Theodore Roosevelt Island

To wander in Theodore Roosevelt Island (TRI)—nestled in the pocket of the Potomac and hugged by the George Washington Memorial Parkway—is to know solace and serenity. Here one can escape the blaring car horns and screeching brakes of Washington, DC’s traffic-snarled city streets and wander in a green refuge.

Photo Credit: Melanie Choukas-Bradley

The National Park Service (NPS) recently installed six new signs (“waysides”) throughout the 88.5-acre island. They detail the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt (TR) as well as key historical events on the island. The Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Island (FoTRI) advised NPS on the placement of the interpretative waysides on the island. The goal was to connect visitors to the rich history of TRI and bring to life how the entire island (not just the Memorial Plaza) is a part of TR’s Presidential memorial.

One of six new waysides installed on TRI

The island was given to the Federal government by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in memory of the 26th president. TR knew the personal enrichment gained by spending time in nature. As President, he championed John Muir’s vision of creating a national park system. A conservationist President, he was responsible for creating the U.S. Forest Service as well as establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments by enabling the 1906 American Antiquities Act.

His words are prescient—“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” 

Photo Credit: Melanie Choukas-Bradley

The island is a sanctuary for the nature-loving individual who knows the prescription of walking in the woods to solve any ailment—physical or mental. In my mind’s eye, the entrance footbridge metaphorically rises up and shuts off the island—transforming it into a leafy castle protected by its moat (the Potomac River). I know the recruptive powers to linger in the woodland glen, ponder the cardinal’s song, stumble upon a doe or watch ducks glide across the still water.

I participated in the FoTRI’s Winter Walk on February 23, which was led by naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley. She is the author of multiple books, including A Year in Rock Creek Park and The Joy of Forest Bathing.

FoTRI’s Winter Walk group in February

Choukas-Bradley brings encyclopedic knowledge of trees and plant life in the Washington, DC area. But the tour also reveals her personal love affair with the island. She is currently writing a book about Theodore Roosevelt Island. Starting our tour, she explains the geological differences of the island.

Over the course of our 2.5-hour tour, we stop to survey numerous trees as well as examine their leaves. Some are whirligigs that can float in the air like tree fairies. Some trees on the shoreline are budding even though it is still winter. Everywhere we see the island’s wild life is active; we examine the teethmark of a beaver that is building a new residence. A lone deer is feeding less than 10 feet away, unperturbed by our untimely interruption of her lunch. 

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I can’t believe this deer let me get so close.

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Our path is a bog since it snowed three days earlier. We swish and slide in the mud. We can walk deep into the swamp and tidal inlet as there is a lengthy boardwalk.

 Photo Credit: Ana Ka’ahanui

Here the vegetation changes. We see willows, bald-cypresses and cattails. This section of the island also gives us up-close views of the ducks sailing across the water as well as a raccoon spied in the forest beyond.

I love the variety of TRI’s trees—sycamores, silver maples, black walnuts, bitternut hickories, cottonwoods, pawpaws and Shumard oaks. Melanie shows us ways to identify the island’s trees in the winter. She also calls our group’s attention to the hulking tree on the shore which she identifies as the “Grandmother tree.” A majestic tree, its limbs seem to hug the air. I think of the elderly woman standing guard over her brood of wild life.

Grandmother tree

The island will fascinate history buffs. George Mason (signer of the Declaration of Independence) owned the land. He constructed a ferry which linked Virginia to Georgetown. Later John Mason (his son) built a plantation. During the Civil War, the island served as secret training grounds for the 1st U.S.C.T., a regiment of African-American soldiers. Over 1,000 former black slaves later found refuge on the island. Many helped to publicize their sufferings, including poet Walt Whitman.

In the 20th century, the landscaping firm of Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. restored the island. There are over 35,000 indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs. I predict you will lose yourself walking in this urban wilderness. Or to quote TR—“The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.”

Photo Credit: Ana Ka’ahanui

FoTRI will organize its first 2019 Moonwalk on March 20. The unique sights and sounds of the island at night will leave a lasting impression. The 1.5 mile hike will be led by a National Park Service Volunteer who will carry a flashlight.

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