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Volume 2, Number 2
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Child of the Urban Wilderness

View of the Anacostia River with Great Blue Heron on an island

Cole believes that the best way to help the river is by example. Above all, he says, we need to get people out on the water.

By Jack Greer

Back in 1958, as a Boy Scout in troop 1205, Carl Cole undertook a project he entitled, "My Urban Wilderness." He explored up and down the river and documented the birds, deer and raccoons he found living there. For him the Anacostia was as intriguing as any national park or wildlife area.

Cole, who "just turned 60," says that in his view the Anacostia has always been "fishable and swimable," because he has always fished and swum in it. "I love where I live," he says, referring not only to the river and the nation's capital, but to other nearby amenities, such as the Langston Golf Course - the first, he says, designed for African-American patrons.

For Cole, the Anacostia flows near the very heart of the nation's history. In Colonial times, he says, the Anacostia was Washington's deeper river, with ships carrying through to Bladensburg. During the nation's early days, Cole says, Washington Navy Yard was the capital's principal port, where diplomats landed. That began to change in the 1850s, according to Cole, when the river rapidly began to fill with sediment.

"There is a lot of history here," Cole says. He refers to battles during the War of 1812, and to the place where Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, escaped across a bridge here. He also relates how convicted co-conspirator Mary Surratt, along with three others, was hanged here at Fort McNair, on July 7, 1865. The river, he says, played a central role in the nation's early decades, and planners envisioned the Anacostia as the site of statesmen's homes.

Industrial development changed much of that vision, and parts of the Anacostia became the capital's back door. "This has nothing to do with race," Cole asserts, pointing out that until relatively recently, many of the Anacostia's neighborhoods were not populated by minorities but by whites, including areas largely inhabited by the military and their families.

Cole believes that the best way to help the river is by example. Above all, he says, we need to get people out on the water. "Get them used to it,"Cole says. "Get people out racing in dragon boats. That's how you make a difference."

Carl Cole
Raised near the Anacostia, where he learned to sail, paddle and swim, Carl Cole has become one of the river's chief advocates. He founded a rowing and sailing organization in 1987 and he devotes his time to introducing young people to the same river he knew as a boy.


In 1987 Cole became the founding president of the Organization for Anacostia Rowing and Sailing (OARS). Now the Capital Rowing Club is here, as well as the Gonzaga High School rowing club. There are also other clubs and "scholastic teams." Some of these teams, whether in racing shells or dragon boats, have been regional and national champions, he says.

The rowing clubs use an old brick boathouse, now refurbished, that stands on National Park Service land, between the Navy Yard and shoreline belonging to the Army Corps of Engineers. "The Army Corps has been a good neighbor," Cole says, and has helped them from time to time. He also says that the Navy has been "very active" in helping.

"This is a dream of mine," Cole says of the restored boathouse, the stacks of racing shells and brightly painted dragon boats.

"Still," he says, "people are afraid of this river. Because of the rhetoric." What we need, Cole says, "is human interaction and not a search for demons."

One of Cole's personal goals is to introduce young people to the same river he knew as a boy, and he now participates in a program designed to get young people out on the river called "Kids Set Sail."

"You educate people about the river when you get them on the water," he says. "The river is like a library. To learn from it, "you have to use it."

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