Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Breaking Winter

In the fall, I paddled short distances with friends on the Hudson.  On our last outing I rolled in 34 degree water with ice floating around me.  

Then the river froze, and I taught and trained in a pool.
I finally built the skin-on frame Greenland kayak I’d been dreaming about for years and named her May after my grandmother.

I began planning my upcoming 500 nautical mile Norwegian fjord excursion.
Spring came and I got back out on the water.  I paddled around my neck of the woods, and helped the YPRC install their new dock.
A long time had passed since I’d done anything resembling distance.  I needed to get out there, paddle somewhere new, even if it was just for the weekend.  I needed to see what I was still capable of, and explore a portion of our beautiful earth.
I looked at Martha’s Vineyard.  We could launch from the mainland, cross to the island, camp on the south shore, possibly at a wild life refuge, and then complete the circumnavigation on the following day.  
Kayak Cowgirl, my paddle buddy, is a planner.  She likes to take the time to make sure every aspect of a trip is accounted for, and not the sort of person to say “That looks like so much fun it’s worth the risk of going to jail!”
Illegal camping on Martha’s Vineyard was out.  So were the Captain Islands off of Greenwich.  It turns out that much of America’s most beautiful coastline is privately owned.
Some friends of Kayak Cowgirl, Two Geeks Three Knots (TGTK), had a better plan.  We could camp on the Norwalk Islands.  Kayak Cowgirl and I would put in on the Housatonic, paddle to the archipelago on Friday, camp and meet TGTK on Saturday, and the four of us paddle together to Larchmont on Sunday.
Day 1:
I woke up at 6:00, earlier than I had become accustomed to in my recently lazy lifestyle.  I had loaded most of my gear and boat the night before.  I picked up Kayak Cowgirl in the city, then her boat, and finally drove to the launch in Stratford where we unloaded our kayaks and supplies.  
As we packed up the boats a small Asian woman approached me.
“I’m not interested.”
She handed me a pamphlet and told me it would be good for me and my children.
On the cover a man meditated in the grass.  The image promised that if I joined her cult, I too could meditate peacefully in grass.  I didn’t read the words because I was worried they would trap me.
After she had approached me with such a hopeful expression I felt guilty about tossing her message of peace and love aside without so much as opening it.
A man came off his boat and warned us against nine to ten knot currents.  He rescued a 60 year old kayaker just last week.  “It’s always the old people” who needed rescuing, he told me.  Nine to ten knot currents was unbelievable.  Rats, I meant to check the currents, but it was never a high priority on account of our launching only a couple of miles from the mouth of the river.  A head current of that magnitude would whisk us in the wrong direction and a tail current would would be the tristate sea kayaking equivalent of a bullet train.  At the moment however, the tide was slack.
A few days earlier I called a nearby supermarket for permission to leave my car in their lot.  After working my way through a multiple choice machine to customer service the conversation went something like this.
“Hi, I’m going kayaking for the weekend, can I please leave my car in your parking lot for a couple of nights?”
“I’m not sure,”  she told me.  “The store is open in the night so I don’t see why not.”
“The landlord probably won’t mind,” she went on.
“Is there any sort of security that might have me towed?”
“There is parking lot security.  They drive around once in a while.  They probably won’t notice.”
“Okay, thanks.”
I had been hoping for, “Yes, we give you permission to park there.  If you have any trouble, this is my number.” but the positive uncertainty would have to do.  I left a note on the car with Kayak Cowgirl’s number and my dad’s saying we had permission and we’d be back Sunday night.
I left the car alone in the parking lot on the side of the supermarket and walked for five minutes back to my gear.
My beat-up accident-prone Subaru sat in the lot with a note under the window.  The Ford next to it felt uncomfortable with the atmosphere of abandonment.  Nobody wants to be stuck next to the junker.  Sure, there was a note, but how reliable was that?  Shouldn’t the police come and tow it away?  This is how good parking lots go bad.
The Ford squealed with the tickling sensation of its driver remotely unlocking her doors.  The driver opened the door and fresh air flowed through Ford’s insides.  A butt settled into his seat and a key his ignition.  He cruised away, leaving bad parking lot behind.  
Soon another car left, and then another.  One at a time they fled the stale air of the unwanted that emanated from my Subaru.  Racks reached out from the edge of the roof, but no kayaks.
Without any other cars around, the Subaru couldn’t hide from the lot’s security.  A man with a goatee and flashlight read the note softly.  “He says he’ll come back Sunday,” he called to his friend.
The friend nodded.  “Figures.”
The hours passed slowly without company.  The sun rolled across the sky.
It shone down on Kayak Cowgirl and me as we paddled over glassy water with a gentle tailwind.  We skirted around a marsh on our way out of the Housatonic and paddled out to sea.  We passed lighthouses and numbered buoys that were marked on our charts.  We picked out large and obvious landmarks on the horizon that were not marked on our charts.

What looked like a spit in the distance morphed into the Norwalk Islands around us.  We picked out our island.  Their was a house on it and box of some sort that at first looked like a man on the beach, and when we got closer didn’t.
The island wasn’t Shea Island, where we had arranged to meet TGTK.  From where we were, it looked like the southernmost island, only it wasn’t.  On closer inspection the island to the north of us was connected by a low sandbank to the island with the fake man and we were in a lagoon.  With a little moseying, we found our way through the archipelago to Shea.  
After dismounting, it took a few moments before I could straighten my cockpit cramped legs.  Kayak Cowgirl was happy to be out of her boat as well and together we hauled our kayaks up to a flat shell bed just above the high tide line.
The Sabbath was coming, so we roasted Turkey legs and potatoes over a small campfire.  Set up camp.  And welcomed a day of rest to our small island with wine and stories by the fire.  A full moon in a clear spring sky brought the water up near our camp and made the rest of the world seem like it was a far off country where life had less color and joy.  The power plant just across the water in Norwalk with it’s towering illuminated stacks was more than just a lone eyesore, it was the symbol of the world we left behind for our island getaway. The glassy moon-light swells that met the beach made almost no sound at all.
On Saturday we explored the island.  It was connected to three or four other islands at low tide when we were exploring.  We turned back halfway across one of the longer temporary land bridges because we didn’t want the tide to trap us on the other side away from our camp.
The Long Island Sound is named after Captain Sound who first explored the region in 1638.  He wrote back to the King of Belgium that the region was uninhabitable and not suitable for colonization.  That was the last time he was heard from.  The whereabouts of his ship, Kleine Prinses, were never discovered.
At low tide large wooden and metallic rubbish stretched out of the mud flats.  Were those the remains of the Kleine Prinses?  I walked out to investigate.  My shoes got muddy and stinky as my heels sunk down and the seafloor slime slid between my toes, so I turned around and headed for higher ground while Kayak Cowgirl chuckled.
I napped on the beach and read Treasure Island because it seemed appropriate.
The sun shown down and the air was warm but not hot.
In the evening TGTK arrived.  They set up their camp next to ours.  Brought out more wine and offered to share their dinner, but that was unnecessary since Kayak Cowgirl took out her burritos.  The fire and the wine warmed us, and the full moon smiled down and lit our camp.  Kayak Cowgirl’s binoculars brought it so close we could almost touch it.
Day 2:
There was some theory that we’d launch early on Sunday to beat the midday heat.  But we didn’t, and it was okay because the water was still under 50 degrees and that kept us cool.  It was also full of sewage.  Slime slid over the waves for most of the 18 miles and I only rolled in the rare clear spot, which was probably a bad idea, but I really like to roll.
Long Island Sound that day was filthy.  But everything else, the sun and the sky and the wind, was spectacular.  We passed the Captain Islands off of Greenwich, and a couple of lighthouses, and a wide array of birds and their nests.

In the last 500 meters the headwind got a little mean.  It was a bit stressful on top of my first two full days of paddling in a while, and I kind of felt like I was having a heart attack.  Sort of.  There was pain in my left chest and upper arm.  Did my hand feel numb?  I wasn’t sure.  But my chest hurt.  I had probably just pulled a chest muscle, but wasn’t my heart a chest muscle?
We were almost at the takeout so I fought through it and didn’t say anything.  Resting didn’t seem to make it better and paddling only a little worse.  I breathed deeply in case it was a cramp.
After we took out, TGTK brought us to their home and let me use their shower.  From there, I got on a train, switched to another train, jogged for 15 minutes, and found my car alone in a nearly empty lot.
I drove back to TGTK, picked up Kayak Cowgirl and our boats.  We dropped her kayak off, then herself, and finally, at about 1:00 in the morning, I was home and ready for bed.
Over the next few days the pain in my chest slowly subsided.
I can’t wait to go again!
Nautical miles paddled: 36