05/31/2012 02:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Wild Near the City

Want to get away from it all but only have a few hours on a summer afternoon? Just a short drive away from that impossibly packed calendar are places of incredible wild beauty that offer a respite from the frenzy of daily life in D.C. Along the Patuxent River Trail, with access from Route 301 in Upper Marlboro, a kayaker can while away several very productive hours of doing nothing more strenuous than watching osprey circling overhead to guard their nests. Farther south off Route 301, along Nanjemoy Creek near La Plata, the most pressing business seems to be eagles and herons diving for dinner -- pity the poor little fish. A two hour drive across the Bay offers up the reward of silent serenity paddling the green trail through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County.

Such pleasures are free (kayaks not included), uncrowded and remarkably restorative.

I spent a good part of Memorial Day weekend getting reacquainted with these lovely local rivers and streams after a long winter of longing to reconnect with the wild. I prefer the cooler northern rivers and lakes of the Adirondacks in summer, but with only a few hours on weekend afternoons, the local waters offer a terrific quick "wilderness" fix.

A recent report highlighted the continuing dangers to the health of the Potomac River, and as someone who spends a lot of time in the summer on the Potomac and its various tributaries, I know that the trash on the river banks, oil slicks from motorboats and generally icky water conditions in places provide evidence of even greater unseen threats. Other rivers and streams in the region have similar problems, and all dump right into the magnificent Chesapeake Bay, whose health is a subject of much concern. The issue is complicated by agricultural needs -- farms in Pennsylvania may pose greater threats than all the motors on the water, but each point of pollution brings concern.

I prefer arm-powered boating in my little kayak, the better to slip away to places that have no noise or fumes.

The Patuxent River Park at Jug Bay is just about 45 minutes from downtown, off Route 301 in Upper Marlboro. The park has numerous hiking trails through lovely forest as well as along the river's edge. For me, the real attraction is the ready access to paddling along the marsh edges and into the backwaters that motorboats can't enter. Floating gently on the Mattaponi Creek, a small tributary of the Patuxent, is true relaxation. The only sounds are the cries of osprey and chirping of all kinds of swamp things.

When I launched my kayak at Friendship Landing on Nanjemoy Creek last weekend, a guy loading a big boat on a trailer asked me if kayaks are hard to manage, and I laughed as I watched him struggle with the powerboat. Actually, I told him, it's probably safer and easier than driving, and much easier on arthritic knees -- so long as the arms and shoulders hold out! But the best part is the ability to glide along while spying on the great blue herons and eagles that are abundant along Nanjemoy Creek and also on the neighboring Port Tobacco River, both of which are Potomac tributaries that share the stress of the big river.

Blackwater is a somewhat longer trip --- about two hours one-way, still possible to do as a day trip (but avoid Sunday evening traffic returning on Rt. 50 from the beaches). The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge includes thousands of acres of forest, wetlands and tidal marshes in Dorchester County below Cambridge, Maryland. Paddling along the green trail of the Blackwater River leads to pristine wilderness areas where eagles, heron, cormorants and osprey are the only occupants. For those whose idea of boating is a floating patio, go hiking on the trails, or stay in your car and simply drive along the wildlife loop through the refuge. There's always some interesting wildlife behavior to capture the attention of photographers!

I'll share more of my local paddling trips through the summer. Enjoy this short slideshow of the beautiful places mentioned in this blog: