario Cuomo) or South (toward the Statue of Liberty). Doing both on the same trip is distinctively “Vlad”. 

Also, once again he is making excellent time. Covering 36 nm in 8 hours is an average of 4.5 knots, or 5.2 miles per hour—significantly more than a typical paddler. A good bit of this is his conscious decision to paddle with the current, which can be up to 2 knots in the Hudson.)

Window Box

By Johna Till Johnson

NYC Flowers 042017 Edited

Window box on the Upper East Side, Spring 2017

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Ah yes, “Dull roots with spring rain”!

Every spring, it’s the same surprise. We spend the winter yearning for sunshine and warmth. Yet when spring arrives, it’s usually wrapped in a cloak of dark clouds and cold rain.

It’s become a cliché: “April showers bring May flowers”—even though in New York, the flowers usually bloom in April (until they’re washed away by rain), and May is the month of green leaves.

But every now and then, even in the dank days of mid-April, a burst of sunshine appears. In this case, a window box, seen on the way home from the gym, with a riotous profusion of plants and flowers. A promise of brightness to come!

The Easter Bunny

By Johna Till Johnson

NYC Easter Bunny 1 041517 Edited SM

The Easter Bunny appears in the wine store!

Friday night I saw something I haven’t seen since I was five or six years old: The Easter Bunny! Who, apparently, buys wine for Easter dinner just like the rest of us.

Actually, I didn’t quite see the Easter Bunny back then, either. So technically this was my first actual sighting.

We were living in Naples, Italy, at the time. I’d awakened early Easter morning, excitedly anticipating the basket and associated goodies, only to find… nothing.

Nada. Zilch. The Easter bunny, apparently, hadn’t arrived.

Maybe he just hadn’t arrived yet, my parents suggested optimistically. Maybe he’d show up later on. There was still time! So, like the good Catholic family that we were, we headed off to Easter Mass.

Upon our return, I pushed through our creaky garden gate. My father was holding my hand. “Look!” he shouted suddenly. “It’s the Easter bunny! I saw his fluffy white tail!” And the two of us dashed off around the house in mad pursuit. I didn’t see anything, but I wasn’t as tall as my dad. And maybe, if we ran fast enough, I’d actually see the Easter bunny!

You know how this story ends: when we came in the front door, panting and puffing, we discovered a giant, green-and-yellow Easter basket on the kitchen table. We hadn’t succeeded in seeing him, but evidently the Easter bunny had arrived.

Even as young as I was, I put the pieces together pretty quickly. I never found out what happened to delay the Easter basket, or at what point my parents hatched the scheme.

And I don’t remember why I figured it out. Maybe it was the fact that my father, who hadn’t the slightest bit of whimsy, didn’t pull off his acting job quite credibly. All I know is that was the end of my believing in the Easter bunny.

Until now.

Happy Easter!

By Johna Till Johnson

Amaryllis blooms

Yes, I know it’s just good Friday. But the new amaryllis (gift from a friend) decided to bloom today. And for some reason, every year Good Friday is sunny and warm, and Easter Sunday is cold and gray.

So I’ll take my cue from the amaryllis and wish everyone a happy Easter, even if it’s early.

Here’s to resurrection and life!

And—if Easter isn’t your thing, or even if it is—here’s to bunnies and robins and flowers and springtime and the promise of summer ahead.

The Other Sights of Spring

By Vladimir Brezina

Sure, there are the sunlit showy blossoms that everyone stops to admire—

Other Sights of Spring 1Other Sights of Spring 2Other Sights of Spring 3Other Sights of Spring 4

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But deeper in the shadows, too, if you look closely, Spring is everywhere stirring to life.Other Sights of Spring 5Other Sights of Spring 6Other Sights of Spring 7

And what’s this?

Other Sights of Spring 8Other Sights of Spring 9Other Sights of Spring 10

A A A scrap of bread stirs to life the pond’s inhabitants, both expected…

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… and unexpectedOther Sights of Spring 11Other Sights of Spring 12Other Sights of Spring 13

More photos are here.