Tuesday, October 22, 2019

MD Fair Hill Big Elk Creek Loop Trail in Old New Munster

We sort of jogged this winding unmarked but well-used trail on the east bank of Big Elk Creek. It twists and turns through the ruins of old farmsteads, mills, and abandoned roads with few blazes or trail marker. Some of it is wild and might have looked a lot like it did when a wave of Scots-Irish immigrants first arrived in the early 1700s at the invitation Maryland land grant holder Colonel George Talbot, a Catholic immigrant from the Ulster region. Some of it is groomed and landscaped - and marked - managed much as it was when William DuPont, Jr. owned the land for his riding and fox hunting interests during the 20th century. In any case, "walking" the trail(s) proved an interesting look back at nearly three hundred years of land use albeit at a clip.

Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area - DuPont's fox hunting range

In the late 1600s, Colonel Talbot recruited fellow Scots-Irish immigrants to help him settle colonial lands that bordered William Penn's colony to the north.  He called this 6,000 acre tract New Munster. He had a plan to "spill" into the unmarked and murky colonial boundary lands to lay claim for Catholic Maryland with those Irish settlers. But William Penn, too, had a plan. He promoted Quaker, Scot, and German settlement into the same murky boundary and lay claim for the Commonwealth. Thus was set in motion an 80 year simmering war ended only with the demarcation of the Mason Dixon Line.

Carriage Road at Fair Hill.

Today the landscape that was New Munster still holds many of the place names given to it in the early 1700s but most of this land eventually became the property of William Dupont, Jr. in a spectacular land grab during the 20th century. Economic depression and worn-out soils made once-industrious farmers unproductive and desperately poor. Foreclosed farms were a dime a dozen for the wealthy DuPont. He assembled a vast land holding and managed it for fox hunting, fox hounds, and horse racing.

Ruins of the mill complex, Scotts Mills. 

After DuPont's death in the early 1960s, the state of Maryland eventually came into ownership and it is presently undergoing a major renovation to become a national/international equine sports facility. The wilder sections of the Fair Hill tract contain all kinds of riding trails, carriage roads, and hiking/biking paths. For this hike I was being pulled along a 5-mile loop of mixed carriage roads and forest trails at the end of Amos' lead, tho' he did sit politely as equestrians and bikers crossed our path. After the first mile, while stopped at the mill ruins I realized I was getting agitated with him.

Big Elk Creek, a major source or power for a thriving number of mills in the 1800s.

I've left a lot of miles on the trail this year recovering from broken bones and damaged soft-tissue injury from a steep fall last October. As I lunged along after Amos I realized how careful I was trying to be, almost sub-consciously afraid to take a big leap or scramble down a hill, complaining. Really it was me who needed to loosen up. I've been stretching, running treadmill, doing yoga, and taking lots of "safe" walks or bike rides this year but finally I had to just accept that I was ready to push it. Past the old mill ruins I started jogging behind him, taking bigger strides, hopping over logs, high-stepping up the steep bits.  Once I readjusted my attitude I started to have a lot of fun.

DuPont's "Super Fence"

The trail passed through DuPont's "Super Fence," a fourteen mile-long concrete and chain link barrier built to keep hounds and horses from crossing into areas of roads and other human hazards where they might be injured.  Though unfinished, it stands as a reminder that the world "out there" was a dangerous place for highly trained and valuable animals.  Amos jogged me down steep embankments and across old abandoned roads that, in their day, were busy with traffic. The cracked asphalt barely showed through fifty years of weeds and forest duff.

Jackson Schoolhouse Road was outside the Super Fence. 

There was a hulk of a car lying on its side down an embankment by an old washed out bridge. It had fins and heavy chrome bumpers (!) that shone through the brush.  Rotting white-walled tires were strewn in the weedy ditch along Jackson Schoolhouse Road. Amos just powered along on his trail, following switchbacks, snaking through ruins, and galloping down the old lanes. He let out one tremendous coonhound bay and I thought for sure he'e found his quarry, but no, we just kept tracking. I could hear the loudspeaker from the equestrian event across the river and came a reply to Amos' call from some foxhound on the other side. 

Barn ruin of Redbank Sandstone.

We came across an old mine pit. At the time of the Civil War, the Fair Hill/New Munster region was home to almost 80 mines where feldspar, chromium, and iron were dug. Irish immigrants worked the mines and dug the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal to the west and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the south. Away from their New Munster homes, the Irish workers lived a rough life and were considered expendable labor at the canal sites. 

Old wagon path  (Beechdrops Orchid). 

Ten thousand micks they swung their picks to dig the new canal
but the cholera was stonger 'n' they
and twice it killed them all. 

"The pay was low, there were no benefits, and the death rate astronomical," Erika Sturgill wrote for the local paper The Cecil Whig (see Notes). "African American slave labor was used, but not as extensively as Irish workers, because at that time slaves had a dollar value while an Irishman did not." The New Munster area. however, proved a place where Irish settlers laid down roots and built hundreds of farms and businesses. "It was as good a place to come home to as any could imagine after a season in the canals." As we passed back through the Super Fence onto the abandoned Jackson School House Road and skirted along a modern street with pretty homes, he found a carriage road leading back into the DuPont section and finally Amos began to slow down.  

Tulip Poplars roadblock. 

I never did figure out what it was that Amos was tracking but I'd like to think he was determined to drag me along until I finally surrendered to having a good trail run. I was pretty sore the next day (so was he) but without the concern I may have re-injured something. There are so many trails to explore at Fair Hill that I know we'll back soon and maybe I can stop more along the way to take pictures. I didn't get many chances this time out!

GPS tracking app traced Amos' wild hike!


Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area is managed by Maryland DNR. https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/central/fairhill.aspx

From the Cecil Whig:

A very (very) short history:

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

PA Northwest Lancaster County Rail Trail

The landscapes of the Mid-Atlantic can hardly be described as wild. Almost every square foot of mountain, forest, and river bank has been mined, logged. farmed, or altered by an industry in the last two hundred years. The truth is, there are few places in our six or seven state area that survive in their natural state - untouched by exploitation. But, as I try to convey with the title of my blog, there are substantial portions of our region that have recovered as semi-wild state - maybe approaching wilderness.

Early 20th century scene of the Mussleman-Vesta Hot Blast Furnance, Marietta. 

Riding the Northwest Lancaster County Rail Trail (NLCRT) really gives a sense of the industrial history that formed these landscapes and which nature is not-so-slowly reclaiming. I must admit I was off my bike as much as on it in order to take all this in. Bainbridge, Marietta, and Columbia are beautiful river towns on the Lancaster side of the river and, minus the smoke, noise, and dust of their industrial pasts, are wonderfully walkable and fun to explore.  So many hidden treasures and so many reasons to find it a little wild.

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I started the rail train at the Columbia Crossing Center, the new visitor and programs center on the bank of the river. The center is a major investment in transforming an industrial town into a center of arts, museums, music, parks, and vibrant small businesses. I could see how much excitement there is for the "new" Columbia by just how fast three parking lots filled up! Glad I got there early.

Columbia Crossing Center. 
At about the time large-scale mining, milling, and manufacturing reached their peak in these towns during early 1900s, there were movements afoot in Pennsylvania that encouraged town and city folk to invest in greening their urban landscapes.  Mira Dock, a trained botanist and Harrisburg resident, became a one-woman movement for tree planting in towns and cities not for beautification but because trees "make us healthier." She was passionate about the cause and provided the science behind it. "Trees produce oxygen! Trees filter the air we breathe!" Susquehanna River towns like Bainbridge, Marietta, and Columbia  participated in her tree planting efforts and many of those early 20th century trees still grace town streets and parks.

Who doesn't love a tunnel to ride through? 
Past the nearly hidden ruins of the 19th century St. Charles Foundry Stack, I zipped through the  Point Rock tunnel blasted out of underlying metamorphosed  mud shales that in some places still show the ripple marks from a silty-sandy seabed. Thin layers of mica embedded in bands of shale-turned-phyllite gives the rock a shimmery look.

Chickies Rock

Chickies Rock looms large ahead. The 100' quartzite anticline formation is very resistant to weathering and may be one reason for the dogleg in the river where the Susquehanna bends sharply around this height of land. It's a favorite destination for rock climbers and by the time I returned at noon the site had filled up with climbers and curious onlookers. In the early morning light, however, the great rectangular joints and blocks were great to observe. These were caused by intense pressure due to the collision of continents that formed the nearby Appalachian Mountains.

Ripple marks on Chickies Rock quartzite 

The trail crosses several creeks and dry washes on wood plank bridges. This past year has been a record-maker for precipitation in Lancaster County and viewing the gullies and creeks from above made it really obvious that flash floods are more frequent events. Creek banks are scoured of summer vegetation. Dry washes show signs of recent and major rock movement with crush and scrape marks on boulders that have been pushed along by fast-moving flood water.  The scoured bed of Chiques Creek once held a large dam that fed water to a large saw mill here. The dam was removed in 2015 to free fifteen miles of upland creek for American shad and eel. Dam removal at these former industrial sites is an important conservation strategy to reunite migrating fish with their historic spawning creeks, but I wondered what the effect the flooding has had on spawning this year.

Chiques Creek is now free of its old dam, a big win for native fish conservation.
By the time I arrived at the outskirts of Marietta, I was well aware that the woods, fields, and riverbanks have all been under extensive transition from 19th industrial sites to the park-like setting we see now. The rate of change is astounding. How quickly nature takes it all back when given the chance. At  Musselman-Vesta Iron Works an almost spooky setting of encroaching forest and hulking tressle ruins tangle on the site of the large blast operation.

From the Marietta Restoration Associates website:

According to George Miller, a local Marietta resident who had worked at the furnace for 16-years before it closed, ten carloads of scrap iron and manganese ore were fed into the furnace each day to produce a daily output of 80 tons of ferromanganese. Miller noted that the manganese ores came from all over the world, and its ferromanganese product was shipped by rail to steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, Coatesville and Pittsburgh. The furnace burned coke (five carloads per day) which came from Connellsville in western Pennsylvania. By that time, the furnace had four hot blast stoves which preheated air to 1300-degrees Fahrenheit, two large blowing engines, a gas washer and dryer to precondition gases before they were sent to pre-heaters and boilers and an elaborate pumping system to bring water from the river to the steam engines. New stock sheds and new railway lines on concrete piers were also added. Remains of the pump house, piers and other foundations are visible today among the undergrowth on the site.

The remains of one of four high-blast furnaces.

This was a beast of a furnace and under its last owner, E.J. Lavino, it was put into high grade metals production in support of the war effort in 1917-1919. After the war it ceased operations and fell into ruin except for the small square office building that holds a fantastic small museum. I counted six species of butterflies on the low round remains of the smoke stake that once stood over a hundred feet high.

Concrete piers that supported a railway that delivered anthracite coal to the the furnace. 

I stopped in at the museum and the docent there told me to leave my bike and take a walk around town.  I looked for some of the old grand street trees planted in Mira Dock's time and I found so much more. Restorations, lovingly done to public buildings, churches, homes, and businesses, were abundant. When I returned for my bike I asked how this town was so picture perfect despite economic downturns.  He explained that as was the case with many Lower Susquehanna River towns the clean-up from the historic flood of Tropical Storm Agnes ushered in a period of restoration and renewal funded by large recovery grants and rebuilding investments. "The town really took the time to decide what it wanted to be in its next life and money was used wisely. Marietta took this imperative to heart and the town really is a gem."

Early 20th century worker's homes lovingly restored. 

Past a row of restored workers homes, the trail dips steeply down a loose gravel embankment. I stopped again and explored the shady banks. The shores are silt-covered in several inches of brown muck that obliterated any chance of summer growth. Only a scum of algae had formed on the dried crusty plates that crackled underfoot.  The woods were quiet - fall migration has begin and the birds have moved on.

Silt plates.

Young Sam Haldeman would have roamed these woods and riverside in the early 1800s.  His interests in nature and natural history led him on to Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. He worked as a state geologist and university professor for Delaware College and the University of Pennsylvania.

Monarch cat on milkweed

"He loved each thing for the thing itself," wrote J.P. Lesley, an early biographer. "He was the most trustworthy observers—one of the most accurate naturalists that ever lived." Haldeman literally wrote the book on eastern mollusks and Charles Darwin found much of interest in his papers on comparative zoology and freshwater species and wrote to his friend Charles Lyell about Sam's work.  The National Academies of Science recognized him as one of America's first scientific naturalists.

Sam Haldeman by Mathew Brady, (National Archives)
The bike trail was originally a hiking trail, the Charles Greenway, that connected Bainbridge and Marietta which explains the rolling and rambling section along the river that in sections was part of the Main Line Canal towpath. Modern trails like this can usually be traced to some previous use - even our big interstates were once native paths for seasonal migrations and trade routes. In 2010 the Greenway was upgraded to paved multi-use recreational trail. Even the grand old bridges can be traced back to old ferry crossings and shallows where people found it easiest to cross.

Shocks Mill Bridge, a 28-span stone arch railway bridge built in 1905.

The walk-around is a little tricky - best to slow way down or better yet, walk your bike. 

In the early 1700s the Susquehanna posed a serious obstacle to westward migration. A good ferry and skilled ferryman were necessary to carry people, animals, and freight across this rocky and sometimes nasty stretch of river. During the 1800s when the Underground Railroad was operating through Pennsylvania, some of these old ferry routes offered ways to move people fleeing slavery across with having to access a bridge and thus capture from southern bounty hunters who frequented them. I had heard this was true for the old Vinegar's Ferry site and I again hopped off my bike to investigate.

Vinegar's Ferry depicted in the early 1800s. 

An old river approach
Riding into Bainbridge to the end of the paved section of trail (there is another 4-mile stretch of proposed rail trail yet to be finished), I had to stop at the odd but wonderful White Cliffs of Conoy. These are no White Cliffs of Dover but simply an impressive pile of limestone quarry tailings - industrial waste. Though now in public ownership, there's not much but a sagging orange plastic fence to keep someone from sliding off the overlook. More fascinating to me was that this quarry operation had its own town of 1,000 residents. Nothing of it remains except for some factory ruins in the woods across the railroad tracks. The quarry pit out of sight on the bluff across from the tailings pile is easily seen on Google Maps. It is now a scuba center. You can see, too, Sam Haldeman's home while you are taking in the satellite view.

White Cliffs of Conoy

A mile or so more on the path and I came to the end of the paved section, stopping at Koser Park along the water front. I sat and had lunch looking across the water to nearby Haldeman Island with the tall stacks of the Brunner Island Electric Station showing above the trees. The whole area in and around Bainbridge was once a series of native villages, occupied in succession by the Shenk's Ferry, Susquehannock, and Conoy people. The island camps and the shore villages would have been busy this time of year with fishing and harvesting crops, putting up food for the long winter ahead. The dogwoods and locust are just beginning to show some color and autumn is just arriving.


For more on Mira Dock, see: Ellen Stroud. "Dirt in the City: Urban Environmental History in the Mid-Atlantic." Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 79, No. 4, Autumn 2012.

Marietta Restoration Associates http://www.mariettarestoration.org/history.html

J.P. Lesley. Memoir of Sam Stedman Haldeman, 1812-1880. Monograph read before the National Academy of Sciences. http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/haldeman-s-s.pdf

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

PA Horse-Shoe Trail: RT 113 to Saint Peters

When I last checked my hiking log I noticed it has been a while since I've done a section of Pennsylania's Horse-Shoe Trail (HST) so with the weather forecast of low humidity and decent temperatures (no stupid heat), I decided to do a one-way thru for Map 2 from RT 113 to Saint Peters where I left off back in 2017. I posted a question on the HST FB page about finding someone to help shuttle me to the start of my hike and very soon had a reply from a HST hiker. I met Suzanne at the upper parking area in Saint Peters and we had a great chat on the way to the trail crossing at RT 113. I'll repay her the favor by providing a shuttle for she and her husband when they come west to try a section of the Mason Dixon Trail!

A bit of wading through high brush in spots but oh! the butterflies!

There's some of road-walking in this section but less now that the trail has been moved to field edges and pasture boundaries across some beautiful farmland. A lot of this was overgrown but long pants, bug spray, and hiking poles (to thrash a path through nettle and thistle) made it doable. I counted eleven species of butterflies in these sections and saw more monarchs than I have anywhere in years.

Eastern Box Turtle 

I helped a Box Turtle across a twisty road where cars seemed suddenly appear and zoom past without any regard for a hiker much less a turtle. I got a few confused, darting glances from drivers as I jogged across the road and slipped around a pasture fence with the scooped-up turtle.  I walked him waaaay across a field and placed him just inside the woody edge far from the road. One less box turtle casualty this year. I really wish people would slow down - everywhere.

HST trail markers are a mix of real horseshoes, posts, and paint blazes

I'd sprayed my legs, socks, and boots with Deep Woods Off in preparation for ticks and mosquitoes, but still pulled two traveling ticks off my pants leg. They didn't look too well, tho' - I really doused my pants with that stuff. What I wasn't prepared for were the hundreds of orb weaver spider webs that, along with their owners (really laid back spiders - they don't bite), I carried on my hat, backpack, hiking poles, clothes, and face (yes, my face). I began using my poles to wave ahead of me and clear webs but I missed a bunch trying to use my poles for actual hiking uphill and that added more webs to my wearable spider silk collection.

Haying season is well underway. 

The HST is about 140 miles long with the north terminus at the AT above Harrisburg to Valley Forge National Park at the southern end but add in a few side trails to visit historic towns and sights, and you can add another 25 miles to the HST section hike adventure. As far as long distance trails go, the HST wasn't designed to serve well as a thru-hike. There just aren't enough places to camp to make it feasible (and legal) but I know a few who have done it. Most have "stealth camped" in parks after dark and been up and gone before the park opens the next day. Not my cup of tea, tho' so I'm happy with day hikes.

Coventry Ice Cream Parlor in Coventry - YUM!

The river has been up with all the rain this season so I found a notice on a trail pole that crossings are at your own risk. Had I been with others I would have considered going down to the river and take a look to see if it was lower than chest high (!!) but a detour was provided, and I was solo, so I took it. More road walking into the sweet little crossroad village of Conventry and LO! the best ice cream parlor and lunch spot! I wandered in thirsty and hungry and had the best sandwich, chips, two sodas and an ice cream. It was exactly what I needed when I needed it. And, as a bonus, the wait staff found my spider web collection to be really interesting and were not at all bothered by it.

Horses had already passed through Warwick County Park section - no spider webs!

The road walk continued through the village and down across French Creek on a road bridge. I found the trail again at one end of Warwick County Park. I've hiked here before and it was just as beautiful as the first time. The old woods roads serve as trails. They are wide and well cared for.  An oriole and redstart sang from the edge of the river just out of sight from the trail. After a few miles the HST comes into the main park area and I was able to refill my water bottle at the bottle station at the park office. I'd only seen one other hiker the whole day so far so it was nice to see lots of people enjoying the day outside.

HST follows an old road in Warwick County Park

Another few miles and I came into the French Creek valley approaching Saint Peters Village. The HST passes through a rich geological area and I slowed way down to admire the diabase creek boulders and outcroppings of sedimentary gravels and sandstone that slant upwards along the carved-out banks. These layered beds are Triassic in origin and not far from here have been found to contain dinosaur trackways. I hiked up a steep rise of frost-shattered talus to find the trail junction with the HST and the blue-blazed side trail that leads into Saint Peters where my car was parked at 15 miles from my start.

Triassic sedimentary beds rise out of French Creek among more recent igneous intrusions - now a boulder field.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

ME Rachel Carson Cottage

Rachel Carson's summer cottage is on Southport Island, Maine. It sits above and behind a steep granite ledge, sheltered from the sun beneath a canopy of birch, maple, and pine. It reminds me of Carson's public persona - courageously on the edge but carefully exposed, partially hidden, semi-private, serene. This July I made the cottage my home for a week when my friend Colleen, a Maryland poet and writer, invited a few close friends - writers and artists - to stay with her here in Maine.  She had been awarded a cottage stay through the Rachel Carson Homestead Association and surprised us all with this amazing invitation. Of course I accepted (!)  and was soon standing in Rachel Carson's kitchen, looking through to family room and out the wide picture windows to Sheepscot Bay.

As I research, walk, and write about environmental pilgrimage, this place I have long had on my list to experience, though I couldn't imagine I would be sleeping in Roger's bedroom for a week! Her adopted son, Roger and his family still own and maintain the place and it is available through family contacts for summer rental. But Colleen's stay was arranged through the Rachel Carson Homestead Association near Pittsburgh and Colleen intended for it to serve as a fellowship among writers and artists. Our one task was to take in the place and its surroundings as Rachel had loved it, to discover its inspirations and memories, and to reflect upon the experience in our own mediums. I took along my sketchbook and a limited set of colored pencils, selected shades of ochre, steel gray, white, and sienna.

Southport Island is just barely connected to the mainland by a small bridge at Boothbay Harbor. There are a few very small towns on the island, just intersections really, general store, library, old cemeteries, and a school. There's a fire house and a town hall. At the southeast end of the island is one of those old grand summer resorts, Newagen Seaside Inn, where you can enjoy a stay in quaint room or in a cottage by the sea. Rachel's ashes were returned to the sea here, off a boulder strewn shore where two Adirondack chairs mark the place where she and her best friend Dorothy would come. This is where they sat for the last time together on Southport, the summer of her last year. Rachel Carson had battled cancer and the insidious side effects of chemo treatments  as she was writing Silent Spring in the early 1960s. Once completed and published on a late summer day she and Dorothy watched a river of monarch butterflies flow over their sitting spot and across the bay on their migration south. She knew she was dying and that she would not be back to enjoy her cottage the following summer. "I shall always remember the monarchs," Rachel wrote in her lovingly written goodbye letter to summer and Dorothy ...

 ....that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

I visited that spot on the rocky knoll overlooking Sheepscot Bay twice during the week. The staff at the front desk showed me the path and even spent a bit of time explaining what the place would have been like in the 1950s. They pulled out post cards, a historical letters binder, and made me copies of everything. The place seemed to speak most clearly to me of her life as a creative, impassioned writer, a soul in love with the natural world, one who could see and hear - as few can - the complex symphony that is the dance of life above and beneath the sea.  I read the letter aloud standing over the memorial plaque set into a granite boulder. As I walked down the path back to the inn Newagen I stopped to watch a lone monarch in a wildflower meadow. 

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.
For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.
That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.

When my housemates had gone out to explore the shops and eateries of Boothbay Harbor I stayed behind and visited Rachel's study. Its wall length desk and built-in bookshelves opens to the deck through a screened door that overlooks the Bay. It is a private space that can only be accessed through her bedroom.  The window at the desk looks out into the Lost Wood, named by she and Dorothy for the long stretch of undeveloped forest that separated their cottages. As I sat sketching at the desk, a lone monarch fluttered past the window. Just one. No river of orange wings, just one "fluttering bit of life."

And isn't really that what we all are? Each of us a small bit of life,  journey-bound to the arc of our days leaving a legacy - like it or not - for our children and grandchildren. Suddenly everything seemed so fragile - I felt a lump rise in my throat and I was nearly in tears. I returned to Roger's room where my sleeping bag lay flat and soft atop the bedspread. I sat on the bed for a few minutes then looked towards the Bay through double screened windows with the wide sill and imagined a small boy arranging his tide pool treasures to dry in the breeze.  A large white hawk levered out of the wind and thumped loudly above me. Did an osprey just land on the roof? I crept out the back porch door  and looked up. Sure enough, there was an osprey looking down - thank you, Rachel. She fluffed up her feathers and shook water from her wet wings.

Environmental pilgrimage is a form of walking devotion on the land and sea. No indulgences required. No prerequisite faith or religion needed.  It asks of the pilgrim "How do I belong to this path? Who am I following? How shall I care for you?" The week in Southport allowed me the luxury of time to wander and think about those questions in relation to my own path and how Carson's work changed the world I was born into with her writing.  Because of Silent Spring I can see hundreds of eagles and osprey every summer on the Chesapeake and Susquehanna. I show them to my grandchildren and tell them the her story, lingering in each telling a little longer about how she lived and worked in her final years. Passion, drive, through the pain and sickness. Never giving up. The work was too important to let cancer stop her.

The cottage was less a destination than deep dive into the solitary life of a writer in her best and last years. The place was full of memories and yet very much alive with us chatty women congregating in the family room at night to share our day's adventures. We wandered on our own through the rooms, down the lane, to the general store, to the Newagen Inn. We wandered alone down to her beach, a small patch of white sand surrounded by a fortress of granite cobble and stone ledge. We agreed to stay out of each other's way but loved coming together after dark to tell of how encountered Rachel on our walks - even in the closet. Colleen found her there by accident, her hand writing in pencil marking how Roger had grown each year on the back of the pine plank door. Roger's writing is there too, marking the height of his own children.

I'll fold this experience somehow into my book-in-progress on environmental pilgrimage. It will take some time, however, to distill the solitary walks and hours alone in the cottage,  Rachel's as spirit, a presence, a butterfly, an osprey. That was my take away, I said during one of our sit-down-talk-it-out sessions late on a stormy night, "she's here in the pinewood of the cottage, sitting on the deck watching birds, tucked into the Adirondack chair at Newagen with tea and her notebook and her best friend at her side." How shall I care for this path?


With the greatest of love for friends, I thank Colleen Webster, writer and poet, and Jeanne Cecil, director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, for this once in a lifetime experience. http://rachelcarsonhomestead.org/

The Newagen Seaside Inn gave me wonderful background, a tour of the tea porch, and walked me to the path that led to her favorite sitting place. The desk staff tolerated my back-to-back afternoon visits with friendly smiles and iced tea for my water bottle. https://newagenseasideinn.com/history/

Always Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952 - 1964, The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. Concord Library, Beacon Press (1996)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

NJ Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

To break up a very long drive home from Prince Edward Island I stopped off at Great Swamp NWR in Morristown, New Jersey, for a good stretch and a few miles of walking.  Had things worked out differently for this glacial lake basin I would have been visiting a New York Port Authority jetport with four 12,000' runways!

Entrance to the Visitor Center. Trail heads are scattered throughout the refuge. 

One of two one-mile-long boardwalks.

I'm glad it's all grasslands, swamp woods, and marshes today but I didn't appreciate how intense the battle had been to save it until I met two Friends of the Great Swamp volunteers at the Visitors Center. I neglected to get their names but was treated to a first-person account of what it took to keep the land out of the hands of the New York Port Authority. Halfway through their recollections, the gentleman behind the information desk looked over at his wife as she was helping a visitor in the gift shop. "You know, there's a movie about all this. It's better to watch it than listening to us go on and on!" (See Notes.) But he hastened to add that the success of this story was made possible because of the wealth and political influence of certain members of the community. This is no David versus Goliath story, he said, it was Goliath versus Goliath. But I was intrigued and knew there was more to the story. I wrote the name of the documentary down in my sketchbook to watch when I got home.

Abundant meadowsweet was fragrant and full of pollinators.

What I needed and wanted at the time was to walk off my stiff body and take in a new (to me) national wildlife refuge. I love the NWR system and want to see and explore as many of these "blue goose" gems as I can. So I set out to do a three mile walk on just a few of the trails available and promised myself a return trip to walk the rest in the fall.

Another boardwalk. All lead to blinds over wet meadows and marsh. 

From the Visitor Center several trailheads are just a few miles drive or bike away and I was soon at the parking area for the popular boardwalk trails.The air was heavy but also wonderfully saturated with the distinct aroma of acres of Meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia) in full summer bloom. The open glades were loaded with it. I walked both one-mile-long boardwalks through a collage of wet woods, cattail meadows, and broadleaf marsh and loved the thick perfumed air so much that I forgot about the heat. It was intoxicating.

Song Sparrow  plucks supper from the  grasses.
A Great Blue Heron squawked from somewhere deep inside this Cattail marsh. 

I tried to imagine the place as a runway but was distracted by two large snappers nudging slowly through a watery meadow of Broad-Leaved Arrowhead. I quickly forgot about tarmac and focused on just how graceful the big turtles were and, despite their size, how they maneuvered silently and deftly through the stems. Every now and then a stand of leaves would bend and twitch as a snapper slid by, its mossy shell barely covered with water while a large powerful head would rise slowly for a look-see. Swamps are incredibly complex ecosystems and every living thing, whether plant or animal, muck or tree, plays an important role in how the wetlands function.

Blue Dasher, female.

As I learned later, the story of how the Great Swamp was saved makes for a good case study that highlights what powerful influences can achieve when natural places they value are threatened. But it also revealed how complex the human efforts were to make the area a national wildlife refuge. Stakeholders represented a wide cross-section of local residents and local-to-national organizations. Housewives and farmers played important roles. Over 450 towns and 60 non-profits banded together to save the swamp. Scientists, naturalists, and conservationists from around the state came together to support the effort. And it took a lot of community activism and political savvy. The whole history makes a good case study for one of the earliest efforts in community-based conservation before CBC was even a thing.

Great Blue Skimmer

With two miles completed just following the boardwalks, I needed to add another mile so I walked from the parking area down the road to a road bridge and back. All along the road I heard the booming calls of bull frogs until, when I came to open water that came nearly to the edge of the road, the sound was intense. I believe they were alerting to oncoming thunderstorms as air pressure changed and high clouds stacked up overhead. I looked up and down the road, through the thick wet woods, and out across the marshes and remembered what the docent had said, quoting a line from the film. "The Great Marsh may have been saved but it is not safe."

Button Bush.

There are innumerable challenges and risks associated with surrounding land use changes as well as changing weather patterns. The oncoming storm could drop many inches of rainfall in a short time, I thought, and I could find myself stranded in the low flooded road before the marsh could absorb it all. Frequent heavy summer deluges have become the norm for Mid-Atlantic and I've already had some very close calls with flash flooding at home - while hiking and behind the wheel.  I hurried to get back to the car as the first rolls of thunder shook the ground.  As I slipped behind the wheel, drops of rain, fat and loud, crashed on to the car. It was a quick shower, however, yet full of thunder and wind. Better than the roar of jet engines, I said aloud, as I pulled out into a stream of small frogs hopping from one side of the road to the other which were better than a line of baggage carts on tarmac!

Related image


Plant List for Great Swamp NWR https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_5/NWRS/North_Zone/Great_Swamp_Complex/Great_Swamp/GSWildflower.pdf

Friends of the Great Swamp https://friendsofgreatswamp.org/site/

Great Swamp Watershed Association https://www.greatswamp.org/

"Saving the Great Swamp: Battle Against the Jetport." Available on Amazon Prime https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Great-Swamp-Battle-Jetport/dp/B07K7ZM5F7 )