Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Of Two Minds About Winter

I go through a cycle of thought again and again when I go paddling in winter. Naturally, it's usually cold as I put my boat onto the car. I feel the sting on my hands when I touch the racks and the cam buckles on the straps. I hate cold hands. "OK, this is it," I think. "Winter paddling has been a unique experience, but it's really unpleasant. I've earned the bragging rights for having done it, but after today I'm done."

At the put-in point I wrestle into my cold weather gear. Pulling the tight-fitting dry suit over my head is extremely unpleasant; once in place the gaskets are tight around my neck and wrists. The stiff zipper across my back limits my mobility. Again, my hands are cold. I am cold. "This is ridiculous," I think. "I'm going to be uncomfortable the whole time I'm out. I really think I'm going to switch to something else in winter time. It's crazy to do water sports in freezing weather."

I set out in my kayak. The coldness of the water makes me nervous. A capsize, harmless in the fall and even enjoyable in the summer, could be fatal in near-freezing winter time water. "I am so done with this," I think.

Then I get going. Slowly, I warm up. After a while, the sting of the cold disappears even from my hands. I notice a special feeling. The water itself seems to be more viscous while the air is light and crisp. The scenery, in a winter palette of browns and grays, stands out in high relief. An eagle is easily visible in the bare branches of a tall tree. It takes flight, gliding majestically past us. The sun glints off the water and warms us a bit. There is an feeling of total quiet. There are no jet skiers and few other boaters. We see few people even on shore. It is, as is so often the case with winter paddling, magical.

My paddling companion and I arrive back at Riley's Lock all to soon. Still in our dry suits, we walk over to the C&O canal towpath and gaze out over the Potomac. A peaceful quiet pervades the scene. I linger, looking forward to my next opportunity to experience the magic of winter on the water.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Guilty Pleasure

I have to admit that I feel guilty doing it. It's just not something that people like me do. In fact, I have spent years looking down on people who do it.

I'm talking about powersports. Activities which involve using a motor to have fun. I have always been a people-powered person. On the water I scowl at jet skiers and water ski boats. On the cross-country ski trails I shake my head at people who ruin the pristine winter wilderness with snowmobiles. Being something of a car guy, I go a little easier on the pleasures of motorized vehicles on land. I don't expect car owner to be a super-miler in a Prius, but I also give a pretty wide berth to ATVs and dirt bikes.

But now I'm motorcycling. Over the summer I fulfilled a "bucket list" item by learning to ride a motorcycle (Valerie took the class too). For the last month or so I've been tooling around on a borrowed Kawasaki Vulcan cruiser, and I must say I'm enjoying it. Riding a motorcycle is ridiculously impractical, particularly in a densely populated area such as where I live. There's little feel of the open road when there are five stop signs between home and the supermarket. Commuting to Tysons Corner is only for the suicidal. Even the highways in the area - I66, the Beltway - don't lend themselves to easy riding, except at really off hours.

In my brief riding career I have experienced a fresh horror at the terrible driving habits of Washington area drivers. I have become pretty inured to them in my "cager" (biker sland for car-driving) mode, but motoring along on two wheels gives you a fresh perspective on the cell-phone-talking, makeup-applying, left-turn-from-the-right-lane habits of my fellow Northern Virginians. Riding is pretty impractical too. You can't carry much on a bike, and it requires special clothing, which is another limiting factor in using a motorcycle as a commuting vehicle. Motorcycling is really a form of recreation rather than transportation. People ride for fun, and quite frankly I have more than enough forms of fun that I don't get to in my life. I think that if I buy a bike it'll just sit in the driveway looking forlorn and making me feel guilty.

Have I mentioned it's fun? There is something pretty cool about being astride this motorized beast, leaning it through corners and feeling the acceleration when I twist the throttle. The wind in my hair (OK, you can't feel the wind in your hair when you wear a helmet. Oh, and I don't have any hair). Also, motorcycles are cool. I love looking out the window at the thing. I find myself spending time looking at motorcycling web sites - gear, bike manufacturers. There's also a community of riders. One day when I was riding to work another rider exited the Beltway and merged into Rt. 123 right in front of me. As he pulled into the lane in front of me he flashed me a peace sign. Suddenly I felt like part of the tribe.

Speaking of tribes, I have also joined the email list of The Tribe, the DC area club for Jewish motorcyclists. Yes, there is such a thing. I haven't met any of my fellow kikers ... ooops, bikers ... yet, but I can't wait to!

I even had a biker bonding moment at work the other day. I went in for a meeting with my new boss and noticed his office had a lot of motorcycle-related stuff in it. Turns out he's really into riding - commutes every week from his house in the Northern Neck to his pied a terre in Tysons on his Harley. We had such a good time talking bikes we almost forgot to talk about how his plan to eliminate my department's budget, which I guess I can categorize as two engineers' equivalent of a barroom biker brawl.

Anyway, I am conflicted to death on this bike thing. Dropping another couple of thou for a hobby (I'm already into music and kayaking for that much or more)? A dip into a world where people burn gasoline for pleasure? So confused. I think I need to clear my head. A ride on the bike would be just the thing ...

Friday, October 28, 2011


Mindfulness has come up a few times recently. Last month I did a paddle with a kayak Meetup group at Mason Neck. It was different than a CPA paddle in that there were a wider range of participants - relative beginners in rented rec boats, a guy in a one-man wooden canoe, up to an ACA Level 4 instructor. As a result, there was less focus on getting-somewhere-fast and more on just being in the moment. On the way back, I took particular notice of this tree stump and cormorants. Being sharply in focus on a slightly hazy day, it somehow seemed extra real. I stopped and looked at it for a while. Being aware of being in that spot at that time was wonderful. Interestingly, this is not my photo - the trip organizer, BayMystic, must have thought there was something noteworthy about this spot too since he took and posted the shot.

Not long after, I sat in Yom Kippur services. The rabbi's sermon was about, of all things, focus vs. multi-tasking (things have changed - I don't remember my childhood rabbi talking about iPhones!). Sitting there, having just been reminded about the specialness of every day both by the liturgy and by the very recent and unexpected passing of a family member, I decided I would try harder to be fully conscious and to in the moment.

And then I promptly forgot about it.

Kidding. Sort of.

This post is for you, dear readers (I'm optimistically using the plural), but it's also for me, to remind me as I look back over posts in the future to keep working on my mindfulness.

Now, what was I writing about?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Can I have a pickle, too?

OK, check one off the bucket list. Valerie and I have successfully completed the basic motorcycle training class and are now duly and officially licensed to drive motorcycles.

The class was taught by Don and Mary Ann, who were clearly authentic bikers, but excellent teachers as well. While they were gruff and no-nonsense, they were also supportive. Neither Valerie nor I had any motorcycling experience going in, and Valerie hadn't ever even driven a standard transmission car before, but the teachers were always helpful, never critical, when we goofed up.

The class consisted of an evening of classroom time followed by two full days of doing skills exercises on motorcycles in a big parking lot. Let me tell you, the riding part was hard work! We started each day at 7:30 AM. Spending the day out in the sun in August all bundled up in riding gear would be tiring enough in and of it self, but we were doing much more. Like an incredibly bad circus motorcycling act, the group rode in circles, did figure eights, rode over obstacles, swerved through cones, and did tight turns.

It was an effective course. When I first sat on the bike I was pretty nervous about riding it at all, but now I feel that I could take a motorcycle out at least on local streets (not ready for the highway yet).

By the way, Valerie was afraid she was going to fail the final practical exam. while she did in fact completely blow one of the exercises she actually wound up with a better overall score than I did, since I lost a lot of single points here and there. We both got 100% on the written exam (we may not be super well coordinated, but we're book smart!).

And today, when I went kayaking at Ft. Washington I noticed a Harley parked at the marina. I exchanged a couple of words with the owner, complementing him on his sweet bike. Hey, man, that sort of camaraderie is typical among those of us who are brothers in the biker community.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

UK Trip: Days 8, 9 & 10

 Day 8

I'm going to be a little short here, since I've spent so much time writing about Scotland. We arrive in London early Saturday morning having slept somewhat fitfully on the train. We take the tube from Euston Station to Victoria, where we put our bags in the "Left Luggage". Our plan is to spend the day on a double-decker sight-seeing bus but it soon starts teeming rain. We get soaked at our first stop, Buckingham Palace, where they cancel the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard because of the rain (for a rainy country, England is poorly adapted to rainy days). We do a little more sight-seeing on foot but don't feel like waiting on "queues" in the rain and so after lunch (more pizza!) we go to our hotel to dry off. The hotel is quite civilized - bathrobes, TV in the tub, mini-bar. Ted creates an impressive clothesline web in the bathroom where we dry our wet kayaking gear, which has been stuffed into our bags since the day before.

Fortunately, the rain stops eventually. Ted and I head out to find a few geocaches (challenging, since our GPS receiver is at the bottom of a Scottish loch) and wind up taking a long walk - past the Tower of London, over Tower Bridge, along the South Bank of the Thames, then finally back over London Bridge (which appears to be in good shape) and back to the hotel, stopping along the way for dinner (Italian again, thanks to Ted's limited eating range).

Day 9

Tower of London in the morning. We try twice to go on the Yeoman Warder (beefeater) tour but each time it sprinkles a little just as the tour is getting started and so it gets canceled - again, a poor approach in a rainy climate. We self-tour instead and have a good time. Alas, the line for the crown jewels is quite long so we don't see them. For lunch I force Ted to eat in a sandwich shop (think Panera, but smaller). I simply can't face another pizza meal.

After a brief stop at our hotel, we go to the British Museum. We spent longer than planned at the Tower and so our visit to the museum is brief, focusing on the Roman and Eqyptian galleries - including the Rosetta Stone!

From the museum we walk through Covent Garden to Leicester Square. Along the way I spot the hotel where I stayed when I came to London with my family in the 1970s. It's a cool walk - we're in the high energy part of the city. Our destination is the Leicester Square movie theater, where we have Harry Potter tickets waiting for us (I bought them online in Scotland). We pick up our tickets then head over to the nearby Chinatown for dinner, then back for the movie. After the movie we get a surprise when we go into Haagen Dasz for ice cream. It turns out this is a very fancy sit-down Haagen-Dasz. We walked up to the door where there was a maitre d who asked us "table for two?" I stared blankly at him, having not encountered a sit-down ice cream restaurant since the Jahn's of my youth. Eventually I recovered my wits and responded, and he seated us. The waitress (!) brought us menus, which included a range of exotic ice cream combinations and desserts. We ordered two scoops apiece, which were served in nice, real bowls - quite civilized.

Finally, it was back to the hotel. This was a little bit of an adventure, as the Underground was closing for the night. We got part-way back but had missed the last train on the line we had to connect to and so wound up taking a bus the rest of the way. Our last, long evening in London was a success.

Day 10
Sadly, we headed home. A quick and easy train ride to Heathrow, a last cider at the airport bar (Ted bought), then back to the stifling heat and familiarity of home. It's great to travel; it's great to be home.


UK Trip: Days 5, 6 & 7

Day 5

Today we got to paddle without taking a long drive first. Ele promised us 7 minutes to the put-in (the jetty, that is) and sure enough we were there in exactly that. We did a shuttle, starting on Loch Moidart and ending back at the inn. This was our longest day (about six hours on the water) and had a lot of highlights. First of all, the scenery was striking. Second, we stopped off at the ruins of a 13th century castle, Castle Tioram. Like everything in Scotland, Castle Tioram has a link to Bonnie Prince Charlie, a romantic figure from the 18th century who led the unsuccessful Jacobite Rebellion - an attempt to overthrow the Hanovers and return the more British Stuarts to the throne of England. The rebellion met its end at the Battle of Culloden, the location of which we passed on our taxi ride from the Inverness airport. I reckon Bonnie Prince Charlie, a valiant crusader for a failed cause, occupies a place in Scottish hearts similar to that occupied by the Confederacy among Southern Americans - except his cause was a more noble one of nationalistic pride, not preservation of slavery.

Anyway, we paddle out of Loch Moidart, past castle Tioram, around Eilan Shona, up around Smirisary and Rubha Gheed a Leighe, into the sound of Arisaig,
ending at Glenuig. The sea life was awesome as always: blue starfish, herons, cormorants, seals, and sea otter. We also caught a glimpse of porpoises, pronounced in Scotland as "poor-poises". This was also our roughest day. A number of people got a little freaked (though being British, they didn't much show it) and Sue was having a little trouble with boat control. No capsizes, though. Lunch was the "Crofter's Piece" - a selection of cheeses, a roll (everyone said that the cheeses should properly be eaten with oatcakes), salad, and shortbread biscuits. True to his green leanings, Steve packs everything in reusable containers. Ele, surprised at the poshness of the lunch, exclaimed "ooh, there's even a wee serviette!", something we Americans would call a "small napkin".

We paddled near here.

In the evening, it was back the bar. I have mentioned that Steve, the owner of the Glenuig Inn, likes to share his opinions on a variety of subjects. Tonight he told us the rationale behind his selection of spirits for the bar. He focuses on unfiltered whiskies. It seems that most distilleries cold filter their whisky, primarily because Americans, who put ice in their whisky (Philistines!) don't like seeing their drinks turn cloudy. However, cold filtering, while it solves the cloudiness problem, removes long-chain molecules which give the whisky its depth of flavour. So, Steve has sought out a number of unfiltered whiskies. At the bar he gave us some to sample, and in addition some Scotch vodka and Scotch gin. The vodka was quite drinkable. I don't like gin, but I must admit this stuff had a nice aroma. I was also partial to the organic Bruichladdich whisky, less so the Caol Ila which is Ele's preference. Oh, I should mention that part of the inn was burned during the Jacobite Rebellion - another connection to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

I had my one meat dinner of the week: Moroccan lamb stew, made from some poor local lamb. Teddy, near starvation, agrees to try (and likes!) tomato basil soup (pronounced tomahto bahsil), which he has with white rice. 

After dinner we perused the ample collection of local outdoor and kayaking magazines, made a little use of the Wifi, then headed to bed.

Day 6

Our last full day of paddling. A relatively short drive to Arasaig. We stopped in town both to drop Sue off (she was a little achy and decided to stay on land) and to go to the convenience store where Teddy was able to buy some ramen and "crisps" (potato chips) to ward off starvation. This made him happy. The waters around Arasaig are known for skerries: "A skerry is a small rocky island, usually defined to be too small for habitation. It may simply be a rocky reef." The skerries are home to zillions of harbor and grey seals. If you take a look at the pictures linked below you'll see that we were in the near constant presence of lots of seals. Thanks to Ele, we also got to try pepper dulse, an edible seaweed and see sea anemone, Sea urchin and starfish Starfish. We had good weather all day except for a little rain at the very end - our only rain of the kayaking portion of our trip.  As on the previous several days, we had great views out to Skye. Lunch was the Crofter's Piece again - more cheese.

We were kayaking near here.

This was our last night of the trip and so we toasted the trip at the bar. Ted had his by now habitual pint of cider. Dinner was, as usual, at the inn. Teddy had the tomahto bahsil soup once again, but was happier because he had been able to eat lunch (one of his ramen cups, made with some of our tea-time hot water).

Day 7

A short paddle today, putting in at the jetty just up from the inn and paddling out to an island in Loch Ailort. The island had some ruins which are said to the the remains of a Pictish (Iron Age people) fort - but some say it's just volcanic rock. AS we did our morning load-out Ted suggested that we leave some of the group "kit" (such as the tea equipment) behind since we'd only be out for a couple of hours. The group emitted a collective gasp at the notion of skipping tea. Sure enough, even though it made us late in getting on the road we stopped to have tea.

We were back at the Glenuig Inn in time for lunch, so I had my Crofter's Piece (more cheese!) at a table rather than on a rock. From somewhere Ali produced a package of oatcakes, which all assembled agreed greatly improved the enjoyment of the cheeses.

Then it was back into the van one last time for the ride back to Inverness. We said our goodbyes at the Inverness Railway station "car park". Ted and I had a few hours before our sleeper train to London left so we dropped our backs in a locker at the "Left Luggage" and went into town.

Ted chose our restaurant for dinner - an Italian place where he could recharge his depleted calories with pizza and "chips" (fries) - though he had convinced the inn to serve him tomahto-bahsil soup for breakfast! Then we stopped in at the McDonald's for coffee and Wifi. Finally we returned to the station to find - HOLY CRAP! - the Left Luggage room had closed for the night. It hadn't occurred to me that such a place would close up, though indeed they did have hours posted. My mind immediately began to race with thoughts of having to book lodgings and alternative transportation back to London. Fortunately, we found a station employee who was willing to fetch the key and open the room so we could fetch our bags. Whew! We were quite happy to get on the train and settle into our wee berth.


UK Trip: Days 3 & 4

Day 3

This was our first full day of paddling. The day started with breakfast, both cold (cereals, yoghurt and prunes, of course toast) and hot (black pudding, ham, poached egg and sausage or haddock). We then all loaded into the van for about an hour’s drive to a put-in, including getting mildly lost along the way. Apparently GPS is unknown in the Highlands; the guides did everything the old fashioned way, with big fold-out maps and educated guesses.

Our paddle was, like the day before, on Loch Sunart, but much closer to the mouth of the loch – hence the long drive. We spent about five hours on the water, circumnavigating the Isle of Oronsay. Boy, it was gorgeous. Both green and rocky. Surprisingly clear water. And lots of sea life: seals, sea otters, terns, golden herons. While we were closer to the open sea, it was still a pretty calm environment, except when the wind kicked up at the end.

We were paddling somewhere around here.

Every day our lunch was provided by the inn. Today we had a choice of ham and cheese or “egg mayonnaise”. Well, ham and cheese was out of the question for me. The egg mayonnaise on white bread, gloopy enough at breakfast time, was totally unappealing to me after it had spent half a day in the hatch. Fortunately we traveled with a wide array of snack food and so I had plenty eat – dried fruit, nuts, chocolate bars and some novel (to me) UK foods: Tunnock’s biscuits, and "flapjack". Lunch, of course, concluded with tea and biscuits. I should mention that it wasn’t strictly tea, as every day we also had the choice of French press coffee (they call this type of pot a cafetiere, probably to avoid saying the word “French”, much as in America for a while we ate Freedom Fries) – apparently even the British are giving in to coffee culture.

I have no idea of the distances we paddled on any of the days, but this was one of the longer trips and it was good to get back to the inn and wash up. As always, the group met at the bar, where Ted’s drinking education continued. This evening he had a sweet hard cider which became his drink for the rest of the trip. I decided it was time to dip into the whisky myself and, after getting recommendations from the experienced crew, selected a Macallan 10 year. Good, with a splash of water.Not too "peaty".

Dinner for me was "veg flan” (known to Americans as vegetable quiche) with assorted veg, potato, green beans, salad. Ted had his third burger in three dinners. Having had a longer day on the water, folks turned in a little earlier, in fact just as it was getting dark (that’s a joke – it gets dark at 11).

Day 4
Let me start by quoting the "trip dossier": "Further west lies Ardnamurchan Point - this is one area that we will not sea kayak to as it is the most challenging section of the whole trail, and is for experts only!" So, where did we paddle today? Why, Arnamurchan Point, of course. The forecast called for unusually calm conditions and so the guides asked us if we'd like to take a chance and drive out to the point and see if it was paddle-able. Of course we all said yes! So, into the van we went for another long drive. When we got to the point conditions did indeed look good, however the only launching point was a jetty which appeared to be on someone's property. No one answered the door and so we were a little flummoxed about launching there.

Let me digress here for a second - "jetty" is another Britishism for what we would call a ramp or more generically a put-in. Scottish jetties are distinctive in that they are built with rough conditions and extreme tides in mind: long concrete ramps extending way out into the water so as to be usable under all tidal conditions. For me, the word has a nostalgic ring, as it hearkens back to the British Ant and Bee books I read as a child, one of which involved a trip down a jetty. For some reason I remember reading this word, which was not in our Brooklyn vernacular and seemed quite exotic.

Anyway, having failed to secure permission to launch we decided to drive up the road to the lighthouse. At worst, we'd take in the view. At best, someone might be able to vector us to another, um, jetty. The good news is we accomplished both - someone at the lighthouse knew the owner of the jetty-side house and was able to phone him and get permission for us to use his put-in.

Arnamurchan Point is the westernmost point on the British mainland, and is quite ruggedly beautiful. We had putzed away a bunch of time at the lighthouse and I think the guides were a little worried about conditions taking a turn for the worse and so we had a fairly short day of paddling but Ele, as always, had a good eye for the local sealife, pointing out anemones on the skerries (big rock outcroppings), cormorants and gannett birds.

Our other excitement for the day was Teddy's capsize - the only one of the trip. He was trying out edging technique and pushed a little too far - and over he went! The water in Scotland is pretty chilly (quoted in the dossier as mid fifties but I'd guess actually sixty-ish degrees) but fortunately Ted never feels cold. Also, we have practiced rescues plenty of times and so with Ali's help he was quickly back in his boat and fully recovered. The only real loss is that somehow in the process of falling out he had ripped open the day hatch and lost some of the contents - including his GPS receiver. Lunch, packed by the Ben View Hotel staff, was a nice brie and raspberry sandwich. I'm beginning to get a bettter understanding of Wallace and Gromit: the Brits do love their cheese (and their toast)!

Ted's capsize also leads me to point out an interesting difference between US and UK paddlers: they accept a lot more risk in terms of water temps. The guides were dressed in sailing pants, tucked into tall wellies (rubber boots), with a "cagoule" (paddling jacket) on top. This gear keeps you nice and dry if you launch from a jetty and things go as planned but fails if you capsizeas it does nothing to keep you warm or dry if you wind up in the water. In fact, I'd say the wellies are something of a liability in the water. I can't image a US group going out dressed this way in cool water - maybe it's just American risk aversion. For my part, I wore thin neoprene pants, shirt and socks all week.

We were paddling somewhere around here, with lovely views out to the Isles of Eigg, Muck and Skye.

The end of the day brought another long drive, this time to the Glenuig Inn, located directly on Loch Ailort. The inn had a modern feel to it and our room, unlike the other places, was quite spacious. It turns out the owner, Steve, had recently done a major green renovation of the place. Steve, we learned over the course of our stay, was always quite eager to discourse on his green innovations - as well a any number of other topics. Interestingly, I learned after the fact that Steve's renovation of the inn is quite controversial. If you look on TripAdvisor you'll see that certain people hate him for having ruined a local hangout by having turned it into a sterile place aimed at eco-tourists and serving nothing in the bar but foofie organic whiskies and ales but no lagers (the horror!). Other reviewers think he's created a pretty cool place. Since I arrived with no preconceptions of what a Scottish local inn should be like (and since I'm one of those eco-tourists) I put myself in the second camp.

Dinner for me was a nice spicy bean curry. Ted was beginning to go a little nuts since there was nothing for him to eat outside of breakfast and the nearest store is 20 miles away. After dinner, a little Wifi time and then off to bed.


UK Trip: Days 0, 1 & 2

We arrive in Inverness to find everyone in a bit of a tizzy. Inverness is playing host to the Scottish Open golf tournament, except for the past two days it has been pouring rain and the golf has been canceled. This seems to affect everyone. Even our taxi driver was supposed to have been marshaling at the tourney but instead found himself behind the wheel like a regular work day. Mrs. McRae, at whose B&B we stayed, reported in her Scottish  brogue that there'd even been a thunderrrrstorrrrm, with forrrrrked  lightening. As a DC area resident I thought nothing of this until I learned that thunderstorms are rare in the cool, high latitudes of the Scottish Highlands.

After hearing The McRae's rather long list of rules (don't bump your suitcase up the stairs; no carryout food on the premises; don't leave the bathroom light on all night the way those Portugese people did the other week as the fan noise bothers the other guests, you must pay cash as  credit card machine is broken, ...) Ted and I headed out into town  through lingering rain showers in search of dinner. Ted is an excellent traveling companion but an extremely picky eater, which can complicate the process of finding food on trips. In this case he was willing to go to a pub (one recommended by our taxi driver) because the menu included burgers. I had fish and chips washed down with a pint. Our first pub dinner was nice enough but the real fun began after dinner when we took a stroll through town. I should mention here that Ted is a big fan of Celtic music (I like it  too) and so our ears perked up at the sound of bagpipes. The source was a street performer and we hustled over and listened to a tune before noticing  another band up the street. We scurried over to hear them. And then we noticed dancers. Then a teen bagpipe band. Then little girls doing Highland dancers (with bagpipe accompaniment - no prerecorded music here!). Then a Celtic folk band.  Then an excellent young band made up of accordion, fiddle, pipes, and drum. And a whole pipe and drum corps in full Highland regalia. Mind you, these were just the street performers. There was music spilling out of the clubs as well: more folk music emanating from a coffeehouse, and a rock band with horns playing classic rock standards (they did a pretty mean  version of Tequila) at a bar. The whole shebang culminated with a march up to the grounds of Inverness Castle where all of the street performers we'd seen performed individually and together as the sun began to  set (at 11 PM - love those Northern latitude summers) over the River Ness. If this is what Saturday nights are like in Scotland, Ted was ready to tear up his Virginia college applications in favor of University of Edinburgh. Alas, we learned that this was not a typical Inverness Saturday night; rather, it was a special to-do arranged for the golf tournament. But no matter: we were all the happier to have stumbled into just the right night to be there. Finally, having been on the go for about 36 hours (DC to London to Inverness plus our evening out) we returned to White Lodge and crashed.

Saturday began with our introduction to the UK style of breakfast. I refer to "UK style" because apparently there's fierce and conflicting nationalistic pride at play in naming this meal. When on Day 3 our Scottish guide ordered a "full English  breakfast" from our Scottish innkeeper he got an animated (though tongue in cheek) talking to for not having referred to it as a "Highland  breakfast". My old boss, who hailed from Derry, used to call this same meal an "Irish breakfast." I’m betting that In Cardiff they call it a “Welsh breakfast”. Anyway, breakfast always includes a cold component consisting of cereal, yoghurt (sic - the English don't know how to spell in their own language) and fruit. Then there's the hot breakfast, with choices ranging from the delicious (Scottish salmon and eggs) to a dish so disgusting I can't believe so many countries are eager to lay claim to it. Yes, I refer here to the full Scottish/English/Irish/Welsh/Isle of Man breakfast, which comprises poached egg, sausage, ham and black pudding/blood sausage. And toast. Always lots of toast with everything. Mrs. McRae also served us some potato scones, which were more like the love child of Pupusas and potato latkes than any sort of scone I'd ever seen.

After breakfast we bid the McRaes goodbye (Mrs. McRae kept watch to make sure I didn't bump my suitcase down the stairs) and after a "wee" stop at McDonalds to use their Wifi we met up with the group at the Inverness railway station as planned. The group turned out to be small: two guides and six of us "on holiday." Other than we two Americans, the group was evenly divided between Scots and Brits. Our two guides were Ele, a 20-something British woman living in Scotland and Ali, a 24 year old Scottish guy. They arrived in a van towing a trailer of Easky 17 kayaks, a small but generally insignificant step down in my mind from the promised Capellas. The other group members included Alex, a  British professor of Scottish literature at Edinburgh, Annette, a  Scottish nurse practitioner, Kath, a Scot who was some sort of public  policy type, and Sue, an Englishwoman whose profession I didn't get -  she may have been retired.    Years of watching Monty Python and Harry Potter movies have given me the ability to understand much of British English, save for the real Britishisms (e.g., being "knackered" at the end of the day or calling cookies biscuits) but the Scots were another story. I'm sure that by the end of the trip the Scots all thought I was hard of  hearing or daft given how many times I asked them to repeat themselves  or just stared blankly when they asked me a question. Someone once said we are "two people divided by a common language" (this is one of those quotes variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Osar Wilde, and Shaw).  How right he was.

Inverness is pretty far up in the Scottish Highlands, but it was still a ways from there to the west coast lochs. It doesn't look far on the map, but the roads in rural Scotland aren't exactly superhighways. In fact, a lot of the distance we covered was on single lane roads and by that I don't mean single lane each way, I mean single lane. The roads are one lane with little bump outs big enough for one car every 10th of a mile or so (a.k.a. every 0.16 km). When two cars come towards each other one pulls into a bump out and lets the other go by. Since the roads are also winding and hilly sight distances are limited leading to frequent abrupt stops to avoid head-on collisions. There’s even the occasional need for one of the cars to back up down the road a piece if the cars don’t see each other until they’re past the bump-outs. When you're traveling in a van trailering a bunch of kayaks this gets even more interesting. We made it to our destination after what to me was a hairy ride.

Our paddle on the first day was something of a check-out. The guides started us out just paddling in circles around the put-in on the more protected, inner section of Loch Sunart. Once they had a feel for our abilities we went for more of a real paddle, in fact staying out longer than planned. This first outing introduced us to two other daily features of paddling the lochs: first, the fifteen foot tides, and second, the mandatory daily stop for tea. On this first day the tide was going out while we were on the water. In the time it took us to have our tea and biscuits fifteen feet (5 m) of dry land had appeared between my kayak and the water’s edge! 

After we got off the water we went to our lodging, the Ben View Hotel in Strontian. Since you no doubt already know that this town gave its name to the element Strontium, I will skip that history and go straight to a description of the inn itself. As you might have guessed, the hotel offers a nice view of various “bens”. If you don’t know what a ben is, I’ll explain by saying it’s a “corbett”. Still confused? These are only-in-Scotland terms for “Mountain Peak”. In particular, we had a nice view of Ben Resipole and Ben Garbhein. If I ever come into possession of a mountain in Scotland I'm going to name it Ben Franklin. Or maybe Ben Gurion.

The Ben View had a nice traditional inn feel to it. The owner was a very gregarious fellow - and a big Springsteen fan (he told me this since I was an American). After getting cleaned up the group met at the bar where Teddy, having turned eighteen (legal drinking age in the UK) that day, was determined to order a drink. Of course, he has no idea what he likes, but fortunately he was in the company of experts (i.e., Scots) who were all too helpful in suggesting drinks. Even the innkeeper got into the act, pouring Ted little tastes of everything they had on tap. Ted finally ordered a rum & coke, figuring it was sweet and was a logical first step for a habitual Coke drinker.

Scotland Highlights: Days 1&2

Friday, July 1, 2011

Discovering New Places

I've been learning to ride a bike. Not the basic part of moving forward without falling down: I mastered that years ago. Rather, with the winding down of my running career I've been looking to cycling as a new form of exercise and have been trying to do some rides of at least moderate length. I have an unrealistic possible goal of riding the metric version of the Seagull Century (100 km, or about 62 mi) this fall; more realistically, I just want to build up my cycling muscles and, um, seat tolerance.

At 18.5 mi today's ride was not one of my longer ones, however it offered lots of hill practice. I started from home, peddled up Sycamore St./Williamsburg Blvd./Glebe Rd. to Chain Bridge. This part of the ride has lots of fun ups and downs over extended hills. To give you some idea, the GPS shows my speed alternating between speeds as high as 27 MPH as I motored downhill and as low as 8 MPH as I granny-geared my way back uphill. From studying the map I found a little trick detour to bypass the suicidal final plunge down to Chain Bridge. It's not perfect, though, as you have to do a slightly less suicidal climb up the Military Road exit ramp and then to the downhill plunge on a quiet side street.

Once across Chain Bridge (a great view, as always) I headed west on the C&O Canal Tow Path. The tow path is packed dirt and so for someone on a thin-tired bike it's slow going. I didn't realize it during my ride but I actually made it out of DC and into Maryland before I turned around at one of the canal locks. On the way back, out of curiosity I decided to explore a side path off the tow path. Why would there be a paved path into the woods off of a dirt main trail? Well, after exploring it I can't explain why it's there but I can say where it leads. Turns out it goes all the way to a neat concrete platform situated above the bank of the Potomac about midway between Chain Bridge and Little Falls. The platform offers a great view of both the bridge and the falls. Now, I kayaked this section of the river a million times back when the Thursday night group used to launch out of Georgetown. In fact, I'd often spend time hanging out in my kayak right about at this spot waiting for the crazier folks who liked to take their sea kayaks up into the falls. I never, however, noticed this platform from the water. I can't believe it. It must be somewhat camouflaged by the rocks and branches along the shoreline.

I didn't pause long at the platform because I wanted to keep my ride going. So, back on my bike I climbed and I continued down the tow path, switching to the paved Capital Crescent trail where the two paths meet at Fletcher's Cove. The CC takes you right onto Water St. in Georgetown, past the Potomac Boat Club, Washington Canoe Club and Jack's Boathouse. I paused at Jack's and watched someone launch a stand-up paddle board. I thought I might say hi to Paul or Anna if they were there but boathouse wasn't open yet, and so I moved on.

Continuing along Water St. took me to Georgetown Waterfront Park. I've watched this park being built from the vantage point of my kayak but had never visited it on land before. It's very well done, a nice place for folks to stroll and connect to the river. It has some neat old photos and maps of the area etched into stones around the park: one showing the old aqueduct bridge, one showing a 1940s (I'm guessing) view of Georgetown, and a bunch of others. The only thing it's missing is a car-top boat launch. I took a five minute break at the park, breaking out the thermos of coffee and piece of biscotti I had brought along. Then it was back on the bike, up across Georgetown, and over Key Bridge back into Virginia.

The ride out the Custis Trail from Rosslyn to home is at a macro level an uphill battle. The combination of the topography of the land and the need for the bike path to cross over a number of roads makes it a rolling ride. Up, down, up, down. A good workout for sure. The good news is that I think I'm getting better at these sections - in fact, I was feeling strong enough at the end of this roller coaster that I added a little dog-leg to the ride, detouring down a side path into Bluemont Park rather than taking the more direct route to the W&OD trail.

Finally, home at about 10:30 AM, just in time to say goodbye to V as she left to get together with a friend.

Next time I try doing this loop twice. OK, maybe once plus a few more add-on segments. Someday, twice.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Great Hudson River Revival, Days 2 & 3

I sleep pretty well in a tent and so I wake up feeling refreshed even though it’s pretty early and I didn't get all that much sleep. The morning is dry and cool enough for me to put on a light fleece jacket. I whip up a breakfast that’s much like home, save for the Starbucks Via Brew instant coffee in place of my usual cup. Oh, coffee deities, please do not strike me down for drinking instant!

One of the great aspects of Clearwater is its link to the river. The festival’s raison d’etre is raising awareness of the Hudson’s ecology and environment. The festival takes place on a peninsula jutting out into the Hudson. You can see the river from most of the park and you can even watch one of the stages from the water. There’s also a “working waterfront” area where people can experience the river directly: row, paddle and go for a sail on the sloop Clearwater. In keeping with the festival theme, I start my day by hitting the water in my kayak. The car-top launch is just down the hill from the campground and so just a few minutes after finishing my last sip of coffee I’ve got the boat in the water and am ready to go. There's another car at the launch with two CLC Shearwaters (the same kayak I have) on it - two beautifully constructed wooden boats. I never see the owner, but by fate I notice a post of his later on Facebook and needless to say we are now "Friends".

Last year I paddled around the peninsula on which Croton Point Park sits. This year I head in the opposite direction, heading north across the bay and up the shoreline. The river is majestic, with the Hudson Highlands towering above the west shore. The Hudson is much more of a working river than the Potomac, so there’s commercial boat traffic, but the river is so wide that it’s miles away. My side of the river is quiet, save for the occasional commuter train.

At the end of my paddle I stop at the working waterfront and check out the displays, which include an antique ice boat – a catamaran designed to be used when the river is frozen. I also talk to the people at the Hudson River Water Trail booth. Then I grandstand a little bit, doing rolls and braces just off shore where the crowd can see. Then it’s time to head back, dry off and have a little lunch before heading into the fray of the festival.

My first target at the festival is the Klezmatics at the Sloop Stage. I get there a little early and so see the end of Buskin & Battaeu’s set. I don’t know these guys but they’re good – and apparently Sherry knows of them since she’s there. She's torn but ultimately decides not to stay for the Klezmatics; before she leaves she clues me in as to where to find her at the main stage area. The Klezmatics are great as always. This set is a mix of klezmer and the folkie stuff they do. Somewhat mellow, as they are saving the high energy numbers for their set at the dance stage. Having lived in Virginia for two decades, the demographics of a New York folk festival surprise me – I think the audience for the Klezmatics at the Sloop Stage had a higher percentage of Jews than Kol Nidre Services at my temple in Virginia. I shouldn’t have been surprised: on Saturday, the MC had introduced Janis Ian as being “a mensch”, an expression you’d be less likely to hear in an introduction at, say, Wolf Trap. As Sherry said, “we’re home.”

After the Klezmatics’ set (BTW, Lorin Sklamberg has the same accordion I do!) I headed over to the main (Rainbow) stage to see Suzanne Vega. She was performing with a guitarist who did some neat looping to create a very layered sound. Good stuff, even though she kept forgetting her songs! I meant to go over to the Hudson Stage after that to see Chris Smither but wound up yakking with Ken, Sherry and their friends and wound up staying at the Rainbow Stage to see the Indigo Girls. I wasn’t a big Indigo Girls fan in their heyday, but they put on a really enjoyable set. They were playing with a violinist and a really good keyboardist/accordionist named Julie Wolf (good enough that I remembered her name). I next caught the beginning of the Driveby Truckers, but I wasn’t that taken with them and so headed over to the dance tent to see the Klezmatics – that’s right, two sets of the Klezmatics in the same day! At the dance tent you can really get up close to the stage. Unfortunately, my injured leg kept me from doing much dancing so I swayed for a while then went off to the side to sit. I ended the day by seeing Justin Townes Earle – that’s right, Steve’s boy. I have his latest CD and I must say that he’s an excellent live performer as well.

I just bought a new (used) camera which works (via an adapter) with my Canon lenses from the 1970’s and over the course of the day I further entertained myself taking pictures. Got some good ones.

As on Saturday, I skipped the “Clearwater Generations” set in favor of falafel. By this point the food vendors were starting to pack up. The falafel place sold me a heaping plate of leftovers – falafel, carrots, some dolma, and tahini – for half price. I also got a small ice cream and a cup of (brewed) coffee. Then it was time for the hike up to the campsite. Boy, my leg was hurting – it was a slow walk up the hill, with several breaks. There was a much smaller version of the jam session going on – just three people – which I decided to skip. I was saturated with music and I wanted to get an early start the next day.

I wake up fairly early on Monday - around 6 AM. Basically, it's just breakfast (two Via Brews this time), pack up and hit the road. Uneventful trip home, save for my GPS realllly wanting me to take the GW Bridge rather than the Tappan Zee.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Great Hudson River Revival, Day 1

Like too many of my posts these days, this one starts with a nightmarish traffic jam. After an uneventful and quick drive from DC to Croton-on-Hudson to attend the Great Hudson River Revival / Clearwater Festival, it took an hour and a half to exit from Rt 9A and drive into the festival grounds. No matter – I had expected some degree of backup and was mentally prepared. Eventually I made it, set up my tent and headed down to the music. Wow, what a lineup. There are seven stages at the festival and there’s always more to see than there is time to see it. Saturday I caught Janis Ian, David Bromberg, Arlo Gurthrie, Toshi Reagon and Brooklyn Qawwali Dance Party. And just like last year, in this huge sea of people I had no problem finding Sherri and Ken. By the time Arlo’s set ended I was pretty beat – too much so to hang around and see the “generations” set (parent/child combinations such as Pete and Tao Seeger …). Plus I have to admit that this idea is too mushy for me. Instead I headed for the food area for another of my favorite Clearwater activities, procurement and consumption of the falafel sandwich. Yum! Then it was up the hill to the campsite, stopping along the way to call home and watch the sun set over the Hudson River. I figured I might turn in early and indeed I lay down in my tent at about 9:30 and immediately fell asleep. Thirty minutes later, though I was up – awakened by the sound of the Saturday night campsite jam session. I had participated last year and I say with all modesty that I was the best accordionist there. I just couldn’t resist joining in again. So, out came the accordion and over to the jam I went. It was being run by the same guy as last year and in fact there were a number of other familiar faces, all of whom remembered me. After all, when you’re the best accordionist there, you tend to make an impression. And what an interesting lineup of musicians: guitars (of course), acoustic bass, a guy who played bongos, flute and tin whistle, a violinist, a violist, a French horn player, a couple of banjos, and harmonica. Well, to make a long story short I jammed until close to 1 AM, at which point  I was literally having trouble standing up any longer. This was for two reasons. First, having been awake for nearly 21 hours (save for the 30 minute nap) I was just exhausted. Second, I injured myself running last week (a shin splint, I think) and my leg was starting to give way. So, away went the accordion and I headed back to my tent (which I had trouble finding because I was so damn tired). I shut off my alarm, which I had previously set for 5 AM so I could get in some early morning kayaking, and figured I’d start Sunday “whenever”.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Patuxent Water Trail Day 3

When we pulled the boats up on Saturday we all agreed that it was too tight an area for us to all load at once in the morning. We’d have to pull one boat out at a time, load, launch, and repeat. Needless to say, 6 AM Sunday found us all crammed down in the launch area at once, busily loading gear while tripping over each other and the kayaks. A brief but intense rain shower rolled in while we were finishing up, causing us to dash about in a yet more manic fashion. Amazingly, this comedic ballet did not result in any mishaps, nor (as far as I know) did any of our slapstick maneuvers in an area thick with poison ivy yield any major rash problems. Against all odds, we actually got under way exactly at 0700 - ten minutes earlier than on Saturday. I wondered if the shower was going to mean a day of paddling in the rain, but fortunately this was not to be. The shower rolled out as quickly as it had rolled in and conditions were dry the rest of the day.

On this wider section of the river we didn’t have the current helping us, the wind was against us, and we were all a little “experienced”, as we put it, so it felt like slower going. I was paddling with a new Greenland paddle, one which seemed more given to cavitation than my old paddle, and so I spend a lot of the day focusing on adjusting my stroke to gain efficiency. Being the only one there paddling a plastic boat, I think I also may have been working the hardest to keep my speed up. However, being towards the young end of the group agewise, I was darned if I was going to be the one in the back, so I just paddled harder, as evidenced in the big blister which appeared on my right hand mid-day. 

Heading for Jefferson Patterson Park
A warm, calm day on a wide river isn’t all bad. In fact, without the previous two days to compare it too it would have seemed quite spectacular. However, we were getting into the more developed, more heavily traveled section of the river and it began to feel like a little bit of a slog. We took a welcome lunchtime break at Jefferson Patterson Park, which was hosting Children’s Day at the Farm. A typical paddling break involves squatting on a rock at the shoreline and gnawing at a half melted PowerBar, but here we hiked up into the and explored a really neat local festival – replete with farm animals, funnel cakes, old tractors, the works. Oh, and the most delicious cold Diet Cokes ever. 

While we sat and ate lunch a couple of our group started cooing over a horse. “It looks like a Belgian, but miniature.” I know nothing about horses – where I grew up they were something the police used for crowd control and livery hacks used to ferry tourists around Central Park*. I can tell a brown horse from a white one, and maybe a large one from a small one. The finer points of equine breeds are completely out of my range of knowledge, however. So I was impressed, as is always the case when people demonstrate mastery of what seem to me to be obscure subjects. Jen, who took dressage lessons in college – dressage, for pete’s sake! In Greenwich Village, where I went to college, you could probably find cross-dressage lessons, but that’s different – went over and talked with the owner. Turns out the horse was a Haflinger, which, sure enough is somewhat like a smaller Belgian. So there.

After a longer than planned break we hit the water for the final stretch to Solomons. The Route 4 bridge proved to be another one of those never-getting-any-closer landmarks. I worked on my mental focus. My natural tendency at this point in a trip is to fixate on getting to the end and stop noticing the present. But I kept guiding my thoughts back to where I was at that moment, appreciating the breadth of the river, the way my leg muscles felt when I got the stroke right, the look of the group spread out over the water, the sky. 

At last we rounded Point Patience into Solomons, which is a quaint little waterfront town. After hitting the beach just before 3 PM we mucked around a little bit – finding a public restroom, strolling, hauling gear, enjoying the still-cool sodas Ralph had in a cooler in his truck. Somehow the shuttle plans worked and everyone and every boat made it onto a car. Mike’s brother Butch, who was in town for his 50th high school reunion, arrived with Mike’s van and gave Jen and me a ride back to where we had left our car. The van ride was satisfyingly long – made me feel we had really covered some distance. 

Jen and I had learned our lesson. We turned on the traffic report as we pulled out of Selby’s Landing, making sure we were not heading into another traffic jam. Truth be told, listening to the news was a little jarring after three days off the grid but I guess all good things have to come to an end. As we drove home I felt like we were descending from the special world of the river back into the mundane. Jen and I vowed to go back another time so we could cover the few miles we missed at the outset. It’s good to know the Pax and I will see each other again. 

You can read Ralph's trip log here (includes links to everyone's pictures).

A short album of pix is here.

Total Distance: 21.9 miles

Three day distance: 47.5 miles (for Jen and me, YMMV)

*Actually, this is not 100% true. I have ridden horses in both Brooklyn and Queens.

Patuxent River Trail Day 2

Setting Out, Day 2
I would have bet against it, but 7 AM indeed found the group on the river ready to go. I had popped awake at 5 AM, having slept (or at least having been horizontal in bed) for longer than any night in recent memory. The night had been cool, in the high 50’s, and quite conducive to sleep - at least for those of us with sleeping bags. A few people had packed for summer weather and felt the overnight chill. Suzanne wound up sleeping bundled up in all her clothes and paddling jacket to stay warm. As light dawned I stumbled out of my tent and wandered down to the boats to get my breakfast. I had left my breakfast food in the kayak, figuring it was as safe from critters in the hatch as in the tent. Pausing to take in the scene, I reveled in the glow of water in the dawn light, punctuated by puffs of mist. Back up on the bluff, Ralph had coffee up. The early risers gulped down a quick breakfast and then we shook the laggards awake.

I’m glad I had test-packed my boat before the trip. Both mornings required quick loading and it was good to know where to put everything so that it would fit and preserve the boat’s trim.

The section of the river up at White Oak Landing is quite lovely, being small and largely devoid of development We proved a compatible bunch on the water – all about the same speed and skills. Rich, a fast long distance paddler, paddled way out ahead as he is wont to do, but kept in radio (and usually visual) contact with us. Saturday morning was for me the most peaceful stretch of the whole trip. Ralph knows the river very well, and in addition to the natural beauty he filled us in on some of the history of the area. Paddling through this tranquil spot it was hard to image it crawling with British warships and American gunboats as it was in 1812.
King's Landing

We made a stop at King’s Landing where we were able to refill our water supplies (and use a flush toilet, too). We marveled at the pool – obviously maintained and ready for swimmers, but closed and locked mid-day on a June Saturday. Perhaps budget cuts have taken their toll. This stop had originally been planned as a lunch break but we started so early and made so much progress that most of us decided to hold out until we got to Maxwell Hall and so took just an extended leg-stretch and snack break.

Our destination was said to be near the Chalk Point power plant. We’d been able to see this plant in the distance from the observation tower at White’s Landing, and it loomed in the distance as we paddled onward. Distances on the water can be tricky: at the start of the day the power plant didn’t seem all that far away, but after half a day of paddling it seemed not an inch closer. That kind of visual effect can really mess with you if you let it. After yet more time on the water the plant finally entered the foreground of our view and we knew we were close. About this time Greg hailed us on the radio saying he and Jenny were out on the water, had spotted Rich (who was out front as usual) and that he’d be joining us. 
Chalk Point Power Plant

No one in the group had used this campsite before and so it took a little finding. I led us to the listed GPS coordinates for the site, a point at which there was a small beach and a trail leading up to a cleared area with a picnic table. We were also greeted by snakes, ticks and poison ivy. Rich reassured us about the snakes – yes, this species bites, but no, they’re not venomous. Oh, and and let me not forget the constant drone of the power plant, which sat just across the creek from us. Suffice it to say that this site, while still lovely, was less idyllic than White Oak. We pulled the boats up above the tide mark, squeezing them into a pretty small area, and then we dragged our gear up the hill to the campsite.It was a warm afternoon so after settling in a number of us went for a swim to refresh ourselves.


When you camp you pretty quickly get into a routine built around food and shelter. In fact, the forced consideration of the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy is to me one of the appeals of camping. You have to be in the moment taking care of basic needs in a way which those of us in urban civilization rarely do. As such, we set to work establishing our campsite. Tents (some slightly impinging onto an equestrian trail), and a tarp went up and food came out. Saturday night was Suzanne’s turn to cook for our little sub-group. She had planned a different variant chicken hash, this one with curry and Trader Joe’s multigrain mix. I once again helped out with my full range my major culinary skills, which include both opening cans and stirring. Before you know it we had a pretty tasty dinner, with enough extra to share with the larger group. Other folks ate a range of food, including MREs (pre-fab military field meals) and the Mountain House camping store equivalent. More wine was consumed, but alas there was no watermelon. There was no fire either, since the campsite lacked a fire ring. We subsequently realized this was because we weren’t really at the campsite. Al and Bob went out for a brief evening paddle and discovered the campsite proper was a little further into the creek. We were in the right park in the right neck of the woods, but not in exactly the right spot. Since we were all set up by the time we discovered this fact, we opted to stay put.

Saturday evening we took a brief walk through the park and I dashed into the woods to find one of several geocaches hidden in the park. Mostly, though, it was another evening of sitting back in our folding chairs and enjoying the (warmer) evening. While I had never met Al before, I knew from a mutual yogi friend that he was a yoga practitioner and indeed he spent some time during the evening doing yoga, including some rather impressive inversions. Motivated by this, I stretched a little too. After a relaxing evening we again turned in early with the goal of getting an early start again on Sunday. There was some noise overnight from the power plant - for example, we heard the shift change, but nothing too bad.
Total Distance: 18.9 miles

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Patuxent River Trail Day 1

This is the first of three segments about a weekend kayaking trip following the Patuxent River Water Trail for 50 miles from Queen Anne Landing to Solomons, Maryland. 


The trip started inauspiciously. Jen and I set out carpooling from Arlington to meet up with the group at the Queen Anne put-in but found ourselves stuck in a hideous traffic jam before we even made it out of Virginia. We got increasingly frustrated as the minutes ticked on, eating up the extra time we had built into our schedule, then the minutes required to get to the launch under the best of conditions. Well, actually I’m speculating when I say Jen got frustrated, since she displays that mid-West equanimity I find so perplexing. I grew up in a complaining culture. The New Yorker’s version of the Goldilocks story would have only two bears. “This porridge is too hot!” I get that. “This porridge is too cold!” I can sympathize with that. “Just right”? Never. Don’t people in Iowa know the meaning of the word “kvetch”? OK, maybe they don’t. Anyway, after a couple of hours of fuming (me) and mild vexation (Jen) we phoned the group and told them to launch without us. Ralph, the trip organizer, vectored us to another put-in downstream where we could catch up with the group. When Jen and I reached this “bail-in” point we realized we were almost at the terminus of the day’s paddle. Wanting to get more than a mile of paddling in, we went through the rigmarole of getting a parking pass then headed up river to intercept the group, which we did at their lunch-break point at Mt. Calvert. In the end, Jen and I paddled about 6.75 miles to the group’s 11.5.

Fifty miles in three days sounds like a lot, but in fact with cool weather and favorable tides it’s really only a half day of paddling per day. We reached our first campsite in the early afternoon. The campsite was a lovely setting: an open field, surrounded by trees on a bluff overlooking the water at one end. And an ancient, but maintained porta-potty. Each of us had our own individual tent, so in a jiffy we transformed the field into a little city comprising eight tents plus Ralph’s hammock. As we planned the next day’s paddling we realized we’d want to be on the water by 7 AM to take advantage of the tide, which led us to immediately go on “Drinking Savings Time”: drink, eat, and go to sleep an hour or two earlier than usual in order to get on the river that much earlier. Jen, Tall Tom, Suzanne and I coordinated on dinners. Friday night was Jen and my turn to cook – a delicious chicken hash-like mush (no actual hash was used in the preparation of this meal). We were done with dinner so early that we had time for a second round of drinking, after which we took a hike to a cool observation tower. “Caution: Tower Sometimes Attracts Bees & Wasps” said the sign at the base. Fortified with ample drink, we were not deterred by this warning and ascended the tower to find a magnificent view of the Patuxent River. After dinner we finished off the watermelon Ralph had somehow managed to transport in his kayak, made a few jokes at the expense of Rep. Anthony Weiner (the political scandal du jour), and planned the next day's paddling. I don’t have too many evenings like this in my life – hanging out in the wild, kicking back and relaxing with friends. I do cherish such moments and like to make them last. This one, however, came to an early end. We were all in our tents by about 9 PM. I read for a while then went to bed.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Choppy Night

I really need to sit down sometime and get a better understanding of how waves form in the river. Some nights a fairly strong wind will kick up nothing but some small swells. Other nights a moderate breeze will somehow stir up serious wave action. Last night fell into the second category. From conditions on land I really wasn't expecting any significant when I got on the water. But boy, it turned out to be a fun evening. We headed across and downriver, always the roughest of our paddles and quickly ran into two foot swells with occasional whitecaps. Nice! In cold weather these kind of conditions freak me out because of the serious implications of capsizing, but once the water warms up (it's now in the 70's) I love a choppy evening. Downriver we paddled straight into it. A lot of kayaks have a very buoyant bow and so they go over top of the waves when you paddle into them. That keeps you dry but pounds you every time you drop down into a trough. The bow of the Shearwater cuts through waves rather than going over them. That means a wet experience with waves rolling up the deck, but a fairly smooth ride. You just have to know how to steer the thing - there's no point in trying to turn the boat when the nose is buried in a wave. One new paddler turned back (escorted by a couple of more experienced kayakers) but the rest of us made it down to Haines Point, which turned out to be surprisingly calm. In windy conditions the point is often a mess of standing waves and clapotis caused by the confluence of two rivers plus the channel bouncing into the seawall, but for some reason last night it was relatively smooth - again, there's some hydrodunamics at work that I just don't understand.

Paddling in following seas (the waves behind you) is very different than paddling into the waves. A wave will come up on you and all of a sudden the stern of your boat wants to go faster than the bow, making it want to spin around. Proper strokes and use of the skeg can help, but I always find it a weird feeling. On the plus side, the waves really push you along - we made much better time on the way home than on the way out.

There's never an evening when the power of nature fails to impress me. On the evenings when the river is up it impresses me most of all.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bike to Work Day

The experience of growing up in New York City in the 70’s indelibly etched certain weird ways of thinking into my brain. Principal among these is the assumption that you always have to expect that people will act in malicious, even psychopathic ways. So, after securely locking up my bike at work (making sure to lock both wheels and the frame against theft), I take my water bottle with me. Why? Well, first, the water bottle isn’t locked to the bike and so I assume there’s a high probability that someone will steal it if I leave it unattended. Heck, I assume that even a passerby who had no intention of committing theft might steal it just to teach me a lesson for having left it there unprotected. Worse yet, someone might poison it – add a little battery acid or something – and put it back on the bike. Now, I admit this is pretty paranoid stuff, particularly since this particular bike rack is under video surveillance and is located inside a parking garage in a high traffic area directly next to the hallowed Permit B parking spaces where the CEO and other most senior execs park. But this is the way you think when you grew up in the anarchic, lawless New York of my childhood – the place and time of the Charles Bronson Death Wish movies. A time when having your car stereo stolen at least once per year was par for the course, when we had to lock up our bikes even inside the garage of our house since the garage was routinely broken into. I notice that the other bike in the rack has two full water bottles on it. Not a Brooklyn native, I assume.
Oh, I’m supposed to be talking about Bike to Work Day. Yes, that’s it. This year for a change I got a chance to Bike to Work on Bike to Work Day. I had none of the conflicts which had kept me from participating the last couple of years: meetings requiring me to wear a suit, weather, etc. The ride back and forth to work was pleasant, as it always is. I didn’t get the feeling that there were too many participants going out in my direction towards Tysons (as I’ve noted, there was only one other bike in the rack at work) but there seemed to be plenty heading downtown. In fact, on the ride home I saw lots of people heading in the opposite direction wearing their purple Bike to Work Day t-shirts, confirming that there were plenty of participants.
The organizers of the ride set up a number of “pit stops” around the city in the morning. I hit the one at Gallows Rd. and the W&OD trail. Picked up some swag, but passed on the Panera croissant egg sandwich and coffee. I already had a water bottle full of iced coffee, and the eggwich would have been a little too much food in the middle of a ride. I also stopped at the Booz-Allen pit stop in Tysons Corner because it was a block from my office and because it’s where I had to go to claim my purple t-shirt. This was a smaller stop but offered bike tune-ups. I had to deal with a guy from a Fairfax cycling organization who insisted, simply insisted, that I take their flier.
The ride home had no pit stops. Cyclists were on their own for “bike home from work day” but from the looks of it we all survived – I saw no collapsed cyclists by the side of the trail. There were few sprinkles here and there, but no real rain. I vow to bike to work again soon.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Force of Nature

Some days really bring home the meaning of the term "force of nature." Over the past week everyone has been shocked by report of the record flooding of the Mississippi River, with farmers' fields inundated under ten feet of water. Of course, we're all still reverberating from the Japanese tsunami. Now, we have our own small-scale version close to home. Admittedly, the Potomac at flood stage pales in comparison to these other cataclysms. But look at the sharp "hockey stick" rise in the Little Falls gauge height over the last couple of days. Wow.

After a long email exchange on the subject, most of the kayaking group bailed (so to speak) tonight.. Just Rob, Peter, the back-after-years-absence Mike V and I showed up. The four of us made our way to a shoreline vantage point through the construction area of the humpback bridge. The river was high, and it was cooking. Big logs, trees and other debris were flying down the river as if motorized. The river was just a few inches below overflowing its banks on the DC side - and it was low tide. Peter proposed a paddle in the protected waters of the Boundary Channel, which would have meant a mere  45 minutes or so on the water. I just didn't feel it was worth changing clothes and unload gear for such a short trip, and I was leery of the inevitable urge to peek out into the river a little just to test the conditions. My view prevailed and so the four of us headed to dinner at Lebanese Taverna followed by browsing at Hudson Trail Outfitters.

I rarely go out just to socialize weekday evenings. Either I'm doing some activity (kayaking) or going to some meeting. It was really nice to just sit on a nice evening and shoot the breeze over shwarma and Lebanese beer. I felt like I was in a beer commercial. I've been stressed lately, but the force of nature forced me to relax tonight.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Southern archetypes

Spent the day in Knoxville hanging with some distinctly southern characters. There's the lawyer guy - some combination of Matlock and Foghorn Leghorn as played by John Larroquette. There was Dr. JB the crazy engineer, who looks like they took Jesse Duke (the patriarch of the Dukes of Hazzard, in case you are unfamiliar with the show) and showed up for the meeting dressed in grimy coveralls straight from the wardrobe of Cooter (the mechanic character on the same show). The Boss Hog character in all this was Dr. Bob - not in the evil Boss Hogg sense, but in the sense of being the wealthiest man in Hazzard county. My compatriot RC, while a native of Brooklyn rather than the south (coincidentally, he and I grew up not far from each other) reminds me of Barney Fife nonetheless.

I'm living on a diet of blackened fish, candied sweet potatoes, pecan-crusted chicken and lots of sweet things. I have managed to defy the local culinary norms a little bit and make one dinner and breakfast vegetarian. And the Azteca hot pepper and chocolate gelato in downtown Knoxville? Delicious!

What about the bison?

Thursday only three of us showed up to paddle; everyone else was SK102-bound. Given that we were an intimate little group we had some time to muse as we headed upriver (I won't dwell on the coastal flooding advisory which was in place). What's with the central section of the Memorial Bridge - why is it metal when the rest is stone? And what's with the buffalo head decorations at the apex of all the arches?

A little research revealed that the center span was originally a drawbridge. Over time, as less boat traffic headed to Georgetown it got used less and less frequently. by the 1960's there was basically no longer a demand for passage of tall boats and so when Roosevelt Bridge was built they didn't bother making it a drawbridge. Having a low bridge just upriver was the final nail in the coffin, and so the drawbridge mechanism was disabled and was removed in the 70's.

As to the bison, I couldn't find a story. The bridge symbolically relinks the North and South (connecting the Lincoln Memorial top Rober E. Lee's house at Arlington). Maybe the bison were considered a symbol of the "post-bellum" vitality of America, in particular the American West. Or something.

Anyway, a good paddle. Water was high - the normally poky boundary channel was wide and deep.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bike to work

First day of biking to work this year. Took a chance, as I had snapped off the top of the pin on the valve stem of my front tire, but the pressure held for the ride out (I bought a replacement tube at lunchtime). As always, an enjoyable eight miles plus one mile of hell through the construction of Tysons Corner. Got to work and changed in the tiny temporary locker room they have set up while the regular ones are under renovation. A little weird sharing this small space with another employee who was quite nonchalantly totally naked for the whole period I was in there. Maybe I should report this incident to one of our senior HR people. Oh wait, he was one of our senior HR people.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Should I be Dead or Something?

Yesterday I read yet another article about High Intensity Training. The idea of HIT is that rather than exercising for a long time at a steady pace, you do a series of short, explosive all out bursts with cooldowns in between - intervals to the max. Well, that seems good to me; less time exercising, and really only a few minutes of pounding on my oh-so-fragile lumbar disks. So today I decided to try it out on the trail. 

My target workout was five minutes of warmup, six intervals of 30 seconds all-out followed by a minute of recovery, then five minutes or so of cooldown - about 20 minutes total. My supposed max heart rate is somewhere in the 170's, depending on which formula you use. They say you shouldn't exceed 80% of that, or the upper 130's for me. However, my usual runs or erging sessions take me to about 145-150. Well, take a look at the accompanying chart. For the first three intervals not only was I above 80%, I was well above my supposed 100% heart rate (note the horizontal line) - the first interval was up over 200 BPM. You could tell I was more tired and not pushing as hard in intervals 4-6.

So, someone with a "max" HR of 174 getting his heart pumping over 200 BPM? Is that healthy, even for a minute or so? Is it normal to like doing this sort of thing? The funny thing is that I used to run this hard when I took the bootcamp class to try and keep up with Glenn and John, the two really fast runners in the class. I never thought anything of it. However, seeing the data on my HR gives me a different viewpoint. Damn quantitative information is gonna make me back off a little bit next time. Maybe.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Muddy Feet, Again

I spent Saturday building a retaining wall in my backyard so I could expand my vegetable bed. The previous day had been rainy, the yard was wet and so over the course of the day everything got muddy. I got muddy. My tools got muddy. David, helping me out, got muddy. I thought that Saturday was going to be my muddy day for the weekend.

Sunday I woke up early to do my first breakfast paddle of the season. Sunday mornings when there's nothing else going on I tend to start my days with a jaunt up the river, usually pausing at my turnaround point to have a thermos of coffee and a snack - hence the "breakfast paddle" name. As always, I felt a wave of happiness as soon as I pulled into the marina. This was also the first day this year that I took out the Shearwater - my beautiful wooden kayak, which only made it more special.

The water is still cold so I donned my drysuit. This suit is really meant for people who paddle with friends (actually not a bad idea when the water is cold). It zips across the back of the arms and shoulders, and so it takes some nearly arm-dislocating contortions to zip the thing solo. In fact, the only way I can do it is by clipping an extension string onto the zipper toggle so I can hold the zipper in place and get a little more leverage. I look like I'm having some sort of seizure when I'm wrestling myself into the thing. But I did it.

Each season on the river has its beauty. The winter brings silence and solitude. Both the river and its banks are pretty wells deserted in the cold weather, the water seems more viscous and the air thinner. Springtime, on the other hand, is all about activity. The marina was busy today as fishermen launched their boats. The paths along both banks of the river were buzzing with runners, cyclists and dog-walkers. Rowers were out in force - singles, fours and eights. And then there was that guy sitting incongruously on a log at the water's edge above Georgetown, reading the Sunday Post Business Section and drinking tea from a thermos, his kayak pulled up beside him, his feet ankle deep in mud. Wait, I know that guy - it was me. Yeah, it was low tide and so the shoreline was all exposed mud. I had to squish my way through it up to solid ground for my breakfast break. Yes, I was muddy-footed again, but it felt good.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sneaky Biking

We have this alternate schedule thing at work where if you work 80 hours in 9 workdays, you can take the final Friday of the period off. I try and take advantage of it, but somehow I rarely seem to succeed. Either personal things rob me of hours during the week (school meetings, doctor's appointments ...) or something comes up which requires my presence on what otherwise would have been a day off. This past Friday was no exception. I had taken a sick day earlier in the period to try and recover from bronchitis, and I had a meeting out in Sterling pop up for Friday morning. It was going to be another beautiful, unseasonably warm day - in the 70's in mid-March! - and so I was determined to take at least a little advantage of it, even if I couldn't get a full day off.

What's this? Our Sterling office is not far from the W&OD trail?! And there's a new, large W&OD trail parking lot nearby just off of Rt. 28?! Too good to pass up. Before I headed to the office Friday morning I threw my bike and gear into the back of my car. My Sterling meeting was done around lunchtime, and I headed over to the W&OD. For the second time in as many days I found myself using my car as a changing room to wriggle into exercise clothes. I'm pretty good at this by now - I once completely changed from a business suit into yoga clothes while driving down Rt. 7, thanks to a lot of red lights and traffic.

I headed west on the trail. Out past Rt. 28 the trail is much more open than the section by my house. It has almost a rural feel. Riding was a pleasure, even though there were plenty of Lance Armstrong wanna-be's out and about. I may sound old and curmudgeonly for saying this, but these people make me laugh (except when they're pissing me off). When I was growing up cycling was something you did for transportation and maybe light recreation. It wasn't a Sport with a capital "S". Certainly, no one donned special outfits for bike riding. Nowadays, though, you feel quite under-dressed if you venture out on the trail without your matching cycling jersey, tights - or better yet, singlet - and little bike socks and shoes. I admit to owning the most functional parts of cycling clothing: shorts with paddling and hard-soled bike shoes. I do not see any reason to adopt the rest of the costume. And I certainly see no reason to adopt the selfish view some of these folks have - that they own the trail and slower cyclists are unwelcome obstacles in their way.

Make no mistake - I am a slower cyclist. No one would mistake me for Lance Armstrong even if I took to wearing the bike racer outfit. No one would mistake me for Lance Armstrong even if I was dating Sheryl Crow (an idea I must say I find less objectionable than wearing the bike racer getup). This was the first time I had been on a bike in a long time and I was slooooow. According to my Forerunner I pedaled about 20 miles at an average speed of about 12 MPH. Admittedly, that included a bathroom break and a stop at the quarry overlook (!), but I think it's still a pretty accurate speed. I felt good though despite my slowpokedness - I pedaled 20 miles without feeling sore in the least afterward, I enjoyed the ride, and I look forward to more cycling this year.

After my ride I headed over to the nearby Wegman's shopping center looking for food. I was about to go into some chain food place when what to my wondering eyes should appear but the Sterling branch of Moby Dick House of Kabob! I ordered a felafel sandwich and powered up my computer to approve timesheets, something I had forgotten to do in the morning. The felafel was awesome - really hit the spot after my ride. I must admit to feeling some affinity for the folks who run these felafel-serving joints, though I'm not sure the semitic fraternal love would be returned.

Alas, I felt compelled to make good on my commitment to work the rest of the day, so at the conclusion of my little adventure I wriggled back into my work clothes and headed back to work.