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McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area is at Full Bloom

Family taking photos among a field of sunflowers.

You might think field upon field of bright yellow sunflowers are found only in provincial Italy or France, places known for romance and beauty. But there are 2,000 acres right in our backyard that will make you feel transported to a more romantic time and place. Known as the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area (WMA), staff at this park plant acres of sunflowers to attract and feed pollinators and birds. For a couple weeks each year (around the end of July) the WMA is alight with seemingly endless summery flowers.

Just like birds, people flock to the area for family photos, nature photography, and to enjoy the sites. Catch the flowers at full bloom this year for the two weeks following July 24. Meandering trails throughout the fields let you explore without damaging the flowers. However, look but don’t pick; plucking one of these beauties is prohibited at the WMA.

Flowers at McKee-Bashers Wildlife Management AreaWhen sunflowers aren’t the main attraction, there are plenty of trails to hike or bike in the area. Since they are connected to the C&O Canal trail system, the WMA trails makes for a nice side trip or starting point on the Canal. Hunting  waterfowl, deer, wild turkey and other animals is allowed (within the usual hunting regulations). There is even a specially managed dove field open to the public for hunting. Birding and wildlife photography are popular activities at the WMA due to the abundance of wildlife, including 200 species of songbirds found in the area. The more adventurous can take a boat across the Potomac to reach Maddux Island, which is part of the WMA.

A beautiful trail follows some of the perennial marshy flatlands where waterlilies and other aquatic plants abound. Parts of the WMA are managed as a greentree reservoir, a term used for bottomland hardwood forest that is flooded in the fall and winter. This attracts colorful migrating waterfowl, such as wood ducks.

The park, in western Montgomery County, Maryland, is conveniently located right off River Road. It is not difficult to find, just plug “McKee Banshee Management Area” into your GPS and look for the parking lots full of cars and people in incongruously fancy dress for a hike. After all, this is a popular place to take family photos. There are several ways to access the fields, but most involve a short walk through the woods that is often muddy, so make sure to wear appropriate footwear.

Photo Credit: Hunter Herrman

 

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Seneca Creek State Park

About the Basin, July 21

The Seneca Creek State Park runs the length of Seneca Creek from Route 355 until it empties into the Potomac River. It is unique gem in Montgomery County, Maryland. At 6,300-acres, the park covers a lot of ground, allowing for a wide variety of recreational opportunities.

A boathouse on a lake

Credit: Flickr, Mr.TinDC, Clopper Lake Boat Center

Many of the park activities are centered around a 90-acre body of water called Clopper Lake. Boat rentals, picnic pavilions, playgrounds, and trails surround the lake. Hiking, biking, kayaking, boating (electric motors only), fishing, and hunting are popular activities. A 32-acre Disc Golf course at the park has 36 holes and positive reviews online.

For those brave enough, the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail runs 16.5-miles from the northeastern edge of the park to the southwestern edge, where Seneca Creek meets the Potomac River. There are plenty of other trails for the less intrepid, including the 3.4-mile Lake Shore Trail that takes you around the lake. Schaeffer Farm Area is especially popular with mountain bikers. An online trail map provides trail options and parking lot locations.

Historical features of the park include the Seneca Schoolhouse, a one-room historic schoolhouse built in 1865 of red Seneca Sandstone. The Black Rock Mill, an old mill, has some mill equipment on display.

The park has a popular winter lights display that opens Thanksgiving weekend where you can take your family on a slow 3.5-mile drive through 350 holiday light displays.

Park staff has a packed calendar of fun activities this summer, including pontoon boat rides, fishing lessons, nature walks, and a kid’s program called “Nature Shack”. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent ($28-40/4 hours) from the boat center. You can also join the outdoor store, REI, on July 29, 2017 for their Learn to Kayak Class ($70) for a perfect excuse to spend some time on the water and learn a new skill.

A boathouse on a lake

Credit: Flickr, Mr.TinDC, Clopper Lake Panorama

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Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

About the Basin, July 14

Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is not your typical national park. “Strikingly beautiful” as one Yelp reviewer called it, it is the only national park solely dedicated to growing

aquatic plants for your viewing pleasure.  And they are really good at it. Located in northeast Washington, D.C., along the Anacostia River, it is known as one of the premier sites for engagement, wedding, baby photoshoots. The colorful aquatic flowers abound throughout the gardens, especially during late June and July when the lotus and lily flowers are in full bloom.

A pond with aquatic flowers next to a walking path.

Credit: Flickr NPS CulturalLandscapes Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

The aquatic gardens are mainly marshland with many walking paths and boardwalks to enjoy. Pack a picnic to enjoy on one of the many shaded benches or bring a blanket to dine in true picnic-fashion next door at Kenilworth Park. Turtles, beavers, swans, muskrats and a wide variety of other wildlife can be spotted swimming or flying among the flowers. But don’t forget your bug spray!

Summer hours are 9:00am-5:00pm, but it is suggested to get there early as some of the flowers close up due to the summer heat. Many of the trails at the aquatic gardens are wheelchair accessible (but not paved, so it may be muddy after a rain). Wheelchairs are available at the visitor’s center. Want to paddle around the marsh? Head up to Bladensburg Waterfront Park to rent a kayak ($20/day), then paddle the short trip down the Anacostia River to Kenilworth park for an adventurous float through the tidal marshes and water trails. Start out a couple hours before high-tide so you don’t get stranded in the mud.

Enjoy Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in its glory during the upcoming weeklong Lotus and Water Lilly Festival that kicks off on July 15, 2017. Dance performances, food, demonstrations, arts and crafts, and more will celebrate these exotic flowers. Anacostia Watershed Society is also organizing a free canoe trip through Kenilworth Park on the evening of Thursday, July 20.

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Blockhouse Point Park

About the Basin, July 7, 2017

Blockhouse Point Park is a little-known park that played a large part in history. The park is just north of Great Falls in the western part of Montgomery County on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. To keep an eye on the Confederate troops across the river, Union soldiers used it as a camp and lookout. From high vistas, the C&O Canal and Potomac crossings could be watched closely to prevent enemy raids. Three blockhouses (hence the name) were used as observation points by the Union army. They were eventually burned down by the Confederate troops in 1864. The land was used post-war to search for the Lincoln assassination co-conspirators and to look for Confederate soldiers returning to Maryland because of the excellent views of the Potomac River and its surrounding areas.

Google Map of Blockhouse Point Park

Today, the 630-acre park is used by hikers, bikers, and equestrians. Considered by Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Department of Parks as one of the Best Natural Areas, it is a microcosm of landscapes with mature upland forest, floodplain forest, palustrine wetlands, streams, river-rock outcrops, and more. It is also home to at least nine species of threatened, endangered, or watchlist plants.

There are 7+ miles of natural surface trails. Much of the trails are designated for hikers only, but there are some “hiker/equestrian” trails and some “shared use” trails. The sole biking trail is the Muddy Branch Greenway Trail that originates in North Potomac, follows the edge of the park, then connects to the C&O Canal Towpath. Two small parking lots are located on the south side of River Road.

On July 15, 2017, Join the C&O Canal Association on a float down the section of the canal that runs through the park. Paddlers will enjoy a trip down the canal from Violette’s Lock just north of Blockhouse Point Park, down to Great Falls. Learn about this event and other fun happenings in the Potomac River basin on ICPRB’s Calendar of Events.

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Path Through Paw Paw

About the Basin, June 30, 2017

Located in western Maryland along the border of West Virginia, the Paw Paw tunnel started out as a way for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to bypass 6 miles of horseshoe-shaped bends in the North Branch of the Potomac River. A seemingly simple task, it was expected to take 2 years to complete. The first boat floated through the tunnel in 1850, fourteen years later.

Only a few short miles down the river the C&O Canal ends in Cumberland, Md., instead of the originally planned stopping point of Pittsburgh, Pa., partly due to the expense of Paw Paw tunnel. What could go wrong did go wrong during the construction of the tunnel. Engineering problems, worker riots, financial issues and more plagued the contractors.

Entrance to Paw Paw Tunnel

Credit: Flickr, Nicolas Raymond, Paw Paw Tunnel – HDR

As the saying goes, one man’s trash (or waste of time and money) is another man’s treasure, and this tunnel is a treasure. At 3,118-feet long, it can be enjoyed on foot or by bike, although it is recommended to walk your bike through the tunnel. It is a fun and adventurous look at history, just don’t forget your flashlight (a cell phone flashlight with plenty of battery life would work as well). The trek starts with a .5-mile hike from Paw Paw Tunnel Campground to the entrance of the tunnel. After admiring the archway, breathe in the cool, moist air of the tunnel. A fun walk through the tunnel brings you to a small waterfall on the other end. Once you’ve braved the full length of the tunnel, head back via the 2-mile long Tunnel Hill Trail that goes above the tunnel and includes interpretive signage.

A boat ramp in Paw Paw, W. Va. allows access to those horseshoe-bends in the Potomac River that provide stunning views. Looking for a longer adventure? Enjoy some kayak-camping while you paddle down the twists and turns of the Paw Paw Bends enjoying the rocky gorge. The National Park Service has an example itinerary of a 3-day kayak tour of the area. Don’t feel like going it alone? Join the Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s Paw Paw Bends Float and Camping trip coming up July 15-16.

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The Many Sides of Piscataway Creek

About the Basin, June, 16 2017

We’re switching gears for this week’s About the Basin. Instead of extolling the virtues of a nature reserve or state park, we’ll be travelling down a short stream just south of Washington, D.C. called Piscataway Creek and discovering all the treasures it has to offer.

Beginning just north of Rosaryville, Maryland, the Piscataway runs just 4.5 miles long. The headwaters pass through Piscataway Creek  Stream Valley Park. This park is difficult to access and has few trails. However, if you are in the area, stop by Cosca Regional Park. The main feature of this park is Lake Cosca, which runs into Butler Branch, a tributary of Piscataway Creek. Boat rentals and overnight camping are available in this 690-acre park near Clinton, Md.

 

Photo credit: Piscataway Creek Canoe Trip (9), Rob Bole, Flickr

About the time Piscataway Creek flows under Indian Head Highway (Route 210), it opens-up into an embayment that provides a variety of recreational opportunities, including hiking, boating, fishing, and educational adventures. The Piscataway Creek Trail can be found on the north side of the embayment. The highlight of this park is a short, easy hike with beautiful views of the river. Just west of the trail is Fort Washington Marina which offers two boat ramps and lots of parking.

Beyond the recreational opportunities, this area is rich with history. The mouth of the river is directly across from George Washington’s Mount Vernon and is largely protected because of its view of this historic piece of land. But long before George Washington dug a hoe into the ground, the Native Americans considered the area a special place. Many organizations work to preserve the history of this creek and its embayment.

On the west side of the marina is Fort Washington Park, one of the few forts still in its original form along the east coast of the United States. An important Potomac River stronghold, this fort showcases how it has adapted to the advances in artillery, ships, and warfare over the past two centuries.

Across the river from the fort is National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park. In addition to a boat ramp, hiking trails, arboretum, and forest restoration projects, the park hosts a living history farm from the colonial period. Visit the farm to learn what it was like to live as a middle-class family before the American revolution (spoiler alert: they didn’t have wifi!). Join the farm this Saturday (and every Saturday) for Green History Saturday, a look at environmental issues and their relation to contemporary sustainability.

Just west of National Colonial Farm is Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Hard Bargain Farm, an environmental center focused on sustainable agriculture and cultural heritage. Most of the farm’s programs are for local students and teachers, but the center occasionally opens to the public for special events.

Looking to combine water activities and history? As part of Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s Riverpalooza lineup of summer activities, many will load into canoes and kayaks for a Piscataway Creek Paddle to learn about the history of this beautiful creek this Saturday, June 17. Find information on this event and many other fun activities on ICPRB’s Calendar of Events.

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Celebrate National Get Outdoors Day with Back to the Bay Day this Weekend

Much like National Donut Day and Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day (June 2 and February 4, respectively, because I know you were wondering), National Get Outdoors

Day on June 10 is a day worth celebrating. As part of this holiday, Mason Neck State Park is hosting the first annual Back to the Bay Day. It will be a day full of live music, local food, drinks, and fun.

Experience the National Park Service’s mobile visitor center, tour Belmont Bay, and sample local oysters at this one day

Photo Credit: Virginia State Parks on Flickr

event that celebrates National Get Outdoors Day and the Chesapeake Bay. Back to the Bay Day is designed to increase public awareness of our regional waterways, from local streams to the entire Chesapeake Bay, and garner excitement for this valuable resource.

Volunteers are needed for Back to the Bay Day. Those interested in volunteering can contact Laura Grape via email or at 703-324-1460.

We don’t want you to stop your outdoor escapades just at one day of adventures, though. Mason Neck State Park is a great place to visit the whole year-round. Less than an hour drive south of Washington, D.C., it is tucked into a peninsula between Belmont Bay, Occoquan Bay, and the Potomac River, and spans more than 1800 acres. Located within the park and listed on the National Register of Historic Places are a Native American camp and a plantation owned by the family of George Mason.

Birding is one of the more popular activities in the park, which is thought to be one of the best places to spot Bald Eagles in northern Virginia. Just to the east of the park is a tract of land called the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, which was established specifically as a refuge for these majestic creatures.

Looking to get out on the water? Rent a kayak or canoe near the visitor’s center and make your own adventures out on the bay. You can also enjoy the several miles of paved trails by renting a bicycle from the park.  If you plan on being there for lunchtime, be sure to bring your own food. There are not many places to purchase food in the area.

So, enjoy National Get Outdoors Day, but think about making it National Get Outdoors Week, or Month, or maybe even Year. There is so much to see and do in the beautiful Potomac River watershed. Many  of these great events are listed on ICPRB’s Calendar of Events, including a Twilight Paddling Adventure at Mason Neck State Park the evening after Back to the Bay.

Sign at Monocacy Natural Resources Management Area

Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area, a Diamond in the Rough

Just on the border of Montgomery County, Md., In the southeast corner of Frederick County, sits 1800 acres of bucolic countryside known as the Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area (NRMA). Search the internet for this spot and you will not find much information. Staff at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is working hard to change that. “We are in the process of revamping the trail system to create a 7 to 8-mile loop of different trails,” says Shea Niemann, Assistant Manager of Seneca Creek State Park, which is tasked with maintaining the area.

Maps, trail clearing, blazes (colored marks that help a hiker find the trail), and more are in the works for this gem in the rough. Two historic spots will be highlighted along the newly created trails: an historic lime kiln and lime quarry, which were used to build the Monocacy Aqueduct. Although working with a small staff, Niemann hopes to have this work completed by the end of summer.

The current unmarked, roughly maintained trails have not stopped the hikers, hunters, and horseback riders though. Park staff encourage multi-use recreation. “We educate the hunters and the hikers to share the park,” stated Niemann. This includes advising hikers to stay on the trails and wear orange during hunting season.

A parking lot is located along Route 28 (6567 Dickerson Road, Dickerson, Md.), just south of a picturesque bridge that crosses the Monocacy River shortly before it empties into the Potomac River. A boat launch into the Monocacy River is located off Park Mills Rd.

 

 

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Big Bag Monster

Two male students putting their plastic-bag chains on displayOrganized by a partnership between the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, last week Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md. environmental club students helped make “bag monster” costumes. These costumes will be used by the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation for their educational programs to teach about the impact of single use plastics on the environment.

Click here for more information on the impact of plastic bags on our environment.

The average American consumer uses about 500 bags each year. An estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year. These bags do not biodegrade, instead they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits. They pollute our waterways, leaching toxic chemicals into the soil and water and harm aquatic wildlife.

If you want to learn more about this program or would like to volunteer, contact Antonia Bookbinder of Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Here is a link for more information and instructions on how to make your own Big Bag Monster.

A large group of students putting their plastic-bag chains on display

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Introducing ICPRB’s Year in Review: 2016

ICPRB had a big year in 2016. We are excited to share our projects, activities, and research with the residents of the Potomac River basin. After all, you are the reason we do the work we do. Protecting and preserving the Potomac River and its related resources is not only our mission, it is also our passion. Please take a moment to explore the work we did last year, as well as a recap of how the Potomac River fared in 2016.

Click here for the ICPRB Year in Review: 2016