Declassified: The CIA Canoe Commuters

Released document reveals commute-shortening tactic developed by Nixon-era agents

"We have become connoisseurs of sunrises.

“We have become connoisseurs of sunrises." –Former CIA employee, Robert Sinclair. Photo courtesy of Sycamore Island Canoe Club and Tryon and Barbara Wells

When we picture CIA agents commuting to work, we’re probably more apt to think of dramatic James-Bond-like entrances from exploding planes than the same banality most of us face–coffee, traffic, and road disgruntlement. But what is even less likely to come to mind is the scene that was released this week via the Freedom of Information Act: Namely, a serene paddle across the Potomac River, followed by a quick dip and a change from bathing suit to business suit in the woods outside the Langley, Va. office.

Robert Sinclair, author of the previously classified document, met a small group of agency employees each morning to enact this scenario rather than brave D.C.’s nightmarish, pre-Beltway traffic. The CIA canoe pool was active for over 20 years, crossing a ferry to the Sycamore Island Canoe Club’s grounds with their bikes, unchaining their canoe from a tree and paddling across the river from Maryland to Virginia.

Writing in a style much closer to Thoreau than a bureaucratic memo, Sinclair claims the commute helped keep him sane in an “absurd” world.

“The chance to observe a little corner of wilderness day in, day out is a rare privilege for a deskbound suburbanite,” he says. He goes on to describe the wildlife and moods of the river in well-crafted prose, mixing in philosophical reflection on the benefits of regular contact with natural rhythms: “When things seem to be settling into a pattern of sustained wackiness either at home or in the office, a fixed point of reference like a canoe crossing is useful even if it is brief.”

Sinclair and his fellow canoeists crossed the river in all seasons, even going so far as to tow their boat across the ice on the rare occasions when the river froze solid.

Sycamore Island Canoe Club ferry in winter. Photo courtesy of the Sycamore Island Canoe Club

Sycamore Island Canoe Club ferry in winter. Photo courtesy of the Sycamore Island Canoe Club and Tryon Wells

But he also admits drawbacks to the system upon arriving at the office. “There still are days when I must try to maintain my dignity with patches of dried mud on the lower third of my trousers.”

The article first appeared in a classified, in-house CIA publication, Studies in Intelligence, and is perhaps the beautiful piece of wilderness musings ever released through the FOIA.

Sinclair wrote about the canoe pool in the Washington Post Magazine in 1995 and, according to Sycamore Island Canoe Club president Bill Marmon, remains an “honorary member” of the club. Nonetheless, Sinclair’s name was redacted in the released document, supporting a point Sinclair himself argued in his article: “It is all to easy to forget…that nearly everything has been through a process of selection, organization, and interpretation before we get to it.”

Sinclair recommends regular paddling as a counterbalance to the dizzying layers of information we encounter on a daily basis. One benefit, he argues, is “access to information that clearly is unmediated.”

–Read the original, slightly-mediated document in the PDF viewer below.