Anacostia River shapes up as a fitness destination

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park project. It also gave the incorrect targeted completion year for the 11th Street Bridge. It is set to be completed in 2015. This version has been corrected.


Mona Yeh rides across the Anacostia river on Kingman Island while participating in a community bike ride. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)
Vicky Hallett
Fit editor, Express August 20, 2013

The way Lee Cain talks about the Anacostia River, you might think he’s referring to a rock star on the verge of releasing a hit album.

“It’s about to blow up,” says Cain, who’s a bit biased as director of recreation for the Anacostia Watershed Society, a 24-year-old nonprofit organization devoted to restoring the “other” river that flows through the District. But that doesn’t mean he’s not right. A confluence of projects is set to make the banks and waters of the Anacostia some of the most attractive real estate in town for folks looking to exercise.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

None of it would be possible without the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, a path that’s beckoning cyclists, joggers and strollers to wind their way along both sides of the river. The D.C. Department of Transportation has opened 12 miles of the 20-mile project, and work is about to begin on the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens segment, a four-mile stretch that will connect Benning Road to Maryland’s Bladensburg Trail. That’s likely to be the most scenic part of the route and the most significant: It will link the D.C. trail to more than 40 miles of trails in Maryland.

On the water

As folks are finally finding their way to the river, they’re learning that it’s pretty easy to get on it, too. Single sculls, racing shells and dragon boats have been plying the waters from the Anacostia Community Boathouse for two decades. That facility, which regularly hosts more than 1,000 athletes involved in rowing teams and clubs, is maxing out its capacity.

So other docks are popping up to help meet the demand for watersports — and make them more readily available to casual users. “We’re public access to the water,” says Nicholas Verrochi, manager of the Ball Park Boathouse, which became the District’s first kayak rental concession on the Anacostia when it opened July 20. “It’s a different side of the city and an up-and-coming area.”

Bladensburg Waterfront Park, an already well-equipped facility across the border in Maryland, just opened a wheelchair-accessible boat launch. The National Park Service has purchased a dock that’s almost ready to be installed at Kenilworth Park, and a few additional spots could offer access soon, says Cain, who has been busy preparing a map of the Anacostia Water Trail.

“This will show you where you can access it and experience it,” Cain says of his guide, set to publish by the end of the month. “The point is to drive usage.”

One place Cain would like to see another boat option is in the 11th Street Bridge Park, a project being run by the D.C. Office of Planning and set to be finished 2017. With the city building a new $390 million bridge between Capitol Hill and Anacostia Park, set to be completed in 2015, the old structure will be left behind.

“So this is an opportunity to rethink how we reuse this architecture,” says Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park project. The idea is to build a linear park — something akin to New York’s High Line — that will incorporate active recreation, environmental education and the arts. A bunch of ideas are being explored, including a ropes course, rock-climbing walls and ziplines.

What will actually end up at the site depends on which design wins a competition this fall. But any company bidding on the project will need to recognize the importance of public health, Kratz says. As a connector between the two sides of the river, he says, the park has the potential to stitch the community together through activity.

A major health need

Incorporating fitness-focused opportunities into the landscape is critical for the health of residents, explains Tanya Stern, chief of staff at the D.C. Office of Planning. Tapping into the fitness potential of the Anacostia River is a way to ensure that Washingtonians struggling with obesity have exercise opportunities in their back yards.

Last month’s announcement that there might be a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point means even more goals could soon be in sight along the river. A group of residents has been eyeing the sea of parking lots at RFK Stadium for a community sports facility peppered with playing fields and park space. Their group, the Friends of Capitol Riverside Youth Sports Park (www.capitolriverside.org), envisions a family-friendly amenity that would also help reduce stormwater runoff problems caused by all the asphalt.

With D.C. United potentially off to a new home, that prospect has become even more tantalizing, says Charles Allen, chief of staff to D.C. Council member (and mayoral candidate) Tommy Wells. But while Wells is advocating for the Capitol Riverside plan, other politicians, including Mayor Vincent Gray, are pushing for the Redskins to take over the facility. That’s a pretty major hurdle to tackle, Allen says, because an NFL stadium would need those parking lots.

Visions of things to come

Though some projects are still up in the air or works in progress, swing by the Yards Park on a Friday night this summer and you can get a glimpse of the river’s future. There are people lounging around along the boardwalk, taking a load off after a long bike ride. Kids are splashing around in the fountains, couples are dancing to live music and dogs are walking their owners — all with a picturesque view of the Anacostia River.

A short stroll across the footbridge and onto the dock at Diamond Teague Park brings you to the weekly catch-and-release fishing lesson offered for free by the Earth Conservation Corps and Anacostia Riverkeeper. Standing nearby is Brent Ferrell, who’s overseeing the rainbow of kayaks available for rent at the Ball Park Boathouse.

“Five years ago, I never would have wanted to come here. Trash was everywhere,” Ferrell says. “Now we have osprey nesting.”

The birds are evidence that efforts to clean up the Anacostia are making an impact, says Kellie Bolinder, executive director of Earth Conservation Corps. Establishing more recreational activities will help speed this process along, she says.

“We just need to get people down here,” she says. “You need to know something to love it.”

With enough of that love, the kids learning about rods and reels might one day be able to take their own children for a dip in the Anacostia. One of the initiatives in the Sustainable DC plan, a 20-year blueprint for greening the District, is to make the river swimmable and fishable by 2032. Because of continued pollution from stormwater runoff, the Anacostia’s diseased population of catfish now swims through a sewage-contaminated stream above a thick layer of toxic sediment. So that pristine vision is still pretty far off.

But every cleanup project brings it a little bit closer, which is part of the reason BicycleSpace incorporated one into a recent Saturday outing. The Mount Vernon Square shop’s group rides frequent the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, says co-owner Erik Kugler.

“When we opened three years ago, there were only two or three stretches of trail. We had to cross railroad tracks on foot and scramble up muddy embankments,” Kugler says. He can’t wait for the project to be completed, saying it’s a huge boon for cyclists in the city who don’t live near Rock Creek Park.

About 40 cyclists who tagged along for the Chill Cycle Ride on Aug. 4 got a good look at how much of the trail is already out there and where it can take them.

“We’re so close to the city, but I don’t think people know about this,” said Logan Circle resident Aaron Zelin, 27, as he gazed around Kingman Island. The group paused in the park, which sits in the middle of the Anacostia, to scoop up trash along its hiking trails.

“It’s the first time I’ve been here, and I literally live seven minutes away,” agreed Jayce Hafner, 24, who lives on Capitol Hill. “I love how green it is.”

To experience what it’ll be like to tool along the Kenilworth Park segment of the trail, they only need to hold out a few more weeks, says Melany Alliston-Brick, who’s administering the federal grant for the project. Her team is putting together an animated ride-through using computer-generated renderings in hopes of tiding psyched cyclists over until that section of the trail opens in 2015.

DDOT’s Ravi Ganvir recognizes that the project can’t be finished soon enough — some users have been sneaking onto portions of the trail before they’re ready for the public. (He discourages that behavior.) DDOT predicts the trail will eventually see 20,000 daily commute trips and 220,000 active recreation trips each year.

And the landscape really is attractive, says Cain, who says that one of the challenges facing the revitalization of the Anacostia River is that many people perceive it as overwhelmingly polluted. That’s because they haven’t experienced it the way he usually does — from the inside of a boat while paddling through the water.

At one of his organization’s weekly Paddle Nights this month at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, Lark Catoe-Emerson shepherded her two sons, ages 9 and 10, along the dock toward Cain. The 30-year-old Ward 7 resident didn’t have the nicest perception of the river. “I’ve heard about dead bodies and it being dirty,” the lifelong Washingtonian said. But working at the Anacostia Community Museum, which is showing an exhibit about the river, convinced her to give boating a try.

“I’m all about keeping my kids active and making sure they get different experiences,” she said.

Within minutes, the three were off in a canoe, headed toward a blue heron that was fishing on the opposite bank.

Another creature worth spotting? Gabe Horchler, a 69-year-old Cheverly resident who commutes to his job at the Library of Congress every summer by boat and bike. As he hopped out of his scull, Horchler’s sleeveless shirt — which should have read “Body by Anacostia” — revealed his toned biceps.

He’s been an anomaly on the river for the past 14 summers, but there’s no reason for him to be so lonely. “There’s plenty of room for more paddlers and cyclists,” Horchler says.

At least for now.

What’s up, docks?

●The Anacostia Watershed Society (www.anacostiaws.org) hosts free Paddle Nights every Thursday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 10. The event cycles among four locations — Anacostia Community Boathouse, Gangplank Marina, Kenilworth Park and Bladensburg Park — to give participants a chance to see several sections of the river. No experience is necessary to try canoeing or kayaking. Check the online schedule for details.

●The newly opened Ball Park Boathouse (ballparkboathouse.com) offers kayak rentals from Diamond Teague Park, right next to Nationals Park. It’s $15 per hour for a single kayak and $20 per hour for a double kayak. Hours this season are limited to Fridays 2-8 p.m. and weekends 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Expect more programs, including tours and lessons, in 2014.

Progress on display

The Anacostia Community Museum marked its 45th anniversary last year with “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement.” The exhibit, which closes Nov. 3, looks at the history of the Anacostia River, starting with its role as the center of culture for the Nacotchtank, the local Native American tribe. One wall is covered with photos showing the ways recreation is helping to transform the river. Another offers perspectives from other cities that have redeveloped their waterfronts. Don’t miss the short video documenting river memories from several longtime residents, including Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork Anacostia, who learned to ice skate — without skates — on its frozen waters. (Free, open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 1901 Fort Place SE, anacostia.si.edu.)

@postmisfits on Twitter

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

Also at washingtonpost.com Read past columns by Hallett and Lenny Bernstein at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Wednesday.

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