Tuesday, January 16, 2007

1/15/07 - Paerdegat Basin to Brighton Beach

I took that floating feather picture during yesterday's 15 nautical mile paddle. That's how calm it was.

I also felt like that was one of the more peaceful pictures I've ever taken - and somehow it just felt like just quietly showing something peaceful was more in the spirit of the day than anything I could have written.

It was also a perfect reflection of how I felt after what ended up being a much longer paddle than I'd set out planning to do - except that I had no particular plans beyond paddling, and sticking near the shore so as not to become lost in the fog.

I've been feeling like getting in some longer paddles, now that the holidays are over. This weekend was fairly grey - but Saturday was a wonderful walking day, and after a quiet Sunday at home doing a bit of housekeeping, a little cooking, and a lot of reading. The reading was the result another pleasantly unplanned weekend activity, a stop at the Strand Bookstore, which I walked into with no idea of what I felt like reading and walked out of with (of all the odd random choices) Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle - that kept me curled up on the couch most of the day on Sunday. Got off to a rather slow start on Monday morning, but I'd been considering paddling, and by early afternoon, looking out the window at some perfectly still branches, I decided it was time to eat a hearty lunch, heat up a thermos of cocoa, pack up my stuff (in a backpack this time, which made the half mile walk to the club a LOT less onerous than it was with the stuff in a lopsided duffle bag - plus I saw a downy woodpecker in the brush along Paerdegat Avenue, that was fun) & get myself out on the Bay.

Got to the club to receive a rousing woof-woof-woof welcome from S. The Dog, who belongs to one of the racing paddlers there, who trains religiously. She's a good little guard dog, fortunately we've been introduced & I know she's one of those mostly bark, no bite if you leave her be sort of dogs (I had a dog a lot like that when I was a kid - I love those dogs that are friends with the whole world, but I respect the ones who are a little more discriminating). Once she'd done her barking-at-newcomer job, she went back to her true duty, which is waiting for her guy to get back (as you can see, she does that very well).

Aside from S. the Dog, it was just me & the seagulls. I went ahead & got my boat down to the dock, then went into the clubhouse to sort out the gear I wanted to take. I signed in with an intended destination of Gerritsen Creek - that's past the Gil Hodges Bridge, at the mouth of the bay, and I figured that would be the farthest I'd go. Staying along the shoreline seemed the wisest move, since I'm still learning the Bay and the fog was pretty thick - and the last two weekends I'd gone out & hung a left, so it seemed like time to take a right. And there's something about paddling out of the bay, and into the Lower Harbor, that I like. Another club member arrived to do a little tidying up - suddenly I noticed all the lifejackets lying in a heap under the rack & felt bad, but he didn't seem put out at all. Sebago seems good that way - people come in & work but they don't try to use it to make other people feel bad. And I'll definitely get my hours in - but I also want to get better at opening my eyes, looking around the clubhouse & taking the little things that haven't been done.

D. wished me a safe paddle & I headed on out to the dock. Glicker (the racer) was just coming up the basin) - we exchanged greetings & he mentioned that it was very foggy out & to be careful as it was getting darker - that solidified my plan to stick by the shoreline & I told him that was what I meant to do. I joked about how I had been tempted to take my surfski - he said it was incredibly calm out on the bay, he'd seen feathers curled up floating on the surface, barely getting wet.

Three o'clockish, I launched & headed on down the basin - out under the bridge into a bay where horizons were blurred with the water, which I think was the smoothest I've ever seen it. After a quick pause to pull out my compass & get a sense of my direction, I headed along the shoreline. I had the water to myself, except for the usual winter waterfowl - brants, buffleheads, mallards, passing gulls. Two horseback riders passed on the beach - another wonderful way to spend such a peaceful afternoon.

The buoys led off into the distance, fading into the fog. Although the shoreline I was following was clear to see, the far shore of the bay was lost, and I found my eyes played funny tricks with ducks and perspective for a little while - at one point, I saw a small flock out of the corner of my eye and for some reason, for a split second, my mind read that flock as a boat - weird. Didn't take too long for my eyes to adjust, though. As it was, I saw exactly one boat, looked like a fishing boat heading home to Dead Horse Bay sometime in the late afternoon.

As I headed on towards Floyd Bennett Field, I started hearing the noise of a helicopter coming from one of the helipads. And it just kept going and going, louder & louder as I approached. It turned out to be a police helicopter - I was actually wondering why they didn't just shut the noisy thing down if they weren't going to fly somewhere - then the noise increased and I saw the helicopter rise up & then settle back to the ground. I decided maybe it was engine testing, or a little practice. As I continued, a building blocked my view - again, the engine got louder, and as the helicopter came back into view, I could see it settling to the ground again. I paddled on until the volume increased to a roar again - this time, I looked back, watched the helicopter lift into the air - and then a police officer jumped out & rappelled to the ground!

So THAT'S what they were doing. I was tempted to pull over & watch for a while - but I was really starting to get into a good, gliding, easy paddling rhythm & decided to head on.

On to the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge. Thought for a split second about crossing there & continuing along the shoreline of the Bay, but decided against it - I wanted to paddle on out to Gerritsen Creek.

So I did. It was getting on towards later afternoon - but it was still calm, and the air was still warm. I knew there was a cold front coming through the next day, so there might not be a whole lot of opportunity for outdoor exercise during the week, and I was strongly inclined to keep going.

I checked my gear for the requirements for a longer than planned, after-dark paddle. Lights, VHF, flares, hot drink, energy bars, extra warm hat, etc. - leaving as late as I did, I was pretty sure that I had everything I would need, but I wanted to make absolutely certain that I hadn't been a doofus & left anything on the ping-pong table at the clubhouse. At the bridge, I could still be home before dark if I had to. Much past & getting home in daylight would be out of the picture.

Having confirmed that I was set, I paddled on. Past Dead Horse Bay . Past Gerritsen Creek. On along Plum Beach, where I've launched with the Sebago Greenland gang for some lovely paddles to Breezy Point. Saw a very handsome pair of black & white ducks in that area, which I think were the kind called "oldsquaws" (according to my circa 1959 Collins Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife) or the more politically correct "long-tailed duck" - the briefest of Google searches will reveal that the common name of the Clangula hyemelis raises as much passion & wrath on birding lists as discussions of paddling safety do on kayak lists (btw I won't be surprised if somebody somewhere scolds me for admitting to paddling alone, after dark, in the winter - believe me, this is SO outside of anything I'd usually do, but the conditions were so perfect, and my shoreline route actually meant that I could have gotten out at any time, easily, and it was just too pretty to go home...)'

Somewhere in there I put my lights on - there are marinas in Gerritsen, Sheepshead Bay and Dead Horse Bay, and although the fog seemed to be thinning, the visibility was decreasing as the invisible sun lowered towards the invisible horizon.

Amazingly, though, there was only that one fishing boat coming home at day's end, and they were far away. I guess the charter fleet this time of year mostly just goes out at 8 am, and get back earlier in the day (fits in with what I saw on New Year's Day).

I considered paddling into Sheepshead Bay - decided against, sort of didn't want to have something that would say "This is how far you paddle, now turn around". I'm sure I'll be back there for lunch one of these days, that'll be fun to do in a group. I wanted to keep going.

It was fully dark by the time I passed the buildings of Kingsborough College. On I went down Manhattan Beach. As I came out of the lee of Breezy Point, a gentle swell had picked up. With the landmark structures of Coney Island dark for the winter, it was a little hard to tell where exactly I was, but when I saw the waterfront change from a seawall of boulders to a broad, sandy beach broken by long stone jetties, I knew I'd gotten to Brighton Beach. I paddled a little further - sure enough, there were the Russian cafes that face the boardwalk there, and the dark pavilion.

Plenty of people out that night, though. All along the shoreline, all enjoying the warm evening.

I looked down the waterfront towards Coney Island proper. It was tempting. On to the Parachute Jump? Sea Gate, at the end of Coney Island?

I looked at my watch. Quarter of six...no, better not to push much farther. Time to go home. I turned my boat & paddled for the bridge - now lit and clearly visible, although the foghorn at Rockaway Point kept up it's steady warning to ships.

Strange thing to me was seeing the Atlantic, all dark out there. I'm so used to the Hudson, where during a night paddle there are still lights on all sides. Unsettling & probably for good reason - if the cold front had been predicted to come in any earlier than it was, I wouldn't have wanted to be where I was!

As it was - it was just beautiful. Although how strange, to be able to do a solo paddle, out to the Lower Harbor, finishing well after dark, in January. Even broke a bit of a sweat as I was heading for home - the currents out there are nothing like the ones on the Hudson, but there was a little teeny current & with the wind at my back & a couple of layers of fleece under my drysuit, I was actually too warm. For once, though, I wasn't even tempted to roll - that would've been pushing things a bit too far!

The smooth swells of the Lower Harbor vanished as I went back into the shelter of Rockaway Point. Under the bridge, into the bay, where the lights on the buoys traced the road home in the dark. Around the corner at Floyd Bennett Field - the helicopter exercises were long done, but after getting out into more open water, I found myself surprised at the noise of the highway that runs along the shore.

As the red lights marking the Paerdegat bridge came into view, and I headed for them, paddling along in the shallows outside of the channel, I began playing a bit of a game - closing my eyes for a number of strokes & seeing where I was headed when I opened them again. Interesting - I'd feel like I was veering off course, and when I'd give into that & correct, I'd open my eyes to find I'd corrected myself 20, 40, 60 degrees off course. When I could relax & disregard that, I did a lot better - unless there was the lightest puff(let) of a breeze(let), in which case again I'd open my eyes to find I was headed for someplace entirely different.

Now there's another thing I don't think I ever would have done on the Hudson!

Sleepy ducks & geese along the shoreline discussed me as I passed, but I was glad to see that I didn't make them fly.

I got back to the dock & checked my watch. How odd to find it was only 8:00! It felt so much later - I guess that's because most of my night paddling is done in the summertime - in the wintertime, I generally like to be off the water by dark.

What a strange & lovely exception to that rule last night was. Got home feeling as peaceful as that feather - just floating.

Tonight, the wind is rattling the branches & pushing against the windows, and there's a small craft advisory - what a different scene it must be out there tonight.

Glad I'm here at home!

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