Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Kind of Music That Grooves the Soul

I spent three days on lakes trying to teach myself how to roll my kayak. I was cold. I kept getting water up my nose despite my nose plug. And I was spending much too much time upside down in my kayak trying desperately to right it much like a turtle would his shell, except turtles can hold their breath for hours.
So I hired a friend of a friend, John from Kayak East, to teach me to roll. He gave me a lesson during which I used his whitewater kayak. He was good and by the end of the lesson I was successfully rolling the kayak on my own most of the time.
The YPRC is a paddling club in Yonkers that boasts “Home to Olympic Champions” and is more importantly home to some really friendly folks. I was scheduled to join them at 6:00 for an evening paddle to be followed by a BBQ (traif) up in Yonkers. So I put in the water, again under the GWB (this time I left my car in a real parking space) and paddled up to Yonkers. I got there a couple of hours early and began working on my roll. I was getting most of them at first, but as I continued to practice I was getting less and less and not more and more. This may have been because I was getting tired, and it may have been because my technique was bad and getting worse. I didn't know.
On Wednesday I spent a couple hours on the water and finished with a successful roll. I was confident that I was getting it.
On Thursday I got my gear together for an overnight trip, the first of the season, and was on the water by late afternoon. I paddled north for a couple hours, fighting against the current, and made camp at the northern end of the Palisades Park. At 4:30 the next morning I was up and out at first light. Again heading north and against the current. I struggled all day in this fashion to get to Croatan Point for the Clear Water Festival. Without knowing much about it, I had agreed to volunteer for the YPRC at the festival.
Croatan Point is a one mile peninsula of parkland into the Hudson in a section where the river is two miles wide. The shores are beautifully forested with the palisades opposite the park creating one of the lower Hudson's most scenic locations.
I had read in my guide book that there is an out of the way campsite at Croatan Point that is maintained by the Hudson River Trail Association (HTRA) and marked by an HTRA sign reserved exclusively for the use of paddlers. In anticipation of campsites overcrowded by festival goers, I began to look for this more remote option. Paddling along the beachy woods in search of the sign I soon found a woman swimming with her dog. She asked me how far I had paddled to get there and seemed satisfied with my answer. Apparently, in her judgment, I had in fact come far enough to be worthy of the hidden campsites nestled into the thickly wooded hill above, near enough the festival grounds to be convenient, yet far enough away to be completely hidden and provide total privacy. I was shown the well hidden sign I was looking for and the woman explained to me that she was on the beach every day because she's a professional dog nanny, sadly the sweet fellow in her charge is getting on in years and limps from arthritis. Together they had the self appointed task of helping the many paddlers in my position. That task is a worthy one and I hope that fine dog will continue his good work for a while longer before he retires.
A note to other paddlers, the site is being overrun by poison ivy so be careful where you step.
One of my missions there was to know and learn from the more experienced paddlers in the Yonkers club so I ended up moving my gear to the location set aside for us. The club was there trying to get as many of the festival goers as possible to get some supervised time on a sit on top kayak on the river. The more people love the river and have fun on it, the more they will try to protect it.
After my gear was moved and I had helped with moving boats about I returned to work more on my Eskimo roll. I missed the first two rolls but got the last three. With my successes I took a moment to reflect on the situation, and then frantically capsized again and made a wet exit in pursuit of my glasses. I swam down against the buoyancy of my life jacket, then came up to take it off and in a moment was again searching the floor of the river. It's called the clear water festival, but the Hudson isn't very clear and I soon gave up.
Later that evening, as I was on my way to my pre-sabbath shower I talked to a woman who told me that I had a very cool hairdo and that I must have worked very hard on it. When describing what my hair looks like after a roll, the word “swirl” comes to mind.
On the sabbath itself I was helpful by standing on the beach and instructing people how to get into their boats, not to go past the buoys, and not to stay out too long. It is a sin to enter a boat on the sabbath (as I understand such things) but an obligation to pursue at all costs the saving of someone's life, so when early in the afternoon a kayaker from the club said he had lost track of his partner in some extremely challenging surf I was out on the water as quickly as possible in the direction of the missing paddler. I had only been out for a few moments however when he was finally reached by radio, so I returned my boat to the beach and left it there for the remainder of the day.
The next morning I was up early and practicing my roll. Initially the method I would use to reenter my boat after a wet exit (a failed roll) is called cowboy style since it involves straddling the bow of the boat like a horse and very carefully inching my way up towards the seat. I was now only getting my roll about a third of the time, however I did make significant progress with my reentry. Instead of getting back in the boat cowboy style, which is said to be impossible in rough water, I was now getting back into the boat by inserting myself underwater into the upside down cockpit and then completing the roll. As it turns out, a boat that's full of water is much easier to roll then an empty one despite well meant claims to the contrary that haunted me later on that day.
Mid morning had come and I had the job of perimeter, which meant that I was supposed to sit in my kayak and make sure everyone on the water was safe and didn't go past the buoys risking the current.
While I was out there on the water being bored I thought I would instead work some more on my roll, and began to do so. No luck, I had made several attempts. While some of them were close, I was soon out of air and made my wet exit. A fellow kayaker who shall be called the Captain was watching me. And now the Captain began talking to me. He had a lot of unhelpful things to say, like “You should be doing an extended paddle roll and not a C to C roll.” and it became clear that saying unhelpful things was something he was very good at, with the best of intentions.  (This was unhelpful because it in no way improved my C to C roll which is what I was working on.)
While this was going on, another kayaker, Ginger rolled her boat to show everyone else there, all the inexperienced kayakers on the sit on tops, how it should be done. This would have been more discouraging if Ginger wasn't gorgeous. She then offered me some tips, which I used as an excuse to ask her to meet me later in the day for additional coaching, but some how she knew I was hitting on her and politely declined.
My boat had taken on some water and in order to reenter cowboy style I would need to get the water out first as it made the boat more unstable. The Captain told me that I couldn't do it and that removing water wouldn't help. In his defense he did offer to help me get back in my boat, but I wanted to do it on my own.   So, thanks to the Captan's string of almost helpful comments I had not removed the water from my boat as I should have and was soon again holding onto my boat while floating next to it.
I had considered reentering it underwater and finishing the roll but I had been asked to cease any additional attempts to roll since it was important that we give the public the impression that we knew what we where doing and I clearly didn't. I had now been caught up in the current, much further out then I had realized. For a time I tried to use my paddle to swim against it but once I realized how strong it was I instead swam perpendicular to it and ended my disgraceful adventures for the morning.
A righteous fellow named Harley heard about my shame and worked with me that afternoon to fix my degraded efforts. He then told me that I would forget again and taught me what I would need to do to reteach myself. That evening I did some on my own and while I still wasn't getting every one, I didn't need to make a single wet exit. A tremendous victory.
There's an interesting person at the Yonkers club. I shall call him here, River Man. Often without a shirt, this fellow of indeterminate age (between 30 and 85) and too much time under the sun regularly paddles his canoe solo with a double bladed paddle of his own design. River Man was the only other person from the club to have paddled up and on Monday morning we both headed South with the current and made it home with only half a day under the hot sun. I was told that River Man knows more about the tides and currents of the Hudson then anyone else out there.
On Tuesday I again headed out to paddle with the YPRC and work on my rolls. I was still nailing almost all of them and some experts from the club were able to provide me with some genuinely constructive criticisms to get my technique close to perfection. The BBQ afterward was still trafe, but when the Commodore of the club (I didn't make this one up) realized that I was not partaking in their weekly festivity due to my dietary restrictions she declared “I am the commodore damn it, and I insist that a watermelon be opened” So I ate watermelon and it was good.
The other point of interest that evening was that I did meet a person of Olympic prowess at the club. A young lady, Eli, who had competed on the Italian Olympic fencing team until recently has offered me what assistance she can for when I'll off her native shores. I'm always happy to get invitations along my route.
My roll is not yet perfect and once I do manage to get it every time on flat water I'll have to learn to do it on my left side. And then I'll need to start trying it on rough water. It's an ongoing process, but thanks to help from the good patient people at the YPRC and elsewhere, I have in the last couple of weeks learned a great deal.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An Argument For a Better Policy

Early Friday afternoon I had the kayak on the roof of my car and was once again on my way to the Hudson. And just as I had done several times before I drove down a steep hill surrounded by very nice private homes and pulled up to the small grassy stretch of the Hudson River walk way that was a suitable put in. I will add, and take from this note what you will, that there is no “no parking” sign there. It's not that I didn't see it, it's that it's not there.
It was a beautiful sunny day as I put my boat on the water at a very low spring tide and took a moment to admire the baby geese that seemed to like the spot. I decided to head south so that I would be fighting the tide going out and riding it coming back. I would paddle along the Manhattan side, having emotionally recovered from the experience of the preceding Friday and done all my training on the NJ side so far this week.
As I crossed the mostly calm waters I was rewarded with the sound of excellent jazz drifting over the waves. While at first I could not identify the trumpet player, as I drew closer I was able to see, and eventually pull up to, a wonderful musician with his instrument faced out over the Hudson, as though he where playing for the fish. I sat there and listened to him for a while, reflecting on the fact that I too own a trumpet, and that if I could play like that, or even get out twinkle twinkle little star without having to read the notes, then I would probably would have made less enemies in the dorm building that I'd lived in. I sat, letting the music wash over me while making sure the waves didn't.

I headed south close to the shore. There was a bike trail just above me and the cyclists would look down and smile and I would smile back and nod. One particularly pretty one earned a wave. One woman called out to me that it looked like I was having fun and asked if there was room for one more. But as I pulled near she could see that there wasn't. I apologized and move on with a “have a nice day”.
Before long I was in midtown and large docks with pier numbers written on them jutted way out into the water, so I could no longer hug the bike path full of happy people. Many of the docks had the words “Coast guard protected area, stay clear 100 yards” or something like that, written on them. I cruised by only a few feet away hoping that the sign didn't apply to me. If someone from the coast guard is reading this and intends to hunt me down, know that by a “few feet” I mean a hundred yards.
I passed what appeared to be a ferry hub, making for my most challenging bit yet. At times I had to speed up as fast as I could to let them pass behind me and at other moments I had to stop to let them move in front of me. These efforts where made trickier by the constant waves sent through the water in every direction by the wake of the boats and the knowledge that that would not be a good place to fall in if I was disinclined to find out what one of the NY waterway ferries looks like from underneath while a life jacket insured that my view would be very very close.
Soon however that was all behind me. I passed an aircraft carrier, and a boat with what looked like a small British Airways jet on its deck. I passed a helipad which was the source and destination of much of the helicopter traffic that had been flying over me throughout the day. And my watch's alarm went off, indicating to me that the time had come to turn around.
I crossed the river over to the NJ side putting myself again amongst the ferries, though farther from their port there were fewer of them and they where farther apart, and before long finished my crossing.

The NJ side of the river is boring.
As I approached the small section of the Hudson River Walkway where I had put in I pulled into a sort of a sprint to get the most out of my training and was soon exhausted and taking my boat out of the water. I picked the kayak up on my shoulder, grabbed the paddle in my other hand, and went to the car. Aside from the considerable weight of having the kayak on my shoulder, my short walk to the car was made more difficult by the fact that I couldn't find it. Now, I am the sort of person who loses things, but there was only one parking spot, and no matter how many time I tested my memory, I was still sure, that that one parking spot was the place where I had left the car. This obviously presented a sort of a challenge. I put my kayak down, my mind somewhat befuddled and began looking for the car. Clearly somebody had moved it, maybe they had only moved it a little.
In my rambling walk I had come to realize that my car had either been towed or stolen. There was no reason to think I had parked illegally so I tried to remember if I had locked the car. I usually lock the car, but not always. I didn't know.
I came upon a woman speed walking in the street with an outfit indicating she was exercising and would rather not be bothered. “Excuse me” I called. She didn't answer so I tried again. I got her attention and asked her if cars were often stolen (in this extremely wealthy neighborhood). No? Is there a reason why my car would have been towed? No? She recommended that I ask some of the construction workers at a house nearby, maybe they had seen something.
I walked some more and found someone who I think would have been very helpful had he spoken English. But he didn't. An American today, in many parts of the country, should know some Spanish. But I live in Israel, know Hebrew, and need to learn Arabic next.
I soon found a woman holding a leash with a small dog attached to it. I began by explaining to her my problem. “Umm, I've lost my car. It's a red station wagon. Have you seen it?”
“Where did you leave it?”
“I left it down by the Hudson River Walkway.”
“Oh. We call that the beach. Are you sure that that's where you left it?”
Yes, I was sure. She too was sure that it had not been towed since, while parking anywhere in the community was technically against the rules for nonresidents, they weren't “sophisticated enough” to tow a car. Most likely, had it come to the attention of the community authorities that a car was inappropriately left there “they would have left a sticker.” She asked me again if I was sure that I remembered where I had left it.
I was still sure.

She explained to me that she was particularly invested in helping me because she had lead a neighborhood campaign to restore the missing no parking sign.

I began to thank her for her help. I explained to her that I would walk home and come back to pick up my kayak with a different car on Sunday. I asked her if she thought my kayak might get stolen (or towed?) She wasn't sure, clearly I was not having a lucky day.
A woman drove by in a station wagon and asked what was happening. The station wagon was the same as mine, only a different color. Had she taken mine and painted it? No, the inside was much too clean and had a girl named Hannah in it. I was quite sure that if I had left a girl named Hannah in my car I would have remembered. Either way, she kindly offered me a ride.
“I couldn't help but notice that your car has roof racks.” I said.
“May I put my boat on them?”
“Sure, go right ahead. Can I give you a hand?”
On my way home I listened to the two young ladies in the car explain to me that their school was having a bakeathon for a walkathon for an important cause.
And I lived happily ever after. That is, until I had to deal with the people who towed my car.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Training Day One

Friday June 4th

Training day 1:

It is the case that I do not know how to Eskimo roll. I have never capsized and I have never been so far away from land that if I had capsized I wouldn't have been able to make it back by swimming with a boat in tow. As much time of my training as is necessary will be dedicated to mastering the roll, so that I can do it with any boat in any condition. And all that starts the day after tomorrow.

I have recently arrived in America, where I will be staying in northern NJ with my folks in order to train for my trip. With my morning taken up by a young lady, I had only a few precious hours of my first day back to take my boat out on the water. With the Sabbath beginning at 8:05pm I had to be back home and showered before that time, and preferably before services which where scheduled for 7:30, or else face the consequences of sin. Since there is often significant traffic coming out of the city into NJ, that would mean that I had to leave the Hudson, my destination, by 6:00 and be out of the water by 5:45. I threw the boat on the car, and drove to a small put-in just South of the George Washington Bridge (GWB).

A small grassy area between two houses that cost more then I will probably make in my entire life, is marked as part of the Hudson River Walkway. The Hudson River Walkway is a path along parts of the NJ side of the river that allows one to walk alongside and admire the Hudson and the view, in this case, of Manhattan, on the other side. This particular section of the Hudson River Walkway allows a leisurely stroll of almost 20 ft before turning back and a park bench for sitting on.

As I brought my boat down to the water I said “Hello” to the friendly couple sitting on the bench and eating a late lunch. The fellow politely though sternly asked me if I had a permit to put my boat in there. Rats. “No? Do I live in, or am I staying at any of the adjacent houses? ”

I responded quite cleverly “Ehh.”

The woman, however, was beginning to laugh, and told him to stop, she informed me that he was putting me on and that she was sorry on his behalf. We then had a friendly chat. Among other things I informed them that I happen to be a decent kayaker and that I was training for an expedition. They jestingly expressed concern that this late on a Friday afternoon I might find myself violating the laws of the Sabbath, and while I took the concern more seriously then they, I still had 45 minutes to make my boat move as fast as I could on the river.

The feeling of pulling out, having not been in a kayak for 3 months, was a good one. I was in the water and on the move with my two onlookers behind me. I thought that I would start by crossing the river, which was at a slack tide. The sky was overcast, but almost no wind so, alas, there were no waves. I would soon be appreciative of this fact.

The bridge was on my left and I was crossing the river. My hat blew off, so I went after it and capsized. A few points: I have kayaked the length of the Hudson, from Albany to the GWB and not once capsized, as I wrote earlier, before that moment. But this was training, so when my hat blew off and landed some distance behind me, it was a perfect opportunity, or so I thought, to try a new technique. Leaning the boat way over on its side so that less of it would be in the water should allow me to turn faster. I have been leaning on my turns for a long time now, but I had recently seen a picture in a kayaking book of the author, Derek Hutchinson, leaning so far in to his turn that his shoulder was only inches away from the water. And that's what didn't work for me.

So I was sitting in my boat under water as I had done in the past when beginning to learn to roll, and contemplating, “Is this a good a time to learn to roll?” I decided that, no, I wanted as little of the Hudson water going up my nose as possible, and pulled my spray skirt's loop letting myself out.

Rule Number One: Never ever ever let go of your boat.

I had neither a baler nor pump with me, after all, it was just going to be 45 minutes of pushing myself on the water, not a long haul. Training is all about learning, and there are mistakes I made that I will not repeat. I did however have with me a really big sponge.

The boat was upside down and I was treading water next to it, made much easier by my life jacket. Also, as a result of years of experience, I had not let go of my paddle. I looked around, no freighters coming, thank the Maker, and I couldn't tell which shore was closer, rats, I was very much in the middle.

I managed to right my boat with only a small amount of the river getting in. My sponge, which was stored behind my seat was then used to remove the remaining water.

Reentering a kayak is tricky business for those who can't yet roll, and cannot be done from the side since that would just result in tipping it again. And without my spray skirt and me covering the cockpit, if my reentry failed I risked filling the boat up with water. So I managed to get the front of the boat in between my legs and begin the tricky task of inching my way forward without tipping the boat.

Closer … closer … just a little more .. I began trying to figure how to turn around and get my legs into the boat, and then it tipped a little and I couldn't quite right it, and some water got in, and then it tipped some more, and I was back in the drink and my boat had taken some on.

When at first you don't succeed, try try again.

Bailing, this time more water to get out. I also was now kicking at the same time to begin moving the whole operation towards the NYC side which seemed a little closer (Or was it just my imagination). I had made some progress with the bailing when I noticed a mid sized boat coming in my direction fast. Uh oh. I began waving my paddles and arms in the air, I needed the boat to see me. It was far enough away so that I could probably escape, and so I began to swim frantically towards the NJ side, but not letting go of my kayak, away from the oncoming boat. Swim damn it, swim!

Finally I turned around to sea the boat slowly pull to a stop about a hundred feet away. On it, a man in military dress, presumably Coast Guard, asked me if I was OK.

“Yes, thanks I'm OK” I called. I gave him two thumbs up and a smile so that there would be no doubt.

“Do you need a hand?”.

“I think I need to get myself out of this mess.” After all, if I needed the Coast Guard to help me every time a little thing went wrong, then I would not be expedition material. In order to demonstrate I began again attempting to reenter my kayak, except there was still to much water in it. And as the Coast Guard pulled away my kayak tipped again, this time the weight of the water puling it all the way over, causing it to swamp completely. The good news was that the Coast Guard would now be keeping track of my location; I would not need to worry about freighters (I still worried, but there weren't any).

I began using my sponge to bail. Stick it into the now full cockpit, take it out, squeeze. Stick it in, take it out, squeeze. Wave, and the cockpit was full again. There was no progress, I tried some more, but I couldn't get the water out. The boat was too low.

At first, I attempted a side stroke while holding onto the boat with the paddle firmly lodged inside of it. I had in the past practiced swimming using the powerful strokes of the paddle to pull myself forward, and now I remembered that. I got ahold of my tow rope, which was soon secured tightly to the shaft of my paddle, I learned the hard way that knots come undone more easily when tied under water, and began pulling myself and my boat in tow towards the shore.

My trick, with any sort of time consuming physical activity, weather it's a long bike ride, or a 10km run, is not to check my watch or count increments, but to tell myself that it will never end. I employed this mental technique here. I was making slow progress, lugging a boat full of water across the Hudson, and I told myself quite simply, I would never get there. This was what I would spend eternity doing, so I had better figure out how to enjoy it. And so it became a pleasant never ending, slow going, swim with paddles. Why not, that was what there was and that's all there would be. I noticed a helicopter hovering overhead for quit some time. The last few days here have been really hot, so despite the time of year, the water was comfortable, and of course, I couldn't feel the carcinogens, so that's all there was to it. There's a nice red light house under the NYC side of the GWB and I admired it as I tediously pulled myself forward. Soon, I noticed there where cyclists and a group of people that I could just make out on the shore who seemed to be watching my progress. Were they getting bigger, maybe? It didn't matter since I would be out there forever either way. I tried to make sure that I wasn't swimming towards a particular point on the shore but in the general direction of the City so that if I did get caught up in a current I wouldn't be fighting it. The helicopter was gone but before long another, or the same one, had appeared in a different spot. I was worried that I wouldn't make it back for the Sabbath, but I pushed such thoughts aside since I would be on the water forever.

Someone on the shore was waiving to me, he was too far away to hear me so I tried giving him the thumbs up again. But he was too far away to see. I though that any larger hand gestures I made might appear as struggling and from this distance shouting might sound like screaming, so I continued my methodical paddle swim as the man on the beach took of his shirt and began waiving it in the air.

Eventually, and it was a long time, though much sooner then the eternity I had imagined, I was close enough for him to shout “Are you OK?”

“I'm fine, thank you.” A moment later “How are you?”

The conversation went on a little longer. He wanted to make sure and I thanked him for his concern. I don't remember your name, sorry, but if your reading this, again, thank you. And he had in his concern called an ambulance and as I finally pulled up there where paramedics there waiting to make sure I was OK. Yes, I was fine. Soon there was another ambulance, and a couple of police cars, and a couple of fire department vehicles, and a whole lot of people in uniform to stand around me and watch me begin the process of getting the water out of my boat. I thanked them for their concern and didn't know what else to say. One fellow was able to provide me with drinking water, which was a kindness (remember, I hadn't intended to be out for very long, so my water was in the car.)

It's a shame that all the forces of the city of NY where unable to contact the coast guard, whom I had already spoken to, in order to help someone in the water. But instead, these noble rescue services had to wait for me to get myself to land before they could ask me if I needed help, though I imagine if my progress was not steady someone would have swam out, still not the best way of dealing with it.

I finished getting the water out of my boat, got back in it, and kayaked as fast as I could back to the NJ side. I made it home about 20 minutes before the Sabath started. If it had come while I was still driving I would have had to get out of the car and walk, or risk damnation. I showered the Hudson off of me, sat down, and thought, 'Huh, I guess I might have gotten a little more exercise then I had intended.