Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Paddling on the Proxigean Tide

Climbing out of bed around 5:45 AM was much too early for such a cold Saturday morning in late January. After walking the dog an hour earlier than usual, I grabbed my gear bag and headed for the car. The starter struggled in the cold to turn the engine over, sort of like my current mental state without my usual morning coffee, especially since it was not yet 6:30 AM

Half an hour later I pulled into the parking lot of the Sebago Canoe Club, parking near the club house. A car pulled out as I was parking, leaving but one other car in the lot. Entering the club house, I saw Pete building a fire in the double fifty-five gallon drum wood stove and Phil making coffee. The three of us were the only ones that had yet arrived.

Others started arriving not long after. Eventually there were at least fifteen of us assembled in the club house. The occasion was the proxigean tide, the highest tide of the year, and reason enough for kayakers to gather, eat breakfast, and maybe paddle. (My photo to the right is of our breakfast before the paddle. Phil is standing at the table in his dry suit.)

The plan was to gather at 7 AM to prepare coffee and breakfast with an ongoing serving throughout the morning. With the high tide at 7:53 AM, Stevie was planning to lead a paddle with an estimated launch at 7:30 AM in an attempt to make the elusive marsh crossing of Ruffle Bar, a small island in Jamaica Bay about a four miles paddle south of the club’s dock. The marsh crossing had eluded all previous attempts. With a little luck, seals might also be sighted. The only problem was that Stevie had forgotten his dry suit at home and therefore was not able paddle. He still gave great trip support.

The gathering crowd at the club house brought various breakfast items. Most did not plan to paddle. They came for the fellowship and to see what the highest tide of the year looked like around the clubhouse, which is located on Paerdegat Basin, at the foot of Avenue N in Brooklyn, NY, and just a few yards from the water’s edge. In previous years the proxigean tide had crested high enough to not only reach the club house but to cover it with a few inches of water, but not this year’s. According to folks that had been around awhile, this year’s proxigean tide was mild. It was even a little disappointing for newcomers like me who had not only never seen one before but had never heard of it until recently. I had lived in the mountains until two and a half years ago, and in the mountains we did not pay much attention to tides.

Not forgetting their dry suits and wanting to paddle, even in the 15°f temperature, were Bonnie, Elizabeth, Pete, Phil, me and Minh. (The photo to the right is of the six paddlers, suited up and ready to go. Photo by Stevie) I had paddled with each of them before but cannot remember if I had ever paddled with all of them in a single group. They were all seasoned paddlers. I was probably the one with the least experience.

After coffee, eggs in the hole, assorted danish, and a pancake, I, along with the five others, suited up for the paddle. I was glad to be suiting up in the wood stove heated club house, even though I could still see my breath as I put on my dry suit.

Under my Kokatat dry suit I wore a base layer of Patagonia Capilene on top and bottom. For my upper body I put a SmartWool zip neck on top of the Capilene base layer, and on top of that a heavier weight Patagonia Capilene zip neck. Before zipping up my dry suit I activated an EZ Heat packet and placed it between the outer Capilene and SmartWool to help keep my core warm. Over my dry suit I of course wore my PFD, which added even more upper body insulation. For my feet I wore SmartWool liner socks inside NRS neoprene Paddle Shoes. I wore NRS neoprene mittens on my hands and an Xcel titanium neoprene skull cap on my head with a wool Himalayan beanie over the skull cap. Before heading out of the club house I also put on a neoprene spray skirt.

Down at the dock I easily slipped into the club’s blue Necky Chatham 16. I have paddled this boat several times and it is one of my favorite kayaks. I like it for both its stability and maneuverability, enhanced by its skeg, but today the skeg cable was frozen solid with ice and would not budge. I was glad I was able to put my spray skirt around the cockpit coming without having to take of my mitts; otherwise my hands would have chilled. Once away from the dock I realized that I was the first one on the water. I estimate that the put in time was around 8:00 AM, a little later than the float plan called for, but not by much. (That's me sitting in the kayak in the photo to the right. Photo by Bonnie)

At first my toes and fingers were a little cold but after paddling for awhile my toes warmed up and my fingers were bearable. My nose and face felt warm. My core, thanks to breakfast and the activated EZ Heat, was toasty.

With the wind at our back the six of us paddled a straight course for Ruffle Bar. Crossing Jamaica Bay was an easy paddle but at the north-eastern tip of Ruffle Bar we encountered some small standing waves in the shallows just north of the island, forcing us to paddled back away from shore in order to clear the waves and the shallows. As we passed some small standing waves at the beginning of the shallows, the first real waves we had yet encountered, I found myself thinking “this would not be a good time to flip.” I didn’t.

As we passed the eastern end of Ruffle Bar we eagerly looked for the entrance to the salt marsh. After passing a couple of imposters we finally found the entrance but the channel into the marsh did not look as large as I remembered it. I had paddled into the marsh once before but it was on a summer paddle and everything was green. Today, everything is brown and white.

Even though I was the lead paddler at the time, after looking at the channel I passed it by, convinced that it would not be possible to negotiate through it all the way to the western side of the island and back out into the bay. Nevertheless, my five paddling companions took a brief look. Bonnie and Pete paddled further into it while the rest of us continued along to the southern end of Ruffle Bar, planning to meet up with Pete and Bonnie at the western end of the island just in case they were able to make it through.

Paddling along the southern shore, Ruffle Bar served as a wind break and we enjoyed very calm water and a chance to warm a little, so we paddled a little more slowly. Slush and chunks of ice floated nearby. I could have imagined I was in the Artic.

Turning northward at the eastern end of Ruffle Bar we encountered some wind and waves. Bonnie and Pete were nowhere to be seen. We would later learn that not far into the salt marsh they encountered thick slush and ice blocking the channel and did not want to turn their kayaks into icebreakers, so they paddled back out of the marsh they same way they had entered it. They eventually caught up with us. (The first photo to the right is of Pete as he first encounters ice in the Marsh channel. The second photo to the right illustrates what Bonnie and Pete would have faced if they continued through the channel. Photos by Bonnie)

Further out into the bay the wind and waves intensified. I found paddling back northward across Jamaica Bay, with the wind in our face and standing waves in places a foot high, a daunting paddle. While I was comfortable and warm on the protected southern shore of Ruffle Bar, my fingers were now starting to chill and eventually became numb, especially on my right “grip” hand. The wind was now not only blowing in my face but also occasionally blowing icy cold spray onto my face. Whereas there had previously been a thin layer of ice on the bow deck of my kayak, the constant wash over, combined with the hull occasionally pounding the surf after dropping off a wave, cleared the deck of all ice. But ice was now clinging to my dry suit and the fiberglass shaft of my Warner paddle.

Because my right grip hand held tight, even though my fingers were numb, I was able to maintain a tight controlling grip with it. But my left hand, which released any grip it had when I feathered, was starting to slip and slide up and down the paddle shaft because of ice on the paddle shaft as well as my neoprene mitt. I feared I might hit a standing wave, attempt a brace, and have my paddle slip away or turn out of the brace, leaving me in the icy bay. Somehow I managed to maintain control on the icy shaft and remained upright. But I was paddling hard and steady, wanting to stay perpendicular to the waves and give the wind less time to abuse me. Once again I found myself thinking “this would not be a good time, or place, to flip.” Once again, I didn’t.

Somehow I had managed to be the lead boat through the first half of the wind driven icy chop but eventually Pete overtook me on my port and pulled ahead. I was kind of glad not to be the lead boat anymore and with Pete in sight I knew I was not alone, as I had not looked back since we entered the chop.

Eventually we paddled out of the chop and the wind seemed to die down just a bit, but my right fingers were pretty numb and I needed to warm them. I caught up with Pete when he stopped to take a break and asked him if I could raft up with him for a couple minutes while I warmed my hands. He offered me a spare pare of mitts from his deck but they were encrusted in solid Ice, so I thought they would not help much. Rafted up with Pete, I set my paddle down on the deck, wedged it under a deck line, and put both hands, still in mitts, under the opposite armpit, wiggling my fingers inside my mitts. After just a few minutes I could sense feeling and warmth returning. Not long after, I picked up my paddle, pushed away from Pete, and started paddling again.

Pete paddled ahead. Phil and Minh also eventually overtook me and paddled with Pete. But Bonnie and Elizabeth were still behind me. When I reached the ice encrusted green buoy marking the channel leading into Mill Basin I paused, turned my boat around, and waited a moment or two until I could see Bonnie and Elizabeth in the distance paddling toward me. Then I turned north and started paddling once again, but at a more leisurely pace than I had paddled in the stiffer wind and standing waves.

As I paddled, Pete, Phil and Minh were at least fifty yards ahead of me. Elizabeth and Bonnie were seventy yards or more behind me. In the windy chop I would have felt abandoned, but now, paddling in these less windy and calmer waters so close to shore and home, I appreciated, even valued, being somewhat alone.

I don’t know when I entered it, but eventually I found myself in a Zen-like paddling state where I was paddling without thinking about what I was doing. Earlier, out in the windy chop, I was intensely focused as I concentrated on paddling, occasionally bracing with a small hip flick, thinking about what I would do if I lost it. Now I and the kayak were working as one without me thinking about it, smoothly cutting through the smoother water. It was hard to tell where my hand stopped and the paddle shaft began. The boat became an extension of my body. After awhile my paddling and my surroundings came back into focus and I realized that for awhile all had been well with the world.

Now aware of what was going on around me I noticed flocks of water fowl occasionally passing nearby. In retrospect I realize that I had not seen a jet all day, even though the control tower at Kennedy International Airport was in clear view, a few miles off to the east. Had it not been for the receding Manhattan skyline and the approaching bridge over the Belt Parkway, I would not have known I was paddling in an urban environment. Jamaica Bay is, after all, a National Wildlife Refuge, and for me an occasional refuge and retreat from more urban and concrete life.

Further out in Jamaica Bay, from whence I had paddled, I could clearly see Lower and Upper Manhattan. (The photo to the right is of Pete, paddling through the wind driven chop, heading north toward Manhattan. Photo by Bonnie) But as I paddled northward and closer to Paerdegat Basin and the Belt Parkway bridge over the basin, the New York City skyline kept receding below the horizon ahead. Eventually, as I approached Buoy 13, all I could see was the top of the Empire State Building. Eventually, it too, slipped out of sight, hidden by trees along the parkway.

When I reached Buoy 13, its lower parts covered with ice, I stopped paddling. Turning around, I looked for my two paddling companions behind me. Once I saw them I headed for home.

Whenever I reach buoy 13 I always feel like I am almost home. Buoy 13 is the first buoy you encounter paddling out of the basin heading south. That means it is also the last buoy you encounter as you head back into the basin from the south. At that now familiar green buoy, which I have paddled past countless times, I know that after another 15 to 30 minutes paddling I will back at the Sebago dock. Sometimes 13 is a lucky number.

After paddling under the Belt Parkway and up Paerdegat Basin, I approach the new Sebago dock, not yet a year old. I see that Minh, Phil and Pete are already out of their boats, their kayaks out of the water. Stevie is the only person I see, standing by, ready to lend assistance as I approach. What a helpful trip leader that was not even on the trip!

With the dock just a few yards away I turn around one last time to make shore Bonnie and Elizabeth are behind me. I see them passing under the Belt Parkway and so I turn toward home and paddle the last few yards. Making contact with the carpet covered aluminum, I appreciate Stevie's offer to help me but don't need. I break the ice off my spray skirt’s webbing and pull the nearly frozen spray skirt off the cockpit coaming. With the paddle shaft behind me, pressing down on both boat and dock, I lift myself out of the cockpit and up and onto the platform.

Rolling onto the dock, my left calf, finally liberated from the cold and cramped cockpit after having been wedged most of the day against a foot peg, cramps tight. Stevie can tell I have a leg cramp and volunteers that he often experiences the same after a paddle. Thanks Stevie, now I do not feel so old.

I knead and rub my lower left leg through my dry suit and try to relax the cramp. Once the cramp eases I kneel next to my kayak and lift it up on the dock. Prying off the rear hatch cover with the blade of my paddle, I grab my two dry bags out of the rear hatch. Leaving the kayak on the dock, I carry my paddle and two dry bags up the ramp of the dock and walk into the clubhouse. It feels good to be home.

Standing next to the wood stove for a few minutes, I warm up. So I won’t drip all over the floor I soon head back outside to break and scrape the ice off my spray skirt, PFD and dry suit. (The photo to the right illustrates the ice buildup on Bonnie's dry suit at the end of our trip. Photo by Stevie)

Returning inside I stand close to the fire for a few more minutes and pour a cup of hot Russian tea from my thermos. I can feel the warm liquid going down my throat and entering my stomach, the warmth radiating throughout my body. Eventually I take off my PFD and spray skirt. A few minutes later I unzip my dry suit and slip my head out through the gasket. Then I slip the wrist gaskets over my hands and slide my arms out of the sleeves. Next to the stove with my dry suit half way off, I am really starting to thaw out.

Further warmed by another cup of tea and some munchies I take off my boots and dry suit, exchanging them for cotton pants, a fleece lined wind jacket, and fleece lined Crocks. I am starting to feel semi-normal.

I go back to the wood stove, drink yet another cup of tea, and eat a cup of Mary’s hot soup and eat a sandwich of ham and Swiss between a sliced bagel, the bagel having been warmed on top of the wood stove. I pull my phone out of my pocket and see that it is nearly noon and that the air temperature has risen from 15°f to a warm and balmy 18°f.

Feeling fully warmed and recharged, I collect my scattered gear, stuff it into my nylon mesh gear bag, and head home, making sure I sign out, and saying goodbye to my paddling companions and others around the club house table as I leave. But I’ll be back, someday, for another paddle.

This 8 to 8.5 mile paddle was not my longest paddle, but with a 15°f air temperature at put in and an 18°f air temperature at take out, it was certainly my coldest. Last year I paddled 7.2 miles at Jones Beach on January 10th but the air temperature was 31°f that day. I paddled again at Jones Beach, doing 4.5 miles on February 21st and 3 miles on February 28th, but on both trips either failed to measure or record the air temperature. I doubt it was below 25°f if even that cold. Besides, both were relatively short paddles. Today’s cold air temperature, head wind upon returning, and total distance paddled, combined to make this one of my most demanding, and perhaps best, paddles to date.

Because I knew the cold would quickly drain my camera’s batteries, I did not take any pictures on the trip even though I had my camera in my dry bag. Thanks to Bonnie and Stevie, who both granted me permission to use their photos, I am able to include a few of their shots with my post. I also thank Bonnie, Elizabeth, Minh, Pete and Phil for the pleasure of their paddling company. Thanks to Stevie for planning the trip and his dockside assistance. Thanks to all the members of the Sebago Canoe Club who came out, brought food, made breakfast and lunch, and offered support and encouragement. You are great!

I posted a much shorter trip report on the Sebago Blog, where Bonnie has also posted a trip report along with a link to more of her photos.

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