Kayaking to work offers ad agency employees exercise and serenity

On fine summer mornings, Tom Walker rises at 5:30 to eat toast and drink coffee. He picks up a 36-pound piece of plastic, walks down a hill in Millvale, across Route 28 South and some railroad tracks.


Published August 7, 2007 by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On fine summer mornings, Tom Walker rises at 5:30 to eat toast and drink coffee. He picks up a 36-pound piece of plastic, walks down a hill in Millvale, across Route 28 South and some railroad tracks. At Millvale Riverfront Park, he eases his kayak into the water, hops in and paddles to work.

"It's N.I.C.E. — no internal combustion engine," said Mr. Walker, a longtime resident of Millvale, a borough that's home to two of his favorite places — the Grant Bar and Jean-Marc Chatellier's French Bakery. (What more could a body want than cold beer, fried shrimp and authentic French pastry?)

The trim, 55-year-old body of this gray-haired, bespectacled graphic artist wanted a new way to reach his office at Mullen, a Strip District advertising and public relations agency.

Three years ago on Father's Day he got it when his wife, Tina, and his two sons, Simon and Luke, bought him a 91/2-foot-long kayak.

His 30-minute paddle takes him below the 40th Street Bridge and into personal encounters with wildlife. He guesses that the trip is 2 1/2 to three miles on the water.

"It's not about distance or speed. It gives me some peace and quiet," he says. "Sometimes, I see some turtles. I see fish. In the spring, there's a lot of bird activity on the river. I've seen more orioles, a lot of catbirds, a lot of swallows and some shore birds."

The trip ends at a rocky shoreline outside the Crane Building, but it's well worth the effort, he said. After catching his breath, he wipes off the craft, takes it into a building elevator and parks it near his office cubicle.

Mr. Walker is not the only one who favors the river commute. Brian Bronaugh, Mullen's senior vice president and chief creative director, occasionally kayaks to work in mild weather after driving from Penn Hills to Millvale. Mr. Bronaugh's kayak, parked in his office, is stuck at a jaunty angle through an open window, a yellow life preserver dangling from one end.

"It's the only way to keep an eye on it," he insisted.

Mullen co-worker Todd Lepley, who lives in West View, is an occasional kayaker, too.

"They want to be like me," Mr. Walker said, adding that Mr. Lepley and his boss, Mr. Bronaugh, "made serious mistakes when they bought their houses. They could have moved to Millvale."

While the kayak commute appears to be an emerging trend among Mullen employees in the Strip, Richard Butler, executive director of the Three Rivers Rowing Association, said he doesn't know anyone who kayaks to work from the agency's boathouses in Millvale or on Washington's Landing.

"We joke about it all the time," he said, adding that he wished he could just jump in a kayak and paddle to a meeting Downtown.

Back at Mullen, Mr. Bronaugh's attire is crisp and professional, but the relaxed office climate allows Mr. Walker to dress more for boating; he looks like he's in an L.L.Bean ad — golf shirt with collar, long denim shorts and hiking boots.

"I wear shorts all year. I typically don't meet with clients, so that's not an issue," he said.

A self-professed "river rat," Mr. Walker grew up in Lawrenceville and, as a youth, went swimming in the Allegheny River. But his love for paddling on the water intensified three years ago after he borrowed a friend's canoe and tried it out on a lake near Warren County's Kinzua Dam during a camping trip with his sons. Mr. Walker and his wife, Tina, have been backpacking and portaging with canoes since their college days at La Roche.

When Mr. Walker is not paddling to work, he's cycling. He gave up the bus commute 16 years ago during a strike by Port Authority bus drivers.

When the strike began, Mr. Walker walked home from town, a one-hour trip and a four-mile walk. One day, he borrowed a bicycle from a supplier. After that ride, he told his wife, "I'm done taking the bus to work."

On his 40th birthday, Dick Zdinak, who had been his boss for 18 years, gave him a gift certificate for a bicycle. Now, he bikes to work in all weather.

"I haven't been on a bus in 16 years. I ride about 2,000 miles a year on the bike."

He has no idea how much money he has saved by not using gasoline on his daily commutes to work.

"I'm always broke, so it mustn't have been a whole lot."

Bicycling is Earth-friendly but his kayaking commutes are more serene. His path lies above the rush of the current, far away from noxious fumes and honking horns.

"Some mornings it will be a sheet of glass. I'll be the only one on the river," he said. "I kayak as often as I can, depending on my schedule at home."

His colleagues already are busting his chops about becoming a media hound. On July 5, he and his boys, 15-year-old Luke and 12-year-old Simon, rescued a dog that was swept away in Girty's Run, a North Hills stream that empties into the Allegheny River, just north of Millvale Marina.

Mr. Walker and his sons were out walking to see how high Girty's Run had risen because of heavy rainfall that day. Other Millvale residents, veterans of many floods, were out, too, and spread the word that Winston, a golden retriever, had been swept away into the Allegheny River.

During their walk, Mr. Walker and his sons found the dog sitting and shivering on the river bank.

"He came running up to us. But we found him and returned the dog to his owner.

"I'm not signing any autographs," Mr. Walker joked.

(Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. )