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.