It’s dawn when Gabriel Horchler climbs into his 21-foot Vespoli rowing shell at Bladensburg Waterfront Park and begins drifting downriver on the Anacostia.
From the banks, one would see only a candy-apple-red sliver gliding on the water, framed by dense trees arching over the riverbanks. Here Horchler sits, as he does on so many mornings, admiring the sunrise, his arms moving in machine-like motion, oars slicing the glassy water in a smooth, uninterrupted rhythm.
Whoooosh. Whoooosh. Whoooosh.
And then, lost in stillness and the solitude of the wilderness, he runs into traffic. A beaver. They almost collide. The startled critter slaps its tail on the water, spraying Horchler, who proceeds down the river.
Whoooosh. Whoooosh. Whoooosh.
Another mile of rowing and Horchler notices something else: a handsome pair of antlers. A swimming stag. He admires it, but only for a moment.
By now, vehicles are pouring onto some of the city’s major arteries — New York Avenue, the Benning Road bridge, the Anacostia Freeway. Horchler’s morning commute hasn’t been colored by traffic jams but by a painted sky and wildlife.
“It’s wonderful. It’s almost sedative,” he says. “You get into sort of a rhythm, and it’s very, very soothing. I’m not the victim of Metro breakdowns or traffic jams,” he says. “I’m . . . I’m the master of the river.”
It was one day while Horchler sat on his motorcycle in Anacostia Freeway traffic that his imagination shifted to the water. The river runs parallel to the freeway. What if he used it to get to work in downtown Washington?
That was 15 years ago.
Today, the head of the law cataloguing section of the Library of Congress has retirement on his mind. Later this month , he’ll leave his job managing the inflow of 20,000 books annually, and his more than a decade of cross-river commutes will cease.
From his home in Cheverly, he embarks on a 15-minute bike ride to Bladensburg Waterfront Park. There, he climbs into his fiberglass rowing shell, which he navigates about five miles downriver to the Anacostia Community Boathouse. At the boathouse he climbs onto another bike, whisking through downtown Washington and arriving at the Library of Congress about 90 minutes after leaving home.
Most mornings, there are no people. Just Horchler, 71, in his shell on the open water, flanked by the camellias of the National Arboretum and the towering trees along the riverbank.
“There’s a section between New York Avenue and Benning Road where you go by the Aquatic Gardens on your left and the Arboretum on your right. You would not believe that you’re in D.C. You don’t see any buildings, you don’t hear anything. It’s really, really, exceptionally rustic looking.”
From work, he takes Metro to Cheverly, where he rides a third bike home. The next day, the commute is reversed — he takes Metro in and rows home.
Horchler is slight and gray-haired and wears round wire-rimmed glasses befitting a librarian. But do not let his mild demeanor fool you. Those who know him say he is an exceptional physical specimen.
James Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, says that on summer afternoons, Horchler will confidently shed his rowing shirt.
“The guy is ripped; he’s freaking ripped,” Foster said. “The guy makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look wimpy.”
Some say he’s insane. In Horchler’s mind, the daily ritual of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is what’s insane.
“I don’t feel that I’m superior to these people in the traffic jam, but I definitely appreciate the quiet and . . . the water and the sound of the oars in the water,” he said. “It changes every day. You see different wildlife. . . . The quality of the water, sometimes it’s filthy, sometimes it’s amazingly clean. And then, with the seasons, the vegetation changes. It’s wonderful.”
Horchler was rowing down the Anacostia on a summer afternoon when the skies suddenly opened, drenching him midway home. Summer squalls arrive at a moment’s notice — presenting their own complex set of navigation issues. But they also reveal the river’s darker side: heavy pollution caused by decades of industrial activity.
Horchler remembers being caught in one downpour and reaching Hickey Run, a mile-long stream near the National Arboretum. Suddenly, he was confronted by a tidal wave of trash.
“I was almost turned over by this stream of muddy water and trash,” he said. Trash islands, unsightly heaps of refuse, will occasionally creep toward his boat. And on occasion he’ll see something — a dead dog, a huge dead turtle floating in a car tire — that can ruin his whole day.
For years, advocates have been working to strip the waterway’s “forgotten river” reputation. A major boon to that effort was the demolition of the Pepco’s Benning Road power plant in 2014. A recent lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency alleges that the power company had discharged larger-than-permitted amounts of pollutants, such as copper, lead and zinc, into the Anacostia for years.
Bill Matuszeski, onetime director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and now vice chair of the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee, says the river’s reputation is on the upswing.
“For many years, little was done about sewer overflows, little was done about toxic sediments settling into the river from places like Navy Yard, little was done was to handle that,” he said. “There was just a lot of sources of ugliness. The fish all had tumors. Some of this is still true, of course.”
But recent efforts, he says, have given the forgotten Anacostia an air of promise. The Anacostia River Tunnel Project, for example, will nearly eliminate combined sewer overflows into the river on its completion in 2025, according to the EPA.
“Beginning in the next few years, the place in the metropolitan area that’s going to have the least sewage is the Anacostia,” Matuszeski said. “That’s an amazing turnaround.”
The completion of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, set for this year, is another beacon of hope. It will mean people can mimic Horchler’s commute on bike. And, perhaps, thousands more will be encouraged to join Horchler and area rowing teams on the river.
“Our biggest challenge with the Anacostia is overcoming the negative frame of reference here,” said Foster, the watershed society president. “We’ve designed our community around the automobile and not around people. So the question is: How can we transform the way we get around?”
Horchler achieved his own transformation. His commute is not ideal, but Foster appreciates the measure of creativity the librarian has brought to navigating the city and what once were its most troubled waters.
Overcoming the negative frame of reference, he says, begins with someone like Horchler — a “river hero.” Foster notes that Horchler often collects trash on his rows, leaving a bag of newspapers, bottles and other refuse at the National Arboretum dock.
But Horchler says there is plenty of work yet to be done.
“It still in many people’s mind has a very negative image,” he said. “The Anacostia conjures up poverty and crime and urban decay.”
Lately, though, something feels different. “The aesthetics of being on the river — that’s becoming more and more pleasing,” he said.
As children, Horchler and his brother floated out into the Delaware River using cement-mix boxes or anything else they could dredge up in their modest Philadelphia neighborhood.
At the time, his father worked a variety of jobs to support his family. Originally from Hungary, the family migrated to Austria as “displaced persons” in 1944.
“When the Russians took over in Hungary after World War II, they decided they couldn’t live there anymore,” said Gabriel Horchler’s wife, Joani Horchler, 59.
They left Hungary, where they had lived a fairly prosperous life, packing as much jewelry and china as possible into a large trunk.
“They were on an evacuation truck leaving Hungary, and then the whole thing fell off the evacuation truck,” Joani Horchler said. “They were left basically penniless.”
They arrived in the United States in 1950, when Gabriel was 6, and settled in Philadelphia.
“His mother always said that she lost all her wealth, but it wasn’t important because she had her children,” Joani Horchler said.
Gabriel’s father worked in a tannery and cleaning a hospital to support the family. The children, meanwhile, peered out at the elegant boathouses on the Schuylkill River, and the parkland along it, hoping one day to join rowers on the water.
After obtaining an economics degree from what was then La Salle College in Philadelphia, Horchler went on to Columbia University’s Library School, where he was later recruited by the Library of Congress.
In 1968, he was drafted into the military and spent 10 months in Vietnam. He came home knowing he never wanted to go back and obtained a master’s degree in economics at Penn State University. He went to Niger as a volunteer with the United Nations, becoming the librarian at the West African country’s school of national administration. And then he returned to the Library of Congress, where he has spent 47 years.
In the early afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, with part of the Pentagon burning and panic striking the nation’s capital, crowds rushed from the Capitol for the Metro, which had kept operating to get commuters out of the city, Horchler remembers.
He decided right then to take his usual route home. He described the river as “very peaceful, calm as ever” that day. The likely reason, of course, was that it had been shut down for security reasons, but Horchler was unaware until he reached Bladensburg.
Trudging on in the face of adversity — sometimes, of abject fear — requires discipline, he acknowledges. He has flipped his boat three times over the years, once even rousing the concern of construction workers after he ran into a concrete barrier on the Benning Road bridge. So how did he do this every workday for 15 years?
“I have no idea,” he said, sitting in a Library of Congress conference room. He thought for a moment.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a librarian,” said the master of the river. “Librarians like to have things organized.”
“For me,” he said of his river commutes, “I like to have things nicely laid out and predictable.”