Monday, February 21, 2011

Storming the mountain (Garret, that is)

Danged if the weather didn't suddenly turn colder just as the weekend arrived.  That meant that this week's Sue/Ivan field trip was done in chilly, chilly weather.  And what better place to go in chilly weather than a mountain?  To be more specific, it was Garret Mountain in Woodland Park (formerly West Paterson), an oasis of nature in the highly-urbanized greater Paterson area.  More than 500 acres of the mountain are set aside by the Passaic County parks system for walking, hiking, cycling, horse riding, you name it. And its location at the northern end of the first Watchung Mountain ridge makes it a bit of a haven for birds (and birders), particularly during migration season.

We started our day by parking in the Elvis lot, known for the Presley impersonator who's been known to perform there for passers-by. It was really quiet, aside from a few passing cars and a runner or three. No chirping, cawing or quacking, though there were a few mallard ducks on the little bit of pond that wasn't frozen over. We proceeded to a wooded area with small streams running through it, and ran into a couple of other birders, as well as some birds. I was able to get some photos of a red-bellied woodpecker, but a friendly chickadee was a much closer (and much easier) subject, perching on a limb right next to us. He was apparently looking for handouts, which one of the regular birders is only too happy to provide.

Tromping a bit further up the mountain, we checked the underbrush for additional birds but the area was very, very quiet. Apparently the birds were smarter than we were, and had opted to spend the day someplace a bit warmer.  The occasional turkey vulture flew overhead, scanning for prey.

The reward for all of that tromping was an observation area at 500 feet above sea level, with sweeping views all the way to New York City. George Washington stationed troops here to keep an eye on potential British incursions into New Jersey from occupied Manhattan during the Revolutionary War. Today, it also offers a really great view of the city of Paterson, America's first planned industrial city. Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the Treasury (among other things), believed that the country's best chance for economic independence was through industry. The theory was that if we could manufacture our own products, from our own resources, we'd have little need for imports from our former European rulers. He and several other like-minded men created the Society for Useful Manufactures, which then went about developing the area's industrial base.

Paterson (named after the New Jersey governor at the time) was built along the site of a roaring waterfall that Hamilton saw as an excellent power source to run mills and factory turbines. Eventually, the city became home to the Colt gunworks, the Rogers locomotive works and a variety of textile mills.  In fact, Paterson was known for a long time as Silk City due to the strength of that industry within the city. Thomas Edison located one of his illuminating factories there, as did the Wright-Curtiss operation that built the aircraft engine for the Spirit of St. Louis.

Paterson has always been a bit of a
gritty city, but with that grit also came a bit of wealth enjoyed by the owners of those manufacturers. From the heights of Garret, you can still see a fair share of grand public buildings among the bodegas and check cashing places. And within the confines of the reservation is Lambert Castle, a turreted brick mansion built by one of the city's silk magnates in the 1890s. It's now open to the public periodically for tours.

As we continued our hike around the reservation, we came upon the restored observation tower Lambert built as part of his estate. While it was closed to visitors, it's another nice place to rest a bit and enjoy a spectacular view.

All in all, it was a rather sparse birding day but an interesting exploration of an area I'd known relatively little of. It's always good to get some altitude on a hike -- it brings some air into the lungs and blood into the leg muscles. It also builds an appetite, and we were ready to grab some sustenance. After spending a few hours on a mountain with a set of turreted buildings, where better to go than the Castle? So yes, we drove to Clifton and stormed the White Castle.

Now, I'll digress for a moment here and share a little something about my choice in companions. Any man who wishes to hang out with me must be cool with my penchant for road food. Any statement about it being 'unladylike' or even 'gross' will disqualify a potential beau. I found it tremendously reassuring that Ivan encourages visits to the Castle. He even shared an activity that could change a visit from merely good to epic: the construction of one's own castle from the leftover burger boxes. Why I never thought of this myself is truly a mystery, but I guarantee that this information will be used in the future.

Oh, and he chose to hang out with me for several hours after the Castle visit. Now that says a lot about the guy.

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