A Commute Over Troubled Water

Sunday, January 21, 2007

From March to November, my typical commute involves three throwaway bicycles, a rowboat and Metro.

Bicycle No. 1 gets me from home in Cheverly to the Bladensburg waterfront, where I launch a 24-foot shell for the seven-mile row to the Capital Rowing Club dock at 11th Street SE. Then I ride one mile on Bike No. 2 to my job at the Library of Congress. At day's end, I take Metro to the Cheverly Station and ride home on Bike No. 3. The following day, the steps are reversed. This has been my routine for seven years. It has kept me relatively sound of mind and body and made me very familiar with the Anacostia River.

In its natural state, the Anacostia must have been charming, with its gentle bends, forested shores and abundant wetlands. Part of this charm remains. The bends and a few of the trees are there. And, though the wetlands are mostly gone, an effort is underway to restore some of them.

Autumn sunrises on the river can be especially pleasing. One such morning, absorbed in the stillness and luminescence, I nearly collided with a beaver, which was as startled as I and splashed me with its tail. That same day, I saw a stag with a handsome rack of antlers swimming offshore. The variety of wildlife along the river -- particularly the birds -- is astonishing. I have become attached to the cormorants and ospreys, to one grizzled old heron and to the occasional bald eagle.

But humans have not been gentle to the Anacostia, nor to the huge terrapin whose body I saw floating with a tire around its neck, the apparent victim of someone seeking to avoid a $2 tire-disposal fee. I'll skip the details regarding the floating carcass of a dog. Occasionally, after heavy downpours, the water is thick with dead fish; something besides rainwater clearly gets flushed into the Anacostia. After one summer squall, a filthy torrent gushing out of Lower Beaverdam Creek nearly capsized my boat. The volume and variety of trash are stunning. Because rowing a shell requires one to face the stern, it's difficult to see floating obstacles. A collision with a semi-submerged wooden beam ripped the fin of my boat. Soccer balls and plastic toys are quite benign; other flotsam is less so: car parts, tree trunks, strollers and dense carpets of plastic bottles. Over a three-month period, I filled 22 large plastic bags with trash from a 10-foot section of shoreline near the National Arboretum; a fire extinguisher, a five-gallon bucket and assorted pieces of lumber were too big for the bags.

Many of the Anacostia's problems can be solved only through the coordinated efforts of the federal government and the local jurisdictions that border the river, but all of us, as ordinary citizens, can do our part through simple, common-sense actions.

We should properly dispose of trash, engine oil, etc., so that none of it ends up in the river. We could use rain barrels, which not only reduce runoff into the river but provide water for gardens and save on water bills. We can participate in river cleanups and support organizations, such as the Anacostia Watershed Society (to which I belong), that work on behalf of the river.

I also invite you to join me for two cruises down the river, first on a beautiful autumn morning after a dry spell and the second after a heavy rain. The contrast might turn you into a river activist.

-- Gabriel Horchler



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