My kayak commute had started well. I’d carried my folded-up kayak across the street and a block to the river, then timed myself with my phone as I set it up, 10 minutes 26 seconds… Not bad since it was just second time I’d put it together! I paddled up the Mystic River and into Alewife brook in a world of green trees, herons, and birdsong… It was easy to forget the ‘urban’ part of this urban wilderness even though the highway was never more than 500 feet away from me… The trees blocked the sight of it, and the birds blocked the sound of it.
So when I ran into a logjam underneath the Boston Ave bridge it didn’t just jar my boat, it also jarred my mind out of the world of backcountry daydreams and back into my urban reality… The obstacle in front of me wreaked of civilization; a three-foot wide swath of trash: beach balls, soda cans, beer bottles, empty bags of Cheetos, Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam cups, and other things that I couldn’t discern in the darkness under the bridge. Something was blocking the way and causing all of the urban detritus to collect here… yuck!
I picked a spot that looked passable and went for it, but instead of making forward progress, my kayak lurched and wobbled in an unsettling way… My movements were too quick, too erratic. “OMG, I really don’t want to end up swimming in this water!” I thought frantically.
“Don’t Panic!” I scolded myself… I knew exactly where panic would lead me. It would lead me to the place I didn’t want to be… into the drink, where I would be immersed in the cold, dark, trash-filled water. Though up until now, the surface the water had seemed clean enough, the truth was that the water beneath me was city drainage water and definitely not clean… I didn’t have any idea what might have settled into its depths, and I really, really, really did not want to find out by accidentally swimming in it.
I took a deep breath, and stilled my body and my kayak. I had my towel with me (in my dry bag with my work clothes), and as long as I followed Douglas Adams’s advice and didn’t panic, everything was under control… I maneuvered my kayak so that I was parallel to my mystery snag instead of perpendicular to it, and investigated the obstacle before me. It was passable… there was a log submerged near the surface, but over by the bridge’s pilings to the right, there was about 2 ft of clearance between it and the surface of the water… plenty of room for me and my kayak to pass over it! There was just one problem… the passable section was so close to the piling that I wouldn’t be able to paddle…
Suddenly I longed for a simple pole to use to propel myself through narrow waterway… The romantic notion of Venetian gondoliers immediately came to mind with their narrow profiles and single oars, but I immediately revised it to the image that I actually wanted, that of a punt and a punt pole… If I had a punt pole I could propel myself forward by pushing the pole off of the bottom of the river… Instead, I was going to have to put my hands into that dirty water to try to propel myself forward!
For some reason paddling through the water hadn’t bothered me at all, but reaching my hand down into it? That was a completely different story! I had to laugh at myself… My hands were already covered in Alewife Brook water, intentionally submerging my hands in it shouldn’t be a problem… and yet…
“There’s nothing to do, but do it!” I grumbled and reached in… within moments I was free of the first logjam and headed upstream again. This section of the brook wasn’t bucolic at all… Cement walls rose up on both sides of me, creating a cave-like feeling… the only thing breaking the monotony of cement were that occasional rusted iron ladders that allowed escape from the canal… To the right, the walls of the canal were lower… Affording a clear view of the cemetery…
It was eerily silent as I paddled through, carefully avoiding occasional downed trees and rusting motorcycle engines… I was paying so much attention to the upcoming obstacles that somehow I didn’t see the…
“SNAPPPP!!!!!!!” The sound was terrifyingly loud as it echoed between the water and cement overhang. It scared the living sh** out of me! Startled (ok, maybe slightly terrified), I turned my head towards the sound… It was a giant snapping turtle… In the water… under my kayak… I was already gliding over it… and it was biiiiiig…
“Don’t Panic!” I reminded myself… The turtle was at least 3 feet in diameter… So big… so old… and so well camouflaged with the rocks just below the surface… Would it snap my kayak paddle in half? I lifted my paddle out of the water just in case, and tried to keep my calm… The snapping turtle was so close… This would be an even worse time to accidentally dump the kayak and go for a swim… Here, in this canal, the snapping turtle was obviously the boss… I was the intruder… and I quite happily left it where it was and got the heck out of there!
The cement channel continued for ¼ mile with the cement overhang on one side and the cemetery on the other before it finally released me back into the trees… No more overhangs, graves, no more rusty ladders… just trees and brush and birdsong again… I was back in my happy place…
Kayaking up alewife brook was definitely an adventure. It reminded me of one of my favorite childhood adventures/games, which I called “Combat Canoeing”… As a kid I wasn’t allowed to canoe on the river, but I was allowed to explore as far up the smaller waterways as I wanted… the waterways had been narrow, with overhanging braches tried to scratch us, underwater logjams that tried to dump us, and we were never sure if the waterways would passable, but we kept going because it was an adventure and that was part of the excitement (there was also a 2-canoe variant where my brothers, our friends, and I would throw river weeds and concord grapes at each other in epic canoe battles).
One of my favorite obstacles in “combat canoeing” as a kid was the “limbo tree”, a downed tree that spanned the width of the waterway, with just enough clearance for the canoe to pass under it… As I approached Alewife I was excited to encounter a limbo tree here as well… I took my feet off of the footrest in the kayak, scooted into the kayak as low as I could go, and launched myself under the tree… My face, with a huge smile on it, passed under the tree with about an inch of clearance… it would be really tight if the water levels went up any higher!
In total, I crossed under 5 bridges, encountered 4 logjams (I had to portage over one of them), saw 1 heron, 1 snapping turtle, 3 families of ducks, 1 raccoon, and 1 deer as I paddled up Alewife Brook. After crossing under one final bridge, that felt more like a long, dark tunnel, I made it to the access road for the Alewife train station: my final destination. I pulled my kayak up to the granite steps, got out of it, and hauled it up onto the bank beside the bike path and the road.
I quickly folded the kayak back up while watching the streams of commuters heading for Alewife station either by car, by bike, or on foot… There were just so many of them! I’d been so busy having my kayak adventures that I’d once again forgotten that I was in the middle of the hustle-and-bustle of the city during rush hour!
Within moments I entered the stream of commuters headed for the station, my kayak folded up and over my shoulder… I was about a block away from my office building… Once I got to my office I headed straight for the showers, kayak in tow. I showered, rinsed the boat off, pulled my work clothes out of their dry bag, and got ready to go… All-in-all it took about an hour door-to-door for my first morning’s kayak commute.
I’m was glowing with happiness, smiles and energy bubbling out of me as I tucked my kayak into my cubicle and sat down to work… This kayak commute was definitely something that I could get used to… And I was guaranteed to get to repeat it all over again to get home at the end of the day :)
What price sanity? What price happiness? Discovering a way to start my day full of happiness and excitement instead of frustration and defeat was absolutely priceless! I would take logjams over traffic jams any day, everyday (except in thunderstorms)… As long as I had my trusty towel by my side!
PS: Right now I cannot recommend the kayak trip up Alewife Brook to other people… Though I enjoy it, it requires experience with navigating narrow waterways, constant monitoring of both the water depth and quality, familiarity with the submerged obstacles, a willingness to get wet and portage as necessary, and immediate access to showers after any/all boating activities.
Although Alewife is usually considered safe for boating, it rarely meets Massachusetts water quality standard for swimming, and for at least 48 hours following heavy rains neither Alewife Brook nor the Mystic River are safe for boating. This is largely because of combined sewer outflows (CSOs), which empty runoff and raw sewage directly into Alewife brook after heavy rains. “There are eight permitted CSOs on the Alewife Brook: one owned by the MWRA, one owned by the City of Somerville, and six owned by the City of Cambridge.”
In an area full of people that pride themselves on their environmental awareness and activism, it is truly heartbreaking to see how easily our waterways can be left behind… I prefer to focus on the positives; the beauty, the wildlife, and the amazing steps we’ve taken to clean our waterways, but we still have a long way to go.