Commute Series: “Wait, you kayak to work???”

Walking, biking and transit are usually referred to as “alternative transportation.” But what I find really interesting are those forms of transportation which truly are “out of the box.”

Two summers ago I decided to kayak to work along the Charles River. I got an inflatable kayak, walked down to the river, pumped it up and then made my way to downtown Boston. I thought it was pretty cool, but then I was surprised to see a friend of mine kayaked to work, too!

I met Ted Sweeney while at the University of Oregon – the bike community brought us together (though he’s much more athletic about it than I ever have been/will be). I thought I would throw him a few questions about his kayak commute, since he does it a lot more than I have. The below Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your normal, non-waterborne commute like? How far do you usually have to go? 

A: I live in Ballard and work at the University of Washington, meaning that my commute is a 5-mile slog across North Seattle. Crossing the many north-south arterials that run to downtown means that transit is at least 45 minutes. My fastest and most common commute option is bicycling, as the Burke-Gilman Trail (one of the nation’s best and busiest rail trails) starts in Ballard and goes right through the university campus. The bike commute is a consistent 25 minutes, faster even than driving once parking is factored in.

But the most direct pathway from Ballard to the UW, the one with absolutely no traffic, no stoplights, no potholes, no fare to pay, no slick railroad tracks, and no texting drivers, is the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

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Q: Why did you decide to kayak to work? Is it for the exercise, the cost, the novelty? 

A: The kayak commute began because I needed calluses. In fall of 2014 I was preparing to do the first ever  Race to Alaska, an engineless small boat race from Port Townsend, WA, to Ketchikan, AK. Before embarking for the race in June, I needed to toughen up my hands because our sailboat had an auxiliary rowing system – I needed to be able to work those oars for potentially hours at a time. Adding kayaking to my commute meant I could work my hands a bit, so I kayaked consistently about once a week that winter in preparation. The race went well, we reached Ketichikan after about three blustery weeks on the wild British Columbia coast. I’ve kept doing the kayak commute off and on since, averaging somewhere around a couple times a month.  I find that what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.

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“…what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.”

Q: Do you think kayak transportation will ever catch on? Do you know anyone else who kayaks to work?

Kayak commuting is a high-level urban eccentricity, and so it should be no surprise that there are at least a handful of Seattle weirdos who are also out there doing it. I’ve met another guy on the water who paddles Ballard – UW but to a much further point on campus than I do.  I know there are some people in the summer time who cross Portage Bay to the UW on kayaks and paddle boards from the Eastlake neighborhood. I’ve got a friend in Portland who was biking to the Willamette River, kayaking across it carrying his bike on the kayak, then biking to work.  But he got bored with that and now is biking to the river and then swimming across, towing his bike atop some pool noodles.  That guy is sort of my hero.

I think the key to making a kayak commute realistic is to have a safe, calm waterway that at least partially makes the connection between home and work. Making it time-competitive with other commute options is just about impossible – the best time I got from home to desk was about an hour and a quarter when towing the kayak by bike trailer, once you factor in the bike ride, locking the bike, putting on the dry suit, packing the kayak trailer up, paddling, schlepping the kayak up to the office, and changing.  Again, that’s compared to a 25-minute bike commute.

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Ted’s Bike Trailer/Kayak Setup

I think safety is a limitation to widespread adoption.  I wear a gasketed dry suit year round when I do this (and of course a personal flotation device (PFD)) and I carry a VHF radio and lights for the boat. Being on the water, even relatively safe Lake Union and the Ship Canal, is no joke.  Taking the safety precautions adds time and complication that makes the commute take longer, but it’s essential to do this in a safe way.  It’s a serious undertaking to be out there, around commercial boat traffic, vulnerable to the weather and in water that is cold all year long.  People should be dressed for immersion, wearing a PFD, able to self-rescue, and aware of what the weather forecast means for water conditions.

Q: What’s the best part of a kayak commute? The worst part? 

A: The best part of the commute by far is getting into Lake Union and getting around Gasworks Park.  I get a wide open view of the downtown skyline and Space Needle over the flat expanse of Lake Union.  In the evenings when I’m not pressed for time I like to paddle a ways out into the lake and just float in quiet contemplation for a while admidst this scene.  That’s a pretty awesome commute perk.

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Night shot of the city from the water.

The worst part is just dealing with all the gear involved, as well as worrying somewhat about the security of the kayak – I have a pretty good out of the way spot away from the water to stash it and it’s pretty big to steal, but I haven’t devised any locking method as of yet.

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That tranquil water, in the middle of a bustling city.

Q: What else should people know about a human-powered waterborne commute? 

A: Like bike commuting, the first step to a happy water commute is to just get out on the water and learn to safely enjoy being out there, controlling your craft, and learning your limits and capabilities.  If there’s a river or lake where folks live and they haven’t found a way out onto it, I highly encourage them to do so.  It changes one’s whole perspective on the city and its infrastructure.  Once you’re comfortable and confident on the water, the possibilities for creative human powered water travel are extensive – kayaks that fold into backpacks, inflatable stand-up paddle boards, canoes, rowboats, floating bicycles.  Stay safe and enjoy the inevitable gasps – “Wait, you KAYAK to work????”

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Ted in action!
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Visiting the Towns That Boston’s Thirst Wiped Off the Map

If you’ve seen the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, you might remember the scene at the end of the movie where the valley is flooded, and a torrent of water comes rushing in to save the day in a flurry of water and banjos and Dapper Dan hair tonic.

I vaguely knew of Massachusetts’ own intentional inundation of some towns thanks to my alma mater; at Hampshire College, the three on-campus housing villages were named after towns that were lost to the Quabbin Reservoir. I lived in Prescott House, though I had friends living in Greenwich and Enfield. The fourth town, Dana, didn’t get a housing village named after it, making its disincorporation and erasure that much more tragic.

(By the way, I learned that “Greenwich” is pronounced “Green-witch”, unlike the town in Connecticut.)

 

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A very official map I found of the four towns overlaid onto the Quabbin. Source: bikemass351.com

 

These four small towns were erased and the residents relocated to quench Boston’s ever-growing thirst. In this time of never-ending public meetings, Environmental Impact Statements, and process, the notion that four whole towns were removed from the map is actually inconceivable – you can barely remove a tree these days without a protest and/or series of public forums.

So I thought I would devote this post to remembering these four towns, and why the Quabbin Reservoir was built right on top of them.

A Very Brief History

The quick run-down is that the population of Boston was exploding during the industrial revolution up through the 1920s, when the state legislature finally decided to create the Quabbin.

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All during the 1930s, workers cleared trees, deconstructed homes and churches, moved cemeteries, and dismantled factories. The whole area, some 25,000 acres, had to be totally cleared before it could be flooded with over 400,000,000,000 gallons of water. They spent weeks burning brush, which I imagine was great for the local air quality.

Another good bit of work was constructing the aqueduct which piped the water to Boston. It took years of boring through bedrock to pipe the water to all those parched Bostonians.

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Source: MWRA.com

I imagined that, just like in O Brother, there was a wall of water rushing through the river valley once the Swift River was dammed. But it actually took 7 years for the valley to slowly fill up, covering up the remaining roadways, well heads, and building foundations. Today, you can walk along the dam in Belchertown, and it’s also a great place for a picnic. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed in the reservoir for swimming or other water sports.

For anyone interested in more information, there’s a nice documentary by WGBY about the demolition of these towns here.

The Four Towns Today

Today, the towns are all but gone, with the exception of Dana Town Common. It’s somewhat hard to find the road turnoff to get to there, but it’s a lovely 2-mile walk to the common and pretty eerie to see the leftovers from Dana.

We shot a couple of pictures, though you don’t really get a sense of common from them. Oh well, selfies are just as good, right?

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There are some nice displays showing the buildings that were on the common, and you can find the building foundations still there. Dana Town Common is unique among the four towns because it wasn’t flooded; you have to put on SCUBA gear to find the others.

Was It Worth It?

The question that inevitably comes up is whether flooding the Swift River Valley was worth it. This is one of those questions that people debated at the time and will continue debating long after this blog post is published, as persuasively written and definitive as it might be.

The four towns combined had about 2,700 residents, whereas Boston alone (not counting neighboring suburbs) had nearly 800,000. The city had struggled for decades to provide adequate clean drinking water to this booming metropolis. As the political and economic engine of the state and the region, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the state was able to push through this massive public works project – especially during the Great Depression when large public works projects were being pushed.

But still, people today from the area are bitter. My former boss from New Salem once said to me, “I get why the Quabbin Reservoir was important. I still don’t think it was the right thing to do.”

In the end, residents in the area were compensated $108/acre for their land, or about $1,600/acre today. According to one article:

“For the rest of his life after we left, my father said he could never go home,” said Linda Smith, 73, who was a toddler when her family left Greenwich and her father closed his auto repair business in Dana.

People struggled both emotionally and financially after they were forced out. It was the Great Depression, and even $108 couldn’t take a person very far in those conditions.

So was it worth it? For Boston, certainly – it has enough water to last it into the low-growth distant future. For the Swift River Valley residents? Not so much. I’ll let historians and economists keep the debate going while Bostonians slake their thirst with some of the best drinking water in the world.