Steve Dryden and I dig our paddles into the “silty” bottom of Rock Creek. We are trying to canoe upstream just south of the Beltway in Chevy Chase, where the Mormon Temple commands a tree-lined horizon. Dryden, a local historian, writer and board member of Friends of Rock Creek’s Environment, points to the former site of the 18th century mill that gave the road next to us (Jones Mill) its name and to the chiseled rock ledge beyond the mill site he says was once a quarry. After a time, our strenuous paddling pays off and we enjoy a few moments of easy travel until we reach a rocky stretch.
There, we drag the heavy canoe up a vine-covered bank and portage through the mugwort and stilt grass to the Beltway overpass. “This must be a first,” I say to Dryden as we carefully climb down a rock wall to “put in” directly under the multilane highway. Traffic drones above us, and we hear a loud trip-trapping that sounds like a frightening contemporary version of Three Billy Goats Gruff.
Back in the water, we enter a strange land of enchantment. Bottomland trees lean over the dark mirror of Rock Creek: bone-white sycamores, smooth gray ironwoods and cinnamon-barked river birches. The Beltway hums over our left shoulders, and trash hangs like Spanish moss from the trees. Tires seem strategically placed in the creek bottom, providing extra leverage for silt-paddling. The gravel beaches are strewn with beer and soda cans. But there is a flock of wood ducks upstream, flying away from us, and amid the Dr. Pepper cans, raccoon prints are stamped into the muddy shore.
A mother deer and her fawn climb down the bank and stand in the creek drinking.
From the canoe, the contrast of wild beauty and degradation strains the senses. Through the twilit trees, a large green Connecticut Avenue sign drifts into ghostly view on the Beltway above us, its arrows pointing toward Kensington and Chevy Chase.
As dusk gathers, it begins to rain. Dryden and I turn the canoe around and head downstream. Between the silt and frequent portaging, we get in quite a workout. I feel exhilarated as we drag the canoe out of the creek under a cloud-obscured moon, and walk over a wooden footbridge and back to the small parking lot. Later, I will learn from Montgomery County historian Michael Dwyer that even the Indians who traveled Rock Creek for thousands of years, hunting, fishing and gathering nuts and berries, didn’t consider its waters navigable this far north.
Over the following weeks, I will travel the main stem of Rock Creek in Maryland, from the Washington, D.C., line to Laytonsville. Mostly, I will go by means easier than canoe: by bicycle, on foot and, for a very short way, by car. I want to follow the creek to its source. I want to watch it riffle over rocks, meander wildly through the flood plain, cut a path through the upland Piedmont terrain. I want to see if it is healthy or sick, pristine or trashed, wooded or bare, eroded or not. I want to know who lives in and around it, and who visits. I want to understand its history and try to imagine its future. I will go alone and with family and friends, with park professionals and conservationists, including Dryden. I will begin my journey at Boundary Bridge.
Bethesda Row may be a better-known recreational magnet, but for those of us who like to walk on the wild side—in the literal sense—there’s a place called Boundary Bridge. The arched stone and concrete 1935 footbridge with a painted brown wooden rail spans Rock Creek at the District line near Beach Drive, where the road is closed to motorists on weekends. A popular launch for woodland jogging, hiking, cross-country skiing, cycling, dog-walking, birding and botanizing, Boundary Bridge even serves as a venue for tai chi. The bridge is plain and utilitarian, but for those of us who come here often, it holds a sort of magic, like the Japanese bridge in Monet’s garden.
A tea-colored Rock Creek flows gently under Boundary Bridge, but it turns the color of Turkish coffee when it becomes high and wild during storms and in their aftermaths. Sycamores, American elms, tulip trees, river birches, ironwood, maples and spicebush grace the immediate shoreline, and tall ashes, oaks and bitternut hickories grow nearby. The Boundary Bridge flood plain is famous for Virginia bluebells and other spring wildflowers, but in recent years, an invasive plant called lesser celandine has been crowding out the native ephemerals with its thick carpet of succulent leaves, shiny yellow flowers and tenacious roots.
This is the part of Rock Creek that I know intimately and visit frequently for exercise, nature study and as a botany teacher and field trip leader. Boundary Bridge links the Washington portion of Rock Creek Park, a national park first established as federal parkland in 1890, with Maryland’s Rock Creek parkland, which dates to the 1930s’ effort to preserve local stream valleys during the early flush of suburban development.
The District of Columbia may own the legend of Rock Creek, but it is we in Montgomery County who shelter its beginnings and preside over most of its 33-mile journey from a Laytonsville golf course to its mouth at Foggy Bottom. If you add up all the tributaries, the Montgomery County portion of Rock Creek totals 155 miles of stream, draining a watershed of over 39,000 acres, according to Doug Redmond, principal natural resources specialist for the Park Planning and Stewardship Division of the Montgomery County Department of Parks.
The Boundary Bridge area is a year round refuge for Polly Trottenberg and Mark Zuckerman, a Chevy Chase couple who hold senior staff positions on Capitol Hill. Trottenberg and Zuckerman walk and run along Rock Creek almost daily with their beagles, Aphrodite and Buddy. Trottenberg and Zuckerman find their creek visits an antidote for intense workdays filled with ringing phones and buzzing BlackBerry devices.
On a morning walk along Rock Creek with the dogs, Trottenberg marvels over the wildness of the creek and its location in the midst of the city and suburbs, and Zuckerman muses: “If you were airdropped here, what would distinguish this place from being in the wilderness?” Indeed, Rock Creek Park’s wildness has inspired aficionados from John Quincy Adams (who heralded it as “this romantic glen”) and Teddy Roosevelt, to the world-renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson, who was captivated by nature study in the park as a boy.
Though most Boundary Bridge visitors stick to the trails heading into the District, Trottenberg and Zuckerman often wander back into Maryland, where they take me now. Along creek-side trails, they show me stumps resembling sharpened pencils, where beavers have gnawed down trees. Trottenberg has watched those beavers swim in Rock Creek, and she and Zuckerman show me spots where they recently have seen red foxes, deer and herons. Trottenberg tells me their Rock Creek visits inform and inspire the work they do: “It gives us tremendous inspiration, and it’s gotten both of us thinking about storm water runoff and environmental degradation,” she says. “Some of what we see on our Rock Creek Park walks parallels the bigger issues Congress and the country are wrestling with, including water quality, open space preservation and climate change.”
Aphrodite and Buddy happily sniff their way along Rock Creek, greeting other dogs, some of whom they remember from previous walks. We mosey past Candy Cane Park’s playground and recreation center (where a birthday party is in progress) up to Meadowbrook Stables, which, like much else I’m to learn about Rock Creek, embodies both the historically noteworthy and the ecologically problematic. I will learn that the white, colonial revival-style barn, built in 1934, was considered one of the premier riding stables in the East in its heyday. And, on a later visit, Audubon Naturalist Society Executive Director Neal Fitzpatrick will show me how and where harmful nutrients from the stable’s wastewater collecting pond can leach into the creek during floods.
At the stables, the beagles lead Trottenberg and Zuckerman back to their neighborhood, and I return to Boundary Bridge. As I walk along the eroded banks of Rock Creek, I observe the silt buildup that makes for difficult canoeing and, more critically, challenges aquatic life. While I admire the beauty of the tree-lined creek—including the young river birches that my friend, Carole Bergmann, forest ecologist for the Montgomery County Department of Parks, chose for planting near East West Highway—I think about how everything we do along Rock Creek and within its watershed is mirrored back to us by its waters.
North by Northwest from Boundary Bridge What better way to christen a new bicycle than to take the Rock Creek Trail from Boundary Bridge to Lake Needwood— about 14 miles—on a beautiful Sunday. As I will discover, the trail hugs Rock Creek most of the way. And as I wheel along, I’m happily surprised by what I see. True, each fallen tree collects a disturbing array of plastic foam cups, milk jugs and beer cans, and the plastic “Spanish moss” motif isn’t limited to the stretch near the Beltway. But much of the way, the unimpeded and surprisingly pristine-looking creek hums slowly or swiftly along, depending on the terrain, and the trees are thick and filled with cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.
A short section of the bike trail is under construction, so a detour routes me over (instead of under) the historic railroad trestle that once was part of the Georgetown Branch rail line and now carries the Capital Crescent Trail above Rock Creek. The detour follows another bike trail through a Chevy Chase neighborhood that’s the former site of “Clean Drinking Manor,” a 700-acre land grant property owned by the Jones family from the 18th century to the 20th century, according to Dryden. The origins of the name are a bit mysterious, Dryden says, but one story credits some turn of the 18th century surveyors who broke open their last flask of liquid refreshment at one of the springs along the creek. Today, Manor Care Health Services occupies the former site of the original Clean Drinking Manor house.
The side trail rejoins the main trail near a spring that served the Jones family and those who worked for them, including slaves, and is marked by a small stone replica of a springhouse. Watercress lines the small tributary below the stone structure. Springhouses dotted Rock Creek in centuries past, serving the dual roles of protecting precious spring water and providing refrigeration for farm produce.
The trail goes through a wetland where small tree frogs called spring peepers make sleigh bell music each spring and where barred owls and screech owls call. The Audubon Naturalist Society, housed at the Woodend Mansion just across Jones Mill Road and up the hill, often brings children to the wetland for nature study. On my bicycle, I pedal in the blink of an eye the distance it took an hour to paddle by canoe, zipping past a playground ringed by old black walnut trees and then under the Beltway.