Editors' pick

Anacostia River Pontoon Boat Tours


Editorial Review

The other Anacostia, scenic and serene
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, August 9, 2013

Imagine yourself cruising down a tree--lined river under a bright blue sky. Turtles sun themselves on logs that jut from the water. Herons swoop down. As you pass a strip of wetlands, you notice a trunk recently felled by a beaver and leafy plants that stretch into the current.

This is the Anacostia River as most people have never seen it. And you can check it out for free.

Six days a week, pontoon boats carrying up to 40 passengers leave Bladensburg Waterfront Park, heading downstream toward the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. These simple craft, with their sides open to the elements, are run by the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, which also oversees kayak and paddle boat rentals at the park, as well as the nearby Battle of Bladensburg Visitor Center.

As you putter down the river, the captain uses a microphone to discuss passing scenery, such as a dense new wetlands area created to offset the wetlands lost in the building of National Harbor and the new Wilson Bridge, or the river’s confluence with Dueling Creek, which flows past the old Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, where naval hero Stephen Decatur was mortally wounded. There’s plenty of talk about the War of 1812, thanks to the famous Battle of Bladensburg, where the British troops’ victory allowed them a relatively unobstructed path to Washington.

In those days, the captain explains, the river was much wider and up to 40 feet deep, which allowed ships from Europe to sail up the Anacostia to Bladensburg to take on loads of tobacco. That turned Bladensburg into an important port for shipping tobacco and trading goods. But the river began to silt up early in the 19th century, and by the 1840s, oceangoing vessels could no longer navigate it, leading to Bladensburg’s decline.

It’s hard to think of the Anacostia being so vast, especially when the depth now ranges from three to eight feet. (That might affect your trip: When tides run too high, the pontoon boat is unable to squeeze under the bridge at New York Avenue and must turn back to Bladensburg, cutting the journey short.)

Aside from general tours, there are trips with special themes. Earlier this year, a few focused on Bladensburg’s role in the War of 1812; on Sept. 8, a two--hour bird watching tour will search the skies and the trees along the river’s bank for grackles, egrets and maybe even a bald eagle.

Now, it’s not as if the Anacostia becomes an idyllic waterway as soon as you cross the District line. The water is murky, and you might see the occasional bottle or can bobbing along, but litter and stench in this stretch of the river are nowhere near as prevalent as they used to be.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox when you’re thinking about things to do with the kids,” said Sheila Patton after a recent tour with her husband, Ricky, and children Dennis and Mary. The family recently moved to Takoma Park.

“I’ve been trying to look into what P.G. County has to offer,” said Patton, a nurse at Providence Hospital. “It’s a fun, free family activity.”

With that, Dennis ran off to see the caboose on the other side of the parking lot.

The park offers picnic tables, playgrounds and hiking and biking trails through the wetlands, plus a Battle of Bladensburg walking tour (see box). Whether you’re coming in the middle of the week or on a weekend, it’s worth exploring for a few hours.

The Battle of Bladensburg Visitor Center isn’t the only War of 1812 attraction here.

As part of the Star--Spangled 200 celebration, a new walking trail follows the events of the battle from the riverbank through the towns of Cottage City and Colmar Manor. Pick up a brochure at the center, then navigate a series of interpretive markers, following clusters of five--pointed stars painted onto sidewalks as if they were bread crumbs.

Although it’s not on the tour brochure, you might want to finish inside Fort Lincoln Cemetery, where a memorial marks the site of a valiant stand by Commodore Joshua Barney and his Marines. The trail is a little less than 21 / 2 miles round--trip.

Off the trail, you’ll find commemorative markers at George Washington House, Bostwick House and other sites in Bladensburg.