Paddling the Potomac River

by Bill and Mary Burnham

Paddling in Dyke Marsh Preserve

As our kayaks slid silently along the shoreline of the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia, the only sound I heard were the drips and splashes as my paddle dipped in and out of the water. Then several loud "HONKS!" startled me out of my daydream. A pair of nesting Canada geese paced the shore, not a little consternated at my close approach.

"I can't believe there are places like this so close to D.C.!" exclaimed my niece, Vanessa. A country girl attending George Mason University, I saw how the natural sights and sounds around us invigorated her.

Paddler and biker meet along Mount Vernon Trail

While many know the George Washington Memorial Parkway as a commuter's corridor, its secluded, undeveloped pockets are in fact a haven for birds, wildlife, and plants. Dyke Marsh Preserve is one such natural respite.

We pulled out of rush hour traffic onto the Parkway near Alexandria and into Belle Haven Marina where we rented a couple of boats. It took less than 30 minutes traveling south along the Potomac shoreline to reach a small tuck-away.

We nudged our bows into a freshwater marshy maze of floating lily pads and Arrow arum.

Canada geese in Dyke Marsh Preserve

A huge osprey nest sat curiously low on upturned roots of a water bound tree. Painted turtles slipped off half-submerged logs as we approached. A great blue heron squawked as it emerged from its fishing spot and flew off pterodactyl-style.

In another 30 minutes of very leisurely paddling and floating, we reached a footbridge at the end of the stream. We waved to bikers and runners on the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail that parallels the George Washington Memorial Parkway, named for our first president, who traveled this route by horseback between Washington, DC, and his home at Mount Vernon, just a few minutes away by car.

Getting there: Travel south from Old Town, Alexandria on the George Washington Memorial Parkway towards Mt. Vernon. After crossing the stone bridge at Hunting Creek (unmarked), take your next left at 'Belle Haven Picnic Area/Dyke Marsh.'

For a great place to eat nearby: try the seductive southern cuisine served up by Chef Bryan Moscatello at Indigo Landing. Gorgeously set amid the Washington Sailing Marina, Indigo is a slice coastal Carolina transported to the shores of the Potomac. Crab cakes and fried green tomatoes come stacked in threes, dressed with a savory aioli or remoulade. And trust us: you've never had fried pickles like these.

Urban Hiking: Read about hikes in this region in the Burnhams' upcoming book, Day Hikes Near DC.