Editor's note: The Outsider is a new weekly feature of the Prince George's Extra. It will focus on the many outdoors offerings in and around Prince George's County, including angling, hiking, boating and more.
Moments from its destination, a commuter-hour Green Line Metro train speeds past in a clanking rush, bearing sun-obscured passengers at the worn end of a recent Friday. But from where we sit nearby, incongruously paddling a 17-foot Grumman canoe on Lake Artemesia, thoughts of computerized fare cards and work-week urgencies are distant.
We're floating around on this lake, located on the border of Berwyn Heights and College Park, on a special occasion. Normally off-limits to boaters, the lake is made accessible through a program organized by the Mount Rainer Nature/Recreation Center. On scheduled Tuesdays and Fridays through October, canoes owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission are trailer-hauled by Director Kevin Beale from Bladensburg to Artemesia. He has put together the trips for "four or five years," dragging the canoes to the water's edge and dispensing paddling and nature-specific information on request. The lake draws from all over the county.
"I get [canoeists] from Forestville, Upper Marlboro and sometimes from Laurel. Bowie, Greenbelt and Mount Ranier," said Beale, who added that bookings should be made well in advance. The eight canoes brought in this night were reserved three weeks ago.
Beale waved his arm toward the wood duck boxes dotting the opposite shore and described wildlife we might see: American coots, an "occasional" loon, common egrets, osprey, green heron, grebes and hawks.
Not long after he pushed us off, we drift near something else he has described: the ever-elusive American beaver, its wet-furred head cutting across the lake's breeze-roughened surface. Our metal-rivet canoe moved too close, prompting a tail-flattened splash and widening ripples.
This was news too good not to share. With paddle-strokes completed in an uneven mix of awkwardness and expediency, I force the Grumman into a three-quarter turn. The only other person with me in the canoe is Shawn, the photographer. Balanced amid a zoom lens and high-priced cameras, he quietly stabilizes the hull with the grace of self-preservation.
Arturo Salcedo and Andrea Vincent, in from the District, maneuver their kid-ballasted canoe into sight, passing under a footbridge that spans the lily pad-clogged narrows. The lake, which flowed into life after dirt was scooped out to build the Green Line's embankment mound early this decade, is a confluence of feet, fish and fowl. Baited nylon lines drop from the wood archway, luring catfish, tiger musky and rainbow trout. Not far off a red-and-white bobber, separated from a long-ago cast, juts from the stick-gnawed edge of a beaver lodge.
Calls from our group--"we saw one" and "they're over here"--elicit focused paddling from Andrea and Arturo. Another beaver appears. The two dark-headed critters monitor us closely as we circle them. We're floating within yards of their underwater cache area, which is hidden beneath a mud-and-wood complexity mounded against the intrusions of time.
Fine Time to Drift
We had less than two hours to explore the intricacy of this man-made place, with its shore-drooping willows and weaves of cattails and long grasses crowding out bicyclists, skaters and foot-pounders. Fellow boaters Tim Gindling and Harriet Komisar, who made the short trip from College Park, crossed the lake and parallel the shoreline with 3-year-old Miranda. Their canoe is near where Canada geese skim just above the waterline, rising in an inverted 'V'.
"It's fun to see it from the other perspective," Gindling said. "We've been here walking."
Salcedo and Vincent, a teacher at Deer Run Elementary in Laurel, called in reservations weeks ago for the "Family Canoe Tour." Alejo, 6, arrived appropriately dressed for his first excursion: A fish resembling a largemouth bass was silk-screened on his T-shirt. He and his sister, Natali, 4, snugly fit in life preservers, braved the gravel-scraping launch, reassured by their mother that there were no alligators bubbling underneath.
An hour or so later, their courage up, Alejo and Natali dipped wide-fingered hands into the water on starboard and port. Their father, who has paddled the Magdalena River in his native Colombia, where fishermen balance their canoes to fling nets overboard, had taken them here to reveal what he calls "ecological value."
Alejo learned it first-hand. Literally. Back on shore, he nears the trailer holding a lily pad, its long tubular shoot roping around what might be an Oriole feather. After a moment, he rubs his finger underneath the lily.
"This one feels funny," he says.
"I wouldn't taste that," his mother responds.
Beale lashed the canoes to the trailer and departed, the state-owned 4x4 rejoining the evening-clogged tributary roads that feed into wider-lane snarls. It is getting late, the sun that glinted hard against the Green Line and our Grumman low-angles the shadows of two bicyclists far across the slate-calm water. Honks of geese counterpoint the staccato of black-winged birds, who dart in zig-zags not unlike stock performance charts.
Night edges in. The asphalt of the perimeter road is turning dusk-blue. Sight gives way to a welter of sound, rail wheels and car-breaks and forest buzzings meld into a border noise. City life surrounds but does not absorb Lake Artemesia. Its gifts remain untrampled.
Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU WANT TO GO
Canoe tours: Call Mount Ranier Nature/Recreation Center at 301-927-2163 for schedule. Cost is $5 per boat, $6 for non-Prince George's and Montgomery County residents. Tuesdays are for adults, Fridays are for families. Life preservers and paddles included. Private group outings also are scheduled.
Directions to Lake Artemesia: From Capital Beltway (I-95/495) take Exit 23 South (Kenilworth Ave.) to Bladensburg. After a mile make a right on Pontiac Street, then a left on 57th Avenue. Take another right onto Berwyn Road. Parking for the lake is on the left.
CAPTION: Arturo Salcedo and Andrea Vincent, above, ferry 4-year-old Natali and 6-year-old Alejo along the shore of Lake Artemesia. Mount Ranier Nature/Recreation Center Director Kevin Beale, below, helps Vincent carry canoe to water as Natali, in life jacket, prepares for trip.