For a week in April, the Anacostia River shed its image of trash-strewn shores and oil-poisoned creeks and took on a new attitude.
It became a "River of Words" as some of this nation's most famous poets and nature writers - including Poet Laureate Robert Hass - teamed up with local students during a unique national environmental conference in Washington, D.C. The conference, "Watershed: Writers, Nature, and Community," was sponsored by the Poet Laureate Office of the Library of Congress and the New York-based Orion Society.
As part of the conference, Hass and others worked with a local environmental advocacy group, the Anacostia Watershed Society AmeriCorps WritersCorps to run a poetry and visual arts project in several of the District's elementary and junior high schools. By teaching and promoting the nation's oldest literary tradition in the schools, the River of Words project fired the imagination of the Anacostia watershed's most important stewards - its children.
As part of the conference, the AWS also sponsored canoe trips on the river so participants could see, experience and imagine it. The results of each canoe trip were the same - participants were amazed by the potential of this urban river. Each trip on the 4.5 mile Kingfisher Trail, also had a highlight - an eagle sighting on one trip, a spring squall on another and lots of food for thought.
Like the children's poetry, the Kingfisher canoe trips offered a unique perspective on the river. The trip kicked off at the public access ramp at historic Bladensburg Park. It was hard to imagine, as participants looked out on the muddy, channelized river, that huge, four-mast schooners used to sail up the Bay in the 1800s to the Potomac and into the Anacostia up to Bladensburg, carrying shipments of cotton and tobacco to the port.
Silt and erosion from the explosive population growth in the Washington area, and unchecked upstream development in the 170-mile watershed, have damaged the river. The water quality is poor and the lower end of the river is one of the Bay area's toxic hot spots. But this river still supports 18 fish species and a wide range of birds, including osprey, kingfisher, great blue heron, mergansers and four immature eagles. Beaver and fox also inhabit the area.
In his introductory talk, AWS Program Manager Jim Connolly stressed the recreational potential of the river and described a new program to link high school students with the Anacostia through a rowing program. The program is coordinated by the Capitol Rowing Club and several local high schools have already signed on.
One of the highlights on the canoe tour was the 32-acre Kenilworth Marsh - a successfully re-created wetland marsh. There was also a taste of history along the way, as Connolly pointed out Dueling Creek - aptly named for that period in history when "gentlemen" settled their differences with pistols at 10 paces.
The participants also paddled past Lower Beaver Dam Creek, currently the most polluted tributary to the river because of problems upstream, including a metal recycling operation on its banks. AWS recently won a lawsuit that will force the operation into compliance.
"The Anacostia traditionally has been a dumping ground," said Connolly. "That's starting to change."