Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An ice blast from the past

An old photo of mine was selected as the January picture for this year's Chesapeake Paddler's Assocation Calendar. Reprinted here is Susanita's excellent write-up of our trip that day:

Post subject: Mason Neck Trip Report -- December 30, 2004


How much would you bid for a hundred dollars?

I'm hacking away at yet another layer of ice with a three foot piece of wood I've scavenged from the shore when I hear my paddling partner, Jesse calling my name from his kayak. He's just launched and is moving slowly in the water. As I turn to towards his voice I feel my mouth drop. I can't believe how far away he is. I have hacked my way through ice clearly 300 yards from shore. I can just barely make out the image as he begins to paddle through the ice. But I can clearly hear the crunch of ice meeting fiberglass.


What were we thinking? Minutes before Jesse and I had been hacking away at the ice together. In between conversations about Christmas, the tsunami, and Alias ( my new favorite tv show), Jesse shares with me this story. A group of executives has gone to a training conference. As part of the training they are told to 'bid' on a $100 bill. The trick is that if you don't win the bid you are forced the pay the value of your last bid. How much would you bid to 'win' a $100 bill? The executive who won bid $200. The point of the exercise was to show how easily people can get caught up in competition. The need to win.


Why would anyone spend over an hour breaking up an ice jam just to go kayaking? Was it perseverance or sheer stubbornness? It was 10 a.m. when Jesse and I met at Mason Neck State Park. I met him at his car and told him we may have a little problem with the launch. It was covered with ice. We walk to the beach to assess the ice. There is what looks like a 20 foot swath of ice blocking the beach from the open water. Beyond the ice we can see the glimmer of water. As it turns out, that glimmer would be a mirage. It is high tide and the water has spilled over the ice creating the illusion of moving water. And all I can think is, "It's my birthday and I want to go kayaking."


"Oh c'mon Jesse," I plead. "It's just a little ice."

He looks around and grabs a stick and throws it across the ice. It skids for what seems like forever and finally stops, never breaking the ice.

"Try a rock," I say. "The stick was too light."

He hunts around the beach for a rock. He throws the rock across the ice and mercifully it breaks the ice and sinks to the bottom. We exchange glances and smiles.

"Yeah," he says. "I could just plow right through with my kayak."

Yes! We're not going to let a little ice stop us.

"I'll go first," he says. "I know how you are about your boat."

Jesse hasn't known me that long but it doesn't take long to figure out that I am very particular about my boat. Anyone who meets me has to hear about how I came to buy the Mirage 530 with the custom purple fade and integrated rudder. How I talked for weeks with the designer of the Mirage in Australia. How nice the Aussie accent was to hear at 2 am in the morning. How I had the boat custom painted then shipped to L.A. then picked it up at customs. How it only weighs 40 lbs even with the electric bilge pump. How it's made of kevlar and cost about $1000. And now I'm thinking of putting my precious Purple Mirage in a bed of ice! Oh, how I was wishing I had a plastic boat.

We zip into our drysuits and carry the kayaks down to the ice. Jesse courageously launches into the ice with greenland paddle in hand. He pushes off and his kayak hits the first wave of ice.

Crunch. The sound of ice crushing against his boat sends a chill up my spine. I look at my Mirage and think of how I'd feel if it was crunching in the ice. I also realize he's not going anywhere. So I race into the water and start breaking it up with my foot. Like I said earlier. It?' my birthday and I want to be kayaking. I'm making good progress and we agree that the ice can't be that thick or go too far into the bay. We can see clear water ahead. So with each step I crunch down on the ice, breaking a path that Jesse follows in his kayak. Then the ice gets thicker and my boot lands on the ice with a thud. I bring my foot up higher and try hitting it harder. It's not working. I glance back at Jesse sitting patiently in his boat.


"I'll get a stick," I say. "This ice is a little thicker." I run back to shore and search around for a stick. I find a long spear like stick and wade back through the broken ice to where I left off. The stick works. The ice is breaking up now. We can see the glimmer of water not far ahead.

"Just 10 more feet," Jesse says. "And we'll be in open water." At this point he decides it will be quicker if he breaks the ice too. So he gets out of his boat and goes back to shore for another stick.

We break through the ice section by section. The ice is now almost 2 inches thick. We reach the section which is covered in water and realize we're not even close to being free. But now we have time and effort invested. We look out at the water ahead of us and agree that the ice can't go on forever. I'm sweating and cold at the same time. I have three layers of clothing on underneath the drysuit but my feet are like ice cubes. If anything, we agree that this is a good test for the drysuit. We continue working never looking back.

After a while Jesse leaves to get his kayak that he left near shore. Standing in frigid water up to my waist surrounded by a flotilla of ice chunks, my feet numb from the cold, I stare determinedly at the remaining ice that stands before me and the clear moving water. How far would you go to break through ice just so you can go kayaking? It looks like my limit is about 300 yards. Or is it? I'm still hacking away when Jesse paddles up beside me. He continues ahead breaking through the next section of ice. I hear the crunch of resistance from the ice but it breaks easily and pretty soon he is out in open water. It's 11:30 and we're finally going kayaking!


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Signs good and bad

This morning I went out for a run despite feeling really crappy (I have a cold). I find it painful to breathe out in the cold when I'm sick (and even when I'm not). This can be a real problem for me when I go running. Today I got a really bad side-stitch after about 1/2 mile, so I droppped back to walking and forced myslef to breathe deeply. After about a minute I felt better and continued with running, still focusing on breathing. No problems after that.

The bike trail still had signs up pointing the way to downtown DC for the inauguration. That made me smile. I was tempted to take one as a souvenir, but they're actually useful on a longer term basis and so I decided to leave them be.

In one of my recent posts I talked about the Bluemont Park restroom. When I stopped there today I noticed that someone had etched "Property of Arlington County Parks and Rec" onto the flush valves of the toilets. Last time I reported on how I found the restroom inspirational; today the measures to foil potential plumbing thieves reminded me of man's darker side.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A New Direction

Yesterday morning it was off to the pool again for another rolling session. As I passed the Metro Station I saw signs of inaugural activity. There were people heading for the trains to head downtown for the concert. There were porta-potties by the station entrance (to handle the overflow crowds?). Tour buses were zipping hither and yon.

At the pool I once again worked on my offside roll - that is, rolling the kayak in the opposite direction. Everyone has an "onside" and and "offside" - like being right or left-handed. My onside rolls are pretty bombproof but my offside has been non-existent. Yesterday, though, it worked! I was doing ear-to-the-water braces, sculling braces, and even rolls on the off side. Not with a 100% success rate, but far better than ever before.

Could this be a sign that we're heading in a new direction?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Meaning of Life was in the Bluemont Park Men’s Room

I usually slug down a cup of coffee before going out running in the morning, so by the time I hit the midpoint of my run I’m ready to take advantage of the facilities. Fortunately, the turnaround point on my most common route is right near the restrooms in a local park. Every run, my ritual of visiting the Bluemont Park restrooms is the same. First, I am pleasantly surprised to find the bathroom open, even though it’s routinely open. Next, I slowly enter the bathroom. Before I get too far from the door, I peek into the stalls as best I can to scope out any dangerous people who might be lurking there. In the many years I’ve been using the park restroom I have never, ever felt threatened. In fact, it’s rare to even find it occupied at all, and yet I always check. As I advance into the place I take a look around and marvel at the fact that everything is clean and working, and that the place isn’t graffiti’d or otherwise trashed. Again, I get this feeling of happy surprise despite years of visits to a place that has never been anything but clean and functional.

My reactions to the place are not based on my expectations of the Bluemont Park restroom itself. Rather, they’re based on the public restrooms of my youth. New York was in pretty bad shape in the 70’s when I was growing up. Crime was rampant, and little money was available to maintain infrastructure. A large number of public restrooms had been taken over by seedy characters, either as residences or places of business. A few were operational but were in an incredibly filthy and rundown condition. The rest had simply been locked up, because they had been vandalized past the point of function, had broken down, couldn’t be maintained, or as a measure to keep out the seedy characters.

So, in my current experience I enter a mundane place and find the wonder in it. While most park users probably don’t even think about the place at all, each and every time I marvel at clean, safe indoor plumbing. I’m not sure if it’s possible to enter into an I-Thou relationship with a bathroom, but if it is, I’m there.

How many other opportunities are there to recognize the everyday wonders of the world? How many things am I taking for granted that I could be appreciating in more depth? A comfortable home? A beautiful vista? Even rush hour traffic, for it means that I have the wherewithal to have a car, and all these other people and I remain gainfully employed in the midst of a deep recession.

Rabbi Mike Comins points out in his book A Wild Faith that there are certain prayers that help us to recognize the sacred and exceptional in our lives. Most blessings in Judaism are intentional, that is, they are said when you’re about to do something or have done something planned. However, there’s also a category of response blessings, to be said in response to an unexpected, spontaneous happening – seeing a rainbow, smelling a flower, and so on.

I’m not ready to start saying b’rochot over the Bluemont Park bathroom (not to digress, but there is a blessing that is appropriate for recitation after having gone to the bathroom), but I’m going to try and take the sense of wonderment I feel over the place with me to more experiences in my life.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

First Kayak Trip of 2009

I open my eyes and see that it's 8 AM. This is a good thing. Good because I got a decent amount of sleep despite having been up quite late cleaning up after a New Year's party, and good because it still gives me plenty of time to get to the launch site by 11. Being New Year's Day, it's time for the first kayaking trip of the year! Actually, today's trip was a little bit in doubt - yesterday was brutally cold and incredibly windy. One of our friends who had planned a New Year's Day paddling trip over in Maryland canceled because of the weather, which, I have to admit, was a major motivating force in getting our group organized and out on the water - nothing like a little machismo to get you going in the morning. After my morning ritual of lubricating the brain with a few cups of coffee while staring uncomprehendingly at the newspaper, I chipped some ice off my kayak, loaded it and my gear up, and headed for the meeting point at Bladensburg Park.

As I approached the put-in I couldn't help but notice two bad signs. The water level in the Anacostia river was very, very low, and all of my friends were clustered by their cars outside the park gate, which was locked. One member of the group had actually correctly guessed the combination for the gate and so we could have gone on in and launched, but we decided that wasn't really a good idea. After a quick pow-wow we decided to put in at Gravelly Point on the Potomac instead. Gravelly is just a few miles from my house so I wound up driving about 30 miles round trip for nothing, but what the heck. We drove in a caravan back over to Virginia, where Kingsley joined us - he had been late getting to Bladensburg, but he found the note we had left pinned to the gate about our change of plans. We unloaded and were quickly under way.

Fortunately the winds had died down quite a bit from the day before. The Potomac was still every so slightly bumpy, but nothing of any concern - no risk of injury from exposure. After hanging out at the launch point watching planes take off (the launch is almost directly at the end of the main runway at National Airport*) we crossed the Potomac and headed up Washington Channel. The channel was almost completely protected from the wind, and we all warmed up pretty quickly. At the beginning of the trip I could still feel the effects from partying the night before - headache, and a little feeling of being dehydrated, but as we kept moving and I kept drinking water I felt better.

While traveling up the channel we saw bike racers doing loops around Haines Point. We speculated as to whether the mayor of DC, who is an avid triathlete, was among them. We saw three bald eagles - two mature birds (a nesting pair?) in a tree over Haines Point, then a maturing bird (white head, but otherwise immature plumage) at Ft. McNair. The channel is home to a large marina, so we all gawked at the big boats and daydreamed about ditching our conventional lives and living aboard a houseboat (particularly after we spotted a houseboat with two kayaks lashed to its side).

Washington Channel ends at gates to the Tidal Basin (home to the famous Cherry trees and the Jefferson Memorial). You can never get into the Tidal Basin from the either the river or the channel because the gates are always shut, but today one of the gates was off its hinges and stuck open. Could this offer a rare entry into the basin? We all lined up and threaded our way through the first gate and under a bridge, but alas, it turns out there's a second line of barriers, which were intact. So, we went through the usual comical turning around process that ensues when a bunch of kayakers in long boats find themselves bunched up at a dead end, then headed back down the channel. Interestingly, we saw many of the same sights on the way back that we had seen coming up - with the exception of the eagles.

At the end of the trip Peter wanted to test how waterproof his two-piece dry suit actually was, so he took a stroll into the 37 degree Potomac. Seeing how refreshing it looked, I joined him and we floated around for a bit. Cyndi, who also waded in, snapped a few pictures. I did learn a lesson from this immersion. This winter I've been paddling with pogies, weird tunnel things that attach to the paddle and take the place of gloves. Today I wore a lightweight pair of ploypro gloves under the pogies. At the point when I jumped into the river my hands were no longer protected by the pogies (since I wasn't holding my paddle), leaving me with just the light gloves. My dry suit and layering kept me pretty comfortable in the river, but my hands started screaming immediately from the cold. In an emergency situation I can see how that could have very quickly led to loss of dexterity and therefore difficulty in executing a rescue. I think I'm going to start wearing heavier gloves under the pogies, even if it means my hands get too warm (actually, with me there's no such thing as "too warm").

Trying, as always, to maintain personal/family balance, I skipped the post-paddle gathering and instead headed home to Valerie and the boys. Valerie is always understanding of my need to disappear off to the river for a few hours here and there. In return I try not to push the boundaries.

It was a great way to start the year.

*I will never, ever refer to National as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, even though that's now the official name. Nothing against the Gipper or anything. See this link for details.