Thursday, March 24, 2011

Visiting the D&R canal at Bull's Island

Alas, Sunday was to be the day of narrow bridges and muddy shoes. After a brief lunch stop in Lambertville, we continued up State Route 29 to Bull's Island, part of the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park in Stockton.

Essentially connecting the two rivers whose names it bears, the D&R Canal was built in the early 1830s to bring Pennsylvania coal to New York, and manufactured goods back in the opposite direction. And while it was quite busy through the mid part of the 1800's, it, like most every other canal in America eventually lost out to the railroads. Now it's one of New Jersey's most used and picturesque state parks, offering level pathways for cycling, hiking, running and horseback riding. Its 70 mile route is also home to several of the original lock and bridge tender houses, and while they're generally not open for visitation, they add a nice touch of authenticity.

From the Pennsy side.
Our visit, of course, was dedicated primarily to birding, but before we focused on that, Ivan had a nice little treat to share with me: yet another narrow bridge. We'd driven across one to get beyond the feeder canal to the island, but that wasn't remarkable at all when compared to the footbridge over the rushing Delaware. While it was only wide enough to allow maybe three people walking abreast, the bridge was plenty sturdy, with a concrete deck and firm anchors below. It was getting a lot of use while we were there, too: strollers, hikers and cyclists seemed to come out of nowhere to enjoy the trip across.

Later, I read that the bridge isn't the first to cross the Delaware at that point. The original was built in 1835 as a covered structure, but part of it was swept away by flood in 1903 and then replaced by a steel span; the whole thing was taken out of use in 1946. The present footbridge was built in 1949 to allow folks from the Pennsylvania side to get to a now-defunct passenger train on the Jersey side.

It seems that now, the only purpose for the bridge is to bring people between Bull's Island and the unbearably cute hamlet of Lumberville, Pennsylvania, in scenic Bucks County. Of course, there's an adorable inn along the river, with a general store/gourmet deli right across the street. It seems to be a good place to have one of those weekends that feels about a week long.

Once back across the river, we got the birding going. Given all of the recent rains, it wasn't surprising that the towpath along the canal had that special 'give' of mushy ground. I wouldn't say it was muddy; it was more like the consistency of undercooked brownies (mmmmm.... brownies!). Note to self: check boot treads before getting back into the car.

We weren't far down the path when Ivan spotted what, to me, was a fairly remarkable sight: a pileated woodpecker. For the uninitiated, it's best described as a big honkin' woodpecker (not that it honks -- you know what I mean). The photo to the right doesn't quite do it justice -- it's a little blurry and you can't really get a sense of size, but take my word for it when I say this is probably twice the size of the average hairy woodpecker drilling away at a tree in your backyard. We were treated to a few minutes of watching this guy checking out a few limbs, plus the spectacle of him flying away to a distant other tree. That just about made my day. It certainly made all of the brownie-tromping worthwhile.

Farther along, we navigated through and around a nest of fallen limbs to find some other feathered fauna, including a happy little song sparrow just singing away. Spring is the best, isn't it? So much cheerful noise all around.

Eventually, we decided we had enough and made our way back to Route 29 and who knows where. Trusting the Garmin to get us home, we realized there were a few other places we might find along the way. What next?

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