Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Having fun storming the castle

High on the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains lies a storied building called Kip's Castle. Originally built by textile magnate Frederick Kip and his wife Charlotte, this medieval Norman-style traprock and sandstone structure has seen other lives housing a controversial ashram and a law firm. Now it's an Essex County park.

I remember hearing about Kip's Castle back in the 1980's when it was a retreat center proclaiming the teachings of of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. His arrival, with several disciples in tow, created significant concern in Montclair, where many residents had heard about unorthodox rituals that had been conducted at his Poona, India compound. Rumors abounded, including that thousands of the guru's followers would descend on the community around the castle, leave orange dye in laundromat washers... you name it. None of it came to pass, though, and the Bhagwan left within a few years to establish another larger ashram in Montana.

Following the ashram's departure, Kip's Castle was largely abandoned and fell into disarray until it was purchased by a New Jersey law firm for its headquarters offices. After they rehabilitated the house, the firm also wanted to develop townhouses on the property, resulting in legal action by the host town of Verona. Eventually, the firm sold the property to the County of Essex, which uses the mansion and carriage house for county offices, leaving the remainder of the property open to the public as a passive park. In other words, there are no ballparks or picnic benches, but you can visit and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday.

I've long wanted to check out the property, and my curiosity was well satisfied during a recent visit. Ivan and I were headed to Garret Mountain on a different quest, and when I saw the sign for Kip's, I couldn't resist. After walking the perimeter of the house to take it in, we wandered the grounds, some of which was apparently landscaped in the past, with other parts totally left to nature. It reminded us in many ways of the work of Central Park architects Calvert and Vaux: pastoral and natural, using the contours of the original landscape. The entire property seemed to be surrounded by a rustic stone fence, and any man-made features were constructed from the same type of materials.

A little research revealed that Charlotte Bishop Williams Kip designed both the house and the landscape, and had even included an octagonal rose garden in her plans. Roses weren't evident on our visit, but Ivan found it a promising birding location, observing six or seven different species with very little effort. Observing the number of white oaks on the lot, along with the proximity to Garret, he supposed it would be an excellent draw for warblers during migration.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the park, the county is still working to determine the exact usage of the house and grounds, but in the meantime, it's a quiet, scenic retreat well worth a visit.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stay hidden, New Jersey!

Folks ... as Hurricane Irene starts to bear down on New Jersey, our usual Saturday and Sunday wanderings are curtailed in favor of the Weather Channel and marathon Scrabble games. We're hoping that the wind, rain and tree fates are kind to us and we'll have power throughout, but it may be a few days before you hear from us again. In the meantime, everyone, keep safe, dry and indoors!

Friday, August 26, 2011

When is a National Park not a National Park?

Head down I-295 in South Jersey near Philly and you'll eventually run into a confusing road sign.

Red Bank / National Park

Wait, did I read that right? Red Bank is in Monmouth County, near the shore. And it's not a national park. I'm certain of that. What's the deal with this very confusing nomenclature? Ivan and I decided to find out on our recent southbound jaunt.

Taking the designated exit, it wasn't long before we were greeted by a "Welcome to National Park" sign and a host of businesses named National Park this or that. However, nobody seemed to be wearing the distinctive National Park Service ranger hat or arrowhead. We eventually found our way to the Red Bank Battlefield, but that's another story. Let's get to the bottom of the National Park story first.

Located on the Delaware River across from Philadelphia, this tiny borough was originally part of West Deptford. It became the site of a Methodist Episcopal religious resort community in 1895, and was known as the National Park on the Delaware after the organizing group, the National Park Association. The organizers divided the area into plots of land that were sold to believers who came to the community to worship and learn more about their faith. The summer settlers created an association that incorporated the site as a municipality in 1902.

The community became more popular -- and more diverse -- after the opening of an amusement park and the establishment of ferry service from Philadelphia. Many Irish Catholics came from the city to enjoy National Park's beaches, fishing and amusements, and the original Methodists were no longer the dominant group in town. Eventually, with the onset of World War II and the booming shipbuilding industry on the Delaware, many of the remaining summer cottages were converted to year-round residences. National Park's transformation was complete.

It may not be a national monument, with only about 3200 residents, National Park gives visitors the sense of small town America, despite the proximity of a major interstate and one of the country's largest cities. In an upcoming post, we'll talk a little more about the Revolutionary War connection.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Searching Cowtown for cattle egrets and freakishly big mammals

Before we left on our southbound excursion to points dinosaur and elsewhere, Ivan checked the birding bulletin boards for unusual sightings.

"There are cattle egrets at Cowtown Rodeo in Salem County. And a Eurasian collared dove on Route 40."

Cowtown?  COWTOWN? I've been looking for an excuse to get there, well, forever... and with the hadrosaurus already on our itinerary, I couldn't resist the opportunity to add two oversized mammals to the list of inanimate creatures to visit.

I'd heard about Cowtown eons ago but have only driven past it once. Located in Pilesgrove, it's New Jersey's only stop on the professional rodeo circuit and the country's oldest weekly rodeo. You can't miss it on 40: you're greeted by a muffler man dressed as a cowboy, and a statue of some sort of oversized bovine (Steer? Cow? It's got both udders and horns, so your guess is as good as mine.) I'm not much of a rodeo fan, but the lure of mammoth, non-anatomically-correct creatures is too great to resist.

We got there to find the place deserted, as the sign said that the rodeo is only open Tuesday through Saturday. Not a soul was there, but for some cattle lounging in the adjacent pasture. I took a bunch of pictures as Ivan began scouring the area for egrets and doves. He saw plenty of cowbirds and gulls, but the egrets were nowhere to be found, so we continued our wanderings around Salem County farm country. At least one of us had found our quarry.

The egrets? We finally found them not far away, in a grazing area on Sharptown-Auburn Road. Four of 'em were doing what cattle egrets do -- hanging out in the field with the cows. Another life bird for Sue, another year bird for Ivan. The dove, however, eluded our search.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Haddonfield: Where dinosaurs still tower

A casual visitor to Haddonfield might wonder what a life-sized dinosaur statue is doing downtown in this historic, upscale Camden County town. Was a Godzilla movie made here? Did a grade school class petition to have their favorite prehistoric creature placed here? What gives?

Hadrosaurus Foulkii sculpture
by John Giannotti
This shopping-district denizen is actually a representation of the Hadrosaurus, the first find of a nearly-complete dinosaur, and the event that put Haddonfield on the paleontological map in the mid 1800s. It's also a demonstration of what a determined young person can do when presented with some pretty neat data about his home town.

First, the discovery. Back in 1858, summer visitor William Foulke heard that some really big bones had been found 20 years earlier in a marl pit behind the home of his host, John Hopkins. Marl was used as fertilizer at the time, and the area was rich in the deposits, which also contained the remnants of the ancient sea which had once covered the area. Being a bit of a fossil hound himself, Foulke hired assistants to help him explore the pit in hopes of finding more bones. They soon hit pay dirt and along with prehistoric shells and other detritus, were able to unearth more bones from this single specimen than other digs had found of any other creature to date. The find was dubbed Hadrosaurus foulkii, and according to a website about the find, the name derives from the Greek words hadros (large, bulky) and sauros (lizard), along with the name of the man who'd originated the search, but it also seems to be named for the town where it was found. The bones were sent to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and studies on the specimen there contributed to the Academy's reputation as the foremost authority on paleontology for its time. Foulke eventually found another specimen nearby, Hadrosaurus' predator Dryptosaurus aquilunguis.

For over a century, the site was little known outside scientific circles, and one might even wonder if local residents had any idea it was there. The site had become a dumping ground over the years and was largely in disarray. That all changed in 1984, when Boy Scout Christopher Brees chose it as his Eagle Scout project. Today, thanks to his efforts, the find site is commemorated a small park above a ravine in a residential setting at the end of Maple Avenue in Haddonfield. The site has also been named a National Historic Landmark, and the Hadrosaurus was named the state dinosaur in 1991.

Christopher's family continues to maintain the memorial park, and while it's tiny, it's very pleasant. Beyond a plaque and explanatory signage, the park has a picnic bench on which someone (maybe the family?) has thoughtfully left some accurate and not-so-accurate dinosaur toys. You can also hike down to the ravine where the bones were found, but there's no exact marker of the dig site.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Something fishy on Route 46

Route 46 is one of my new favorite New Jersey highways. No, I'm not talking about that six lane mess by Little Falls and all that. I'm talking about the meandering two lane road that winds through Hackettstown and points west, landing you somewhere near the Pennsylvania border in Warren County. Without a lot of effort, you can imagine the road as it was 60 or 70 years ago, when it was probably the easiest way to get from New York City to bucolic camping, fishing and hunting grounds for a weekend or longer. It also brings you to the scenic setting of Hot Dog Johnny's in Buttzville, where you can eat a tube steak and drink ice cold buttermilk beside the Pequest River, but that's a story for another day.

Having a free day ahead of us, Ivan and I got in the car and headed west along 46, open to whatever we came upon. One of our longer stops was the Pequest Fish Hatchery and Natural Resource Education Center, located in Oxford, Warren County and birthplace of many of the trout fished from New Jersey waters. More than just a fish farm, the facility has a host of educational displays and occasional programs to inform the public about the outdoors and fishing as a hobby.

First, though, the trout farm. If you've passed one of the state's lakes, ponds or rivers on a certain Saturday morning in April, you'll be treated to the sight of a host of people standing on the banks, rod and reel in hand, who spring into action at the stroke of eight. That's when fishing restrictions end in bodies of water that have been stocked with Pequest-born trout by the State Department of Environmental Protection. There's an entire production line of sorts that starts about a year before the trout are introduced to the outside world.

Follow the path of fishes painted on the sidewalk from the parking lot and you'll reach the business end of the hatchery and a step-by-step explanation of what happens there from season to season. When we were there, the indoor broodstock area was quiet, but explanatory signs and photos showed how fish eggs and sperm are collected from breeder stock; how the small fish, or fingerlings, are handled; and the length of their stay in the building. From there, we were directed to a series of raceways where the fish grow to adult size over the course of a year.

With fish, not surprisingly, come fish hawks. We saw several osprey flying above the outdoor fish pools and roosting on nearby lampposts. One even had its still-squirming trout lunch firmly grasped in his talons. It appears that the hatchery prevents the birds from grabbing the smaller fish by stringing wires across the tops of the pools, but we couldn't easily see any barriers on the raceways holding the larger trout. Management may see them as acceptable losses since osprey are on the state's threatened species list. Whatever the case,  it was a treat to see four or five osprey hunting in upland New Jersey, even if they were fishing in the proverbial barrel.

Weekday visitors can also check out the indoor education center, which holds plenty of informative exhibits on the state's natural environment and the status of endangered and threatened species. Live fish and taxidermy show the various animals found nearby, including several birds of prey. While the center is appropriate for visitors of all ages, it's neither too simplistic nor too technical in presenting environmental concerns and the need to protect and preserve our natural resources.

Regardless of how you feel about fishing, the Pequest facility points out the complex balance of our environment. If the rivers, lakes and streams aren't basically healthy, no amount of stocking will make them amenable to sustaining life. Plus, sport fishers (and hunters) are more apt to want to protect the environment if they understand that their 'catch' won't be there if the ecosystem is suffering. Like many of the places we've visited, the hatchery is committed to educating the public and hopefully creating some environmentalists, and that's a good thing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Trying out the Appalachian Trail

Many years ago, I had a secret ambition to walk the full 2175 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It was back when I was hiking a bit more than I have in the past few years, and I'd seen a PBS series on the trail. The producers had given three or four hikers each a camera to record their experiences as they made their way up from Springer Mountain, Georgia up to the northern terminus, Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

My brief enthusiasm for a through-hike went away a bit ago for several reasons, including the fact that my cat would probably resist the prospect of living in a backpack for six months. I always meant, though, to try out the relatively brief portion that jogs across the northernmost corner of New Jersey. At least I could say I was ON it.

This is not the part of the A Trail
that runs along Interstate 80.
I didn't know until recently that Ivan has also felt the tug of the trail. He mentioned it earlier this summer, when we did a short jaunt on the trail off of Route 94 in Sussex County to see some bobolinks. Leaving the car at a marked lot, we traversed a farm field (the only place where the trail actually crosses farmland) and went a few hundred feet into a very rocky portion of the woods. I was surprised at the narrowness of the trail across the field -- really only wide enough to accommodate single-file trekking. Then again, doing the through-hike is largely a solitary experience, each hiker facing his or her own challenges, both physical and mental.

Since then, we've had the chance to taste the trail in three other states and visited the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Thus, it didn't completely surprise me when, as we were driving along Route 80 recently, Ivan suggested we stop and check out the trail near the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area's Kittatinny Ridge Visitor Center. If you're familiar with Route 80, it's the last exit before you get to Pennsylvania, and it circles under the highway to the banks of the Delaware. Actually, if you want, you can grab the trail on the westbound side of 80, but we chose to get a little information from the rangers before heading out. As I guided the car to a parking spot, Ivan noted that it was a novelty to just about be driving on the trail.

Kittatinny Ridge Visitor Center is open seasonally and appears to be a newish building; I recall stopping at another building at or near the same location. In any case, Ivan had the chance to chat with a ranger about the trail in New Jersey and possible camping spots for a trial excursion over a weekend. While he was doing that, I scanned through the displays of flora and fauna of the Water Gap. It's been a long time since I've done any ground-level camping (well, any camping of any stripe, to be honest), and it was interesting to hear that many hikers eschew the ground for a hammock.

With information in hand, we headed outside to look for the A Trail's characteristic rectangular white blazes. Ivan finally found them through his binoculars, and they led... right along the access road we'd driven on just a few minutes before. Apparently his earlier comments were truer than either of us expected they would be. We set off on the paved surface and followed the blazes along the guard rail, observing that this had to be one of the most level portions of the entire trail. No doubt it's even a bit disconcerting to the average through-hiker, considering the number of cars speeding by just yards away.

It was pretty much a certainty that we wouldn't cross the path of any bears during our brief jaunt, but we did have two unexpected encounters. Two large-ish gray snakes slithered away and into some roadside riprap just before we passed one spot, both on our walk out and our return trip a few minutes later. From what we could tell, they weren't the poisonous kind, but nonetheless, it's a bit disquieting to think of them snuggling up to you in your backpack. All of a sudden, that hammock sounds like a good idea.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Paddling through the Venice of New Jersey

The Rahway River winds lazily through Cranford, inspiring the town's nickname, the Venice of New Jersey. Luckily, it's too shallow for motored navigation, leaving it the domain of rowers, intrepid and not so much. Back in the day, Cranford residents enjoyed many river festivals, with pageants of intricately-decorated rafts floating downstream. The Rahway also had a major influence on local architecture: many of the Victorian-era homes in the northern part of town show prettier faces on the river side than they do to the streets in front of them.

Boathouses for several canoe clubs once dotted the banks, but today, things are a lot quieter on the Rahway, with just one clubhouse still in operation and renting canoes and kayaks to the public. Ivan and I capitalized on one of this summer's overcast and hot Sunday mornings to venture onto the river.

The route runs through what's probably the curviest part of the river in town, which means that you float under two roads and a total of five bridges from your start on Springfield Avenue to the part of the river near Nomahegan Park where it gets too shallow to row. In between, you get the feeling of being in a much smaller, less densely populated town than you experience by driving through. More than a few of the backyards have small docks or patios directly on the river and overturned canoes on the lawn, waiting for their next adventure. I wished I'd lived there when I was a kid: I'd have probably driven my parents crazy, pleading for a boat of my own.

I'd done the paddle once before with a friend who grew up in town and knew the ins and outs of the river, but that was several years ago and there were far more people out canoeing. In fact, if memory serves, we also ran into one or two kayakers with rods and reels, trying their luck after the state stocked the river. This more recent trip was much more sedate, with only a few other rowers out there.

For intrepid rowers, this is a walk in the park -- no real discernible current, no rapids, just a gentle trip helped along by an occasional paddle. For those who aren't as skilled, there are more than a couple of hazards to make it interesting, mostly caused by rogue tree branches spanning portions of the river. While we were keeping our eyes and ears trained for birds and other wildlife, we had to keep on our toes as not to head straight into a branch. Our biggest challenge was a slalom of sorts, with a large branch hanging low across most of the width of the river at one point, followed by a shorter but still substantial branch coming across the other side just a few yards down. We navigated the course successfully on the way out, but the way back was a little more challenging, with the front end of the canoe grounding against the bank and me with my face squarely in a nice bit of greenery. What is it that they say about 'leaves of three'? Who the heck gets a poison ivy rash from canoeing?

Many naturalists wouldn't have much hope for interesting encounters on a suburban paddle, but we either saw or heard about a dozen bird species. I was a little disappointed not to see any herons or egrets, particularly my favorite, the black-crowned night heron, but we did see three turtles resting on an old log, and some fish swimming about in shallower waters. We even saw a young deer browsing the brush at the edge of somebody's backyard.

Verdict? If you've got a hankering to get out on the water and you can't make the drive out to less populated spots, the Rahway in Cranford is your ticket. You can even take public transportation to get there: the canoe club is a quick, half-mile walk from the NJ Transit station. Just be careful getting your kayak onto the train.

By the way, it wasn't poison ivy, after all, but it didn't hurt to take some precautions when I got home.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Visiting Belvidere's Shoe Tree (not that kind)

While researching Belvidere for a blog post on our Uncle Buck's dining experience earlier this year, I discovered a historic site that we hadn't been made aware of when we were downtown in the county seat. A trip to the Four Sisters Winery this weekend gave us an opportunity to stop back and check it out.

Yes, my friends, we visited the legendary 350 year old Shoe Tree Oak. It's not quite as old as the mighty Salem Oak, but it's remarkable in its own way.

I'd assumed that befitting its stature, there would be signs pointing us in the direction of the tree, but we were sorely disappointed to find that wasn't the case. Fortunately I'd remembered it was on Oxford Street, which we found after a bit of driving around (note to the Garmin people: this site must be added to your maps!). It didn't take long before I spotted the mighty oak, slightly jutting out from the curb in front of a well-kept home. According to my earlier research, there was talk of taking the tree down when the street was widened some years ago, but concerned citizens intervened and the oak was saved for future generations.

Despite my pleading,
Ivan refused to change his shoes.
Beyond its age, what makes this oak so remarkable? It's a living link to an earlier time, when Belvidere was less developed and most people didn't have cars. According to legend, the Shoe Tree Oak is where the country folk would stop to put on their shoes on their way to church in town. I don't know for sure, but I'd venture that they were wearing their Sunday best and didn't want to wear out their nice shoes too quickly.

Today, the tree is apparently healthy and long-lived, and its location just into the street creates a very nice parking place for visitors. A historical marker tells the story of the tree for passers by.

While we were there taking pictures and checking it out, a man from the house was watering his garden. For a moment I considered asking him about the tree and whether the privilege of having it in front of his house weighed heavily on him and his family. Does the tree create a raking issue in the fall? Does it leave sap on his car windows? Then I realized that he deserved his privacy despite living behind such a historic place. They must get several visitors a year asking about the tree, after all.

The tree also lent its name to the nearby Shoe Tree Deli, which, unfortunately for us, is closed (we needed coffee and lots of it). A quick search found that it's on sale for $325,000, including the gas pumps. Here's your chance to own a footnote to history!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mill Creek Marsh: the shorebirds' preferred Turnpike rest stop

On a hot Saturday morning, with not a cloud in the sky, we headed to the Meadowlands to find some shorebirds. Believe it or not, their migration season has already begun, and surely some would be making a pit stop in the area for rest and refreshments.

Our first stop was DeKorte Park, home to the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, but it wasn't as productive as we'd hoped. Despite the substantial trail network there, much of our expected route was off limits, and besides, it was high tide. The sandpipers and plovers didn't have much space to peck about in the mud, because it was essentially flooded for the time being. It was time for plan B, Mill Creek Marsh off the Hackensack River in Secaucus.

Mill Creek is just a few miles away
from downtown Manhattan, as the crow flies.
If you've used the eastern spur of the NJ Turnpike just south of the Vince Lombardi Service Area, you know Mill Creek, even if you don't know its name. Tucked away in the Harmon Meadow shopping area near Bob's Discount Furniture, this spot indicates what the Meadowlands was like in the days before landfills and rampant development. Shoppers looking for great deals can easily take a walk back in time and learn a bit about the natural climate that predates the retail complex.

What we didn't see at DeKorte we saw at Mill Creek in abundance: sandpipers, yellowlegs, and both snowy and great egrets. Never having seen both kinds of egret together, I was amused to see that the great is quite a bit bigger than the snowy; but for the difference in beak color I'd have thought the snowy was the great's offspring. We also were treated to the sight of an immature Baltimore oriole, its orange markings not yet darkened from the juvenile yellow.

Marsh wrens, though clearly making their presence known vocally, were frustratingly difficult to spot. It seemed that every time we approached a substantial patch of spartina, one or two would start to sing, but they never came up to introduce themselves. After a few instances, I mused that there had to be some sort of trip wire along the path that triggers a recording of the song every time someone gets near. Well, even if we didn't actually spot them, I enjoyed their song.

Mill Creek offers a lot, even if you're not into birds. The area was regraded and restored to highlight the beauty of its original tidal flow, and this time of year you'll see plenty of blooming marsh mallow along the path along with healthy marsh grasses. Surprisingly, on our visit it wasn't buggy at all; while we saw the average number of dragonflies and butterflies, we were unscathed by mosquitoes. Proper tidal flow and ample insect-eating birds are doing their job, it seems.

Marsh mallow and other wetlands greenery
overtake an old cedar stump.
Once you get to one of the pools closer to the highway, you'll also see remnants of the Meadows' historic past -- the stumps of American cedar trees. Long ago, the marshes were home to large tracts of these fragrant hardwood trees, and their demise is the subject of a few interesting Colonial-era stories. Some say that the colonists burned the forest down before the Revolution, to root pirates out from the many hiding places on streams within the swamp. Others say that the forests were cut down to the point of extinction, their highly-prized wood sold off for various uses. The scientific answer is that human intervention (namely the construction of the Oradell Dam) changed the water composition, turning the marsh brackish and cutting off the fresh water the trees need. Regardless of what happened, the stumps remain, creating an interesting landscape of gnarled and weathered roots and perches for cormorants and the like.

The only real down side to Mill Creek is the incessant hum of Turnpike traffic, but you can still hear the sounds of the marsh without much trouble (where are those truck noise cancelling headphones when you need them?). It doesn't take much to see that the Meadowlands is on the rebound after years of environmental abuse. Just ask the birds: they're finding plenty of healthy food to eat, and the marsh is clearly on their maps.