The Anacostia River is experiencing a major comeback. On a nice day you might find people jogging along the shoreline at Anacostia Park, playing beach volleyball near Bardo or taking in a ’90s cover band at Yards Park. The Anacostia isn’t quite swimmable yet — heavy rains still send flotillas of trash surfing down the river on waves of raw sewage — but two companies are now vying to get people a little closer to the water on kayaks, canoes and other, stranger, conveyances.
One company, Boating in D.C., set up shop on a dock behind Nationals Park in 2013. I rented a kayak from them the weekend they opened and was amazed by all the wildlife I saw on the busy urban waterway. I found muskrats swimming in and out of little submerged huts. On the shore, great blue herons speared fish in the mud. And I saw a pair of ospreys building a tractor-tire-size nest on a pylon of the South Capitol Street bridge.
I’ve been a loyal customer ever since, but Boating in D.C. just got some competition: A half mile away, on the eastern side of Yards Park, Capital SUP opened this month. In addition to kayaks, Capital SUP, as the name implies, also rents stand-up paddleboards — basically surfboards that you propel around with kayak paddles. Though I generally prefer sitting down to standing up, I decided to give paddleboarding a try — and was immediately dissuaded from doing so.
Brian, the tan, athletic-looking man at the Capital SUP kiosk, suggested an alternative that, he explained, was less likely to result in me swimming in Anacostia sewage water.
“You should try a pedalboard,” he said, gesturing toward another surfboard-like contraption with a tall handlebar in the middle and low, elliptical-like pedals set into the board. “They are much easier and more stable than paddleboards.”
That sounded good to me, so I signed a waiver without reading it and handed Brian $25 for an hour-long rental. Brian put the board into the water, explained how to steer it with the little rudder controls on the handlebars and told me to hop on. As I stepped cautiously onto the board, it immediately tried to tip me into the water.
“You said this was stable,” I whined. “Pedal faster,” Brian instructed. I started pumping the pedals vigorously up and down and found that the board felt less wobbly. Staying out of sewage water is quite motivating, it turns out.
“You’re getting the hang of it,” said Brian, who was rapidly receding in the distance. “Don’t forget to look up” was the last piece of advice I heard.
I eventually grew confident enough to lift my gaze beyond the 3-inch patch of water immediately in front of me and discovered a wonderful view. The late-afternoon light made the water sparkle, and I could see catfish moving just below the surface. I headed toward the osprey nest, hoping to see some baby bird beaks, but the parents warned me off. Unnerved by my height or perhaps my speed, mama osprey stood on the edge of the nest, fixed me with her yellow eyes and screeched until I was well out of sight.
After about 20 minutes of strenuous pedalboarding, I was thirsty and out of breath. But every time I slowed down, the board tilted dangerously underneath me, so I continued down the river at quite a clip. As a result, I didn’t see the great blue heron sitting on an overhanging branch until I was nearly underneath him. We were both startled, and he hit his wing against a tree, causing him to lose a big, blue-gray feather before he beat a hasty retreat to the other side of the river.
The feather landed in the water by my feet, but I didn’t have enough faith in my balance to lean down and pick it up.
The muskrats were nowhere to be seen, but I did zoom pass a pair of kayakers.
“What is that?” they shouted.
“It’s a pedalboard!” I said. “Do I look stupid?”
By the time they answered, I was yards away and unable to hear them over the sound of my own panting. Let’s assume they said I looked really cool.
All told, I spent about 45 minutes upsetting wildlife and impressing fellow boaters before returning the pedalboard to Brian. “How was it?” he asked. “Great!” I said, so out of breath I was only able to manage a one-word answer.
I wasn’t lying. Pedalboarding may not be the best way to peacefully commune with nature, but it’s certainly exhilarating — like riding a bike for the first time. It’s also a killer workout — as I write this two days later, I’m still sore all over, including my core, a part of my body I generally reserve for Ben & Jerry’s storage.
That said, I’ll probably stick to kayaking on the Anacostia for now, but I look forward to pedalboarding or maybe even paddleboarding once we stop dumping sewage into this otherwise lovely river.
More adventures with the Staycationer