Oh Shenandoah, I Long to See You

Brown House at Rapidan Camp

In visiting Rapidan Camp, Herbert Hoover’s presidential retreat in Shenandoah, the Intrepid Pup follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as aviator Charles Lindbergh and inventor Thomas Edison. Here, Tavish lounges on the porch of Brown House, the Hoovers’ personal cabin, at the terminus of the 2-mile Mill Prong Trail.

Rapidan's Outdoor Hearth

Rapidan Camp’s outdoor fireplace provides a good backdrop for photos, just as it did in Hoover’s time.

From 1929 to 1932, President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover relished their rustic fishing camp in Shenandoah. Fortunately, three of the 13 original buildings constituting their Rapidan Camp have been preserved, and you can enjoy it, too.

One option is to board a shuttle bus at the Byrd Visitor Center for a ride down a fire road as part of a three-hour, ranger-led tour. But you can’t bring your dog. And that hardly seems sporting when the second option is a moderate hike that’s dog-friendly. The trail to Rapidan winds through the very forests that so appealed to the Hoovers as a presidential retreat just 100 miles from the pressures and summer humidity of Washington, DC. The Hoovers built the camp with their own funds, the design largely influenced by the First Lady’s own experience in working with the Girl Scouts. Their personal cabin, known simply as The Brown House, had a comfortably open floor plan, welcoming hearth, and Navajo rugs. The president maintained a separate bedroom/office so he’d not disturb his sleeping wife when White House business kept him burning the midnight oil. Meals were eaten in a communal mess hall to promote camaraderie. Days were spent fishing, horseback riding, and entertaining a steady stream of official guests.

The Hoovers' Norwegian Elkhound Weejie

The Hoovers had several dogs, but it’s their Norwegian Elkhound named Weejie who most often appears in Rapidan Camp press photos like this one from 1932. This particular AP image is part of the onsite interpretive exhibit at Rapidan’s Prime Minister’s Cabin.

Hiking into Rapidan affords you the opportunity of getting the lay of the land. Outdoor signage marks where the other buildings used to stand, and the Prime Minister’s Cabin (so dubbed for Ramsay MacDonald’s visit in 1929) now contains a comprehensive exhibit about the Hoovers and how their presence shaped development in the region. In addition, a park volunteer is on hand most of the year to answer questions and provide hikers with impromptu tours of the Brown House. Our arrival was met by a very personable and knowledgeable history Ph.D. graduate student named Jonathan who was living onsite in the Creel House and serving as Rapidan’s resident caretaker for the summer. From him we learned that Hoover gifted Rapidan Camp to the government upon leaving office, and the camp was incorporated into Shenandoah National Park in 1935. The camp enjoyed use by the Boy Scouts up until 1959, when the Park Service removed all but the existing three structures. Rapidan continued to host senior U.S. officials into the early 1990s, although Maryland’s Camp David had long since supplanted Rapidan as the official presidential retreat.

The grounds and buildings underwent a full restoration in 2004 to return them to how they appeared during the Hoovers’ residence, and they remain a fascinating time capsule of a bygone era.

Dogging the Details

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter means38°29′26.49″N, 78°25′10.93″W
Rapidan Camp, Shenandoah National Park, VA (trailhead at Milam Gap)

The Intrepid Pup wag-a-meter registers an emphatic “2” for this excursion. It requires a modicum of  pre-planning, but the pay-offs include a good workout and a unique historical destination.

With more than 500 miles of hiking trails and only 10 trails on which pets are not permitted, there’s a lot for you and your leashed dog to explore at Shenandoah National Park. If you’re coming by car, there’s a $15 entrance fee per non-commercial vehicle (slightly less if it’s December – February), and your pass is good for the day of entry and the next 6 days, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth. Road and trail maps are available at any of the ranger stations, and you can download a map for the Rapidan Camp area here.

Mill Prong Trail

Tavish at one of three stream crossings en route to Rapidan Camp

Begin your journey by parking at the Milam Gap pull-off just shy of mile marker 53 along Skyline Drive. The Mill Prong Trail is the most direct route to Rapidan Camp, and the trailhead is just across the street from the parking area. The path is shady, well-groomed and well-marked with tree blazes and concrete posts at trail junctions. It’s two miles downhill on the way in. There are three water crossings, but unless the streams are running high, you can easily ford them by stepping from boulder to boulder. With the last water crossing at Big Rock Falls—a distinctive but gentle cataract flowing into a shallow pool—you’re on final approach to Rapidan Camp.

Nature-wise there were butterflies, huge millipedes, and a couple of chipmunks. Ultimately we encountered more gnats (note: insect repellent is helpful) than hikers and saw no other dogs…but we suspected that it gets more crowded on the weekends. Hiking in took an hour but included several photo stops. For the return trip, we hiked out the same way we came (for a 4-mile round trip total). But if you’re up for a longer circuit hike (7.4 miles total), the alternative is to pick up the Laurel Prong Trail at Rapidan Camp and follow it until it intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which turns northward over Hazeltop Mountain and ends back at the Milam Gap parking area.

Pet-friendly lodging:

Team Tavish enjoys camping, but for this particular trip we had sought a night’s stay in pet-friendly accommodations and were pleased to find a few choices. There are a limited number of in-park, pet-friendly rooms at Lewis Mountain Cabins, Skyland, and Big Meadows Lodge.  We opted for a traditional room at Big Meadows, as it was closest to the trailhead for Rapidan Camp. It was reasonably priced and offered adequate amenities: coffee maker,  double beds, and a small bathroom (no phones or TVs, but there is wi-fi and a TV room in the main building, if you’re so inclined). While dogs aren’t allowed inside the main lodge where the dining options are, you can get pub fare from the Taproom restaurant and eat on the terrace with its none-too-shabby view of the sunset over the Blue Ridge. We saw probably a half dozen dogs being walked on the grounds the next morning, so clearly we weren’t the only ones availing ourselves of the pet-friendly lodging.

Tavish sees a snake

From a safe distance, Tavish observes what was by all accounts Rapidan Camp’s resident non-venomous snake.  We’d read that snakes can strike at a distance up to half their body length. Had this been one of Shenandoah National Park’s pit vipers—identifiable in part by their more triangular-shaped heads—Intrepid Pup wouldn’t be posing for a photo.

Special considerations:

Mosquitoes and ticks are almost givens in any woodland excursion, but hiking in Shenandoah presents two additional cautions (yay!): snakes and bears. Poisonous copperheads and rattlesnakes do reside in the park. Read up on dog-versus-snake encounters, and you’ll be sufficiently freaked out. Dogs usually weigh less than people and thus are more readily “incapacitated” (to use a euphemism) by snake venom. That being said, the snakes in Shenandoah aren’t exactly out trolling for hikers and dogs and would much rather be left alone. In the end, Team Tavish concluded that basic avoidance was going to carry the day, and our modus operandi was hyper-vigilance about not letting Tavish stray from the main trail so he could literally let sleeping snakes lie.

Shenandoah National Park also has one of the densest populations of American black bears in the United States, and pretty much any piece of park literature you’re apt to find includes information about bear safety. They’re purportedly “skittish” and tend not to pose any threat so long as you give them a wide berth, keep food out of the equation, and don’t run away. Another oft-repeated piece of advice is to “let the bear know you’re human” (i.e. wave your arms, make noise, speak in normal tones, etc.), but our travel companion—a close family friend and fellow blogger—joked that in the event of a bear encounter she would also be readily enumerating her other human attributes like, “I can read, I have opposable thumbs, and I have relatives that care about me.” As it turns out, we were glad to have reviewed bear basics because while hiking the 4-mile Rose River Loop Trail the next day, some oncoming hikers alerted us that they had just seen a bear not 200 yards ahead. They said it had shuffled off into the woods when it heard them approaching and, indeed, we never saw it.  We did, however, catch a glimpse of a bear standing at the side of the road as we were driving out of the park.

Special gear:

While you can count on temperatures being cooler in the mountains, you still need to keep hydrated, so bring plenty of water for yourself and your dog. Team Tavish used a CamelBak for water and snacks, and Tavish carried his own water and gear in Ruffwear’s Palisades Pack™ (be on the lookout for an upcoming product review in the near future). Remember to keep your dog on a 6-foot leash as the park’s leash policy is enforced for the safety of dogs, visitors, and wildlife alike. Finally, beautiful scenery is at every turn, so don’t forget to pack a camera!

Journey to the Edge of Shangri-La

Catoctin Trail

That got your attention, didn’t it? OK, so while Tavish the Intrepid Pup technically didn’t stumble upon the mystical paradise described in Lost Horizon, he came pretty close to a Shangri-La. In Thurmont, Maryland, that is.

Catoctin Mountain Park, administered by the National Park Service, is some 10,000 acres of hardwood forest interspersed with recreational areas and a lot of history. Its past is interwoven with that of sawmills, whiskey stills, tanneries, charcoal production, and pig iron. In the 1930s it was shaped into the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area by the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Of this expanse, the Hi-Catoctin Camp for families of federal workers caught the eye of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a viable spot for a presidential retreat. Roosevelt hadn’t been too keen on adopting his predecessor President Herbert Hoover’s retreat (Camp Rapidan) in Shenandoah, in part because its remoteness presented challenges for Roosevelt’s physical condition. But Hi-Catoctin was just an hour northwest of Washington, DC, and refreshingly cooler in the summer to boot. Roosevelt first visited Catoctin in April 1942, and the existing camp was quickly converted to a presidential retreat he dubbed “Shangri-La” after the utopia in James Hilton’s popular 1933 novel. It became a true haven for the president during World War II, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill even came there for the Third Washington Conference in 1943. After Roosevelt’s death, President Harry Truman recognized the importance and significance of Shangri-La and preserved it through an arrangement with the National Park Service. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower came into office, he readily embraced Shangri-La but with one significant modification: he renamed it Camp David after his grandson! It’s kept that name ever since and has seen several historic moments, from visits by Leonid Brezhnev, Nikita Khrushchev, and Margaret Thatcher to the 1978 summit with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin culminating in the Camp David Accords. As you might suspect, Shangri-La (a.k.a. Camp David) is neither visible from any of the park roads nor open for visitation by the general public even if you do find it.

However, you have the whole rest of the park at your disposal, and with 25 miles of available hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous, you can readily assemble an itinerary that strikes your fancy. We ended up covering about 5 miles during our visit by hiking the out-and-back Cunningham Falls Nature Trail (2.8 miles round-trip, with a nice view of the falls), the Hog Rock Nature Trail loop (1.5 miles, featuring 14 kinds of trees and nice vista of the Monocacy Valley), and the Blue Ridge Summit Trail (0.6 mile round-trip, with a rocky overlook at an elevation of 1520 ft). Just to manage expectations: at no time did Bo, President’s Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog, come bounding up to us. In fact, we were kind of surprised by how uncrowded the park was, but we chalked it up to the fact that rain in the forecast was keeping folks away. We’ll definitely be back to tackle some of the other routes!

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter meansDogging the Details

39°39′1.54″N,  77°27′50.65″W
Catoctin Mountain Park, Thurmont, Maryland

39°37′5.79″N,  77°24′56.46″W
The Cozy’s Camp David Museum, Thurmont, Maryland

This excursion is a solid “2” on the Intrepid Pup’s wag-a-meter. Catoctin is a great natural setting that welcomes leashed dogs, and the hiking trails are very well marked and maintained.

Catoctin Mountain Park

Tavish on the lush and shady Cunningham Falls trail. We passed a total of six other dogs on this popular route.

Make the Park Service’s Visitor Center at Catoctin Mountain Park your first stop. There is no entrance fee for the park, although rates do apply if you’ll be availing yourself of any of the four cabin camp rental sites. The ranger can outfit you with a trail map and recommend what hikes will best suit your group and the time you have available. Particularly neat is the park’s current initiative, the “Healthy Park | Healthy People Challenge.” You’re given a pamphlet listing a combination of 13 interpretive trails and scenic overlooks in the park. With each destination attained, you have a ranger record it on your sheet. Make it to all 13 spots and you’ll earn a special Catoctin Mountain Park carabiner!

The Visitor Center contains restroom facilities, outdoor trash receptacles, a small museum covering the cultural heritage and natural history of the region, and a park bookstore/gift shop that even carries collapsible water bowls and pet bandanas stamped “National Bark Ranger” (um, yeah, we bought one).

After truly enjoying hiking in the park, our next stop was the historic Cozy in downtown Thurmont. Established in 1929, Cozy is Maryland’s oldest restaurant still run by its founding family. That in and of itself makes the Cozy noteworthy in this day and age, but it’s the Cozy’s other claim to fame that had Team Tavish intrigued. In addition to the Cozy Country Inn and Cozy Village Shops, the Cozy complex is home to the nation’s “only museum of Camp David history.” You come upon the outdoor painted plaque that says that Mamie Eisenhower and Babe Ruth are among the notables who’ve dined here, open the door to the family-style restaurant,  and boom:  there’s the Camp David Museum.

Camp David MuseumA modest-sized room off the main dining area serves as the gallery chock full of photographs and memorabilia highlighting the Cozy’s Camp David connections to 13 presidential administrations and counting. There’s a perfect photo opp beneath a rustic “Camp David” sign, but sorry, no dogs allowed inside.

For security reasons Camp David doesn’t show up on the Park Service trail maps, but area residents are accustomed to Camp David hubbub and seem happy enough to demystify things for you. One nice lady we met (alas, didn’t catch a name) recalled how broadcast journalist “Barbara Wawa” would hike up her skirt and vault a fence so she’d be the first out to the helicopters that used the parking lot of a local car dealership as a  landing pad. Time was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secret Service agents stayed at the Cozy. JFK’s cabinet members often dined there, and the Cozy was the lodging of choice for guests attending President George H. W. Bush’s daughter Doro’s wedding at Camp David in 1992. And then there were tales of television reporters who had their favorite yards or trees downtown that they’d always use as backdrops for reporting “live from Camp David”…even though all the locals watching the evening news knew better.

Yet, despite the G8 Summit being held at Camp David just two months ago (May 2012), Team Tavish detected a hint of wistfulness in our new-found Thurmont-er friend. “It’s not quite like it used to be,” she said. “Now all those world leaders just Skype and email each other, you know. And President Obama really seems to be more of a beach kind of guy, so I don’t think he gets up here as much as some of the other presidents did.”

Everything in the Cozy’s various displays has been donated over the years by visiting White House staffers, dignitaries, and members of a generous press corps. It seems that the bus tours that stop for repast at the Cozy are a pretty discerning bunch, and it apparently hasn’t gone unnoticed that the Obama section of the Camp David Museum is a little sparse. Don’t blame the Cozy, however, as they know their audience and aim to please. They’ve submitted requests for items through “official channels” and have even improvised by adding a few generic images of the First Family. But at the end of the day, Team Tavish had to concur with the assessment of our casual acquaintance: “Photos downloaded from the internet somehow just don’t cut it.”

So, if someone at the White House happens to be reading this (and we know hope you are!), the Intrepid Pup encourages you to  “throw a bone” to the Cozy’s Camp David Museum in the way of some Obama swag and a few recent photos of the president at Camp David. Who knows? It might just translate to some key votes from Thurmont-ers and Cozy-philes in the November elections.

Monticello, Dogs, and the 4th of July

Monticello Thomas Jefferson’s name gets bandied about quite frequently on the fourth of July. Famously linked to this date first for his role in writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also made history by dying on July 4th fifty years later…the exact same day as his Declaration co-author and former political adversary John Adams.

So, on this our country’s 236th birthday, Intrepid Pup shares a recent visit to Thomas Jefferson’s hilltop home of Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a young nation’s first Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President…a veritable trifecta that meant he was indeed a busy man whose home—despite being started in 1768—took forty years to complete. Today, the distinctive plantation with its Palladian architectural influences is the only U.S. residence that’s also a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Moniticello

Tavish overlooks Jefferson’s gardens from the airy pavilion, much as Bergère and her progeny might have done more than 200 years ago.

Historians are always quick to cite Jefferson’s intellect and endless fascinations:  natural history, architecture, gardening, cooking, viticulture, farming, literature, politics. But dogs? This founding father seemed to take a purely utilitarian view—not uncommon in late 18th-century America—of the canine species. Jefferson opined that, in general, the dog population should be highly controlled (and even regulated and taxed) as dogs often proved to be carriers of disease and a scourge upon livestock. A comprehensive article on this topic appears in the “Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia” section of Monticello’s website.

That all being said, Jefferson also felt that certain birds and animals from the Old World should be introduced to America. Among these was a “shepherd’s dog,” and Jefferson took it upon himself to import three such dogs from France (a female named Bergère and two puppies she whelped during the trans-Atlantic passage) in 1789. There’s been much speculation as to just what kind of herding dogs these were, since Jefferson’s archival records lack this particular detail. The experts’ best guess? Large Briards. Jefferson’s farm animals included sheep, cows, and various poultry, and it seems that Bergère et al were kept as true working dogs. More of the “chien de berger” came to Monticello in 1790 and 1809, with the latter dogs personally selected by the Marquis de Lafayette! As Albemarle County landowners increasingly acquired sheep, Jefferson’s dogs came into high demand, and correspondence indicates that he carefully bred his dogs and supplied the puppies to relatives, friends and neighbors.

Bergère’s happy—but, presumably, purely coincidental—legacy is that Monticello remains a dog-friendly destination. So long as you keep your dog leashed and outdoors, dogs are welcome to explore Monticello’s historic grounds.

 

Dogging the Details

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter means 38°0′35.34″N,  78°27′9.85″W
Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia

For Monticello’s pet-friendly culture and sheer number of things to see and do, this excursion ranks a “2” on the Intrepid Pup’s wag-a-meter.

Your visit will begin in the parking lot. Don’t miss seeing the African-American graveyard. It’s near the picnic area and entrance to the 2-mile Saunders-Monticello Trail (important note: dogs are permitted only on the section that runs through Kemper Park at the opposite end of the trail). From the parking lot you’ll approach the Visitor Center for your tickets. There’s a theater showing a 20-minute introductory film, an educational center, a cafe, and a well-stocked museum shop (sorry, no dogs in any of the buildings). Though your dog also can’t accompany you into the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Gallery, you’ll want to check this out, too. This compact museum space addresses diverse themes—from slavery to Monticello’s design—and tackles abstract concepts like Jefferson’s words and ideas in a creative way: see for yourself!

Monticello

Dogs can’t take the shuttle (left), but the walking trail (right) begins just across the road from the Visitor Center shuttle stop.

To cover the distance between the Visitor Center and the house with your dog, you won’t be able to ride the courtesy shuttle. Not to worry: there’s a gently sloping, shady 0.6-mile gravel path through the woods that only takes ~20 minutes. Allow more time if you stop to linger en route at Jefferson’s gravesite.

We were pleased to find trash receptacles placed throughout the grounds (though not on the woodland trail), and we were conveniently able to refill water bottles for Tavish from restroom facilities and from the drinking fountain at the Museum Shop adjacent to Jefferson’s extensive vegetable garden.

Monticello beer cellar

Tavish cools off in Monticello’s beer cellar. Jefferson’s wife Martha (1748-1782) oversaw the brewing of 15-gallon batches every two weeks. A British brewer visited Monticello in 1813–due to being detained in the War of 1812!–and, based on his input, the estate switched to producing biannual 100-gallon runs of ale.

Since dogs aren’t allowed inside the main house, Team Tavish took the timed-entry guided tour in consecutive one-hour shifts. This meant that Tavish had a full two hours to explore Jefferson’s estate, and there really was plenty to hold his (and our) interest. We’d been informed that Tavish could accompany us on any of the seasonally-offered “gardens and grounds” tours included in the general admission fee. While we saw many of these in progress, we opted to explore on our own and even encountered a few other visiting dogs. The beautiful flower beds on the west lawn were in full bloom, and from the north terrace we could just make out in the distance the Jefferson-designed rotunda at the University of Virginia. We surveyed the orchards from the vantage point of the garden pavilion. And when we needed some shade, we took a self-guided tour through the cool cellar passage that runs the full width of the main house and terraces and gives you a peek at Monticello’s dependencies .

Plan on spending a minimum of 3 hours at Monticello to savor the history and the views!

 

 

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Outdoors and on the Water

Pohick BayAre you indoors reading this?  If so, take it outside!

Today, June 9th, is officially National Get Outdoors Day (GO!). If you regularly follow Tavish the Intrepid Pup, you already know his affinity for being out and about, and he needs no further invitation to get outside. But the goals of “GO!” are to encourage first-time visitors to public lands and to reconnect youth to nature. “GO!” is one of a growing number of public initiatives in recent years to embrace such themes. Richard Louv’s best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, sounded the alarm in 2008 about “nature-deficit” and the corollaries with childhood obesity, attention disorders, and more. As we’ve become more plugged in to what’s on a screen than what’s in our backyard, entities as disparate as the U.S. Forest Service (More Kids in the Woods), the NFL (Play60), the National Wildlife Federation (Be Out There), and First Lady Michelle Obama (Let’s Move!) have launched national campaigns to help reverse this trend.

There’s no doubt that Tavish’s own need for exercise and activity has helped members of Team Tavish maintain healthier lifestyles. And while Tavish’s exploits have gotten him outdoors in more than a dozen different states, it’s important to point out that connecting to nature needn’t be complicated nor involve expensive travel plans to far-flung locales. So in that spirit, we’re highlighting below a simple, low-cost excursion that took us to a regional park for an all-new outdoor experience for Tavish. In other words, if you can’t replicate this exact itinerary, we’re pretty sure you can do something similar in most parts of the country. So, hurry outside and enjoy!

Dogging the Details

38°40′25.27″ N, 77°9′55.13″ W
Pohick Bay Regional Park, Lorton, Virginia

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter meansTavish has been on several boats (car ferries, tour boats, etc.) over the years, but he’d never been on anything of the “personal watercraft” variety… until his visit to Pohick Bay Regional Park. The park is one of 24 administered by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Its other claim to fame is that it’s the terminus of the Occoquan Water Trail, an extraordinary 40-mile route along two tributary waterways of the Chesapeake Bay.

In addition to having woodland hiking paths, a marina, and expansive picnic areas, Pohick Bay Regional Park seasonally offers boat rentals for really reasonable hourly and day rates. If you don’t own a boat, it’s a great way to test out paddle boards, pedal boats, canoes, kayaks, sailboats and jon boats. Better yet, at this particular park you can bring your dog along on the rental! Intrepid Pup has an affinity for the water—ocean, stream, pond, you name it!—but he’s ultimately more of an enthusiastic splasher/wader than an active swimmer. At 45 lbs, a freaked out Tavish scrambling around on a canoe or sit-upon kayak offshore could be problematic. So since we didn’t quite know how he’d react to being out on the water, we opted for the stability of a jon boat. It’s essentially a sturdy, flat-bottomed metal rowboat with a low center of gravity (read: clunky tub really hard to capsize). Turns out we needn’t have worried as Tavish was more than happy to situate himself as close to the edge as possible to take in the scenery while one of us rowed (see photo above).

Clearly this was one outing where we expended way more energy than the Intrepid Pup did, but we got a good workout, saw several osprey and herons, and—perhaps most importantly—happily confirmed that boating with Tavish was something we could do again. We’d dearly love to get the Intrepid Pup out in a kayak, and the top choice (although it’s not among the rentals at Pohick Bay) to try would be Perception Kayaks’ new recreational model, the Prodigy 13.5. Its over-sized cockpit and a second removable half-seat are specifically designed with a “small companion” (be it a child or a dog) in mind. Brilliant!

The combination of a low boat rental rate and a high degree of fun earns this excursion a “2” on the Intrepid Pup’s Wag-a-Meter. Key things bring along for yourself include a snack, water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. For your dog, keep plenty of water aboard. Tavish’s short coat makes him especially susceptible to sunburn and/or overheating, so we had lots of water available for him to drink out of his collapsible travel bowl, and we made sure we didn’t stay out too long in the heat of day. One final note: Tavish wears a life vest when he’s on the water. Intrepid or no, it’s a wise move and potential life saver for humans and dogs alike.

Turtles, Goslings & Lily Pads, Oh My!

Tavish at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Tavish at the lily ponds. The hardy and tropical water lilies were blooming, little jewels of color amid the emerald green pads. Surrounding many of the ponds are irises, but the yellow variety is invasive. It is still too early for the lotus blossoms that are hallmarks of the summer months.

Even if today wasn’t National Public Gardens Day, we’d be touting Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens. Did you know that it’s the only National Park Service site devoted to the cultivation and care of aquatic plants?

The precise story behind Kenilworth is one you couldn’t make up if you tried. Walter B. Shaw was a Civil War veteran who had lost his right arm in the fighting. He settled in Washington, D.C., securing a job as a Treasury Department clerk after teaching himself to write left-handed. Outside of government work, however, Shaw’s true love was water lilies. Eager to propagate them, he secured a dozen specimens from his home state of Maine and placed them in an unused ice pond on his 30 acres. When his hobby outgrew the one pond, he simply built more ponds until—under the auspices of the newly established W. B. Shaw Lily Ponds—he was successfully collecting exotic varieties, experimenting with hybrids, and commercially shipping plants nationwide. His daughter Helen Shaw Fowler joined him in his business ventures, and together they opened the gardens for the public’s enjoyment. Under Helen’s careful stewardship, the gardens expanded even further after Shaw’s death in 1921, and literally thousands of visitors a day (including President and Mrs. Coolidge!) flocked to marvel at the aquatic blooms during the summer months.

Fast forward to the 1930s and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was faced with dredging the silt-choked Anacostia River, an act that would have signaled the demise of the gardens. Helen fought the plans and an accord was reached in 1938 when Congress allocated $15,000 to purchase eight acres of the gardens for public preservation. Helen continued to live on the property until her death in 1953 but taught Fred Lundy, a gardener with the National Park Service, how to care for the water lilies. The Park Service eventually took over management of the garden and renamed it Kenilworth to reflect the name of the broader community. Today the park consists of 45 ponds of water lilies across 12 acres, enveloped by another 70 acres of freshwater tidal marshlands.

Midday yesterday Tavish the Intrepid Pup was eager to start exploring, and everything about his body language screamed, “What magical place is this, anyway?” Talk about sensory overload! At the lily ponds there were Canada geese (and therefore also a lot of goose droppings). We’d been advised by the park ranger when we arrived that there were several fledglings about, so we kept our distance. Tavish was actually pretty unphased by these tawny goslings paddling by…because there were BUTTERFLIES! And FROGS!  Ok, so technically we never saw a frog, but from the blurs of color and the loud splooshing sounds, we could tell they were big. It was great fun watching Tavish try to anticipate where the next blur and sploosh would come from. Oh, and the TURTLES! There were a few small painted turtles perched on logs, but they had nothing on the dinner platter-sized snapping turtles hanging out sunbathing at the ponds’ edges. These guys were perceptive and before we could come within ten paces it was like those targets in a county fair shooting gallery where each  toppled in succession with an unceremonious plunk. Invariably we were rewarded with a closer look when a few poked their heads back up out of the muddy water.

Tavish at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Though hard to disengage Tavish from the endless fascinations of the lily ponds, we did finally make it onto the River Trail (note: NOT a loop; it’s 0.7 miles each way). It meanders in a northwesterly direction among the thick scent of honeysuckle and then follows the bend of the Anacostia River for a stretch. It ends at the inlet into the marsh itself, which is where you’d enter Kenilworth if coming by kayak or canoe. You never fully escape the incessant thrum of car traffic careening by on Route 50, punctuated by the occasional clatter of an Amtrak train crossing the railroad bridge. Where this might be overtly annoying in another setting, in a strange way, the noise serves notice that this fragile environment struggles to exist in spite of urban encroachment.

Returning to the lily ponds, we set out in the opposite direction onto the extensive boardwalk. Signs along the trail have faded considerably, but on this sunny, breezy afternoon we didn’t exactly need a plaque to tell us that the fish and tadpoles were plentiful. Tavish kept poking his head through the railing to watch them. Red-winged blackbirds darted among the tall grasses, and a great blue heron soared above. Just another spectacular day in the marsh.

Dogging the Details

38°54′45.50″N,  76°56′31.24″W
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
, Washington, DC

Tavish at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter means

It can be a little tricky navigating this residential area in northeast Washington to find the proper entrance to the aquatic gardens, so if you have GPS, use it!

Intrepid Pup has been to Kenilworth before, but it really pays to be a repeat visitor. While the walking trails are always nice, the visual appeal of the ponds changes dramatically throughout the seasons.

When we stopped in at the visitor center to snag a map, the Park Service ranger—a helpful young woman who, come to find out, was getting married this weekend at another National Park—was genuinely pleased to see us and remarked, “Kenilworth definitely welcomes leashed dogs!” The dog-friendly trails and scenery earn Kenilworth a “2” on the Intrepid Pup wag-a-meter. Of course, the general courtesy about cleaning up after your dog still very much applies, and there are waste receptacles conveniently located throughout the front section of the gardens (though not so much on the River Trail or boardwalk sections).  Tavish stayed in the vestibule of the Visitor Center as dogs aren’t permitted inside, but there is a small bookshop and a series of compact displays about the importance of the wetlands and the history of Kenilworth—from use as the fishing grounds of the Nacotchtank peoples through to the present day.

Walk every step of the grounds around the various ponds, out-and-back on the River Trail, and along the boardwalk, and you’ll be lucky to have eked out 2 miles. But you’ll easily have whiled away an hour or two, especially if you have a curious pup intently stalking every lily pad fluttering in the breeze!