Saturday, January 14, 2017

Freezing Saddles Once Again

For the second year in a row I've signed up for Freezing Saddles, BikeArlington's friendly competition to encourage people to ride through the winter. As I've noted, it's mostly a light-hearted way to socialize with fellow cyclists, though some people take it very seriously.

My team (and interloper SteveO) at the kickoff happy hour
Last year I showed up at the opening happy hour knowing only four people: two friends from the kayaking world, and two neighbors. Fast-forward a year and - based on my participation in the morning "coffee clubs" as well as the online forums - there were so many people there I knew that I barely had time to talk with everyone. That was quite nice.

One of the neat things is that in addition to the official scoring (you get points both for the number of days you ride and for mileage), participants are free to create their own prizes. There are prizes for the people who crash the most, for the most rides involving beer, most states ridden in during the competition (I thought I had that one sewn up last year because my travel schedule gave me a chance to ride in nine states, but someone beat me by four!), etc., etc. One of the new ones this year is the "Warming Climate" prize, given to the person who does the most (wintertime!) rides wearing just their bathing suit. Well, winter in DC has its warm breaks, and when the weather hit seventy last Thursday I went out for a bike ride, including around one block (that's the specified minimum distance) in just my quick-dry kayaking shorts (which often double as a bathing suit).

Danger! Possible eye damage!
My work situation has changed since last year. Last year I was biking to work a lot. This year I either work at home or commute to an office way too far away to reach by bicycle. It's going to take more determination to keep riding through the winter this year. But hey, I'm almost a fifth of the way through it already, and so far I've ridden 10 out of 14 days!

How to Have Fun in New Orleans While Avoiding Shellfish, Alcohol, and Jazz Music: Part II

This is Part I of a two part write-up of Valerie & my Christmas week trip to New Orleans

Day 4, The Lost Day:
Let me start this entry with something I forgot to mention in Part I. Valerie and I had both noticed that the guys in Benny Grunch and the Bunch sounded like they were from New York, even though they were New Orleans natives. On my previous trips to coastal Mississippi I had noticed that the natives there don’t have typical Southern accents and when I asked them (“Hey, how come you don’t sound like Foghorn Leghorn?”) they said that the coastal mix of people was different than the south. That turns out to be the case in New Orleans as well. The Ninth Ward accent sounds more like Brooklyn than Biloxi, more like Manhattan than Mobile. I’ve heard the explanation that because both areas developed a similar accent because they had the same mix of working class Irish, Italians, Germans, etc. That sort of thing always intrigues me. More here.

I wanted to start with something positive because this day includes some bad stuff. When we checked in we agreed to go to the “Welcome Breakfast”, even though we knew was it was the timeshare pitch. I inherited a timeshare from my dad and did want to get an update on how timeshare stuff has evolved in recent years, since I had a vague idea that you could now exchange without belonging to one of the exchange companies, etc.  Needless to say, the promised sumptuous breakfast was just barebones steam table eggs, and it took us nearly three hours to get out of the “one hour” breakfast. We walked out having been given an AWESOME OPPORTUNITY to convert our timeshare to a SILVER VIP level points-based membership for a mere twenty-one thousand dollars! Good for that day only!

But enough about that.

Our big destination of the day was the World War II Museum. Why is the World War II Museum in New Orleans, which doesn’t have a particularly strong connection to the war? I don’t know – why is the Holocaust Museum in DC? Anyway, it’s a very cool museum for what it is. The exhibits are very well done and it’s very informative and really personalizes the war. Reading original letters sent home to the parents of casualties was really moving. So why do I say, “cool … for what it is”? Because a more accurate name for the place would be, “The Combat History of World War II Museum.” Yes, I know a war is a war, but the exhibits focused almost exclusively on the pursuit of military campaigns. I think they could broaden the museum – what was it like on the home front? How did we create the massive industrial base to crank out war materiel? What was the impact of having women at work? What was it like to live through the was as a civilian in Europe? What was going on geopolitically? And so on. There was a brief, somewhat whitewashed mention of the Holocaust near the end of main exhibit. The exhibit described how shocked the troops were when they entered the concentration camps and saw what was going on there. That’s probably true for the troops on the ground, but in fact the high command knew quite a bit about the camps by that point.

The museum was really crowded and we had to kind of inch along through it the act of inching our way through it. This made Valerie’s back hurt, so when we were done we sat for a bit before heading to our next stop, the New Orleans Menorah Lighting! You’ve got to hand it to Chabad. They’re everywhere, and unlike many other Orthodox Jewish groups they focus on engagement with the rest of the Jewish community rather than just being insular. They put on a pretty good event. They had food from The Kosher Cajun Restaurant of Metarie, LA (I had kosher jambalaya). Free potato latkes. Booths with Chanukah stuff. Laser light displays. Plus, what they kept proudly describing as “the largest menorah in Louisiana”. I guess the other two are smaller J Good turnout, and kind of fun and novel to be celebrating Chanukah alongside the Mississippi River!

Lighting the "largest menorah in Louisiana"

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, they had Chanukah Mardi Gras beads!  A friend to whom I sent pictures from this event waggishly asked me what body parts you have to show to get Chanukah. I had to wrack my brain for an answer. OK, here it is, but it requires some background. You may have noticed that Orthodox Jews have little fringes hanging from their clothes – like they’re wearing an undershirt with fringes on it, or something. That’s because they’re wearing an undershirt with little fringes on it, in order to fulfil the commandment in Numbers 15:38-39 to, well, wear fringed garmets. These days, most people will call those fringey things “tzitzit”, but the older, more Yiddish-based pronunciation that I grew up with is “tsitsis”. Which leads to the answer to the question: People will offer beads if you, “Show Us Your Tsitsis!” 

Kosher jambalaya, latkes, and beads

OK, that was a long set-up, but in my opinion the punchline was worth it.

Anyway, after the menorah lighting wound down we went into the adjacent outlet mall. There wasn’t much particularly New Orleansy about the place – mostly just the same brands you’d see anywhere else. But they did have an outpost of Café Le Monde, and so we indulged once again in beignet and coffee. Plus, there was a Mardi Gras party store there where I bought purple top hat which will be perfect for gigs with Magnolia Blue. At the end of the evening we took the streetcar home. Another night of turning in early in New Orleans :)

Day 5: Our own separate ways
On day 5 we decided to split up and each do things our own way. I headed over to the Marigny neighborhood in the French side of town for the Confederacy of Cruisers cruiser bike tour of Creole New Orleans. This was a great tour. Our guide was a woman named Lara, who in addition to being a bike tour guide worked as a bartender, ran some sort of crafts business and also lived in this part of town. She radiated just the right mix of serious history (she knew her stuff) and New Orleans fun. We rode through four neighborhoods: the Marigny, the Treme, the Bywater and the French Quarter, stopping to look at architecture, learn about the effects of Hurricane Katrina, visit African American and general New Orleans history spots, visit the site where the Plessy vs. Ferguson case (which went to the Supreme Court and – in a case of unitended consequences – legalized “Separate But Equal” for decades) got its start. We visited Congo Square, Oh, and at about 11 AM we stopped at a neighborhood bar for drinks. I was reminded that I really like bloody mary’s – this one had a nice spicy kick and came with a very Southern pickled okra and green bean garnish. Track is here.

Hopping on my cruiser bike
Biking through NOLA

My bike ride finished up at Washington Square, just a block off of Frenchman Street, which is the live music club hub of New Orleans. It was only early afternoon and many of the clubs were still closed, but a few start music at noon and were already on their second musical act of the day. I poked my head into The Spotted Cat, which had been recommended by a guy in my band. Good stride piano player, but he was playing with a washtub bassist and – while perhaps authentically retro – I didn’t really find the thumping pleasing. So, instead I went across the street to Bamboula’s. There, a duo of stride piano and guitar was finishing up, followed by a gypsy jazz trio (two guitars and bass) playing Django Reinhardt tunes. I settled in at the bar to have a beer and listen. I was also pretty hungry at this point and so I ordered a roast beef po’ boy sandwich. It wound up taking half an hour for them to serve me the sandwich, despite many assurances from the bartender that it would be right out. I wound up talking to the manager, who gave me an explanation along the lines of, “we only have one person in the kitchen and he got slammed with a lot of orders at once.” I’m afraid I don’t find these “our service is bad because we’re unprepared to provide good service” kinds of explanations very satisfying. I told her I didn’t think I should have to pay for the sandwich. She said, “you ate it, didn’t you?” To make a long story short, I wound up negotiating a significant discount off the cost of the sandwich but I still think they should have comped it completely. The bartender felt bad and offered to give me drinks for free, but between the bloody mary and the beer I was feeling a buzzed as I wanted to be (lightweight!) and so I declined. BTW, the sandwich wasn’t very good. But the music and the scene were, and so in the big picture, everything was fine.

Jazz at Bamboula's

When I left Bamboula’s I took a slow meander back through the French Quarter. I stopped to listen to some outdoor jazz at the French market and at some restaurants along the way. I browsed some shops along the way, including two that had what would be some excellent stage clothing for Magnolia Blue – but I cheaped out on buying anything. One store had old tuxedo jackets repurposed into funky New Orleans outfits through the addition of feathers, sequins, etc. I may try to do this myself with an old suit jacket. Another had some legitimate stage wear. I wound up having a good conversation about looking right onstage with one of the guys working there, who told me he had just come off the road after many years of touring with (mostly outlaw country) acts. He looked like ZZ Top’s older brother.

On our first day in the French Quarter we had gone into Goorin Hats, which is a chain (I have a cap that I bought at the Goorin store in Nashville), but being a hat guy I was itching to go into the venerable Meyer the Hatter. It’s located near the eastern terminus of the St. Charles street car, so I stopped in on my way to catch the street car back to the hotel. I wound up speaking with Sam Meyer. He told me he’s 90 and is the third generation of Meyer to work in the store (the business dates back to 1894) and I’m happy to report that the fourth and fifth generations are involved, so the store will continue once Sam reaches retirement age J I dropped some “dog whistles” into the conversation to establish that I was Jewish and he wound up telling me about how when he started out he worked for a while in another business where the owners went to synagogue every morning before opening the store. I’m just thinking of the cool strangeness of being observantly Jewish in Louisiana in the 1940’s.

I left Meyer the Hatter empty-handed as well (I didn’t want to have to schlep a hat back from New Orleans) but wound up ordering a hat I had seen there online when I got home. From another store that had a better price (I'm feeling guilty over that one!).

Our main form of transportation

Meanwhile, Valerie went back down to Magazine Street in the Garden District and shopped.

In the evening we decided that rather than go out for a big New Orleans meal we’d go for something local and funky and went to Dat Dog, a gourmet hot dog place. It’s another local hangout with a feel similar to Claire & Don’s Beach Shack in Falls Church. I had the vegetarian spicy chipotle dog. Valerie had something good too. We skipped the alligator sausage. We sat outside in their courtyard, where they were having a trivia night. We didn’t officially participate, but we did pretty well in terms of knowing the answers.

Day 6: The Zoo
On our last day we decided to go the zoo. The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans is a pretty cool place. The exhibits are very immersive – they make it feel like you’re walking through the Mayan jungle, or the Louisiana bayou. To their credit, the bayou exhibit doesn’t present the bayou as a pristine wilderness – there are rusting cars, stills, houseboats, and other signs of backwoods Louisiana life.

Lizard Love
A big cutie

We also got to see giraffes. I really like giraffes. I learned on this trip that one of the species of giraffes is known as the Rothschild giraffe, named after Walter Rothschild, the second Baron Rothschild, who was something of an amateur zoologist (he was known for stunts like driving a coach pulled by zebras around London). The Rothschilds were an immensely wealthy banking family in Europe. Walter’s father Nathan was England’s first Jewish peer. It turns out that when it comes to being accepted into British society, money in sufficient quantities overcomes (or at least mutes) anti-Semitism. Actually, even Downton Abbey had a story line dealing with the existence of wealthy Jewish families in Victorian England and the friction with the traditional aristocracy. Lady Rose, a member of the Crowley family, marries the dashing and wealthy (and Jewish) Atticus Aldridge, much to the consternation of both families. Shades of Ivanka!

Valerie and friends

Santa's pirogue, being pulled by alligators

I got a surprise at the zoo when I heard someone calling my name. I spend 2015-2016 running a project which involved our facility in southern Mississippi, and it turned out that the guy calling my name was one of the technicians from the Mississippi office, who was at the zoo with his family for the day. Good guy, able to build some very sophisticated deep-sea electronics. He’s an enormous Southern bubba of a man, so of course his nickname is “Tiny”. Hardworking, easygoing – a good guy. You just probably want to avoid his Facebook page, which is filled with “Southern Pride” and “A Marriage is Between a Man and a Woman” sorts of posts.

I was feeling a little under the weather again, like I was coming down with a cold, so for dinner we went to the Vietnamese restaurant up the block from our hotel and had pho for dinner. Again, not very New Orleans, but not bad (not as good as can be found at The Eden Center).

Then, the following morning we headed home, having had a really good time in a fun city!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

How to Have Fun in New Orleans While Avoiding Shellfish, Alcohol, and Jazz Music: Part I

This is Part I of a two part write-up of Valerie & my Christmas week trip to New Orleans

Day 1, Travel: Our idea was to get a super-early start to minimize the amount of airport craziness we had to deal with flying on Christmas Eve. It worked – and all we had to do to make it work was to leave the house at 4 AM! Thanks to Valerie’s newly minted TSA Pre-Check card (I already had one) we sailed through security at the airport and were quickly on our way to Atlanta, where we got the Christmas present of having arrival and departure gates which were actually close to each other.

When we got into New Orleans we went straight to our hotel (timeshare) where we were able to check in right away to a really nice, newly renovated unit. Checking in immediately was a big plus in two ways: first, it gave us a chance to lay in a supply of food, since we knew that not very much was going to be open in New Orleans on Christmas. Second, it gave us a chance to nap to make up for having woken up super-early.

Our first New Orleans activity was a bus tour out to see the Christmas Eve bonfires along the levees in the rural parishes outside of New Orleans. This ritual is alternately described as descending from a pagan ritual and as lighting the way for Papa Noel who, according to one Louisiana tradition, arrives in a pirogue pulled by alligators. When you come down to it, I think that whatever the origins, at this point it’s primarily an annual opportunity for a bunch of Cajun rednecks to indulge their biggest pyromaniac fantasies. There’s a line of bonfires, each maybe 20 feet high, stretching miles along the levees. Many of the bonfires are packed with firecrackers and so for the first minute or so after they’re lit they make a deafening amount of noise as all the firecrackers go off nearly at once. The locals also seem to be able to get their hands on professional size fireworks, and the evening also features a continuous hail of fireworks coming from all over the place. Not an organized display in any way, more like an artillery barrage. Christmas Eve was also the first night of Chanukah and we viewed the event as an unusual and distinctly Louisiana way to celebrate the “Festival of Lights”.

Fire on the levee

Fires along the levee

Day 2, Christmas: It’s a long-established routine that I start every day on vacation stumbling around in the dark. Valerie’s and my natural rhythms are off from each other and I naturally wake up several hours earlier than she does. Our unit in New Orleans had a small kitchenette and I was able to get dressed by the light of the cooktop light and then slip out the door. The hotel has a surprisingly nice gym, where I went for a run on a treadmill and watched the beginning of the movie The Big Short.

Our first full day in New Orleans was Christmas Day. We knew it would be a slow day in terms of tourist activities, but had done enough research to have figured out things to do. First, we took the St. Charles Avenue trolley to a funky little coffee shop called Hey Café, which is located diagonally across the Garden District from our hotel. Hey Café is unusual in that they have both a small roaster and a large rooster. Actually, it’s a pet chicken, but that’s not as alliterative. Rooster, chicken, pullet, whatever – the place makes a freakin’ amazing latte. And they gave me a free cup of coffee to take with me when we left. Since I had of course had a cup of coffee in the room before I went running and another in preparation for going out for coffee, by the time I finished my latte and my post-latte coffee I was pretty darn buzzed.

Valerie with Hey Cafe's pet chicken

We stopped in to try to secure a reservation at Shaya, a high-end nouvelle Israeli restaurant which we had heard was offering a Chanukah menu and which happened to be up the block from Hey Café. With most places closed and with it being Chanukah they were pretty booked, but were able to score a dinner reservation on the early side. We then occupied a few hours with a self-guided walking tour of The Garden District and its incredible antebellum architecture – made even prettier by being done up for Christmas.  Our wanderings eventually led us back to our hotel, where we had a light lunch from the food we had purchased the day before, then relaxed for a bit.

In the Garden District (this house belongs to actor John Goodman)

Dinner at Shaya was amazing. The weather was warm – a warm spell even by Gulf Coast winter standards – and we sat in the restaurant’s very pleasant courtyard. The food was wonderful, except for the main course. That’s not as big a negative as it might at first sound, since by the time we got to the main course we had eaten a tasting platter of Middle Eastern spreads (baba ganoush, a Romanian eggplant dish, and tershi, a pumpkin spread, all served with fresh pita), plus potato latkes with apple butter, sour cream and caviar (we skipped the prix fixe Chanukah dinner but were able to order the latkes a la carte), and an order of their duck-based matzoh ball soup. These dishes were all amazing and by the time our main course of Moroccan chicken arrived I was so full that I was practically relieved to find that it wasn’t all that good and so I didn’t feel bad about having enough appetite to eat only a part of it.

After dinner we Ubered over to The Rock N Bowl for their annual Christmas Day show. Rock N Bowl is a wonderful New Orleans place. A neighborhood institution since the 90’s, it’s still primarily a local Ninth Ward scene. Not touristy, not overly hipster or funky, just a place the locals go to dance to good music. It’s big – maybe 20,000 square feet. Bowling lanes on one side, stage, dance floor and bar on the other. We got there early, during Benny Grunch and the Bunch’s traditional Christmas Day performance and so admission was only $2 per person! Benny Grunch and the Bunch is apparently a Ninth Ward institution in and of itself. The band members are all 70-ish years old but they’re still cranking out a good New Orleans sound, with particularly strong vocal harmonies. Their set was a mix of Christmas songs and New Orleans standards, but they seemed best known for their original novelty songs. The biggest of these, with which the locals sing along, was “The Twelve Yats of Christmas”,  a version of The Twelve Days of Christmas adapted with shout-outs to local institutions. Valerie and I didn’t get most of the references, but I appreciated the cleverness of the way they alluded to the numbers without always literally counting (for example, “Tenneco Refinery” in place of “Ten Lords a’Leaping”). The Bunch also has a song called “Ain’t Dere No More”, a nostalgic rap paean to stores and institutions long-gone from the neighborhood (by the way, only in New Orleans could a bunch of septuagenarian white folks successfully pull off a rap song), as well as a song about how there’s no place to pee during Mardi Gras (there are t-shirts for this one!). Perhaps weirdest of all was "Norris the Nocturnal Nutria". In case you’re unfamiliar, nutria is not the name of an organic energy bar – it’s an invasive rodent from South America which has been wreaking some degree of havoc in the southern U.S. Norris the Nocturnal Nutria is a Christmas song about a nutria who has trouble sleeping, but Santa can’t come until he’s all tucked in.  When the band played the song someone came out dressed as Norris, acted out the song, and danced with the crowd! The song, which you can hear for yourself, is catchy in a horrible sort of way and I spent the rest of the week singing little bits of it, giving it to Valerie as an earworm again and again. She claims she didn’t sleep at all Christmas night as the sounds of Norris the Nocturnal Nutria danced through her head.

Norris the Nocturnal Nutria

After Benny Grunch was done, the main act came on. Geno Delafose is a top zydeco act and let me tell you, he hit the stage in high gear and the place immediately went wild with dancing. I love scenes like this! This wasn’t funky New Orleans, drunken New Orleans or freaky New Orleans. Just regular folks who love music and dance, out for a good time.  Most folks there were pretty regular looking, but there were some standouts: the tubby middle-aged guy in jean shorts and cowboy boots, the African American cowboy in the sleeveless shirt who danced with one partner after another, mugging and exaggerating every step along the way, the woman in the Daisy Dukes who looked like she could have been the runner-up Miss Louisiana some decades ago, the couple dancing off by the bowling lanes executing some very dainty steps which seemed incongruous with their rough-hewn appearance, the requisite New Orleans meshuginah – a guy in a fright wig, and outsized little girl dress and tights (he was so strange that during Benny Grunch’s set he was snubbed on the dance floor by a large nutria). During most of the numbers people were doing a variety of steps on the dance floor but miraculously, every time the band played a waltz, everyone, whatever step they were doing, promenaded in synch counter-clockwise around the room. The music on stage was great and the show on the dance floor was just as good. I’m glad we got to see some Zydeco since, as I learned, Zydeco is really a Cajun country thing centered around towns like Lafayette and Mamou, not a New Orleans thing.

After a while we started to fade a little and so headed out. Total damage for cover charge, a beer, and a bottle of water was ten dollars and fifty cents.

Geno Delafose

The Rock N Bowl

Day 3, The French Quarter: With things coming back to life after Christmas, we headed into the French Quarter. We were starting to get the hang of the St. Charles streetcar which, by the way, still uses the original 1920’s cars. The drivers vigorously pump various handles in what looks like the way a child would mimic driving a car. After watching for a while I figured out that the main left hand control is a throttle, which most drivers seem to treat as All-On/All-Off, though some drivers with more nuance use the intermediate settings. The main right-hand control is the brake, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how the vigorous left and right pumping of that lever actually works the brake. But maybe only a geek would lavish that much attention on the streetcar controls …

St. Charles Ave. Streetcar

We rode the streetcar to its terminus at Canal Street. As we walked down Canal we immediately noticed a shop with some elegant Judaica in the window. We went in and found that the place was owned and staffed by Israelis. As we continued to shop we discovered that Israelis seem pretty well-represented the jewelry businesses in the French Quarter. This was just one was in which we were surprised by how Jewish New Orleans was. There were also things like the names of the clothing stores along Canal Street (Rubensteins! Meyer the Hatter! (more on that store later)), the unexpected menorah in the lobby of our hotel, and the big Happy Chanukah on the cover of the New Orleans newspaper. The woman behind the counter at that first store told us that her boss also owns another store further into the quarter, and that the other store had an even greater selection of Judaica. To make a long story short, we wound up buying a silver filigree Chanukah menorah at the second shop.

Street performers

All told, we spent a fun day just wandering the French Quarter – just browsing the variety of shops, watching the scene, listening to street musicians, and of course, getting beignet at Café du Monde, where we were somehow able to skirt the huge line of people waiting for takeout and go right to a table (hint: on really nice days, the indoor tables are less in demand). Valerie had never had beignet before and found them quite yummy! On the way back to the streetcar we poked our heads into the various hotels to see how they had decorated for Christmas. A lot of really pretty lobbies!

Coffee and beignet!

That evening we went out to Commander’s Palace, conveniently located walking distance from our hotel. Commander’s Palace is a destination restaurant – a century-old establsihment, winner of many culinary awards, and so on. To tell you the truth, to me it was a big disappointment. Part of it was the fault of my dietary restrictions. I don’t eat shellfish and I didn’t want to eat meat (so I could eat a dairy -based dessert!), and so I was left with exactly two menu choices. I ordered a redfish dish, which turned out to be rather lackluster. I’ve had better fish at the decidedly downscale Darwell’s Café in Mississippi.  We waited longer than I felt was appropriate for someone to come take our order.  Our waiter seemed annoyed that we weren’t going to order the big bread pudding dessert – or maybe it was that we expressed an interest in the bananas foster dessert, which meant extra work for him, as the waiter prepares it table-side. The bananas foster was good, but the home-made ice cream had chunks of ice in it. 

Don't get me wrong: it wasn’t a bad meal. In fact, Valerie said her food was delicious. It was just not the superlative dining experience I had anticipated. I liked Shaya better. I was also sick for about three hours immediately following the meal, but I don’t blame the restaurant for that. I'm pretty sure it was some sort of food intolerance or random stomach upset on my part; too soon after the meal to have been any sort of food poisoning.

Bananas Foster

And can I be my old fuddy-dud self about something else? The restaurant has a dress code, which I applaud. “Business Casual. Jackets are preferred for gentlemen.” The guy at the table next to us wasn’t wearing a jacket, and it bothered me. I think a restaurant of this caliber should require jackets, just like restaurants in New York used to do when I was a kid. But then again, if it was up to me I would institute a dress code for flying on airplanes, too. I am a relic of a bygone era, one I barely lived in myself.

My vision of what air travel should look like

Last Paddle of the Year Ends in a Bailout

Tall Tom, Rob, Suzanne and I decided to squeeze in one last kayak outing this year. Actually, Frank was supposed to have been a part of it too, which is an important point even though he wound up not going. Tom had originally suggested a one-way trip to the George Washington Grist Mill, and then I suggested a round-trip out of Pohick instead. Suzanne and Frank weren't all that happy about the idea of having to drive that far and so as a last-minute alternative I suggested an Anacostia trip out of Gravelly Point. My suggested route starts and ends with a one mile crossing of the Potomac and so is a little more open water than I like to do in the winter, but (a) we were running out of time for planning, and (b) the forecast looked pretty benign - air and water temps in the 40's, and 10 MPH winds. That's barely enough to ruffle my hair. All 1/16 of an inch of it.

On the water just before turning around
The four of us launched a little after 10 AM and found the Potomac already rocking and rolling beyond what had been forecast. Still, the waves were only maybe a foot, a foot and a half, it was supposed to calm down as the day went on so we continued. Once across and into the smaller, more sheltered Anacostia River, things settled down and we were fine. In fact, we were getting a nice push from the wind, something we needed to keep in mind in terms of the effort it was going to take to get back.

At the Anacostia Rowing Club

Poor Suzanne! First of all, we took her on a tour of the ugly section of the Anacostia and turned around right before the pretty part. Second, she was having trouble keeping her hands warm the whole time. I've had that problem for the past couple of winters myself, and it's both painful and scary. When your hands are cold you don't really feel you have full control of the paddle. The paddle is, as the name suggests, an integral part of paddling and trying to kayak with numb hands feels a little like driving with your eyes closed. Rob and I were trying out these Greenland style over-gauntlets. These are arm-length waterproof mittens. Tom has sworn by them for years (we jokingly refer to them as "opera gloves" because of their length) and this year Rob and I each bought a pair. I have to say, that they really help. Though it also helped to have a fresh, dry pair of gloves (worn underneath the gauntlets) to change into mid-way through the trip.

Helping Suzanne while she adjusts her gloves

I also learned that it's better to have a syndrome with a name than just symptoms. As I mentioned, I've been suffering with cold hand problems for several years. The response from my fellow paddlers has been, generally, "get better gloves and harden the f*ck up." Suzanne, on the other hand doesn't have cold hands. She describes herself as having Reynaud's Syndrome, which sounds much more medical and therefore gets her lots of sympathy. 

Our planned turnaround point was the ramp at Anacostia Park; however when we got there we found it clogged with debris. For the record, we were wearing dry suits and could have walked through that debris with no issues; however, Tom's sensibilities were offended by the condition of the ramp and so he insisted that we take our break instead over on the other side of the river at the Anacostia Rowing Club. The docks there were pristine and lovely, except for being heaped end to end with giant piles of goose crap. Yes, rolling out of our boats onto docks covered in shit was deemed by the group to be less disgusting than walking out through some empty bottles. Go figure.

Walk through this, or smear ourselves with bird poop?

The rowing club had some Porta-Potties, which was nice. I used one for its intended purpose, and also used the opportunity of being out of the wind to get a snack out of my PFD and unwrap it. I had brought along one of the brownie flavored Clif Bars that Ted left behind when he moved out. I probably was a little bit of a sight, exiting the Porta-Pot chewing on a big, brown bar.

Well, contrary to the forecast the wind kept building. It was a slog getting back. We were making only about 1.5 MPH according to Tom's GPS. As we approached Buzzard Point we could begin to feel the effects of the larger water and could see the whitecaps on the Potomac. When I later checked the wind data it said that it this point it was blowing 25 MPH with gusts to 35.  We only had another 1.5 miles or so to go, but it was all going to be open water with beaming or quartering waves, which are everyone's least favorite conditions. In warm weather that would have made for an unpleasant but doable crossing. But it was cold. Suzanne's hands were freezing up again. I was fighting a cold I had picked up in New Orleans and so was a little under the weather. I'm betting that by themselves, Tom and Rob would have gone for it, but as a group we decided to bail.

Hauling out at James Creek Marina

We paddled into James Creek Marina, which we found to be deserted. We hoisted ourselves and our boats onto the high docks and carried everything out into the parking lot. Then Tom and Rob (whose cars were both set up to carry two kayaks) called an Uber and rode - still in their dry suits - across the river to get their cars. Suzanne and I waited with the kayaks. It was pretty darn cold and windy out at this point. Fortunately we both had Thermoses of warm drinks. The place we were waiting was a public park of some sort and it had bathrooms. Unfortunately, they were locked; however, miraculously, Suzanne walked up to the ladies room, entered a guess at the code and got it right on the first try. She said it's a pretty common code at marina bathrooms - and apparently she hangs around the docks enough to know the ins and outs. 

Ma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled in thanks to a security gap

Just as a mathematical aside, if you assume that the combo is three individual button pushes out of five buttons, there's a one in sixty chance of getting it right on the first try (Simplex mechanical locks can't repeat numbers in the combination); however, the lock can use longer combinations, including multiple buttons pushed at the same time. This article claims that the five button Simplex lock has 1,082 possible combinations. That's not super high security, but a one in 1,082 chance of getting the combo right is reasonably impressive. Anyway, having access to the heated bathroom was a godsend while we waited for Tom and Rob. 

In short order they returned with their cars. We loaded all four boats onto the two cars and ferried them back across the river to Gravelly Point, where Suzanne and I moved our boats to our own cars, and we all wished each other a Happy New Year and a coming year full of lots of good adventures. How cold were we at this point? Tom and Rob drove home still bundled in their dry suits. I got out of mine because I knew I wanted to stop for food on the way home, but I made full use of the luxo features of my car - heated seats, heated steering wheel - to warm me up on the drive.

The year had a memorable finale!