Potomac River Paddling Adventure in Dyke Marsh

Dyke Marsh Preserve, one of the few remaining freshwater tidal wetlands on the Potomac is best explored by kayak or canoe. Located on the west bank of the Potomac River south of Alexandria, Virginia between Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon.

Dyke Marsh consists of about 380 acres of tidal marsh, floodplain, and swamp forest. Formed 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, Dyke Marsh is one of the largest remaining pieces of freshwater tidal wetlands left in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area. Managed by the National Park Service, Dyke Marsh contains a wide array of plant and animal life.

The best/easiest place to launch your kayak to explore Dyke Marsh Preserve is at Belle Haven Marina. There are two boat launches at the marina — one for motorized boats and such, and the other is next to the kayak rental shack, and that’s the easiest on your kayak to launch. From the kayak launch, we turned left and once through all the moored boats, hugged the shore, keeping it on our right as we paddled along.
I kind of felt as if it was some sort of miracle that this marsh still exists. At one point, the marsh was surrounded by a dike (hence its name). Earthen walls were meant to create farmable land where locals could raise crops and graze livestock. At some point, the walls were breached, and the marsh reclaimed itself. And although water grasses thrived in the waters, in areas where the grasses formed floating islands, plastic bottles and other debris (we saw a basket ball and a tennis ball) got caught. From a distance, at one point, we thought the debris were flowers and thought, “how pretty,” paddling over only to discover the pollution. I think this is why I’m permanently giving up drinking out of plastic bottles — water, diet coke, etc.

We followed the shore until it curved around, revealing an inlet, which we followed into the marsh. This brought us closer to some birds we’d noticed as we were paddling toward the marsh. 
And although you hear the bird calls and the wind rustling through the marsh grasses, you can also often hear the noise of nearby George Washington Parkway. But don’t focus on that! Focus on the bird calls — we saw several osprey, herons and egrets galore, a handful of cormorants, probably a hawk, red-wing blackbirds, several unidentifiable smaller brown or mottled birds, Canada geese, mallard ducks, a short white egret-looking bird. Sadly, we didn’t see any eagles.

Altogether, the beauty and interest of this paddle was unexpected and delightful. We enjoyed seeing the sailboats and other boats in the main part of the river channel, as well as the sweeping view of National Harbor on the opposite shore, plus Woodrow Wilson bridge.

We noticed what looked like ruins of a wooden ship — or former wharf? There seemed to be square-hewn beams just below the surface of the water, with metal bolts or poles sticking up. It reminded us of our paddle adventure in Mallows Bay, so we wondered whether it was the remains of an old wooden ship. It was curious. There is no information about what this could be, so it remains a mystery.

Our paddle adventure took us just over 3 hours, to paddle the 3-odd miles, allowing for many stops to contemplate the scenery and take photos.

Know before you go: If you launch from Belle Haven Marina, there is a $5 launch fee. If you don’t own a kayak, you can rent one at the marina through November.

Getting there: Take the Belle Haven exit off of the George Washington Parkway.

Hours: Belle Haven Marina is open weekdays, 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.; weekends 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Websites: Friends of Dyke Marsh https://fodm.org/; Belle Haven Marina www.saildc.com; National Park Service Dyke Marsh https://www.nps.gov/gwmp/index.htm

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