Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Adventure Commuting

Human-powered commuting won’t work for everyone, but I’ve been able to make it work for me. Maybe it would work for you.

The notion started simply enough. I started using a bike to get around in college. After college I could continue my student economy by riding the bike instead of buying a car. A car is a voracious beast.

When I moved to the country I thought my bike commuting days had ended, but things worked out. I ride farther than I ever did, but it’s quite manageable. The round-trip ranges from just shy of 30 miles to almost 35 depending on the route I take home. The more roundabout route is quieter, with much less traffic, though a much steeper hill.

Every May, the League of American Bicyclists observes Bike Month, with National Bike to Work Day on the second or third Friday of the month. A friend at work pointed out that the local canoe race follows it on Saturday, so he declared that Paddle to Work Day.

The lake on which the race starts lies along my regular commuting route. I just never thought about it, because it is largely screened by trees, and I would still have to drive about 10 miles to get to the point nearest my house. But as a lark I decided to paddle to work on that Saturday.

The first Paddle to Work Day dawned gray and raw. Mixed rain and snow showers fell from low clouds. I had immersion clothing and all the proper safety equipment as well as my usual items for a day of work. I even had a helmet and shorter, larger-bladed paddle for the section of the race course down a small rapid. I’d never paddled my touring boat in that kind of current.

The wind was northeasterly, so I didn’t notice it until I had gone a mile or so down the lake. I realized I was surfing a lot. Lake Wentworth is not huge, and it’s fairly shallow, so the waves don’t get very tall, but they had vertical faces and breaking whitecaps.

No racers would be on the lake for another five hours. I had it all to myself. My route was also much longer than the race, because I wanted to drive as little as possible.

The pushy chop and strong wind demanded attention. I rode down the last wave face into the calmer water at the beginning of the channel between Wentworth and Crescent Lake. The mix of precipitation shifted between rain, sleet and snow. Nice day.

Crescent Lake, formerly known as Crooked Pond, bends around with several coves, at the end of one of which lies the dam at the head of the Smith River. I’d done the race once, but it had been a few years. I couldn’t remember which cove to take. Fortunately I only had to take one blind alley to put the chart into perspective.

There are two portages, one at the top of the river and the other at the bottom, where the river ends in the old mill pond for the excelsior mill. Racers portage from the pond, over the rail trail and down a long, grassy slope to reach Back Bay, a part of Lake Winnepesaukee.

The upper portage is short, across a private home’s beach and down to the bank of the river below the dam that holds back Crescent Lake. Water shot out from under the dam through the spillway, making a series of standing waves in the narrow channel. My boat, just short of 16 feet, probably wouldn’t have fit crosswise in the river at that point.

I put on the helmet and broke out the other paddle, but the rapid presented no challenges. The old Wilderness Systems Alto behaved wonderfully, as always. It has proven to be an extraordinarily versatile boat which Wilderness Systems has unfortunately seen fit to drop from the line.

Portaging downhill wasn’t too bad. I finished the voyage with a short cruise down Back Bay to some public docks near where I work. The lake level was high, so I could easily pull the kayak out on the pier to deploy the wheel set I had stowed in the aft compartment.

Some refrigeration compressors in the basement of the shop where I work provide a great place to dry wet clothes and gear. All day I could go downstairs to visit my boat, gleaming under the fluorescent lights, waiting for the voyage home.

The voyage home illustrated the difference between paddle pace and pedal pace. Biking to work takes just over twice as long as driving. Paddling speed is very close to walking speed. A paddle commute takes almost twice as long as a bike commute. So it becomes much more of a luxury.

That northeast gale was a headwind on the way home. The waves I’d surfed now pounded me. The highest of them almost obscured my view, but the wavelength is so short on Wentworth that I would be climbing the next wave before I was finished with the last. If I stopped paddling for a moment I would be driven back, maybe broached and rolled by the waves.

Wentworth’s shallows generate some weird waves, too. Over a couple of shoals the waves would come from slight angles, alternating sides of the bow. Further out, I aimed for the dimly-seen bulk of Triggs Island, beyond which lay my objective. The wind seemed to swirl around it, like turbulence off a speeding 18-wheeler on the highway. Even when I was a mile or more from it, I could feel the gusts coming from either side.

Even in the long daylight of mid-May, dusk was deepening as I reached the shore by Ryefield Marsh.

It’s a different world when you get out of your car. Just biking is adventure enough. Cut the tie to car culture for just a day, or even a week. What do you really need for the day? How will you load and carry it? Challenge your ingenuity.

The daily form of the paddle commute adds a nice walk, because I don’t try to paddle beyond Crescent Lake. A friend is kind enough to give me landing privileges at his cottage, and I walk across town from there.

I have gone to work on snowshoes, and considered how to do it on skis. Take a look at your own daily route, to see what might lie nearby, overlooked in the rush of routine. It really breaks up the monotony.