Lee Cain talks about the Anacostia River the way a rock star or rapper might hype a new album. “It’s about to blow up,” he says. As the 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, Cain is a bit biased. 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 those looking to exercise. 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 set to begin on the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens segment, a 4-mile stretch that will connect Benning Road to Maryland’s Bladensburg Trail by 2015. That’s likely to be the most scenic part of the route and the most significant: It will link up 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. The Anacostia Community Boathouse regularly hosts 1,000 athletes in clubs and teams. And now other docks are popping up to help meet the demand for water sports — 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.
Several additional spots could offer access soon, says Cain, who has been preparing a map of the Anacostia Water Trail.
“This will show you where you can access it and experience it,” Cain says of his trail guide, set to be published any day now.
One place Cain would like to see another boat option is in the 11th Street Bridge Park, a D.C. Office of Planning project that’s slated to be completed in 2017. The city is building a new bridge between Capitol Hill and Anacostia Park, leaving the existing bridge behind.
“So this is an opportunity to rethink how we reuse this architecture,” says Scott Kratz, director of the park project. The goal is to build a linear park on the old bridge that will incorporate active recreation, environmental education and the arts. Ideas being explored include a ropes course, rock-climbing walls and zip lines.
What will end up at the site depends on which design wins a competition this fall. But fitness will play a key role, Kratz says, as the park has potential to stitch the community together through activity.
Another potential fitness opportunity along the river is at RFK Stadium. A residents group is pushing to turn the sea of parking lots into a community sports facility peppered with playing fields and park space. The group, the Friends of Capitol Riverside Youth Sports Park, envisions a family-friendly amenity that would also reduce stormwater runoff problems caused by all the asphalt.
If the city successfully woos the Redskins to that site, though, their games would require that parking.
Visions of the Future
Though some projects are still up in the air or works in progress, swing by the Yards Park on a Friday night this summer to glimpse the river’s future. 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 to Diamond Teague Park brings you to a free catch-and-release fishing lesson with 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,” Ferrell says. “Trash was everywhere. Now we have osprey nesting.”
The birds are evidence that efforts to clean up the Anacostia are having an impact, says Kellie Bolinder, executive director of Earth Conservation Corps. Establishing more recreational activities will speed this process along, she says.
“We just need to get people down here,” she says. “You need to know something to love it.”
And the Anacostia needs a lot of love. The Sustainable DC plan, a 20-year blueprint for greening the District, aims to make the river swimmable and fishable by 2032. Because of continued pollution from stormwater runoff, that pristine vision is still pretty far off.
But every cleanup project brings it a little closer, which is part of the reason BicycleSPACE incorporated one on Kingman Island into a recent Saturday outing. Group rides frequent the Anacostia trail, says Erik Kugler, co-owner of the Mount Vernon Square bike shop.
“When we opened three years ago, there were only two or three stretches of trail,” Kugler says. “We had to cross railroad tracks on foot and scramble up muddy embankments.”
He can’t wait for the trail to be completed, and neither can Cain, who is eager for more people to experience the beauty of the river.
At one of Cain’s organization’s Paddle Nights this month at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, Lark Catoe-Emerson shepherded her two sons along the dock. The 30-year-old Ward 7 resident didn’t have the nicest perception of the river. (“I’ve heard about dead bodies,” she said.)
Her view shifted within minutes when the three set off in a canoe toward a blue heron fishing on the opposite bank.
Another creature worth spotting on the river? Gabe Horchler, a 69-year-old Cheverly, Md., resident who commutes to the Library of Congress on the Anacostia by boat and bike. “There’s plenty of room for more paddlers and cyclists,” Horchler says.
At least for now.
Places to Paddle
-The Anacostia Watershed Society (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, 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 from 2 to 8 p.m. Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. Expect more programs, including tours and lessons, in 2014.
On Sept. 7, the District Department of Transportation will host the Local 11th Street Bridge Celebration from noon to 3 p.m. The event will include music, food trucks and info about the project, which features a 14-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle path that connects with the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. Attendees can talk with representatives of the 11th Street Bridge Park about the potential for active recreation on that site. Get more details at anacostiawaterfront.org/11thStreetBridge.