Protecting a Local Treasure: Four Mile Run

Local volunteers promote nature, culture, and community at lower Four Mile Run through restoration, advocacy, recreation, and education

Volunteers at a summer kayak clean-up.

On a sunny day this past July, three kayakers held position in the middle of Four Mile Run, maintaining balance as they worked together to bring up a surprising find from the river bottom. Litter clean-up volunteers Sarah, Aaron, and Deen celebrated the haul and paddled it back to shore: a 12-pound shiny green bowling ball, a curious contribution to the total of 110 pounds of litter extracted that day. About twice a month from May to November, the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation leads these kayak-based volunteer events to keep the waterway clean and promote stewardship of shared public lands.
Founded in 2016, the Conservatory Foundation promotes nature, culture, and community at lower Four Mile Run through restoration, advocacy, recreation, and education. About half of Del Ray drains to Four Mile Run, but since the small tributary streams of the past are today buried or piped underground, it isn’t always apparent that it is our home waterway. Neighbors may not realize that pesticides or fertilizers used in the garden, de-icing salts used in winter, soap and grit from washing cars–not just litter from the street – are pollutants that wash away when it rains, degrading water quality in the Run and impacting aquatic and terrestrial life. To address these impacts, Conservatory Foundation volunteers monitor water quality, remove litter, restore native plants, lead outdoor youth programs, and share the wonders of this unique urban ecosystem, thus bringing a positive human impact to this urban waterway.
Restoration and recreation go well together, as with an early-summer nature walk followed by a litter clean-up, or with the kayak clean-ups, where volunteers get to explore the interior wetland, tributaries, and restoration cove, areas that aren’t accessible on foot, while removing litter. Del Ray resident Jason Cooper signed up for the July kayak clean-up after having attended a June nature walk and clean-up. “I didn’t realize how much was actually back here, until we did that walk, and how beautiful the trails are. Unless you lived in this area, you probably wouldn’t even know this park was here,” said Cooper. “What got us to this park was doing the June nature walk and clean-up, and when we walked the trail, it was great, phenomenal. It’s kind of a hidden gem amongst the metropolis.” As he spoke, an Osprey crossed overhead carrying a freshly-caught fish in its talons.
Ospreys are one of the many birds frequently observed in Four Mile Run Park, which benefits from a great variety of habitat types: wetland forest, marsh, meadow, and shoreline habitats are all found within its 54 acres, alongside trails, ballfields, futsal court, and playground. A corresponding variety of wildlife, especially birds, can be observed in the park, including some spectacular examples like Baltimore orioles, which have nested near the trail for several years, and year-round residents like herons. The entire lower portion of the Run, which forms the boundary between the City of Alexandria and Arlington County, has had a remarkable recovery from its mid-20th century condition, when the only animals observed during a rowboat trip up the Run were crows at the city dump, and when directly-piped raw sewage ensured a lifeless stream. Today, you’ll find abundant wildlife as you enjoy lower Four Mile Run from park trails on either side, or even better, from a kayak or canoe.
The Conservatory Foundation expects to break ground on a public, ADA-accessible floating kayak and canoe launch on Four Mile Run next year. The launch will become part of the City of Alexandria’s Four Mile Run Park, and it will be the first fully-accessible roller-entry launch – with access to the Potomac River and water trail –In the entire Washington, DC metro area. The project has been several years in the making, and it has received significant support through a Virginia Recreational Trails Program grant, as well as through Alexandria’s Community Matching Fund. By providing access for paddlers of all abilities, the project is expected to heighten people’s connection to nearby nature, and with that their commitment to stewardship of urban nature.
Find out more about the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation’s kayak launch project and volunteer opportunities at