HERE'S A WAY to get an exotic lunch, a short course on multinational folk dances, a visit with Smokey the Bear, a chat with local environmentalists, a free pony ride for your kids and your Christmas shopping done in a day. It's all happening Saturday from noon to 6 at the 30th Annual Rock Creek Park Day, celebrated near the Carter Barron Amphitheater.
The Art Barn -- an art gallery operating in the park -- has enlisted the city's international community to help mark the park's 95th birthday, and about two dozen embassies are bringing their native foods, crafts and dancers.
Some of the food samples are free. But with a pocketful of change, you can be sure to treat your palate to an ethnic heaven -- fritata (a crisp pork dish similar to bacon) from Ecuador; real Colombian coffee; baklava from Greece, Turkey or Yugoslavia.
Native crafts -- Indian jewelry, baskets from the Philippines and woven textiles from a host of countries -- will be on sale. Profits go to help various causes within the countries -- social services in Ecuador, for example -- so your Christmas present can work two ways.
For those whose kids don't put shopping for native scarves high on their thrill list, there are free pony rides, clowns, face painters, balloons, Morris dancers and visits with a slew of symbolic animals (Smokey and Woodsy the Owl among them). There's a stage for children, with alternating performances by the Kids on the Block puppeteers (focusing on the disabled) and by Billy B (irreverent, environmental songs).
The main stage will show native dances from a different country every 15 minutes -- from Philippine stick dances to a Bolivian miner's dance called The Devil in the Pits. If everyone honors the 15-minute limit, the dancing will end with American cloggers "because they're noisy, and will get people's attention," says program director Rebecca Skall.
"People probably come for the international things," says Park Ranger Dave Zahller, "but they're drawn to the other groups." He's bringing in 25 environmental and recreational groups -- people like the Sierra Club and the Wanderbirds Hiking Club -- who are happy to talk with outdoor enthusiasts. Just by wandering around the 55 booths, you can find out about biking trips, hikes, rifle ranges and the Girl Scouts.
Not everyone will want to join the ten to twenty thousand folks who annually flock to this event. But that's no problem -- the park's still open the other 364 days of the year, providing an astonishing assortment of activities.
Rock Creek -- one of the world's largest urban parks -- offers nine miles of hiking trails, 81/2 miles of bike trails and 11 miles of horseback riding. Don't happen to have a horse? The Rock Creek Horse Center will lend you one for a fee.
Or maybe you'd rather do a little more of the exercising yourself. The park has an 18- hole golf course, 28 tennis courts, four basketball courts, a dozen athletic fields and two exercise courses.
If you're a man or woman of the soil, Rock Creek has more than 800 garden plots available to plunk down tomato plants.
If that sounds too energetic, maybe you'd prefer to come just for a picnic and laze around at one of the thirty picnic groves. Most of these are reserved in advance through the D.C. Department of Recreation.
"Registration opens the first working day in January, and by January 8, all the good weekends are booked." Zahller says "But you can always bring a blanket and find a pretty spot."
And there are some undesignated picnic areas around the historic sites, he points out. One is across from the Art Barn, a gallery with a unique policy. Each month, a different artist goes on display, with the understanding that he or she will teach her medium to children each Saturday while the display is up. Those free classes run throughout the year.
The Barn is right next to Pierce Mill, a restored, operating mill grinding corn and wheat for sale to visitors. The mill property and surrounding parcels of land were involved in a number of hotly disputed deals back in 1890, as various landowners vied for a share of the $1.2 million that Congress awarded for land acquisition. That's when the park, many of whose 1,700 acres had been clear cut for fuel during the Civil War, came officially into being thanks to an effort spearheaded by Charles Carroll Glover, first president of Riggs National Bank.
Not everyone was enthused about selling, particularly since there were rumors of gold within the boundaries. A few flakes have, in fact, been found, but no mother lode.
On the other hand, Theodore Roosevelt's gold ring may still be somewhere in the park. The president -- an ardent supporter and user of Rock Creek -- lost it there in 1903, and advertised for its return in the local papers. Although thousands flocked to search for it, the ring never turned up.
Visitors, in fact, have been flocking to the park since its beginning. One -- John Howard Payne -- is reputed to have composed his best-selling song, "Home Sweet Home," on the creek's banks.
The park's not exactly a wilderness area -- it gets more than two million visitors and the parkway carries close to 30 million cars annually -- but it does have a few foxes, a couple of deer, a number of raccoons, some turtles and fish, and a crustacean called the "Hay Springs Scud" (it's like a crayfish) that's unique to its waters.
The park's ecology is explained at the Nature Center, which runs interpretive hikes nearly every weekend. The center also has a planetarium.
Wild animals can also be seen at the National Zoo, reached by the parkway off the Beach Drive exit. Washington oldtimers will remember when that exit was one of many fords used by natives, bearing soap and brushes, as a kind of outdoor car wash -- to the consternation of park officials.
Nowadays they have a different kind of problem with people in the creek, Zahller says: "People dump all kinds of things -- refrigerators, old cars, stoves." Although he encourages visitors to come and use all the facilities available, he asks that they keep their major appliances at home. But bring your children.
ROCK CREEK PARK DAY -- Saturday from noon to 6, at 16th & Kennedy streets NW, near the Carter Barron Amphitheater.
PARK OF PLENTY
Rock Creek Park has something for everyone, as this sampling demonstrates:
ART BARN -- 2401 Tilden St. NW, 426-6719. Monthly displays; free classes for children and adults on Saturdays.
COMMUNITY GARDEN PLOTS -- Phone Dave Zahller at 426-6832. Plots available for individuals and groups on a first-come, first-serve basis, Signups have already begun.
GOLF COURSE -- 18 holes, at 16th & Rittenhouse streets NW, 723-9832; open seven days a week; fees higher on weekends.
PIERCE MILL -- Park Road & Tilden Street NW, 426-6908. A fully operating mill with demonstrations each weekend day. Sells cornmeal, wheat flour and bran.
HORSE CENTER -- 5100 Glover Road NW, 362-0117, offers guided trips on horseback for a fee.
NATURE CENTER -- 5200 Glover Road NW, 426-6829, offers interpretive displays, talks and hikes throughout the year. The Planetarium runs two shows each weekend day catering to different age groups. On Sundays at 2 p.m., through December, the Blue Sky Puppets present "Lights Out on the Bunny Brothers."