Boaters in the nation's capital know that the best action in D.C. will never play out on an episode of "The West Wing." Whether you're a tourist snapping cherry blossom photos or regularly nine-to-five it on Capitol Hill, here's how to ditch the power suits and discover some monumental paddling.
Strolling the National Mall, it's hard to believe squirrels could be endangered—the little nut-hoarders are everywhere. But just across Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's eastern shore live the last dwindling colonies of Delmarva fox squirrels. Stalk these and other furry anomalies like the smallish, spotted sika deer and the nutria—a cousin of the muskrat—by kayak in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Home to 85 bird species, including, appropriately, the bald eagle, these marshes also offer sanctity for humans. "You really feel like you're in the middle of nowhere," says David Young, part-owner and manager of Spring Hill Annapolis Canoe and Kayak shop (410-263-2303, http://www.springriverannapolis.com). Rangers have marked three paddling trails in the refuge, from three to nine miles long. Pick up a map at the visitor's center and check for closures—some trails are only open in the spring and summer. http://www.blackwater.fws.gov
A Saturday for Hendrick Van Oss, who has canoed in the D.C. area for almost two decades, might go like this: Drive about an hour north with his "playboat," a 14'6" Dagger Caper, strapped to the roof. Meet friends at the Cindy Dee restaurant near Frederick, Md. Continue south on Hwy 340 through historic Harpers Ferry, W.V. Turn left at the flea market on Millville Road and pay the $2 per boat fee to park at Dink's Campground, and put-in for the Class II+ Staircase section of the Shenandoah River ("otherwise the contents of your car might wind up in the flea market," he advises).
Float about three miles of flatwater and small riffles, then look out for Bull Falls, a classic ledge drop with several routes. Bust through the roostertail in the center line and surf it up in the playhole in the fourth drop, then pull over at Lunch Rock and witness other boaters' fates. On Monday, return to work at the U.S. Geological Survey. Beta: http://www.monocacycanoe.org
Just upriver from its languid course through the District, the Potomac River tumbles over a set of 750-million year old metamorphic rocks, where dependable summer flow plus gradient equals whitewater fun.
If your breakfast stays put after your first peek at Great Falls, fling yourself off the Spout, a classic 25-footer on the Virginia side of the river. If you've got a guide, go exploring—the options change with each inch on the Little Falls gauge (USGS 01646500). Most lines are good to go in the summer when the flow hovers around three feet. Local boaters have worked hard to keep access to the Falls, which is governed by the NPS and Maryland DNR. Don't ruin it by making a scene. Access from the Maryland side, obey all posted rules, and bring the huckfest before 9 a.m. or at dusk, after most of the tourists leave.
Put in below the falls for the Class III Mather Gorge, a cliff-lined high-volume run peppered with good surf. Get your bounce on in the surging wave at O-deck rapid; the camera-toting crowd above will make you feel like a rodeo star.
If marble and museums (washington.org) don't do it for you, the National Geographic Hall of Explorers (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/museum) at 17th and M will appeal to your adventurous side. By night, go big in Adams Morgan, an urban-chic neighborhood with a frat boy drinking habit. Common Share, at 18th and U, is the place to start with $2 drafts; finish off the night with a slice of pizza bigger than this page for $3 at Jumbo Pizza. Or catch a show at the 930 Club, a cozy, standing-room only venue that brings in acts ranging from John Butler Trio to Third Eye Blind at 9th and V streets NW.
If you're in town on July 4, celebrate independence from the swarming masses on the mall by paddling around the back of Roosevelt Island to enjoy prime seats for the nation's fireworks display. Rent a canoe, and put in at Jack's Boathouse (202-377-9642, http://www.jacksboathouse.com) under the Key Bridge.