My summer DC kayaking adventure with Audubon Naturalist Society will reveal another side of Theodore Roosevelt Island. Their mission is to “Enjoy. Learn. Protect.” We will paddle around DC’s historic 88.5-acre island in the Potomac beneath the boughs of magnificent sycamores, cottonwoods, silver maples, black walnuts, basswood, and river birches.
With a push of our oars, our two-seat orange kayak begins to glide on the Potomac River. It is just past 10 am so the heat isn’t oppressive yet for the typically muggy July day in Georgetown.
The journey is a multi-sensory delight. Our group will witness the blooming summer wildflowers growing along the shoreline. I may even hear the cries of ospreys, bald eagles, herons, and egrets or the noisy kingfisher!
Suddenly I hear the co-leader’s cry. “Osprey!”
This white bird is long and slender, with a wide wingspan (which can be 60 cm in length). Known also as a river hawk, the osprey glides across the sky looking to dive for fish. I completely forget that I am supposed to be dipping my right oar in the water and simply gaze skyward, marveling at the contrast between the wide blue sky filled only with this solitary osprey and the island’s thickly wooded forest studded with boulders.
“The osprey won’t be seen here after the end of September,” reports Mason. The osprey flies to Central and South America for a “winter vacation.” It returns in the spring. The osprey is monogamous and mates for life.
The geography of TRI allows me to travel from one age to another. Our kayaks will first nudge into coves where the boulders burrow into the soil and float above the river top. It is a tangle of trees. This bedrock is associated with the Piedmont. Another section of the island is a swamp forest, so trees such as willow, ash, and the bald cypress can flourish.
“The woodlands that cover the island were planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted. His goal was to create a feeling of sanctuary within a climax forest. The CCC cleared the island’s non-native vegetation and then planted over 25,000 hardwood trees and shrubs,” according to the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Island (FoTRI).
With a long push of our oars, we row parallel to the shore until Choukas-Bradley shouts out to swing inward. We are foraging for midsummer’s fruits. Our first find is the bitternut hickory. Its green fruit hangs low from the heavy branches that bow into the water. The kayak allows us to slide right under a tree branch. My senses swim in the peppery green scent. I rub the leaf in the palm of my hand.
Next on our DC kayaking adventure, we discover a native black cherry tree that has been picked nearly clean by scavenging birds. I find one or two tiny half-eaten burgundy cherries hanging desolately on a tree limb.
Although our group of 10 kayakers is slightly clumsy and we continuously ram each other like “bumper boats,” we still manage to see a lot. My memory flashes back to the creek at the bottom of Thayer Avenue where I grew up. My best friend and I would make a run for our secret meeting place whenever our mothers weren’t assigning chores after we returned home from school. The thickly wooded area where the creek ran was our private clubhouse. We hid our treasures—a smooth-top “pet rock” to be painted with flowers, a glass jar to catch fireflies, or a pilfered box of crackers.
I marvel how even my weekday morning escape from work seems like a vacation when I jump into my kayak this Tuesday. The simple act of rowing away from my work deadlines transforms this outing for me. My only “job” is to row my oars and look everywhere around me.
Since TRI is undeveloped, it feels like a sanctuary. I only see the trees on the shore, with long branch arms swinging to dip into the water. I imagine them as the forest’s elders, conversing at the water hole.
I could have spent an hour alone with the “Grandmother Tree.” She stands at the edge of the shore, erect and inclusive. Imagine how decades ago children might have climbed into her arms to gaze at birds and spy on the adults. I lift my neck skyward so I can look up and up and up into her gnarled branches spreading wide.
Our next stop on this DC kayaking adventure is to nudge the kayak toward another grove where we can look for black walnuts. The unripe hard green balls can’t be reached unless I stand up in the kayak (which I won’t risk because I know I will fall into the Potomac River).
The roar of planes overhead is the only modern distraction that pulls me away from the island’s solace. Every few minutes it seems I gaze up to see a Southwest Airlines plane headed towards National Airport. I prefer the interruption of the osprey or the starling flying solo. We travel under a bridge to see where the cliff swallows set up their nests. The underside of the bridge is dark but someone thinks they saw a baby swallow poke out his head.
We pick up our pace as the three-hour tour winds to a close. To the right is George Washington Parkway. The cars look like toy models from our vantage point. As we row harder, the Washington Monument looms into view. It is hard to fathom that for the last 150 years boaters would have been rewarded with this panoramic view. I can also see the Lincoln Memorial and then the Kennedy Center.
But my favorite discovery is the red-bellied turtle that suns himself on a marsh log. Despite our group’s boisterous approach, he is unphased. He turns his head ever so slightly to watch us. I rush to pull my iPhone out of the protective ziplock bag to take one photograph. Two. Three.
Then he disappears, sliding out of view. I am sorry to lose my “turtle’s eye view” but I vow to return alone in a kayak in August and hopefully spend longer quietly observing him.
“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.”e. e. cummings
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