A June 5 Metro article incorrectly identified the source of a $100,000 matching grant for developing the Occoquan Water Trail. The grant was from the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, not the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. (Published 6/8/2005)

Out in the middle of the flat, slow-moving Occoquan River, there is time to notice the great blue heron standing on impossible sticks of legs, silently stalking its lunch. To wonder what the lush, forested banks of oak, beech, maple and wild cherry will look like in a fall riot of color. It is quiet enough so that when Dena Bauman rests her paddle against the plastic shell of her kayak with a soft clunk, she can hear a single drop of water drip off the end and into the river with a ploink.

And to think that just the day before, rushing to work in Washington, she'd nearly been run over twice.

"I really needed to get out of town for a while," she said, taking a slug from her water bottle and preparing to paddle the rest of a six-mile route on yesterday's run of what will soon be the new Occoquan River Water Trail. Her close calls came on top of the usual -- stuck in traffic, stressed about this, late for that.

And it's not as if she could take a quick weekend trip to the wild waters off Vancouver Island on Canada's west coast, where she's gone before to mend.

For an apartment dweller and a would-be outdoors person who instead tends a picnic-table-size plot in a communal garden in Cleveland Park, the two-hour water-trail trip restored a small measure of peace.

"You can't do this on Connecticut Avenue," Bauman said.

Yesterday was National Trails Day. Locally, groups in Virginia and Maryland sponsored nature walks, trail cleanups and "invasive species plant removal" activities. The idea grew out of a report issued during Ronald Reagan's presidency that declared that all Americans should be able to walk out their doors and, within 15 minutes, be out on trails that wind through their cities and countryside.

Most people hear "trails" and think walking "greenways" -- 200,000-some miles of hiking paths that crisscross the country. But the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust wants people to begin to think, too, of the "blueways" -- a growing system of river trails.

River trails, in a sense, are some of the most ancient pathways. Long before two dams transformed the plucky Occoquan into the tranquil, slow-flowing river it is today -- and drinking water source for more than 1 million people -- Paleo-Indians plied its waters.

Over the years, a small cadre of canoe clubs and kayaking enthusiasts have known the secrets of the rivers -- where to put in, which gravel bar is best to rest for lunch, the spots where the water can get dicey. But for most everyone else, the rivers have remained a mystery.

That is what the river trails projects are trying to change. The Occoquan will be one of about 400 in the country, most in the East.

"It shouldn't be that much of an insider game," said Paul Gilbert, president of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, the group that organized yesterday's trip. "When you're paddling along the Occoquan, it's amazing: Here you are in the middle of suburbia, yet you feel like you're out in the wilds. It's good for the soul."

It is exactly for people such as Bauman, 43, director of the career center for the University of the District of Columbia's law school, that these trails were created. She doesn't own a boat. And she had no idea that solitude could be found so close to home.

When it officially opens next spring with a ribbon-cutting, the Occoquan River Trail will run 40 miles from Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville, where the narrow Bull Run waters run fast, through the flat waters of the Occoquan near Fountainhead Regional Park to the tidal waters of Pohick Bay and Mason Neck.

With a $100,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority -- which owns 5,000 acres on the Occoquan -- and the Conservation Trust will improve public areas where canoes and kayaks could put in.

They'll also create waterproof maps showing the route, access points and places where novices can rent or join guided tours. Maps and signs will point out cultural and historic sites and explain about the river ecology and the area's delicate connection to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"The purpose of this water trail is really to promote outdoor recreation and land conservation," Gilbert said. "As you get more people using these water resources, they value it, rally around it and help protect it."

Perhaps even more so as, at the end of the trip, Bauman and every other paddler hit the interminable traffic jam heading north on Interstate 95.

Outdoor enthusiasts paddle downriver at Bull Run Marina on the Occoquan Reservoir during the kayak trip, sponsored by the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Whit Field, foreground, and Laura York, left, and Elaine Lanza set off on the Occoquan. "Here you are in the middle of suburbia, yet you feel like you're out in the wilds," says Paul Gilbert of the Conservation Trust.