Bay Journal

Anacostia commuter retires after rowing to work 15 years

Daily trips offered firsthand view of river’s transformation

  • By Whitney Pipkin on January 05, 2016
  • Comments are closed for this article.
The commute takes Gabe Horchler an hour and a half to get from one door to the other when he rows. Photo / Dave Harp

For Gabe Horchler, the sounds of sirens and idling cars on the Anacostia Freeway aren’t disruptions to an otherwise peaceful trip down the river. They’re reminders of one of the many reasons he rows.

Most every weekday, from March to December, for the last 15 years, Horchler has taken the river, rather than the road, for at least one leg of his commute from home in Cheverly, MD, to work at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

If he rows to work on a Monday, he’ll take the metro home that evening, then reverse course the following day, taking the metro to work and rowing home. The commute is car-less, but it is “a three-bike operation” to get him from his house to one boathouse, the other boathouse to work and then from the metro stop in Cheverly to his home.

It also takes the Anacostia River which, despite the “forgotten-river” reputation it has begun to shed, is as straight a route as any paved one from Horchler’s home to his office.

“I think a lot of people can’t quite comprehend it,” he said of his daily rows in a slender Vespoli scull, much like those used by area rowing teams. “But this is the ideal arrangement, because it’s such a straight shot. It’s perfect.”

The river is a route he would commend to anyone looking for an alternative to the packed subway trains and standstill interstates of Washington, though he has yet to meet anyone else who takes it.

And, when he retires after 47 years at the library in February, so will his river commuting.

“I hope to go even more,” says the spry 71-year-old who credits rowing with keeping him young, “just not to work.”

Horchler (pronounced Horkt-ler) first started rowing on the Delaware River as a boy growing up in Philadelphia. His family emigrated from Hungary in 1950 after spending six years as “displaced persons” in Austria.

After graduating from library school, Horchtler got his first job at the Library of Congress before being drafted into the Army six months later. Later on, he went back to school and spent a couple of years in Africa, but he always returned to the Library of Congress. He’ll retire as head of its law cataloguing section, a post in which he has found a permanent home for about 20,000 published works a year.

Rowing, he said, “has certainly helped my state of mind.”

Horchler gave up marathon running for the sport. It’s gentler on his joints and the perfect complement to an otherwise sedentary day job.

The commute takes him an hour and a half to get from one door to the other when he rows. For 50 of those minutes, the sound of oars slicing through the water and geese honking overhead nearly drown out that faraway traffic.

If nothing else, those daily trips have given him the chance to know the river, to watch it change over the last decade and a half, in a way few others have.

When he started rowing to work, there was no Bladensburg Waterfront Park, the northernmost point in his river journey that’s a quick bike ride from home. He would put his boat in off the rocky shore where ramps now provide easy entry to all types of vessels.

Back then, the Anacostia Watershed Society’s then-director Jim Connolly helped him work out the logistics for a commute that no one else was taking on a river that was just beginning to attract the city’s attention.

“At the time, this facility didn’t exist,” Horchler said, gesturing to the expansive Anacostia Community Boathouse where he now stores his vessel a quick, 15-minute bike ride from work.

He used to store it in an old Army Corps of Engineers building. Now, he types in a few digits to gain entry to the secure facility where rowing sculls used by teams and individuals alike are stacked high.

But the most dramatic changes have been in the river. Horchler can’t remember which came first — the rowing or the growing interest in improving the river. He quickly became a volunteer watchman for groups working to clean up the river, reporting so-called trash islands that needed to be removed or doing the cleanup work himself. He still sees the muck that his scull can pick up from a river that gets sewage, among other pollutants, washed into it by storms. And, he looks forward to the day projects to store polluted overflows will come online.

Just downstream of where he puts in his boat in at Bladensburg, a former dump has been turned into a wetland rife with wildlife. Just south of there, Pepco demolished its former power plant in 2014 after it became an outmoded eyesore alongside the river.

“Since that’s been torn down, you can row basically from the New York Avenue Bridge to the Benning Road Bridge and not see a building,” Horchler said. “And this is in the heart of Washington. It’s astonishing.”

Along this stretch of the river, Horchler’s seen no shortage of herons, ospreys and a growing number of bald eagles, occasionally battling it out overhead for a particular nesting ground. Deer, beaver and fox have made more regular appearances as the area surrounding the river sheds its industrial past for a greener one.

Horchler’s route weaves past Kingman Island, where restoration efforts have helped wetland grasses flourish and DC natives return to the park for recreation. If he weren’t on his way to work, he could wander into the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens or park his vessel at the dock for the U.S. National Arboretum, both among the recreational assets cropping up along the river.

Still, Horchler said, he doesn’t try to hurry the commute. He has never rowed competitively, so he sets a pace that is comfortable and that often depends on his mood.

“Sometimes you feel like putting a lot of energy into it, and sometimes just taking it easy. That’s the nice thing about rowing by yourself,” he said.

Horchler said he’s only fallen in three times over 15 years of rowing to work, but he’s avoided horrendous traffic snarls on more than a few occasions.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when a plane struck the Pentagon and the government told everyone to go home, Horchler took one look at the crowded subway and headed for his boat. He got home quickly compared with others and didn’t realize until later that the city had closed the river to boaters for security reasons.

Pushing off from the dock on a temperate afternoon in early December, Horchler made the full-body work of rowing look effortless. The same was true of the way he hoisted the unwieldy scull over his head and up the ramp to the boathouse.

On a late summer afternoon when the rowing teams are out in full force, he’d be surrounded by dozens of teenagers and college students doing the same.

That’s how Cindy Cole, founder of the Washington Rowing School that’s based out of Bladensburg Waterfront Park, met him. She came to the park about a decade ago to coach rowing at one of the high schools, and she’d see Horchler there, “a steady presence.”

She saw him teach other friends to row occasionally or interact with the students, providing a living exhibit for her case that rowing can be a lifelong sport.

She founded the rowing school for adults who want to learn the sport as a form of low-impact exercise that’s both aerobic and strengthening.

“It’s very hard to do exercise that might be good for you in a gym or by yourself, but this you can do with other people and enjoy the company or the outdoors at the same time,” said Cole, whose rowing groups average about 50 years of age.

She’d like to see more commuters follow Horchler’s example and take to the river, using the well-placed boathouses along a section of water that’s “dependably row-able” almost every day. The only thing that has stopped Horchler from commuting is the weather. After one section of the river froze over midway through his commute one day, Horchler learned to end it after Thanksgiving each year and pick up again in March.

Once the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is completed in 2016, it will make a similar commute possible for bicyclists wanting to follow the river’s path across the southeast corner of the District.

Horchler can’t wait. Though he’ll never fully forsake his river route for the bicycle alternative, he’s thrilled that more people will get a closer view of the river he’s come to know so well.

About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

jed dinger on January 05, 2016:

Just wanted you to know that I really enjoyed your nicely written article. It added a lot of depth to what have my otherwise been a straightforward little blurb.

Mark Lance on January 06, 2016:

Such an inspiration! Now that you have more time, come join us at Capital Rowing Club! Club AM always needs more rowers.

Elizabeth on January 06, 2016:

Great article. One point...I would like to read about someone of retirement age that doesn't use the word "spry." It's condescending.

Whitney Pipkin on January 06, 2016:

Why thank you, Jed! I appreciate you taking the time to say so.

Michael H on January 06, 2016:

Cool article! While I doubt I'll ever row to work, I do mix and match biking, Metro and occasionally running. It's neat that someone commutes by rowing.

Eva on January 06, 2016:

I've been rowing and coaching on the Anacostia River for almost 10 years. I've seen Gabe dodging the high school teams and been inspired by his cool, calm demeanor. It's true that the river can be stunningly beautiful; I hope it will stay that way as the new Riverwalk Trail opens and masses of people discover what rowers have always known: rivers provide so much more than a means of transportation. As Thoreau said, "Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything."

Chantal Horchler on January 06, 2016:

Thank you for this wonderful article about my inspiring brother-in-law. We admire his energy and commitment to improving the Anacostia river. I am sure he will miss his commute to work. Knowing him, he will find other ways to exercise while contributing to improve our environment.

Kate Ralton on January 07, 2016:

A wonderful story, both about Gabe Horchler and the river on which he rows... thanks!

ross fox on January 07, 2016:

What a great article about a real gutsy man.Many years ago an older gentleman and friend introduced me to the sport of rowing.Several years later after his 86th birthday he had his final row and that same week he died of cancer.He has given me a very positive out look on growing old and I recently bought a rowing shell to take me through old age.Thanks to my friend and men like Gabe Horchler we learn that we can continue on a path of living a full life.Thanks for the article and the inspiration that it's provided me.

Cab Stitt on January 07, 2016:

I'm pleased to hear that the Anacostia River is "cleaning up." I was a referee (for USRowing) at a high school regatta on the Anacotia in the '90's. I remember being saddened by the number of trash "islands" with which we had to contend - so near out nation's capitol. Enjoy your retirement, Mr. Hotchler.

Joan hallinor on January 08, 2016:

A well-written article. If my husband, Dave Challinor, had known about this he would have been very jealous. As it was , he got in as much rowing as he possibly could while working at the Smithsonian. Congratulations for the article.

James M Scott on January 08, 2016:

What a terrific story and certainly very inspiring. Congratulations Mr. Horchler and good luck in your retirement...though retirement may not be the right word.

Anita Barclay on January 08, 2016:

Such an interesting article. I have just moved from Cheverly, MD and I volunteered at the Library of a Congress. Gee, I could have been rowing a boat down the Anacostia. Sound like a fun adventure. Congratulation, Mr. Horchler on your retirement. Happy sailing.

Maraian on January 11, 2016:

Great article. I am happy to call Gabe a friend, as well as my first rowing teacher and donor of my first boat. I wanted to row all my life and was so excited when Gabe agreed to teach me. I very much enjoyed and appreciated his patient instruction and company! All of us who row on the Anacostia share Gabe's appreciation of and gratefulness for the river. A growing number of rowers are showing their appreciation by engaging in activities to improve it. So happy for Gabe that his commute will remain a most enjoyable part of his day, and that he will have time to turn his attention to his many passions. See you on the river, Gabe.

Eric Spaar on January 12, 2016:

Share more stories of water commuting. love the same in Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna and now on Allegheny outside Pittsburgh.

yup yup on January 21, 2016:

Wonderful inspiration. I'm getting older and looking for a new way to get into shape, so the rowing groups' average age gives me hope. Thanks for doing your part for the river and the environment Mr. Horchler!

Comments are now closed for this article. Comments are accepted for 60 days after publication.

Ernst Seed: Restoring the Native Balance
Valliant and Associates
EQR: Environmental Quality Resources
Clydes Sports Shop
Chesapeake Storytelling Festival
High Tide in Dorchester

Copyright ©2017 Bay Journal / Bay Journal Media / Advertise with Us

Terms of use | Privacy Policy