As early-morning traffic outside Washington builds to a rush-hour roar, Gabriel Horchler walks to a riverbank with his oars, pausing to admire a heron on the opposite shore. He removes his shoes, steps into his boat and takes off — slicing through smooth-as-glass water.
So begins his morning commute.
Horchler used to be among the frustrated souls on the frequently backed-up Anacostia Freeway, navigating his motorcycle through stop-and-go traffic and clouds of car exhaust.
But one day the Anacostia River — congestion-free and running parallel to the road — grabbed his imagination. Would it be possible to get to his job in Washington on the water, he wondered? Could the daily grind of commuting be transformed into something enjoyable and healthy?
It's been more than seven years since Horchler, a trim 63-year-old, began rowing to work. He rides one bicycle from his home in Cheverly to a boathouse where he keeps his 21-foot-long fiberglass rowing shell. He rows 6 1/2 miles, then rides another bicycle from the river to his job at the Library of Congress. The whole trip takes about an hour-and-a-half.
Horchler describes his commute as few people do: "the highlight of my day."
The routine is only possible thanks to a flexible work schedule. The Library of Congress allows employees to arrive between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. — a policy intended in part to help workers cope with the area's notorious traffic.
At times of the year with less daylight, Horchler can wait until sunrise to set out. If there's a strong head wind, he can take more time.
He arrives for his job as head of the library's law cataloguing team in shorts and a T-shirt. Then he rinses off in the library's employee shower and changes into work clothes he keeps in his office.
Horchler rows one-way each work day, weather permitting, from March until November. One day he rows to work and takes the Metro home; the next day he takes the subway in and rows home.
He prefers the morning trip.
"You arrive in a good frame of mind," he says. "Then the rest of the day you can sort of handle whatever comes along because you've already accomplished something."
It's more than just exercise and a sense of accomplishment. The rhythmic motion, the sound of the oars in the water, the solitude — all add a transcendental quality to Horchler's routine.
"I can think very clearly when I'm rowing," he says. "It's almost like a meditation experience."
Commuting by water is not without its hazards, however. Horchler has capsized a few times, including once in chilly December waters when he ran into an obstacle.
After another incident, in which Horchler encountered unexpected ice and broke his oars, he stopped rowing in the winter.
Horchler says his colleagues at the library think he's "a little crazy" for his rowing. But leaving aside his nontraditional commute, the Hungarian-born father of five says he's "a pretty conventional librarian." Even the motorcycle he used to ride wasn't evidence of a wild side; it was just easier than a car to park on Capitol Hill.
Horchler had never done much rowing before he started his aquatic commute. He took a few lessons, but says his technique remains primitive.
Despite his lack of experience, Horchler says he has always felt drawn to the water.
"We grew up on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia. As kids we would spend a lot of time on the water — usually rickety old boats, anything that would float," he recalls.
When most people think of rowing in Washington, they think of the capital's more famous waterway, the Potomac. The Anacostia, though home to some college and high school rowing teams, is perhaps best known for its pollution, blamed for tumors found on more than half the river's catfish.
On a recent morning at Bladensburg, the water near the bank looked foamy. Horchler often sees floating garbage and occasionally spots fish kills.
His intimate perspective on the river has led him to get involved in the Anacostia Watershed Society, a local environmental group, and to "adopt" a piece of shoreline that he keeps clean.
Despite the problems, the Anacostia can be glorious. Horchler is often accompanied on his rows by osprey and bald eagles.
He recalls one fall morning a few years ago. He left his house right around sunrise with the sky "just full of purples." There were no other people on the water, but Horchler wasn't the only one enjoying the river. First he nearly bumped into a beaver, which was so startled it splashed Horchler with its tail. A little farther downstream, he saw a deer swimming.
"That was one of those perfect days," says Horchler. "But there are many days like that."