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Kayak commuter

Peter Kelemen

Position: Arthur D. Storke Memorial Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Chair, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Campus: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Commute mode: Kayak 
Home: Hastings-on-Hudson, NY
Door-to-door commute: 1 hour 15 minutes


How did you become a kayak commuter?

In 2004, my wife and I moved to Hastings-on-Hudson from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was a big switch from a small village to NYC. Hastings-on-Hudson is about halfway between the George Washington Bridge and Tappan Zee Bridge. It’s a 25-minute drive from my house to Lamont. As it turns out, Hastings is directly across the river from Lamont. The river’s only a mile wide, and because I moved from Cape Cod with two kayaks, I realized I could kayak across the river.

Walk us through your kayak commute. 

It's more difficult than I thought it would be. I have to load the kayak on the car, drive down to the river, park the car, pay the meter, and get the kayak into the water. I paddle straight over to the west side and lock my kayak to a tree, which is at the bottom of a pretty waterfall. Then I remove all the moving parts off the boat to take with me, as well as the paddle. All told, it takes me about an hour and 15 minutes door-to-door, and 20 to 30 minutes of that is in the kayak. When I choose to drive, it takes about 25 minutes each way. 

How to you get from where you tie up your boat to campus?

I hike up. There’s a break in the cliff and a notably steep trail--part of what makes this commute such good exercise. Some people call the nearby waterfalls, “Peanut Falls.” There’s also a hiking loop people like to do called the “Giant Staircase." The trail goes from route 9W right along the border of Lamont and Palisades Park, and steeply down to the river.

Why not drive every day?

Kayaking is great exercise and helps me reduce my carbon footprint. Also, when I return home, I get to see a spectacular view of the George Washington Bridge and Manhattan, looking down the river from the kayak. The nighttime view is amazing.

What do people at Columbia say about your unorthodox commute?

They think it’s cool. Very few people choose to live on the east side of the river and work at Lamont, so I have not inspired any imitators. But it’s good exercise, and it’s a beautiful thing to get out on the river. Different people allocate time for different kinds of exercise. I choose to kayak.

What makes it difficult to maintain the kayak commute?

It gets harder to kayak after the end of daylight saving time. In the fall when we shift over to standard time, it’s dark before I am ready to leave, and that’s a bit of a problem. I don’t kayak in the dead of winter because when the water is cold, it’s not safe.

A few years ago I was getting ready to paddle across for the first time in the spring, when a man passed by and said, You don’t have a wetsuit?! Shouldn’t you have wetsuit? Well I had not really thought about that! It was a beautiful warm day, but in the early spring the water is really cold, and indeed if I had capsized on that particular day, I would have died. So since that time, I make sure to wear a wetsuit in the late fall and early spring.

How often are you at Lamont?

I teach courses at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at both Morningside and Lamont campuses. I am at Lamont three days per week doing lab work.

On average, how often do you do the kayak commute?

In the spring and fall, I manage to go once or twice every couple of weeks. I have to plan ahead and look at my schedule to do it. 

What differences do you notice between a day you kayak and a driving day?

Well kayaking is not always a relaxing commute. When the wind and waves are against me, I can get pretty close to barges before I really notice. It’s really my job to get out of their way, but there haven’t been any notable close calls. Despite this, I will say I am a lot happier when I kayak.

Authors: Daniel Allalemdjian and Maggie Niemiec, Campus Services