Rapids transit: commuting by kayak Annapolis man braves elements

January 24, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

As Don Baugh prepares for his morning commute, he doesn't listen to the radio traffic report. He checks the tide, the wind. Then he pulls on his wet suit.

And sometimes he wonders: why don't more people go to work by kayak?

"I'm amazed more people don't do it," says Mr. Baugh, who works at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in downtown Annapolis. "It's so easy."

For about two years now, on a somewhat regular basis, Mr. Baugh has been making the 3 1/2 -mile trip down the Severn River to City Dock in Annapolis in a 17-foot fiberglass replica of an Eskimo kayak. It's good exercise, he says, and it brightens his outlook.

"I was having trouble with my back and stomach muscles, so I thought maybe a kayak might help," says Mr. Baugh, 38, the foundation's director of outdoor ed ucation programs. "I think it's helped a lot. I've quit my [physical] therapy. The doctor thinks it's bull, but he doesn't kayak."

Mr. Baugh says the kayak commute is not an everyday event. It depends on the weather and whether he'll need his pickup truck during the day to drive to a meeting. But he says "there have been periods during the summer where I'll go for a month without using my truck" to commute.

Door-to-door, the kayak trip is about an hour. The drive takes about half that time, including the walk from his parking space to his office.

As far as Mr. Baugh knows, he's the only kayaking commuter around. At least he's never seen any other on the river during morning or evening rush hour, which on the Severn scarcely rushes at all. In winter it's usually just Mr. Baugh out there alone with the gulls, the swans, the ducks.

That's much the beauty of it, he says. When he arrives at work, having paddled rather than driven, he feels better.

"You have a whole different perspective. You've just spent 45 minutes on a river, you've had this religious experience. Your body's been working. . . . I have a very strong attachment to spending time alone in a water-type environment."

The environment is part water, part ice on a recent clear morning as Mr. Baugh walks down the steep bluff behind his home on Lindamoor Drive in Annapolis. A narrow, wooden dock reaches into Cove of Cork Creek, where sheets of ice thin as plate glass have formed during the night. From where he stands on the dock in his wet suit and yellow slicker, Mr. Baugh can see rush-hour traffic moving steadily on Route 50 across the Severn River Bridge. The conditions for his commute are fine, too.

The air temperature stands at 27 degrees, the water temperature is 38 at Thomas Point. Most important, the wind is moderate from the north, meaning it will be at his back. The wind can be a demon on this trip, says Mr. Baugh. A stiff wind from the east can turn the commute arduous at best, treacherous at worst.

"I left once in a gale," says Mr. Baugh. He had just bought his wet suit, "so I felt invincible. It was blowing 40 out of the southeast. By the time I got past the [Naval Academy] sea walls I was just exhausted."

But the kayak stayed afloat, and he made it. It doesn't take much of a wave to bury the front end of a kayak, which rides not so much on the water as in it, "like a sea creature," Mr. Baugh says. The craft rises little more than six inches off the surface, with the boater buttoned in under a spray skirt that keeps the slender craft watertight.

The sun is about to rise on the Severn when Mr. Baugh puts the kayak into the water, crunching the ice crust. At 7:21 he's off.

Leaning into the work, paddling steadily, Mr. Baugh quickly gets up to about three, four knots, or nearly five mph. Running with a falling tide, he figures he picks up another knot of speed.

Sticking close to the river's western shore, Mr. Baugh slips under the traffic of the Route 50 bridge, then rests a moment, taking time to notice the gulls circling over College Creek. Must be rockfish aplenty there, he says, perhaps menhaden.

At 7:52 he rounds the bend at the Academy sea wall, the part of the trip that holds the most potential danger. There, where the Severn meets the Chesapeake Bay, the waves slosh together from different directions and currents can be tricky. "It's total chaos," Mr. Baugh says, noting that the sea wall gives a swamped boater no easy access to shore.

"If I die kayaking it'll be because we've hardened our shoreline," says Mr. Baugh. "I'll be like some sea turtle who can't crawl back on shore."

Today, though, with only a light ripple in the water, he makes the turn easily enough, gliding past the rip-rap wall facing Spa Creek and on into City Dock.

At 8:02 he pulls up to the concrete dock, tosses ashore a bag containing his office clothes, and ties up.

With paddle and gear in hand, he walks up Pinkney Street, through an alley to Prince George Street, where a motorist stops him to ask directions, seeming utterly unfazed by the sight of a 6-foot-3 man in a wet suit walking up the street in January carrying a kayak paddle.

Once, he says, a workman climbed down off a ladder to say "I want to know what the hell you're doing," but other than that, people don't seem too interested.

He arrives for his 8 a.m. staff meeting a bit late, but full of vigor.

"You have to be in a mind set that this is part of your life," says Mr. Baugh. "Our whole civilization in this part of the world was built on water. It just makes so much sense to do things by water."

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