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D.C.'s Aquatic Gardens (Photograph by Robert Reid)

Finding Life in a D.C. Swamp

“Here, rub this on your legs,” a man in a funny hat is saying to me. “It might help.”

Walter McDowney is a national park ranger at Washington, D.C.’s Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. He’s not your usual guide. For one, he’s handing me “jewel weed” he’s picked from a thicket that could fend off poison ivy that I may or may not have tramped through already (I hadn’t). And during his tour, McDowney, who grew up across the street, points out a flower we pass. “See this plant?” he asks, poking at a small greenish bulb. “If you eat too many of its seeds, something can happen to you. It did to me.” (He totaled his car.)

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Park ranger Walter McDowney (Photograph by Robert Reid)

I’m here because it’s July 4, I’m in D.C., and this is a swamp. And everyone knows D.C. was built from a “pestilential swamp,” right? President Jimmy Carter said so. As did a writer following a 1939 reenactment of the inaugural journey of George Washington, who dismissed the capital site as a “thicket-strewn swamp, hardly worth mentioning.” Even a novelist defending her hometown acknowledged “the weather stinks—what do you expect of a place that’s built on a swamp?”

It’s all pretty funny. Just not true.

Historians reckon only 1 percent of the original landscape was wetlands, no more than at Philadelphia or New York. Yet the swampy rep sticks, partly due to D.C.’s steamy summers, along with the sludgy, sinking pace of a bill running through Congress. Either way, I wanted a glimpse of an original D.C. swamp.

Across the Anacostia River from Capitol Hill, the 12-acre Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens has pockets of wetlands that predate city construction. And visiting it feels like a lost surprise. Built in the late 1800s by a Civil War vet who lost an arm at Spotsylvania, the park’s claim to fame, such as it is, are a series of man-made ponds filled with lilies and lotus blooms from Asia, Africa, and the Amazon.

It’s 8 a.m. and already a handful of visitors are walking pond to pond, dodging the occasional muskrat hole, to pose for photos by flowers with bulging bulbs that look like golden showerheads. The most exotic ones bloom in July, in time for the park’s Lotus and Water Lily Festival (July 19 this year).

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A lotus flower in the Aquatic Gardens (Photograph by Robert Reid)

But it’s the other part of the park—the wilder part—that drew me here. Leaving the lotuses, I find instant isolation on the narrow, leafy “river walk” that bends three-quarters of a mile through the neighboring marsh. As I go, I peek at wetland ponds and through trees at pockets of D.C.’s original swamps (most of the landscape here was later introduced).

A storm had passed the night before, and at least ten trees lay crudely cracked in my way (the trail would later be closed by a barrier shouting “Danger: Hazardous Conditions”). I clamber over logs, ducking under leafy branches, or sidestep into the bush to get around them. I love this unexpected adventure. Occasionally I hear unseen cars in the distance, but otherwise it’s all birdsong and green as I reach the muddy banks of the tidal Anacostia.

To some, the eight-mile Anacostia is D.C.’s forgotten river. It’s long been seen as a D.C. divider too, separating affluent Capitol Hill and the far less affluent Anacostia and Kenilworth neighborhoods. Things are changing lately though. Already a 20-mile Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is in progress—and will reach this spot by 2016—and there’s talk of transforming an old bridge into a High Line-style park too.

I continue the path’s final steps nearby to look back over the marshy ponds in from the river, when I suddenly realize I’m not alone. A man sits still on a bench there, his dreadlocks tied back neatly in a ponytail, looking straightly out, twirling a twig in one hand in a sort of a Thoreau-like meditation. I slowly amble up and hesitate before striking up a conversation.

“I come up here twice a week, at least. Ever since I was a kid,” he explains when I ask. “I like it. So beautiful, so consistent.”

That word, “consistent,” resonates with me at this swampy setting that so many figure all of D.C. to have once looked like. The day before, during a visit to the U.S. Capitol, I admired the rotunda paintings that marked the “beginnings” of the U.S. (e.g., Pocahontas’ baptism, the signing of the Declaration of Independence). No painting marks the beginnings of what would become the national capital.

For that, or at least for the origins of 1 percent of D.C.’s landscape, you have to come here.

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Relocated pillars from the U.S. Capitol stand near the National Arboretum. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

To Do This Trip

Wake early. The bulk of bird life buzzes in the early hours. The park opens at 7 a.m. daily.

See the arboretum too. Directly across the Anacostia from Kenilworth Park, the U.S. National Arboretum makes for a great half-day of exploring a curated landscape of forests and plant life from around the world. A highlight is relocated pillars from the U.S. Capitol, standing baldly on the crest of a hill like a Greek ruin.

Paddle the Anacostia. The Anacostia Watershed Society runs free kayak nights from various locations.

Pack a lunch. Other than ice cream sandwiches at the arboretum or bottled water at Kenilworth Park, it’s hard finding much to eat around either attraction.

Go by Metro. If you don’t have a car, visiting Kenilworth by public transit requires a short walk over a road overpass from the Deanwood metro stop and past several duplex houses. To reach the arboretum, take the metro back to Stadium-Armory, then take a northbound B-2 bus past the FedEx Field football stadium. The arboretum entrance is from R Street N.E.