Tag Archives: West Point

Down the Hudson: Hudson to Yonkers-Glory Hallelujah!

Johna in front of West Point

By Johna Till Johnson

“Glory, glory hallelujah!” My voice rang out strongly and surprisingly tunefully.

It was late morning, and I was just entering Peekskill Bay. The weather was perfect: Sunny, cool, with just enough breeze to generate a light chop. I felt my pace begin to pick up. A glance at the GPS confirmed it: I was going at least a knot faster than previously.

Ready to launch in the predawn at Denning Point

I’d discovered experientially that singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” made me pick up the pace by a knot or so.

No other song seemed to have that effect. “Eddystone Light” was fun to sing (especially the part about life upon the ro-o-o-o-lling sea) but it didn’t make me any faster. And neither did the various popular songs I could remember bits and pieces of (“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” was a particular favorite).

So here I was out in Peekskill Bay, singing Glory Hallelujah to keep the pace going.

I’d left Denning Point before dawn that morning, paddling against the current as the sun slowly rose. By around 8:20 I’d arrived at West Point.

Predawn on the Hudson

Unbeknownst to me, so had my friend Adam. He and his wife were on the early train into Manhattan, just a few hundred yards from me. He snapped a photo through the window, guessing the lone paddler might be me from the drybag strapped on my rear deck (likely indicating someone camping, rather than on a day trip.)

Just after West Point the current finally turned with me, but I wasn’t picking up much speed. Apparently the days before had tired me out a bit, even the “easy” day yesterday.

That’s when I tried singing, and discovered that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was good for at least an additional knot.

First view of West Point

It wasn’t just the rousing melody. The lyrics were inspiring, and even more so, the meaning. The writer, fellow New Yorker Julia Ward Howe, had created it to inspire Northerners to fight in a hard, ugly, brutal civil war that brought them no direct benefit.

Although I was hardly fighting a war, the idea of doing something difficult for the glory of it resonated.

The shoreline streamed by. The sun was bright, but there was a cool breeze  providing a tailwind. As I made my way around the curve (the river makes a hairpin turn around Peekskill Point), I mentally computed the currents. I’d have the ebb with me until about 3:30 PM, by which time I’d be at the Tappan Zee bridge (or pretty close.)

Then the current would turn against me.

But how bad could it be? The flood was only a knot, maybe a knot and a half. And I’d paddled against the current before. Under normal circumstances it would take maybe 2 hours to get back to Yonkers from the Tappan Zee. So, okay, tack on another hour—I’d be home by 6:30, 7:00 at the latest. Right?

Looking at West Point. Two minutes later, Adam would photograph me…

Of course, there was the question of what happened after that. I’d blithely departed Hudson after making arrangements to leave my car at the B&B where I’d spent the night. The plan was to take the train home from Yonkers.

The catch? I didn’t know exactly where the train station was. There was rumored to be one within walking distance of the boathouse. But the instructions I’d heard were obscure and faintly ominous. “You go through the hole in the fence and climb up on the track.” (No guidance on where the hole in the fence was, or what, precisely, “climbing up on the track” entailed.)

I’d had the presence of mind to jot down the train schedule before I left, so I knew the train stopped at Glenwood en route to Manhattan every hour at 26 minutes past. But finding it would be the trick.

There was the distinct possibility of ending up wandering around Yonkers in the dark with a bunch of camping gear on my back, looking for the mysterious hole in the fence.

Oh well, that was a long way off. And meantime, there was paddling to be done!

Glory, Hallelujah….

I made decent time, and by 3:30 I’d reached the Tappan Zee.

The route home. The “tiny” jig left was where I got out of the current…

As anticipated, the current had just changed, and was ever-so-slightly against me. Annoyingly, so had the wind, which was now coming from its usual direction, southwest. (Vlad : “Murphy’s law of kayaking is that the wind and current are always against you.” Also known as “Florida rules”.)

South of the Tappan Zee, the Hudson is shallow and marshy on the western shore, so that’s where I headed. Generally the current flows more slowly in the shallow parts of a river; and near the shoreline a paddler can take advantage of the back-eddy (where the current strikes protrusions on the shoreline and bounces back, thus going in the opposite direction to the main current).

With these tricks, even with the opposing wind and current, I was able to keep a good 2-3 knot pace, but there was a catch: I wasn’t headed straight home. Instead, to keep out of the wind and stay in the backeddy, I was making a long detour; I estimated it would add two-and-a-half or three miles to the trip. Which meant… another hour.

Now I’d arrive closer to 8 PM than 7 PM, if all went well.

I’d gone over 30 nautical miles by then, and I was feeling it. I paddled strongly, but didn’t manage to do much better than 3 knots. Slowly, the beautiful waterfront houses on the western shore slipped by. Ahead was Piermont Pier, a long spit of land reaching into the Hudson.

One summer, Vlad and I had made an overnight, full moon paddle to Piermont Pier. It’s still one of my most vivid memories. I remember napping on the benches, waiting for the current to change, watching the full moon touch the dark waves with shimmering silver. Dozing.

Vlad shaking me awake, gently: “Come on Johna, it’s time to go.” Paddling back to Manhattan in the gray pre-dawn, arriving at Pier 40 just as the sun was rising…

I’ve been to Piermont Pier a few times since, but it’s always inextricably entwined in my memory with silvery moonlight and dark waves. And Vlad.

Pollepel Island in the early morning

This time couldn’t have been more different. The sun was already low in the sky when I arrived, touching everything with honey-colored light. I turned east at the pier. Sheltered from the current, I was speeding along the length of the pier with the wind at my back, barely needing to paddle.

I marveled at the mix of people out enjoying the late Sunday afternoon. Hispanic families fishing. Orthodox Jewish families taking babies for a stroll. Young couples holding hands. Children waved at me, and I waved back.

Soon enough I’d rounded the pier and turned south again, hugging the shoreline of Piermont Marsh. For the first time my destination was visible in the distance: The twin brick towers of the abandoned power plant just behind JFK marina. It was probably still another hour or two away, but I was almost home!

In the peaceful late-afternoon light, I continued on down the western shore, taking advantage of the backeddy. Past Italian Gardens. Past the rockfalls on the Palisades.

Finally I decided to cross. Too early, as it turned out: The current swept me backwards, and I watched in frustration as landmarks that I passed earlier reappeared. But finally I was across. As the rosy sky began fading to darkness, I wended my way down the shoreline.

Soon there was the buzz of jetski engines, and the thumping sound of music, growing steadily louder.

New problem: the ramp was crowded.

Everyone was pulling jetskis out of water, backing trucks and trailers up to the ramp impatiently. I wouldn’t be able to unpack the boat on the ramp. But it was too heavy for me to carry up without unpacking.

Salvation! One of the guys who manned the marina office appeared, a young man around twenty, with tattoos on both arms. He helped haul the boat to a nearby stretch of grass.

I unpacked as quickly as I could in the gathering darkness, throwing all the camping gear into a giant waterproof backpack that I’d discovered among Vlad’s things. (I had one as well, but this one was nearly twice the size).

Staggering a little, I was able to lift to stand up wearing the pack. I mentally thanked my coach and the months of squats and deadlifts in the gym, then grabbed the nose of the boat (which was already mounted on its wheels) and started off towards the boathouse a quarter mile away. Around me, music blared, styles competing with each other at full volume. Latin. Hiphop. Soft rock. A running undertone was the monotonous jingle of the ice cream truck.

Suddenly the darkness was cut with red-and-blue flashing lights and amplified voices. Yonkers PD had arrived to clear everyone out of the park.

I chuckled at the difference between the previous peaceful days and this in-your-face urban vibe. I loved them both.

I packed up as quickly as possible, leaving most of the camping gear and stuffing just essentials into a small backpack (yes, I have lots of backpacks!)

Now what? It was full dark, and the woods behind the abandoned power plant didn’t look inviting. And Yonkers is an urban area (just north of the Bronx.)

Luck had been on my side the whole trip. Surely it would stay through the end?

I decided to check it out, and plunged into the darkness, lit only by the headlamp. A few minutes later, I was delighted to find…. Not a hole in the fence, but a wide-open pathway leading directly to the station. A few minutes’ investigation yielded the delightful fact that a short ladder climbed the six feet or so to the platform’s edge.

I sat down on the bench to wait, feeling pleased. Glory Hallelujah….

Just over an hour later I was back in my apartment in New York, much to the delight of my cat Mully.

And the next day the email from Adam arrived,  with the subject header: “Is this you?”

Indeed it was! One of the few photos of me on an expedition paddle, now that Vlad is gone.

Glory Hallelujah!

Yonkers at twilight

Special thanks to Henry at YPRC who gave me the encouragement to finally finish this, reminding me that at least one person is reading! Thanks, Henry! 

Trip 9: Hudson River, Beacon to Peekskill

Text and photo by Vladimir Brezina

Winter riverbank

Saturday, 18 December 1999

7:43 a.m. Metro-North train to Beacon. Launched by 10 a.m. Winter weather: temperature in the 30s all day, cold wind from the north. Partly overcast at first, then mostly sunny; pale blue winter sky, sun low down on the horizon.

Water temperature probably in the upper 40s. All trees bare by now. Paddled south with the ebb current and wind. Past Denning Point, Bannerman’s Island, Cold Spring, West Point. Lunch on Con Hook, cold in the wind (wearing only wetsuit, not yet drysuit), but warm enough out of the wind in the sun. Paddled further south to Peekskill; arrived in Peekskill Bay around 1:30 p.m. Explored the beginning of Annsville Creek; not very interesting now in the winter; shallow and muddy. Not enough daylight to continue to Ossining, so 3:19 p.m. train back to New York City.

(Note: We’re seeing the shape of the Vlad-to-come emerge in these few short sentences. He always particularly enjoyed winter paddling, which is a truly different experience from paddling on a warm summer’s day. In later years he will not be daunted by the onset of night, although paddling alone at night in winter certainly increases the risk.)

Trip 6: Hudson Highlands, October 1999

Text and Photos by Vladimir Brezina

More autumn colors

Sunday, 31 October

7:43 (?) a.m. Metro-North train to Beacon. Launched around 10 a.m. Sunny, but somewhat hazy all day. Ebb current in favor, but 10-knot head wind. Paddled south past Denning Point, Pollepel Island, Cold Spring, West Point, Arden Point. Foliage spectacular in this section of the river (all different colors, from flame red to bright yellow to various shades of brown), still close to its peak although a few trees here and there already bare. Leaves noticeably dropping in the wind.

Stopped for lunch and exploration at Con Hook, an island (joined to the western shore by a marsh) a mile or so south of Highland Falls. Picturesque miniature island, with varied rocky topography—miniature steep cliffs and hollows—and a great variety of tree species, now of many different colors. Even birches, pines, and wild cherries (?) but mainly oaks and aspens. On the ground, soft moss and red blueberry-type bushes. Great views through the trees across the river, and on the western side, across the marsh.

Autumn vine

Current now flooding, so back north along the same route. Spectacular embankments of yellow and orange trees on the mountainside along the eastern shore just north of Little Stony Point. Numerous solo and groups of kayakers on the water; even more so than ever in the summer. Sun setting behind thickening clouds. Back at Beacon around 4:45 PM, with last fading light (today first day back on Standard Time). Train to New York.

Note: Vlad’s scientific mind and emphasis on precision shows in those parenthetical (?)’s, which of course indicate a guess rather than confident knowledge. Those who knew Vlad well remember his often-repeated comment: “Details matter!”—in science, art, writing, and life. His emphasis on getting the details exactly right usually illuminates his writing and brings it to life. But we sometimes argued over his tendency to include too many details, which in my view slows down the narrative. (He usually agreed.) 

It’s also worth noting that this adventure happened the day after the last one—nothing made Vlad happier after a long kayaking trip than another long kayaking trip! Even on our multi-day camping excursions, he would settle into the boat each morning and exclaim, “Feels SO good to be back in the boat!”

Trip 2: Hudson Highlands, September 1999

Ardent Point looking south

Text and photos by Vladimir Brezina

Saturday, 25 September 1999

Metro-North train to Beacon. Launched around 2:15 p.m. Sunny, temperature in the 70s. Ebb just starting (spring-tide currents this weekend), light north wind in favor. Water still warm-ish especially in certain places, but clearly cooling. Some floating debris still left from Hurricane Floyd ten days ago, but water generally back to its normal degree of green-gray murkiness; coffee color gone.

Out and back from Beacon, camping at Arden Point

Paddled south along the eastern shore, past Denning Point and Bannerman’s Island, then crossed over to western shore. Ebb current now seemingly 2-3 knots, tail wind intensifying to 15 knots. Moderate following sea.

Paddled into lagoon behind railway under Storm King Mt. Then south past Cold Spring, crossed back east into Foundry Cove and Constitution Marsh. Miniature rapids under the railway on stream ebbing out of the marsh. (The same elsewhere: the strongest currents on the whole river may be those sweeping in and out of these marshes and lagoons with every flood and ebb.) Finally south past West Point and Garrison to Arden Point campground.

The view from Arden Point

Everywhere trees mostly still green, but some kinds already yellowing, noticeably more than last weekend. beautiful contrasts of yellow and occasionally orange or red foliage picked out by the sunshine from the green, against the blue sky. Took pictures. Many orange and black monarch butterflies fluttering over the water on their migration south.

Arrived at Arden Point about 6 p. m, just as sun disappeared behind hills on western side of river. The campsite (south end of Arden Point) has every natural amenity (no man-made ones). Stony beaches either side of a group of rocks elevated over the river with views both south to Bear Mt. Bridge and north to West Point; flat areas, some with moss, on several levels under tall trees just behind. West-facing: great location to view sunset and moon over the river, though cold in the morning as sun does not reach the campsite until some time after sunrise.

At midnight woken by full moon shining brightly right in my face. Somewhat cold in old sleeping bag toward the morning: now definitely need warmer sleeping bag, and warm, dry camp clothes and shoes. A little stove to make coffee or chocolate on a cold morning?

(Johna: By the time I knew him, Vlad never camped anywhere without his trusty stove. We had a mixed relationship: I swore by the Jetboil, and he tolerated it, but secretly held the stove in reserve should the Jetboil fail. However, he really did enjoy coffee in the morning and hot chocolate at night, which I was happy to make. So it makes me smile to see his musings about the “little stove to make coffee… on a cold morning?” )

Eagle alights!

Sunday, 26 September
Left around 8:15 a.m. Sunny at first, then broken overcast. Paddled south with the waning ebb, and moderate tail wind, almost to Bear Mt. Bridge. Went into Popolopen Creek (steep wooded sides above still water, very picturesque) , then into the marsh just north of Iona Island. Many hawks (?) circling overhead everywhere (Johna: Could also have been eagles; the photo here was taken not too far away, over ten years later. ) especially along edge of woods; later saw one capture a pigeon-sized bird in flight, with much squawking. Current now starting to flood. Becoming sunny once more. North back to Arden Point (lunch around 12 noon) then through World’s End. Just before, heard two deep hoots, and an enormous red-yellow ship, followed by a tug, emerged very slowly to turn downriver past West Point. North past Cold Spring, then hugging shore all the way back to Beacon. Now wind from the south, moderate following seas. Shore-line woods very colorful; took many pictures. Many kayakers and canoeists, mostly solo or in pairs, on the water. Beacon around 3:30 p.m.