As we hike toward the Metro station, a guy in a pickup truck at a red light leans out of his window.
“Where are you going with all that stuff?” he shouts.
“Camping!” I shout back.
“Where?” he asks, incredulously gesturing around him at the asphalt and concrete of Columbia Heights, before driving off when the light turns green.
To answer his question: We are headed to Kingman Island. It’s a city-owned park, a narrow strip of land in the Anacostia River, next to RFK Stadium. For the first time ever, D.C. is opening up the island at night for a public campout. It’s sort of a trial run for camping on Kingman, with more campouts being planned for when it warms up again next year.
We get off the Metro at Stadium-Armory and navigate the maze of roads and parking lots around the stadium.
We cross the pedestrian bridge to the island, and right away we spot some wildlife: a bald eagle, which fails to impress eitherchild. “I see it,” says June, not looking up.
About a mile and a half from the Metro station — after breaks for snacks and checking June’s compass — we arrive at the campsite. It’s a large clearing near the southern end of the island. The only other camper there so far is Tommy Wells, director ofthe D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, and he gives us some expert advice about where to put up our tent.
We should pick a spot close to the middle. That way, he says, “When the bears come out — they’ll get me first.”
Kingman Island — and neighboring Heritage Island — were created more than 100 years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers. They dredged the shallow river, and piled up the leftover mud, creating new land. For years after, the islands were used as dumps for construction debris, then pretty much abandoned.
Wells tells me he lived in D.C. for years before he even knew Kingman was here.
“It’s like it’s never really been — nothing ever really done to it,” says Wells. “These islands just grew wild.”
Absent human intervention, nature took over Kingman. Land created by engineers was overrun by trees and vines, birds and mammals, becoming one of the wildest places in the city. It now hosts more than 100 native animal species in a number of ecosystems, including freshwater wetlands, vernal pools, meadows and tidal swamp forests.
In the 1990s, the District took over the island from the federal government and has slowly been making upgrades to make its 40 acres more accessible. Last year, Mayor Muriel
Hiking under East Capitol Street on the way to the campground.
Bowser declared Kingman Island a “state wildlife area.”
For years, there’s been talk of allowing camping on Kingman. Almost two years ago, Lee Cain told me about the idea. He manages the island through the outdoor education nonprofit Living Classrooms, which regularly brings school groups to the island during the day.
This October, he emailed me — he’d finally managed to “cut through all the red tape.”
When I meet him on the island, Cain explains, “Because this is unprecedented on District property, there wasn’t a legal framework for it.” To get through the red tape he had to make plans for public safety and emergencies. One of the big sticking points was fire.
“I’d connected with scouting groups — Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts — and one of the things that they emphasized to me was that it’s really important to have campfires. That’s an essential part of the experience,” Cain says.
He points to a large tank behind him. “I have 300 gallons of water sitting in that cistern over there,” Cain says, ready in case a campfire gets out of control. In order to make sure campers are safe from intruders, he and others will do a sweep of the island in the evening, then lock the gates.
Cain says there are still a lot of questions about the future of camping on Kingman. “Is this something that people can get permits to do, can people just sign up and come on your own?We’re not sure about that,” he adds.
One of my questions is: Why camp on Kingman? This overgrown, manmade island isn’t exactly Yellowstone or Yosemite.
Lee Cain, strumming his guitar next to the camp fire
“It’s really important to provide those experiences that are really, really out there in nature, for kids, but it’s also important to be able to connect them here to their backyard spaces because they need to be the stewards of these places,” Cain says.
As the afternoon sunlight dims, other campers arrive and tents pop up across the clearing. Lora Nunn, with the group Friends of Kingman and Heritage Islands, came with her husband and two little kids, King, age three, and Faris, age six. The kids are excitedly bouncing on sleeping pads in a huge castle of a tent.
“Why do you like going camping?” Nunn asks her daughter Faris, speaking into my recorder. “Because there’s marshmallows!” Faris says, before retreating into the tent for more bouncing.
Nunn says camping here is great — as a parent — because there’s a lot less to worry about.
“I felt when we packed up to come here today, we knew that we could still escape to our house,” Nunn says. Home, after all, is just a few blocks away.
When the sun goes down, the couple dozen campers gather around the fire. Guitars appear, and so do the marshmallows. My wife Emma and I take a moment to look up at the few stars you can see through the glowing haze of the city.
“Do you recognize any constellations?” I ask her.
“No,” Emma says. “In fact,” she says, pointing at the dim yellowish light on the treetops, “I thought that was the tinge of sunset on the trees. But it’s actually the tinge of the orange streetlights across the river.”
RFK Stadium seen through the trees on Kingman Island.
Away from the fire, the night air is cold — in the 30s.
In the morning, one of the first people up is D.C. Council Member Charles Allen — a former Boy Scout. He’s chopping firewood with his 7-year old daughter.
“This was her first time helping set up a tent, this was her first time helping strike a fire, and those are just fun little things to share and lessons to teach,” Allen says.
Allen represents Ward 6, which includes some of the neighborhoods closest to the island. He’s one of the city’s leaders — along with Tommy Wells — who has been helping push through the red tape to make camping on Kingman a reality.
“You can get a little bit of nature in the middle of the city out here, and I want people to discover that we’ve got this beautiful asset here,” Allen says.
Nearby, Herbert Starks is still trying to warm up — his toes, he says, were frozen solid.
“Outside of that part, I mean, it was pretty amazing,” Starks says. He works for Living Classrooms and says this was his first time camping since he was a kid. He adds that allowing campers on Kingman Island will open up new possibilities for a lot of kids in the city.
“People have been here all their life and never had the opportunity to escape,” Starks says. “A lot of people don’t have an opportunity to drive out to Maryland, to drive to Virginia. They don’t have access to a car, or maybe they don’t have the funds to do it.”
Happy camper, Gus, running to catch his big sister.
We pull down our tent, as the rising sun touches the treetops. It was an odd experience to sleep in the woods, but still hear the white noise of the city — traffic on I-295, freight trains rumbling on the CSX tracks. On the walk back to Metro, I ask June if she’d do it again.
“Yeah,” she says. “But when my brother is bigger because he is only two and he waked me up — and everybody up — in the middle of the night.”
Organizers are already planning more campouts for next spring and summer — maybe by then 2-year-old Gus will understand the concept of sleeping in a sleeping bag.