What I know about the Anacostia River

What I know about the Anacostia is what others will find out soon, when the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail bike path opens in about a month. This DDOT video shows how the last segment of the trail moves north, up through Anacostia Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, under the New York Avenue bridge, toward Bladensburg Waterfront Park, where it will connect DC to Prince Georges County and to Montgomery County via the Northwest Branch Trail.

For me the smell of the river awakens some deep, visceral connection to my past. I  spent so many mornings of my early adulthood pulling an oar through the water that the river has become part of my psyche. The river continues to welcome me and, as I age I appreciate it even more. In the early morning, it smells of wet earth and a world of turtles, birds and fish waking up. This is unlike the Monongahela River, where I learned to row 1978, and it’s completely different from the Potomac River, where I still occasionally ply the waters. For 10 years I’ve been carrying a 24-foot racing shell on my head down to the low rowing dock at Bladensburg Waterfront Park. When I put my boat in the water at 7:00 am on a Saturday, I can see the ethereal morning mist rising up from the river.

The first thing I notice is the tides. If it’s low tide I can see the mud flats reaching into the middle of the river, with ducks and geese squatting on the embankments. I know to avoid these areas because if my skeg gets caught, I’ll have to get out into the thigh-high mud and push. I don’t want to join the Anacostia Swim Team, an exclusive organization for those who fall out of their skinny singles. Or those who didn’t see the hidden logs lurking just below the surface. The second thing I notice is the debris. Did it rain last night? What detritus and branches will I have to dodge? The most beautiful time is a late September morning when the colorful leaves reflect on the water, when the tides are just right and the surface is glassy. On a Saturday morning in early fall, you can see bald eagles with fish in their talons, circling above. Black cormorants stretch their wings to dry from a tree-top perch, like some Dracula opening his cape. White egrets linger into October and dot the shoreline.

In the afternoon, it smells of high school students’ sneakers left on the dock. DeMatha, Seton, Walter Johnson, Blair, Churchill, and Montgomery Rowing all row out of Bladensburg Waterfront Park, as well as Catholic University, University of Maryland, and Washington Rowing School, of which I am a member. In the afternoons it is a chaotic cacophony of boats launching, coxswains shouting, coaches’ motorboats puttering off, yellow buses idling in the parking lot. Once the crews have pushed off, it smells of rich mud and photosynthesis. It’s a smell that says, “Keep Out!” if I turn my head one way and “Welcome Home” if I turn my head the other way.

In the middle of the river, you can see concentric circles where fish have leaped up. Osprey sit singly in the sparest craggy branches of the dead trees. Sometimes you can spot a deer swimming or a other mammals. Once when I was coaching a high school team, the girls Varsity Eight stopped rowing suddenly. I was upset that they weren’t executing the workout plan the way I’d told them. “Wait, stop!” they shouted. I pulled up next to their Eight in my motor boat. “Why did you stop rowing in the middle of the piece?!” I yelled from a megaphone. The girl in Bow Seat gestured at her long oar. I thought maybe her blade had caught a hidden obstacle and the boat was stuck. I wondered what tools I would need to get out of my bag. Instead, there was something I’ll never forget: a baby beaver had swum up to the boat and was resting on the upturned blade of her oar before swimming across the river. I guess he just needed a break.

What I know about the Anacostia River is that it gives us all a break. It is no longer the open wound filthy with pollution, chemical waste, and trash. Even though commuters rush across the New York Avenue bridge without a second glance, that will soon change. The Anacostia used to be a sluggish gash dividing Washington, DC into the Haves and the Have Nots. Anacostia, the community, used to be known for its food-desert neighborhoods, for neighborhoods so riddled with crime and poverty that for decades there wasn’t even a supermarket. At least that’s what I heard on the news. The Anacostia runs past the Anacostia Community Boathouse, a yacht club, and the Navy Yard, where the last tall ship was towed away before the drawbridge is replaced with a fixed-span bridge. It runs past RFK stadium where football and soccer events still draw crowds. There’s now a high-concept walkway accessible to the public just down from the Navy Yard, a welcoming feature where once there was only rubble. “If you build it, they will come.” And they have come. And they keep building. And that’s a good thing, I think.

Rowers have long known the secret world of nature and beauty that is the Anacostia River. The new Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is due to be finished this fall, and will soon delight newcomers the way it’s delighted rowers for years. DC’s “forgotten river” is the one that unites all of DC. It’s the river that draws us to an unexpected natural world of phenomenal beauty in the heart of the city. What I know about the Anacostia is that it’s finally getting the attention and respect that it deserves.

Boys in the Boat

When I first rowed in college (1978), people said our boat had been in the 1936 Olympics. At the time I thought it was a joke, but now I’m not so sure. We were a ragtag startup team at WVU. We kept our shells in an old tractor-trailer truck behind the lumberyard on the Monongahela River. That thing was so heavy that our old coach made the men carry it for us! Of course, that could have just been because he was 70 years old and didn’t have a clue how to coach women – it had never been done before!

I’m excited that The Boys in the Boat is coming to PBS on August 2nd, just in time for another Olympics. I read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown when it first came out in hard back. The oddly-stylized first 50 pages really annoyed and distracted me – as if Brown were writing a 1930’s news article instead of a book for a modern audience. It was also clear to me that he wasn’t a rower. But the story is so compelling and well told that I slogged through – and was immensely rewarded. Back then rowing was still the sport of gentlemen, and the strapping young loggers and woodsmen of the Northwest had a distinct advantage over their elite East Coast rivals. After all, it was only 16 years earlier that Jack Kelly, the father of famous actress Grace Kelly, was excluded from the Royal Henley Regatta in England because he was a bricklayer. It didn’t matter that he had won dozens of U.S. Championships; the fact that he was a manual laborer was enough to ban him from the regatta.

When I first started rowing it was still very much a sport for men, but things were changing rapidly. I moved to Washington DC in 1979 and joined Potomac Boat Club on the Georgetown waterfront. We had a small bathroom, but no showers or lockers for women were available, not yet. There was one group of women already rowing there; they had all graduated from Ivy League schools, where Title IX had guaranteed some access to the sport for women. They were much better than my motley crew of WVU graduates and friends of friends. I used to telephone about 20 people every night just to get enough young women to put together an Eight for the next morning. The women already rowing at Potomac Boat Club didn’t talk to us for two years – not until we announced that we were planning to race at the Head of the Charles in 1981. We hired a coach, added to our practice schedule and improved so much that we combined forces with the MIT-Georgetown-Wellesley alumnae for my first races after college. To prepare for Masters Nationals, we often practiced twice a day. I didn’t own a car, so I biked down to the boat club at 5:00 am, worked eight hours, biked back down to row in the evenings, then biked home through Rock Creek Park, straight uphill to my house on Military Road. I was in really good shape. Rowing was my life for an intense two years. Then in 1982 I joined the Peace Corps, moved to West Africa and didn’t row for another 18 years. Rowing has shaped my life.

Potomac Lights at Masters Nationals, 1982
Potomac Lights at Masters Nationals, 1982