Saturday, June 29, 2013

Rainbow over Rockville

OK, commuting on I-270 doesn't fit this blog's normal theme of outdoor activities but I had to make an exception for this picture - a spectacular rainbow appeared over Rockville on my drive home the other day. This sight would have been worth violating Maryland's ban on use of handheld devices while driving - but of course this picture was taken from the shoulder. Sure. Really.

Hopefully it's the lord's sign that we're going to somehow be saved from the freaky weather we're having these days.

Super Moon Paddle

I've written before about the fact that people ask me how it is that I don't get bored paddling the same stretch water again and again (as well as my observation that I've never gotten such comments about the never-changing path I take for my morning run). The fact is that like those photo puzzles they run in the Sunday Washington Post, there's always something different. Trees flower and burst into leaf. Ducklings appear, grow into ducks, head south for the winter. It's calm, it's choppy. Interesting vintage cars appear at the marina. I bump into friends.

This week we had a singular event - a super moon. A super moon occurs when the moon is closest to the earth on its elliptical orbit and is full besides, making it appear larger than usual. A more technical term is a perigee-syzygy of the earth, moon and sun - but you knew that already, didn't you?

Super moon, super moon, I wish I could fly like super moon. This year's super moon conveniently fell on a Saturday night and my friends Tall Tom and Suzanne organized a night-time paddle. Suzanne traveled all the way from Baltimore for this excursion; apparently she does not adhere to the same rule that I do that paddling time must exceed round trip driving time. Or maybe Baltimore doesn't have a moon so she had to come see ours. Based on a recent article - by a transplanted Brooklynite, no less! - about the severity of the rodent problem in Bal'more I suspect that the city's moon may at some point have been eaten by rats.

As long as I'm digressing, I also want to take a moment for a correction. In an earlier post I referred to Tom as  "near-Yeti sized". This was simply an auto-correct error which I had failed to notice. I swear I had typed "powerfully fit". It's the computer's fault. Really.

Everything lined up perfectly for the evening: high tide, good, clear weather, light winds and of course, the moon. A group of roughly a dozen of us launched from Columbia Island, dodging powerboats at the unusually busy launch ramp. Tom asked Jen and me to take the lead; he and Suzanne would sweep. We headed upriver. The moon was up, looming large over the still-light sky. Since this was rated a beginner trip we took it slowly - at least more slowly than our typical Thursday night speed. We went up a little past Georgetown. We puzzled at a whaler that was anchored and seemingly abandoned off of Roosevelt Island.

Coming back downriver we were made giddy by sight of the moon illuminating the city, its silvery light making the river light up and shimmer. Fish jumped. The livin' was easy. Thanks to Suzanne for the below photo, which I nabbed off of Facebook without permission of its owner.

After helping everyone off the water Tom, Jen, Suzanne and I headed over to the Westover Beer Garden for a nightcap. Alas, we got there just after the kitchen closed. Suzanne is known to develop a powerfully fit personality when hungry and she had a long drive and lots of rats to battle on the way home and so Tom ran over to the nearby 7-11 and got her some pretzels. I will mention that rather than walk around to the gate in the picket fence that surrounds the beer garden Tom just casually stepped over the fence, evoking some mighty surprised looks from the less powerfully fit customers.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mason Neck to Pohick Bay

Today I finally did a trip I've had on my mind for a long time. There's a benefit to one-way shuttle paddles - you park a car at your destination point, drive back to put-in and since you're only paddling one direction you're able to do twice as long a trip. The disadvantage of the shuttle approach is that at the end of the trip you have to drive as far as you've paddled to get back to your car. When I did Ralph's Patuxent paddle that meant retracing three days worth of paddling (50-60 miles) crammed into someone's truck in order to get me, my kayak and my car all back together again. The beauty of Mason Neck to Pohick is that it's around a peninsula and so while it's 11 miles of kayaking the put-in and take-out are only a couple of miles apart.

Tall Tom and I met up at 7:30 AM at Pohick Bay (as is our wont, we were both early). We swapped his kayak to my car while a doe grazed on a nearby lawn: Prelude to an Afternoon of Kayaking: A Fawn.  We deliberately did not enter the boat launch parking lot and so did not pay the launch fee via the honor system envelope (semi-honor system, it turns out ... more on that later). We left Tom's car in one of the regular, non-launch lots and headed over to Mason Neck, which for some bizarre reason does not open until 8 AM despite the fact that two of its significant user communities - bird-watchers and paddlers - tend to be early morning folk. We got to the Mason Neck gate at about 7:45 so we put on sunscreen, took pictures of cicadas (in strong evidence there as they had been in St. Mary's a week or two earlier - but not in Arlington, fortunately) and generally killed time until they opened the gate at eight.

The first part of the trip, through Belmont Bay and around into the Potomac, is alongside a nature preserve and so the scenery is quite nice. It's a big nesting area for bald eagles and sure enough we saw at least half a dozen, some in mature plumage and some with the immature brownish feathers that make them look almost like ospreys. After you get out of the parkland area the shoreline becomes envy territory. We spent a lot of the rest of the trip drooling over the waterfront homes and wishing for a chance to live even in one of the boathouses, some of which rivaled our little inside-the-Beltway homes in size. About mid-way we took a quick break, quietly trespassing on private waterfront common area belonging to some community association.

On the final, northwestward leg of our journey on our way into Pohick Bay we ran into a Meetup group kayak outing led by the ever-gracious Andy. I had been vaguely aware that this event was happening - I'm sure I got an email notification of it - and so wasn't surprised to bump into other paddlers. They had spent most of their trip exploring up Pohick Creek and were just doing a little bit of exploring out into bigger water. Our friend Susan was part of this group as well and we stopped and chatted for a bit.

When we got back to Tom's car we found that he had been ticketed for failing to pay the launch fee! I guess the ranger had seen us messing with boats, seen the racks on Tom's roof, and had assumed we had launched our kayaks there. Truth be told, we probably we liable for the fee once we landed, but as of the time the ticket was issued we had not used the boat launch. NVRPA tickets are also sort of honor-systemy. I don't know if Tom paid or not.

As expected, the shuttle at the end was easy, a quick jaunt from Pohick to Mason Neck. Cheapskates that we are we grumbled at having to pay the four dollar entry fee just to retrieve the car; I momentarily thought about having Tom drop me outside the gate and then wait for me back near the main road but it's a mile and a half walk from the gatehouse to the parking lot and so we broke down and shelled out the four bucks. It might seem funny that two guys carrying thousands of dollars worth of gear ... kayaks, GPS, paddles, PFDs, etc. ... on our shiny newish cars would grouse about paying a four buck park entry fee, but hey, we are who we are. Next time I think I will bring a bicycle and ride it into Mason Neck to retrieve my car. And there will be a next time, because I can definitely see doing this nice little shuttle paddle again.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Potomac River 7.5 Mile Swim 2013


Seven and a half miles is not that long a distance. It's easily bikable. For runners it's only a little bit more than a 10K. By car, it's almost nothing; I commute almost three times that far every day. But swimming 7.5 miles in open water? Now, that's something, and it takes a darned good athlete to do it. So I was very interested to meet the swimmer with whom I'd been paired as a support kayaker for the Potomac River Swim. I've done swim supports before, but in all of the ones I've done the kayakers act as sheepdogs, herding the pack of swimmers along and patrolling for problems. For the Potomac Swim, by nature of the distance and open water conditions, swimmers are paired one on one with support kayakers. The kayaker guides the swimmer and carries any food, water or other supplies the swimmer might need.

I carpooled down to Point Lookout Friday night with my neighbor, fellow kayaker and frequent carpool companion Jen. As is typical for us (bad joint traffic karma) we hit traffic and ran a little late and so rather than go to the campground we headed straight for the pre-swim dinner, which was held in the parish hall of a little church in St. Mary's, MD. It had the same down-home feel as Teddy's Boy Scout troop Blue & Gold dinners. Spaghetti with meat sauce or marinara, bread and salad. Family style seating. We were on the early side b the place was soon full. There were plenty of familiar faces - Suzanne and Jim Z, who were leading the kayak support for the event, Paul C. and Manuel, who represent the rest of the Chesapeake Pickers Association "band", my campsite mates Rob P. and Bela, and more. Sad to say, it was really easy to tell the kayakers from the swimmers. Kayakers tend to be in decent shape but not like distance swimmers. Not an ounce of body fat among the 45 or so of 'em, while we kayakers typically carry a little padding here and there. My swimmer, John, found me and we had a chance to talk for a bit. He seems like a sweet guy - at 60, one of the older swimmers but obviously a serious athlete.

Pre-Swim Dinner (DJ's photo)

The dinner is both a meet-and-greet and the place where pre-event coordination is taken care of. First and foremost, the swimmers have to tell the kayakers what they need in support: where they like the kayaker to be positioned, how often they want breaks, etc. Most swimmers go for high tech food: Gatorade, goo, protein powders and the like, but John was old school; his race supplies were just graham crackers, water and ibuprofen.

Over dinner Jim Z. and Dave W. also spent time comparing their calculations of the proper ferry angle for the swim. Ferry angle is something you have to factor in when you're paddling across water where there's a significant current. The swim was across the mouth of the Potomac where it meets the Chesapeake Bay and so ferry angle considerations had to include current and tide. If we had left shore and tried to make a beeline for the finish we would have been pushed out into the bay. Instead one has to constantly angle slightly upriver. As students of vector math understand, the combination of your effort in paddling upriver and the current's attempts to push you downriver result in a nice arc across the river to the finish line. The power boaters who were assisting kind of shook their heads at our complex and nerdy math. Basically, their instructions to us were: "there's going to be a really big boat leading the swimmers. Just follow the big boat." As it turns out, both approaches were needed to make things come out right.

After instructions from Cheryl (the event organizer), the lead kayakers, and the power boaters we all headed out. It was going to be an early night since we had to be ready to go at the race start at 5:30AM. I headed to camp, set up my tent, and after fairly brief socializing and music-making around the cabins (the higher order volunteers got the cabins) I turned in.

I had set up my morning to be as simple as possible. When my alarm went off at 4:30 I jumped into the clothes I had laid out the night before, had a no-cook breakfast consisting of a Starbucks DoubleShot and yogurt (plus a small piece of the banana bread Rob's swimmer had given him) double-checked that I had all my swimmer's supplies with me and headed over to the cabins to pick Jen up. Jen had been invited to sleep in air-conditioned comfort with Suzanne in a cabin - which makes me wonder what the boundary of camping is. If you are sleeping in a climate-controlled building are you still camping, or at that point are you staying in a very bare-bones motel?

On the brief drive over to the boat launch we passed a grisly scene of police activity. I don't know the details of what was going on but body bags were involved. Not a good way to start the day. 
Heading for the boats (my kayak is the yellow one furthest to the left on the Gerry C). DJ's photo.

Jen and Rob prep their boats (my kayak is the yellow one in the foreground)

Point Lookout is the finsih of the swim and so the day starts with the swimmers, kayaks and kayakers being ferried across the river to the Virginia side. From there we paddle/swim back to the Maryland shore. We arrived at the boat launch at around 5:30 but with all time spent loading, then crossing, then launching (and let me tell you, getting into a kayak from the deck of a fishing boat was an experience in itself) it was pretty tight to make the 8 AM swim start. Actually, we didn't quite make it; we started at 8:02. Since it's not a race the start was surprisingly casual: no horn, go gun, no bugle. In fact, my swimmer and I got a slightly delayed start. We kind of looked around, noticed everyone else was swimming away, and only then figured it was time to get going, so we were probably 30 seconds late in getting under way.

At the start on the Virginia shore (DJ's photo)

John was the fastest of the slow swimmers. We spent the swim about 2/3's of the way back, well behind the front pack of swimmers but ahead of the real slowpokes and so were on our own for the most part. Temperance, the big boat we were supposed to follow soon got very far ahead of us. I kept on course through a combination of ferry angle heading and following the receding "big boat". I kept myself entertained by the chatter on the VHF radio. More kayakers than swimmers were getting into trouble. There was a capsize within 15 minutes or so of the event start and plenty more after that (not all of the kayak volunteers were exactly experts), kayakers and swimmers got separated, people failed to follow the appropriate course and started drifting out toward the bay. John had planned on 45 minute intervals between breaks but soon switched to 30 minutes. After a while I started to worry whether I should still be following Temperance and when I should turn and start to head more for the finish. Fortunately, some radio communication between the kayakers and Temperance cleared that up - kudos to Suzanne for clearing that up. 

When I was about three miles out the day started to seem verrrrry long. Swimmers move much more slowly than kayaks, and so it was take a stroke, wait wait wait, correct the direction of the kayak, wait wait wait, take another stroke ... repeat. Plus, while I was carefully watching my fluid intake I began to wish for the appearance of a floating Porta-a-potty. Then at about two miles out conditions started to kick up. The tide turned, pushing us around more strongly, and the winds picked up as well. The waves built to 2 feet peak to trough, then 2 1/2, with occasional three footers. It was rockin' and rollin'. When you're in a kayak, when you hit the trough of a three foot wave you can't see anything around you but water. With every wave trough I'd lose sight of John and then have to find him and reposition my kayak (the wave push kayaks around differently than they do swimmers), and do my best to make sure he saw me before I disappeared again. To his credit he seemed undaunted by the waves. The skipper of Temperance was on the radio talking about how it was getting choppy for him, "and I don't know how those kayaks are staying upright." I thought they might call the event and pull everyone out of the water but conditions held together just well enough for things to continue. With about one mile left our path joined with that of another pair: a young couple (she was the swimmer, he was the kayaker) and so I finally had some company other than the occasional visits from roving "sweep" kayaks. The four of us made it the rest of the way to the finish line together, finishing in about four hours and forty-five minutes.

John and me at the finish line
After the race there was a little picnic lunch at a pavilion in the park: burgers , hot dogs, and the like. The kayakers and swimmers all were in the mood to celebrate. I talked with John a little more (in real life he's a neuro-psychologist, plus is originally from Bellmore "Lawwnnn Gisland"). The finish line was not quite co-located with the boat launch so after the picnic the kayakers had to hop back into their boats for a five minute paddle back to where we had left our cars.

Well, I guess bobbing around like a cork for five hours in the hot sun is pretty tiring, because all I wanted to do when I got back to the campsite was nap. Rob was going home, so I bid him adieu and left him to pack his gear while I crawled into my sweltering tent to sleep. When I awoke 45 minutes later I found Bela fast asleep on the campsite's picnic table (preferring that, it turned out, to the heat of his tent). 

After Bela and I roused ourselves from our slumbers we indulged in an aperitif of rum and Coke (diet in my case) with lime (thanks Bela for the rum & lime) - a great warm weather drink - then headed back over the cabins where we found our friends splayed out in chairs in various states of semi-coma. Suzanne, who had probably been one of the first awake, last off the water and who had put in a lot of hard paddling patrolling the group, seemed particularly stymied by gravity. We lounged and had appetizers for a while before finally getting up the energy to head for dinner. It wasn't a cooking night; instead we headed for Scheibel's, a nearby restaurant where people have had good meals in past years; however, as the stock prospectuses say, "past performance is not an indicator of future results."

Scheibels is the kind of place to which I often find myself dragged on kayaking trips, but not one I ever really enjoy. I call these restaurants "The Crusty Crab" (which is a SpongeBob reference) though they're usually called something along the lines of "Cap'n Salty's Seafood Shack". The menu is usually  seafood, seafood and more seafood, broiled, fried, or baked: oysters, crab, shrimp. For those of us who don't eat shellfish there's always one sad alternative: a feeble, long-frozen piece of chicken or a wan lump of beef. Coastal Maryland and Virginia are full of these places.

Well, Scheibel's was a Crusty Crab of a different color. First of all, they had (probably local) rockfish on the menu, which sounded good (they had the sad chicken and beef too). More significantly, the menu didn't matter because they didn't actually serve food. They took our orders, they brought salads and beverages, but they never brought our main dishes. The other diners were suffering from the same problem. Clearly there was something wrong in the kitchen (chef quit? stove broke?) that they weren't owning up to. Every time we asked they said the food was almost ready and would be out in two minutes. Finally, an hour and fifteen minutes after we arrived we got up and left (we did leave some money for the salads and drinks).

Back at the campsite we pulled our appetizer foods back out (along with the birthday cake Jen had brought for Rob and her delicious rhubarb crumble). So my dinner consisted of peanuts, pita chips, cheese slices, dried fruit, some pita bread and rhubarb crumble. So fortified, the Pickers once again unsheathed their instruments and played long into the night - well, until quiet hours began at 10 PM.

Sunday morning no one wanted to get too early a start. Still, it's hard to sleep late when the sun is streaming int your tent. Bela and I both I woke up at 6:30 or so. He was obviously rejuvenated - singing and whistling along with music from his iPad. We broke camp and headed over to the cabins where we reconnoitered with Jim Z, Jen, Suzanne, and Manuel. The group of us headed up to St. Mary's City where we ran into Tom B. and the group of us had a nice paddle up the St. Mary's River all the way up to where it ceased to be navigable - 10 miles or so round trip. We could feel the wind and the waves as we passed the confluence of the St. Mary's and the Potomac; we were glad for the more sheltered waters of the smaller river. Also, this year's cicada invasion is in full swing in St. Mary's. It's strangely local: we didn't hear or see any cicadas at Pt. Lookout, but ten miles away in St. Mary's we saw lots of them and their hum was strongly present. 

Breakfast Sunday morning

After packing up our gear a few folks hit the road for home while the rest of us continued our bad food mojo by deciding to find a late lunch. The immediate environs of St. Mary's shut up pretty tight on a Sunday afternoon. The first restaurant we tried (recommended to us by someone at the boat launch) was closed. We all whipped out our phones and started searching for nearby places but all the places we tried (at least six) were closed, out of business or salmonella-ish looking Crusty Crab joints. Finally we decided we'd just convoy up Rt. 235 and stop wherever we found an open restaurant. That turned out to be a strip mall restaurant that offered the strange combination of pan-Asian and fried chicken. Truth be told, the food was pretty good! I had been expecting that we'd end up at IHOP, but instead we had dishes like panang curry and hibachi chicken while watching rugby (which only Suzanne and Bela understood) on TV.

That being done, we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. Another successful kayaking/swim support weekend ... except maybe for the dining part.