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Feature Story

Heat Stroke

Kayak Commuting Puts You Up the Inner Harbor With a Paddle

Sam Holden

Sizzlin Summer 2004

Hot? Or Not? City Paper's 2004 Sizzlin' Summer Guide

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Heat Stroke Kayak Commuting Puts You Up the Inner Harbor With a Paddle | By Lily Thayer

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By Lily Thayer | Posted 5/26/2004

Sometimes it's easy to forget, as Baltimoreans, that we live on the water. At best, we live around it--renting in Locust Point and working downtown, or living above North Avenue and trying to get home from a weekday afternoon O's game. Unless you're trying to show out-of-town visitors a good time on the U.S.S. Constellation, you probably don't spend much time on the water itself. Except if you're part of the rarefied universe of sailors, water taxi captains, rowers, and other hardy souls who rely on the Inner Harbor's murky waters for salary or sport.

In the summer, I do both. I commute to work by kayak.

At first, kayaking was strictly recreational--a way to see the city from its liquid center on a sunny summer weekend. My boyfriend and I went in together on a reduced-rate buddy membership in the Canton Kayak Club, a nonprofit organization started by a group of local kayaking devotees/evangelists, including restaurant owner Charlie Gjerde and developer Bill Struever. For our membership fee, we get unlimited summer-long access to the kayaks, paddles, and life vests stationed at four docks around the harbor, and a cursory but adequate bit of training in the basics of kayaking. (This is your boat. This is your paddle. Try not to let the two drift too far apart.)

But at the beginning of last summer, sunny weekends were few and far between. Then we went on a couple of trips. Soon we were facing down midsummer, and our kayaking hadn't gone much beyond our first lesson. We had to find a way to make up for lost time. Speaking of time, I was spending a lot of it navigating downtown traffic at rush hour. Driving home to Mount Vernon or to the gym in Federal Hill from my Fells Point office had become a tiresome feint and dodge with other drivers coming into or trying to get out of the city, a battle of wills between the urban dweller too scared of city motorists to ride her bike to work, and the suburban guy who doesn't have a choice but to drive.

Mired in gridlock, I fantasized about a hovercraft that would take 45 seconds to get around the harbor, instead of 45 minutes. Instead, D. and I turned to the next best thing: the happy yellow and blue kayaks docked right outside the Fells Point building in which we both work.

Because he lives in Federal Hill, it was easy to leave my car there in the morning, run or walk to the kayak dock at Tide Point, and zip across the water to Fells Point. At least, it was easy in theory. We were quickly disabused of any romantic notions of the harbor crossing as some sort of comfortable, casual activity, like an idyllic rowboat scene in a Merchant-Ivory film.

For starters, the water is way gross. We paddle through flotillas of oil-slicked trash, especially after rainstorms. Most of this is your basic fast-food effluvia mixed with the odd piece of sports equipment (last summer we picked up two footballs and a lacrosse ball, all perfectly good). But some of it is disconcertingly organic, like dead fish or items of clothing that suggest the wearer might still be in them. This fear was validated one morning last month as police fished a drowned man out of the waters by the Fells Point kayak dock.

Despite all the crap, the Inner Harbor's waters do support life. One of the treats of regularly paddling the same route was watching a mother duck who frequented the Tide Point dock area with her growing ducklings. Another is finding ourselves with time to spare at the start or end of the day. We use the extra minutes to explore the little inlets, vast sugar boats, and decaying old piers that give the harbor its real texture. And then we'll make the mad dash across the main shipping channel, a 10-minute trip that can take on the flavor of a James Bond caper if we find a water taxi suddenly bearing down on us.

One of the most suprising aspects of Inner Harbor as seen from the waterline is its diversity. In a small craft, you can explore its different personalities, from the industrial to the posh. Beside the Domino Sugar plant, dwarfed by the hull of a rusted cargo ship from Brazil or Zimbabwe, we watch enormous cranes lifting tons of raw cane and dumping it on conveyer belts leading into the refinery, which spews molasses-scented exhaust. We dare ourselves to paddle beneath the abandoned wharfs fronting the American Visionary Art Museum. We wander into the exclusive marinas at Harborview or Tindeco Wharf, scoping out the super-luxury power yachts and million-dollar sailboats.

If you want to take the plunge into kayak commuting, you have to follow a few rules. Sure, there are the obvious ones: wear a life jacket, use the buddy system, don't drink and paddle. Those are the kinds of things you learn in the three-hour debrief 'em and dunk 'em training class the Canton Kayak Club requires all initiates to take.

But there are some not-so-obvious lessons one learns over a summer spent kayaking to work. Rule No. 2 (just after No. 1: Make sure your shots are up to date) is to remember the old adage: Water taxis first, kayakers second.

Unlike most kayakers--young urbanites willing to blow a chunk of change on the mere right to use a thin little fiberglass vessel for a couple of months--the water taxi captains are old salts who make their money off the water, and off their adherence to a fixed schedule of stops around the harbor. To get in their way is to mess with their business. No big deal, but annoying to them and potentially deleterious to the kayaker. Hence the 007 maneuvers to get ahead of or stay behind the diagonal path of the taxis. A little excitement in the morning never hurt a girl.

Of course, James Bond was known to emerge from the water in a wet suit and reveal an impeccable tux with a quick yank on a zipper. No such luck for the kayaking commuter. The toxicity of the water, the splash-inducing technique of the novice kayaker, and steamy Baltimore summers mean that you're likely to arrive at your destination covered in a sticky, stinky film. This is fine if it's cool enough out to wear a full rain suit, or if you bring along a change of clothes in a waterproof bag and can shower at work. (Our office conveniently allows this option.) If not, then the decision to kayak to work that day depends on a process of elimination: Am I likely to have to meet with a client or some other Very Important Person today? If no, then proceed to question two. If yes, then proceed to the car. Other issues: needing to be off-site sometime during the day; forgetting a towel for the shower; finding the dock empty, with all the kayaks out on the water.

Another significant factor is weather. Kayaking can be tough in rough water and is forbidden if the Coast Guard issues a small-craft advisory. A perfectly placid, glassy harbor in the morning can be whipped into a scary froth by stormy winds by afternoon rush hour. In a storm, the 10-minute trip between Fells Point and Tide Point is a frantic roller-coaster ride over whitecaps that threaten to capsize the boat at any second. (Recovery from capsizing isn't a beginner skill.) To avoid going for a swim, the intrepid commuter faces a wet, pedestrian slog around the harbor.

But the city is rarely more beautiful than when seen from the water shortly after sunrise on a calm, cool morning. Gulls fly overhead, along with the occasional news chopper. The water loses its greasy sheen and instead reflects the city's idiosyncratic skyline. You wave to other kayakers, sailboats, and quacking passengers on those amphibious duck boats. You find ways to make your time on the dock as efficient as possible, to stretch a 10-minute paddle into 20.

My boyfriend and I had it down to a science by the end of last summer. Ten minutes to run from his house to Tide Point with a shared backpack of work clothes. Five to gear up--I unlock the dock chest and assemble our paddles and life vests; he unlocks the kayaks, being careful to choose those with a foot-steered rudder assembly, and gets them into the water. And a minute more to fold our bodies into the narrow mouth of the boats. Then we're on our way. I find it a particularly good way to decompress after a rough day at work. There's even a little bit of celebrity involved, as a launch from the Fells Point dock inevitably draws curious onlookers.

The other day, I paid $25 to fill the tank on my compact car. As we face down a summer of $2-a-gallon gas, kayak commuting becomes more than a save-and-see-the-environment measure. It's a save-your-wallet type of deal. We've re-upped with the Canton Kayak Club, in the process meeting a guy who could pass as an old salt in the kayaking community: an actual kayak owner who told us about mysterious stone channels and quiet passages just over the Pennsylvania line on the Susquehanna River.

One of these days, our watery commute could turn into a kayak road trip. Until then, we'll keep exploring the nooks and crannies of our own body of water, and then making the mad dash to work in a bright yellow boat.

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