Community volunteers breathe new life into the island in the Potomac River

On a stretch of the Potomac River flanked by multimillion-dollar homes sits an 8-acre island with a rustic cabin — and lots of potential.

Until recently, its prospects were hidden under two decades of excessive growth. But a brand new Minnie’s Island Community Conservancy discovered its natural character and dreamed of its future.

Minnie’s Island in the Potomac River is a 5 minute paddle from a launch near Lockhouse 8 on the C&O Canal towpath. Whitney Pipkins Credit: Whitney Pipkin/Bay Journal Media

“This place will be spanking beauty,” said Pascal Pittman, a 70-year-old architect with as much energy as his black Labrador sidekick, Cayenne, during a visit to the island on a sunny first day of December. .

When Pittman, who lives in Cabin John, MD, started the local band less than a year ago, the non-native Japanese honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet had long hidden the hiking trails that once existed on the Isle. The trees were entangled in vines that were also beginning to overgrow a 1940s cabin.

Even before the group gained nonprofit status this year, the volunteer power of about 140 people had begun to spruce it up.

“The goal is to maintain the island and the cabin, but, more importantly, to make them available,” Pittman said.

Technically, Minnie’s Island has been open to the public since 1994, when its owners gifted it to the Potomac Conservancy, which had only been formed a year earlier. In the years that followed, the reserve organized river cleanups and educational events at the site.

But in recent years, the nonprofit’s work has expanded beyond the banks of the Potomac to southern Montgomery County; it now encompasses clean water initiatives and policies for the entire river.

So when Pittman became interested in starting a local group to take care of the island, it seemed like a good choice. The Potomac Conservancy plans to transfer ownership of the land to Minnie’s Island Community Conservancy early this year.

Pascal Pittman, pictured with his dog, Cayenne, started visiting Minnie’s Island in the Potomac River 25 years ago when his children were young. He is now director of Minnie’s Island Community Conservancy. Whitney Pipkins Credit: Whitney Pipkin/Bay Journal Media

Part of an archipelago or string of islands, the land is 8 acres on the deed, but less than 3.5 acres is above the water surface most of the time. The hut straddles some of the large boulders that make up the surface of the island.

The high points of the island’s topography offer stunning views of the wide river, and its low areas are dotted with seashells left over from high water, which also explains the ecology of the rocky island. During a clean-up day last year, volunteers discovered a rare plant – racemose goldenrod, listed as very rare in Maryland – growing on one of the rocks.

Many of the island’s other treasures lie in its historical past.

Pascal Pittman and Jack Mandel are among the community members of nearby Cabin John, MD, who started the Minnie’s Island Community Conservancy. Whitney Pipkins Credit: Whitney Pipkin/Bay Journal Media

Minnie’s is named after Minnie M. Jenkins, who owned the island in the early 1900s. Jenkins owned a restaurant in Great Falls, Virginia, and was rumored to run a speakeasy off the island before his death at the age of 35. The island was sold in the 1920s to a zoologist who collected “spiders and other things”, some of which had never been identified, according to a 1994 investigation Washington Post item.

A banker who took boys’ clubs to the island for outdoor adventures was the next owner, and then came Henry Reuss, Congressman from Wisconsin from the mid-1950s to the 1980s. Reuss’s son, Christopher, loved the island so much that he spent two years living in the cabin that had been built there in the 1940s – pumping water from a well, installing a wood-burning stove for heating and canoeing to to the shore to work at an office right downtown.

Christopher Reuss died in 1986 in a kayaking accident at the age of 43, theTo postsays the article. When the Reuss family donated the island to the Potomac Conservancy in 1994, they did so in his honor, commemorating him with a metal plaque nailed to a rock on the island.

Minnie’s Island is still a quiet and wild place today – but for the occasional air traffic – nestled inside an otherwise bustling Capital Beltway around Washington, DC. Visitors can launch their boats from shore near Lock 8 on the C&O Canal towpath and paddle to Minnie’s in five minutes. Cayenne, Pittman’s dog, prefers to swim.

Pittman started hanging out on the island 25 years ago when his three now adult children were young. After work as an architect took him to Morocco, he returned to find the island in a significantly less visitor-friendly shape.

“I spoke to my community and said, ‘Would you be interested in adopting this island if we could make it work? ‘” Pittman said. “I had an enthusiastic response.”

Pittman’s efforts gained momentum and co-conspirators during the pandemic, as people began to appreciate nearby natural spaces all the more. Jack Mandel, a neighbor who works in construction, was one of them.

“When we first got here, you couldn’t walk 15 feet on the island,” Mandel said. “We have a foot now.”

Jack Mandel prepares to paddle to Minnie’s Island on the Potomac River carrying his canoe from a parking lot to shore near Lockhouse 8 on the C&O Canal towpath. Whitney Pipkins Credit: Whitney Pipkin/Bay Journal Media

The group also has a vision. In addition to keeping the island open to anyone who wants to paddle or wade to its shores, they want the land to be a resource that gives back to those who have given so much.

At the top of that list is making it a retreat for Team River Runner, a local nonprofit that runs paddles for veterans, with adaptive options for wounded warriors. Other beneficiaries of the getaway space could be first responders, front-line workers and “people at the bottom of the economic ladder, who don’t have a cabin to spend the weekend in,” said Pittman.

Of course, getting a comfortable place to sleep on the island will take a bit more work. The 450 square foot cabin with a large deck is structurally sound but has no electricity or running water. The group recently installed a new wood-burning stove for heating. Future plans include solar panels, plumbing and composting toilets. A 30-foot-deep shaft on the island also looks like it could be resurrected, Mandel said.

“It’s going to be sweet and cute and lovely when we’re done,” Mandel said, taking in the view from the island. Then, referring to the former owner of the Washington Redskins football team, who once lived in a mansion overlooking the Potomac, “Dan Snyder has none of that view.”

This article was published orally on BayJournal.com.


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