A Creek Runs Through It
Rock Creek meanders through Montgomery County for more than 20 miles and is marked by nature's beauty.
Lake Bernard Frank (often called simply Lake Frank) and Lake Needwood were created for sediment and flood control back in the 1960s (some flooding of Rock Creek, especially in the Beach Drive area near the District line, still occurs after heavy storms), but they have become beloved recreation spots. The lakes are located just north of the confluence of Rock Creek’s major branches—Lake Needwood along the “main stem” that I’m traveling, and Lake Frank on the North Branch. Humerick Takes me on a tour of both lakes, pointing out the boating launches, archery range, new volleyball court at Lake Needwood, and pristine beauty of Lake Frank’s encircling trails. There are no natural lakes in our area so these two fill a need. When Humerick and I cross the Lake Frank dam, a flock of bluebirds crosses our path, a flash of cerulean on a gray day.
Steve Dryden and I take a much more conventional and leisurely paddle around Lake Needwood on a Sunday afternoon, navigating around an island teeming with Canada geese and chatting from our canoe with a fisherman on the shore who says he’s not at all concerned that the carp and catfish aren’t biting. On a rainy afternoon, Bergmann, the Montgomery County Department of Parks’ forest ecologist, happily shows me the beauty of Lake Frank’s upland forests of native oaks and hickories. That morning, Bergmann had taken me many places along Rock Creek where she is engaged in constant battle with non-native invasive vines such as porcelain berry, mile-a minute and Asiatic bittersweet, which, when left to their own devices, can kill Rock Creek’s mature trees. As we gazed at recently liberated trees, Bergmann described in vivid detail the muscular measures required to deal with the most tenacious and threatening invasives, measures involving Bush Hogs, machetes and carefully targeted herbicide applications on the stumps of the vines.
The creek beyond Lake Needwood When I ask Humerick about covering the several miles of Rock Creek between Lake Needwood and the Agricultural History Farm Park on foot, he says I’ll probably be able to make my way along the creek on a network of what he calls “people’s choice” trails, an unofficial series of paths created by the footsteps of park visitors.
On a chilly Saturday, my husband Jim and I set out for a day of bushwhacking. We park on the north side of Lake Needwood and are soon enchanted by what we find. There is a beaver dam above Needwood Road, where a noisy convention of mallards is clearly enjoying the day. Beyond the northern part of the lake and adjacent wetland, Mill Creek flows into Rock Creek. We find a fallen tree next to the confluence that serves as a picnic table. While we eat our sandwiches, we take in the scene. White oaks and mockernut hickories surround us, and the creek is lined with familiar bottomland trees, including river birch, ironwood and box elder. Where Mill flows into Rock, the convening creeks mirror their pristine surroundings. No trash. No funky smell. Little evidence of erosion.
A man and a woman make their way toward us. The woman, Marian Schwenk of Derwood, is bundled in a blue jacket and hood, while her more lightly dressed husband, Bob Schwenk, wears binoculars around his neck. They live within walking distance of Mill Creek and walk along both creeks frequently.
Their faces light up as they recount some of the wildlife highlights of their many visits over the years: red fox cubs peeking out of their den; a family of beavers sitting on top of their lodge during a flood; the fawn who tried to follow them home. They describe the sweetness of the wood thrush song, the bright colors of the warblers migrating in the spring and all the herons they’ve seen over the years: green, great blue, black-crowned night and great white egret. Once, they spotted a mink.
I hate to interrupt their reverie, but feel compelled to bring up the subject of the Intercounty Connector, or ICC, that is slated to cross both the main stem of Rock Creek and the North Branch, cutting across the main stem just north of here. Their faces fall, and Marian says she’s still hoping to find a species of wildlife rare enough to stop the road. “I called the Sierra Club when I saw the mink,” she says.
My husband and I wander along this untouched stretch of Rock Creek for several miles, spotting no plastic foam cups or unnatural Spanish moss, but instead seeing many large sycamores hugging the banks, skunk cabbages coming up in the flood plain where the creek meanders wildly, and pileated and downy woodpeckers in the trees. As we walk, we think about Bob and Marian and their profound love for this place. That makes it all the more painful to come upon a particularly scenic and musical stretch just below Muncaster Mill Road, where Rock Creek riffles merrily over the rocks, and oaks, tulip trees and hickories reach for the clear afternoon sky. The tall trees are festooned with brightly colored ribbons— their festive orange, pink, yellow and blue hues belying the deadly intent underlying their placement on the tree trunks. This is where the long-fought highway may finally be built. Jim and I are quiet for a long time afterward as we walk.
Humerick takes me on a tour of the upper reaches of Rock Creek in his park service vehicle, and we visit one of my favorite Montgomery County destinations, the Agricultural History Farm Park. On this 410-acre hillside setting traversed by Rock Creek’s main stem and a tributary, a historic gothic farmhouse and bank barn on the crest of the hill have been restored to look like 100-year-old buildings. The farm was occupied by Nathan Magruder in 1748 and remained in the Magruder family for many years. Today, the Montgomery County Department of Parks hosts public events here, such as a Popular Harvest Festival every year. Many fourth-grade classes learn about the region’s natural resources and agriculture at the Agricultural History Farm Park through a county school program known as “Close Encounters with Agriculture.” The Montgomery County Cooperative Extension Service and county programs for agricultural economic development and farmland conservation are located here. A network of hiking trails takes visitors along the fields and into the woods lining Rock Creek.
Humerick and I visit the source of Rock Creek’s main stem, something he says he has never done. It looks like there are a few small springs north of Dorsey Road, but Rock Creek’s “official” headwaters, if there is such a thing, are just south of the road at a springhouse next to a pond on the Laytonsville Golf Course. We find the 19th century Dorsey Springhouse with faded, gray wooden siding in sagging shape, its shingled roof collapsed and nearly gone, surrounded by a tangle of greenbriers, Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose. An old red maple stands sentinel nearby, and when Jim opens the springhouse door on its ancient hinges, we peer into a former era. Within the historic, neglected structure, rocks that once may have cooled butter and milk still preside over the trickling beginnings of Rock Creek.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley of Chevy Chase is the author of three natural history books, including City of Trees, and a longtime contributor to The Washington Post. In 2008 and 2009, she is leading a series of Rock Creek walks for the Audubon Naturalist Society called “A Year at Boundary Bridge.”