Monday, May 13, 2013

Hiking the wilderness over Route 78

Even when you think you have a pretty good idea of what a site holds, it's always worth checking out a stray trail or two. Recently I discovered a narrow, unblazed footpath along Watchung Reservation's Surprise Lake and found my way to a whole new habitat I'd never known to be accessible. Ivan and I explored a bit farther a few days later, eventually finding the lake's marshy conclusion, hard by a sound barrier separating it from the roar of Route 78 traffic. I'd always figured that the waterway had to end somewhere; I'd just never bothered to try to get there.

It's really quite a beautiful place, if you can ignore the constant hum of interstate traffic. Choked with lilypads and wetlands grasses, the marsh is home to a number of aquatic birds, including two of my personal favorites: wood ducks and green herons. They're both fairly shy species, and our arrival caused a few to wing off to other hiding spots somewhere on the lake, but others simply swam to more secluded areas where we couldn't track them. From a wildlife viewing perspective, the place couldn't be more accommodating. Earthen berms cross the lake at two locations, allowing people (and horses in one area) to get a sense of the full length of the lake by basically standing on it. The first time around, we crossed the farthest berm out and returned to our starting point via another narrow path. It brought us up an embankment nestled against the sound barrier, the trail wandering a hundred feet or so away from but parallel to the lake's edge. Eventually we made it back to the point where I'd concluded my original exploration, and we returned to the car via the bridle path.

On our second visit this past Sunday, we discovered that the recent rains had created a stream across the start of the footpath, so we had to start our journey on the bridle path. Getting out to the berms was easy enough, and we crossed back to continue the trip. This is where we got a bit tripped up. Instead of taking the lower path that would have had us retracing our steps from the last time, we took the upper path that led uphill and closer to the sound barrier. Thing was, we didn't realize it until we were well down the path.

Route 78 bunny bridge
Route 78 overpass: a deer's eye view.
Something seemed a bit off. First, there was a steady stream of water coursing down the path. It wasn't troublesome, but it seemed like storm sewer water looking for level ground. The last time we were there, it hadn't rained for several days, so that wasn't a clear sign we were on the wrong path. Second, this route seemed noisier. I remembered hearing the dull roar of Route 78 traffic before, but I didn't recall it being so close. And third, the farther we got along the path, the more different the foliage was. Rather than a lot of underbrush, we had a pretty clear path through a tunnel of honeysuckle. It smelled wonderful, but still, it was a little offputting.

The noise issue seemed weird but only got stranger when I sensed the hum of traffic below us. Could we be on the famous Watchung Reservation bunny bridge?

If you're familiar with Route 78, you know that a series of bridges pass over the road in the Mountainside area. The easternmost carries Glenside Avenue across the highway, the westernmost holds an abandoned road that once led to a Nike base, and the one between them is covered with plants and trees. That wooded one is the bunny bridge, or wildlife overpass.

Why build a bridge for mammals and reptiles? The short answer is compromise. Originally, Interstate 78 was slated to run directly through Watchung Reservation, the largest plot of preserved land in Union County. Environmentalists and local residents held up construction for years, seeking an alternate route or perhaps to stop the road altogether. Meanwhile, the Federal government continued building and opening other segments of the highway, forcing travelers to find another route through the Mountainside/Summit/Springfield area.

To get the road built, government officials agreed to move the road to the edge of the Reservation and excavate a right-of-way into the Second Watchung ridge to lessen the sound impact. They also built a bridge from the main part of the Reservation to the thin sliver remaining on the westbound side of the highway, allowing wildlife to move easily between the two areas. With those elements in place, the road opened in 1986. Depending on who you talk to, the bunny bridge has been either accepted or shunned by animals.

Coincidentally, I'd recently gotten an e-mail from Hidden New Jersey reader Darian Worden, relating his own adventure on the bunny bridge. I thought we might be following his footsteps when we heard the humming traffic, but we weren't. A paved road and chain link fence joined us as we walked, raising a new discovery. I hadn't realized it, but the Glenside Avenue overpass also carries its own lane of vegetation and, presumably, the occasional mammal. We kept walking and eventually came to an athletic field where a girls' soccer league game was taking place. It was kind of like being in Field of Dreams, but without the baseball bats.

We hadn't found the bunny bridge, but something even odder (at least I think so). A view of the map shows that our path leads to additional county open space, but I'm not sure that deer are welcome there any more than they are throughout suburban New Jersey. I guess if you want to walk across Route 78 in relative safety, it's a place to do it, but you'd have to go through a bit of trouble - and mud - to do it.

(Incidentally, if you'd like to check out Darian's account and photos of the bunny bridge, surf on over to Head First Adventures.)

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