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.