Canoeist avoids traffic gridlock

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As early-morning traffic outside the District 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.

Mr. Horchler used to be among the frustrated motorists on the frequently backed-up Anacostia Freeway, navigating his motorcycle through stop-and-go traffic and clouds of exhaust.

But one day the Anacostia River — congestion-free and running parallel to the road — grabbed his imagination. He wondered whether getting to his job in the District by water would be possible. And he asked: Could the daily grind of commuting be transformed into something enjoyable and healthy?

More than seven years have passed since Mr. 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 6½ miles, then rides another bicycle from the river to his job at the Library of Congress. The whole trip takes about 1½ hours.

Mr. Horchler describes his commute as few people do: “the highlight of my day.”

The routine is possible because of his 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, Mr. Horchler can wait until sunrise. If there’s a strong head wind, he can take more time.

He arrives for his job as head of the library’s law cataloging 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.

Mr. Horchler rows one way each workday, 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 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 Mr. Horchler’s routine.

“I can think very clearly when I’m rowing,” he says. “It’s almost like a meditation experience.”

However, commuting by water is not without its hazards. Mr. Horchler has capsized a few times, including once in chilly December waters when he ran into an obstacle.

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