“You scoop out mud and put the plant in, and squish it,” explained Amina Page. “It might look disgusting, but you kind of feel like a little kid again.”
“We laughed so hard,” said Amina’s classmate Ella Norlen. “Amina and my friends were pretending to be mud monsters, going around hugging people.”
The girls, both 10, and about a dozen classmates at Brent Elementary School on Capitol Hill were describing the scene in March when they became part of the hundreds of Rice Rangers organized every year by the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) in Bladensburg.
AWS supplied ponchos to keep off the rain and plastic boots for the mud. With teachers and naturalists leading the way, the kids walked onto the mud at low tide where the Anacostia River comes into Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, not far from RFK Stadium.
The kids slipped, and some fell, in the oozy mud as they dug holes to bury green shoots of duck corn, pickerel weed, arrow arum and lots of wild rice, the kind that covered the riverbanks and wetlands of Washington and most of the eastern United States long ago. Back then, the greens were food for the animals — as well as Native Americans — and the big beds of plants served as a natural cleaner for the river water.
“It’s almost all gone today,” said AWS naturalist Jorge Montero.
Since British explorer Captain John Smith first saw the Anacostia in June 1608, the wetlands have shrunk by 93 percent, and pollution has harmed both fish and the plants. A permanent population of geese threatens to destroy the native plants that remain, Montero said. “Which is why we plant new plants every year.”
On October 12, the dry side of the story unfolds, Montero continued. “We take kids out in canoes and harvest the wild rice and other plants, which we’ll plant next spring,” he said.
Montero and AWS will meet kids and parents at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park in the morning to go over safety instructions and plans for the harvest. Every kid and adult will buckle into a personal flotation device — just in case they fall into the river. Then as many as 20 AWS canoes will set out to scour the wetlands for the plants, especially the nine-foot-tall wild rice.
“You bend it over like an antenna, and then pinch your fingers over the rice at the stem at the very top,” he explained. “The rice pops off like beads on a necklace.”
If you can’t make the canoe harvest, the AWS has on-land kid activities at Bostwick House in Bladensburg. Rice and seeds harvested by the canoeists will spend the winter at a plant nursery on the grounds of the historic mansion. Kids can help move plants and seeds around — and get a bit muddy, too.
Where: Bladensburg Waterfront Park, 4601 Annapolis Road, Bladensburg
When: October 12, 9 a.m. to noon.
What ages: 7 and older
Cost: Free! Registration is required. Sign up at www.anacostiaws.org/programs/education/rice-rangers.
More information: Call 301-699-6200, Extension 109, or visit www.anacostiaws.org.