Tag Archives: Winter

Welcome to Spanish Harlem

Welcome to Spanish Harlem!

By Johna Till Johnson

They say old New York is dead.

The city’s hot lifeblood has gone thick and sluggish. Starbucks and suburbanization have driven a stake through its  heart.

They’re wrong.

The beating heart of New York never dies. You just need to know where to find it.  The pulse is particularly alive in Spanish Harlem, which shimmers with dynamic energy. It’s bright with color, even on a dark snowy day.

Spanish Harlem street corner

Like much of old New York, Spanish Harlem (also known as East Harlem or El Barrio) is known for many things: Poverty. Addiction. Gang violence (the area is home to the most dangerous block in the city, according to police statistics).

But Spanish Harlem is not defined by those things, or not defined only by them.

It’s diverse: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Asians, and a remnant of the original Italians who settled there in the early 1900s mingle with displaced WASP Upper East Siders and the influx of international staffers working at Mt. Sinai, the steadily-growing medical complex that dominates the southern part of the neighborhood.

There’s also a spirit of pride, and neighborliness. You’re more likely to be greeted with a nod and a smile here than anywhere else in the city.  “We’re all in this together,” is the unspoken sentiment.

Helping each other

More than that, Spanish Harlem is characterized by hope. It boasts one of the best high schools in all of New York state,  Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, which regularly sends local students to top-ranked universities.

There are a number of community gardens, decorated with whimsy and offering bright spots in the urban landscape.

And a surprising number of artists, poets, and musicians hail from Spanish Harlem. A notable one is Marc Anthony,  the top-selling salsa artist (and Jennifer Lopez’ ex-husband).

Above all, Spanish Harlem is the land of dreams.

Hall of Fame

I am not certain, but I suspect that the graffiti in this mural refers to the song Hall of Fame, which celebrates setting high goals and working to achieve them.

Yeah, you could be the greatest
You can be the best…
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself…

Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
‘Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame…

Do it for your people
Do it for your pride
How you ever gonna know if you never even try?

Harlem: Do it for your people


One of these is not like the others…

By Johna Till Johnson

On a cold winter’s day, I sip my morning coffee, scan my eyes idly across the rows of identical windows in the apartment building across the street… and squint a bit. What’s that? Apparently one of the apartment dwellers  hasn’t gotten the memo.

Some people just have to be different…and I’m glad!

Snowfall by the River

East River in snow

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve always loved the East River.

She’s not really a river at all, but rather a connector between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.  That topography accounts for her rapid currents, which are slightly out of sync with those of the Hudson (a tidal estuary). And it also accounts for much of her charm. To me, the East River has always been beautiful, mysterious, and slightly dangerous, with an allure that’s impossible to resist.

Before I learned to kayak, I’d walk along the river and think, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to go into the water?” Crazy thought! In addition to the swift currents, the East River was known in decades past for pollution and the occasional dead body. (These days, the water is much cleaner. There are even dolphins!)

After I took up paddling, I ended up actually in the East River more than once, usually by design (practicing capsizing in current) but one memorable time entirely by accident. And I’ve paddled its length many more times than that—my best count is that I’ve circumnavigated Manhattan around 40 times, and I’ve paddled out to Long Island Sound a handful of times as well.

But as is the case with most true loves, knowing the East River better only increases her allure.

It was natural, then, when a blizzard rolled in, for me to make time to go down to the East River and see what she looked like in snow.  I’m biased, but isn’t she gorgeous?

Happy New Year!

Snowfall in Washington Square Park

By Johna Till Johnson

The new year has begun, and with it, winter.

Somehow I’m never completely expecting the seasons when they finally arrive. On a sweaty day in July I truly can’t believe the ground will ever be covered in snow again… and yet, predictably, it is.

The beauty is no less delightful for its predictability. In fact, quite the opposite: each new snowfall is both like and unlike all other snowfalls.

Vlad used to say he never got bored, even paddling the same route over and over again. I believe this is partially what he meant: On a familiar route, you can appreciate both the familiar and the new.

May 2018 be full of both anticipated and unanticipated beauty. And may we appreciate it all!

A Winter Nighttime Paddle on the Hudson

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

George Washington Bridge from the north

December 3, 2017

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

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

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

There was just one catch.

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

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

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

Was that really wise?

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

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

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

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

The evening paddle it was!

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

Except for one thing…

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

Ahhh… nope!

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

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

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

Manhattan in a haze of pink

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

Riverdale Yacht Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supermoon rising over the Bronx

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

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

Little Red Lighthouse (and little red kayak)

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

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

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Trip 13: Peekskill to Manhattan Redux

By Vladimir Brezina

Bright sky beyond bare branches..

Saturday, 18 March 2000

7:43 a.m. Metro-North train to Peekskill. Sunny all day, no clouds at all (got sunburned), but chilly. Temperatures in the 30s, possibly just making it into the 40s. Some snow on the ground around Peekskill; puddles and shallow water spilling over into the parking lot frozen overnight.

Launched by 10:00 a.m. Paddled south against the current into Haverstraw Bay, then along eastern shore and across to Croton Point. 10-kt tail wind and 1-ft following seas (whitecaps in main channel), both increasing significantly alongside Croton Point and south into the Tappan Zee. Some icing on the boat from freezing spray.
Croton Point around noon. Followed eastern shore of Tappan Zee; wind and waves gradually diminishing. Lunch on north-facing beach at Philipse Manor, vey cold standing wet in the wind. Now good ebb current (close to spring tides today). South of the Tappan Zee wind completely calm; water mirror-smooth though still some residual ripples. Still very few boats (saw only three or four boats all day, mostly commercial, tugs and barges) but planes and helicopters flying over the river seemingly every couple of minutes.

Spent some time photographing around Yonkers. Wind then picked up from the south; head wind but not too strong. Reached Dyckman St. around 4:30 p.m. Paddling time around 6 hours; about 28 nm.

(Note: Vlad’s pale Eastern European skin was prone to sunburn, and he suffered badly from it—he would even get feverish at night.

Beyond that, the Vlad I met is emerging clearly from the page: casual familiarity with the tides (spring and neap), currents, and wind speeds. And completing a 28 nm trip in 6 hours is a characteristically blistering pace: 4.6 knots, or 5.4 miles per hour, some of it against the current!

Finally, it gratifies me that he found Yonkers, where I now keep one of my boats, pleasing enough to photograph. I’ve fallen a little bit in love with the place myself.)


Trip 12: Hudson River, Peekskill to Manhattan

By Vladimir Brezina

Winter sunshine on the Hudson

Sunday, 5 March 2000

7:34 a.m. Metro-North train to Peekskill. Spring-like day, mix of sun and clouds. Cold front crossing in the morning and early afternoon; mostly cloudy, then gradual clearing, and mostly sunny toward the end of the trip. Very windy all day; small-craft advisory. Launched around 9:45 a.m. Few ice floes still in Peekskill Harbor and in coves south of Peekskill, and some snow further south along the shoreline of Haverstraw Bay, but, part from the bare trees, these the only signs remaining of real winter. Water still cold (according to the Web in the mid- to upper- 30s), but no longer stinging on contact.

Paddled in moderate tail wind (10-15 knots) and following seas (1-2 ft), but against the flood current, south to entrance of Haverstraw Bay, then crossed to west shore and followed it south.

Sequence of points provided shelter from the wind, then wind and waves increased with fetch before the next point. Periods of increased gusty wind raised numerous whitecaps in the main channel through the middle of Haverstraw Bay. Water leaden grey except turning light brown in the brief intervals of sunshine. South to the Tappan Zee. Current now starting to ebb. Wind increased from the west, to 20 knots or so, just north of the Tappan Zee bridge. (Using wind meter, found that real wind speeds about 5 knots less than would have estimated. Quite strong wind was only about 15 knots.)

Confused 2-ft breaking waves. Boat trim incorrect, so very strong and hard-to-control tendency to turn directly into wind. (Note: Kayakers call this “weathercocking”. As Vlad notes, in some cases it can result from loading (“trimming”) the boat improperly; in other cases it’s an inherent quality of the craft.)

Must ballast stern in tail winds and following seas. Although open framework, Tappan Zee Bridge provided significant shelter for some distance past it, but the same conditions again just north of Piermont Pier. Lunch at Italian Gardens.

Hard to pee unobserved; people everywhere along the Palisades path, and no leaves to shield my mango suit. (Note: We kayakers are forever asked, “But how do you manage to pee?” The answer: With difficulty, it’s an art!)

Wind now apparently coming from the northeast, so crossed river back to the eastern shore. Clouds now starting to break. Making very fast progress with fast ebb current (probably speeded by runoff) and tail wind. Wind-with-current conditions really smooth out the water; waves only 6 inches, but breaking. (Against the current, this wind would have produced waves of 3 ft or more.) By Yonkers wind increased again to 15-20 knots for the rest of the trip, breaking waves building to 1-2 ft. Landed at Dyckman Street around 4:30 p.m.

(Note: This is Vlad coming into his own. Notice the attention he pays to wind and current conditions, plus obvious preparation beforehand (looking up the weather and water temp). What’s most significant—though also very subtle—is the way he compares the objective situation (“..according to the Web site, mid- to upper- 30s”) with his subjective experience of it (“…no longer stinging on contact.”). He does this several times in this piece. The net effect over years of experience will be his ability to gauge the situation at a glance, with almost supernatural accuracy. In future years he will be able to estimate the wind and water conditions and forecast the weather without appearing to consult any instrumentation–the Vlad I knew.)