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 )

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Well Done, Faithful Hound

I haven't been doing a lot of hiking or posting to this blog these past several months due to not wanting to be very far away from my beloved hound, Bug.  A week ago I said my goodbyes to her, holding her long velvety coonhound ears against my face as the hospice vet administered the drugs that would bring her life to a peaceful, pain free end.  Up until her retirement in 2018, Bug had walked and hiked thousands of miles with me. She was one of the best hiking companions I've ever had and I will miss her tremendously.

Goin' hiking!

Thirteen is old for a coonhound and I must say that up to the last two-and-a-half months, when illness and age really took a toll, she lived her life full-on, exuberantly and vibrantly. She loved to hike and was as reliable and constant a companion as a person would want. Coonhounds as a breed love trail walking - even running - and nothing is better for finding critters than the ground-scanning nose of a black and tan coonie. Bug was very good at finding turtles! I figure she'd found over a hundred box turtles on our walks over eleven summers and it seemed I could never find one without her.

Puppy Amos in long-distance hike training with Bug, soon to retire in 2018.

After her sister Annie passed in 2016, Bug went into a months-long mourning and though she eventually found her way through, I thought it a good idea to bring a coonhound puppy into the house to keep her company and re-establish her pack. Coonhounds are famously social and are decidedly devoted to their packs that are made up of their human family and other dogs (even cats!). Amos fit right in and she loved him immediately. She taught him the protocols of hiking and he's turned out to be a delightful hiking companion. Since the last winter snow in February of 2019, she couldn't do long hikes anymore because of arthritis, so easy two mile up-and-back strolls on the flat River Road along the Susuquehanna was her favorite way to spend a Sunday morning.

Alert for deer on a ten-mile autumn fire road walk, 2016.

So in honor of Bug's extraordinary life hiking the hills, forests, river trails, and mountains of Pennsylvania, here are the Coonhound Rules for Amos. He knows he has big pawprints to fill but he is working hard to do her proud.

  • Always walk to the left and slightly ahead
  • When you smell a tantalizing scent, stop and alert, don't pull or bolt. 
  • Stop every hour and ask for water and a treat, good for both coonie and human.
  • Help pull human up steep rock climbs. 
  • Follow human on steep descents.
  • Celebrate every stream crossing with a good splash.
  • Every now and then, look back at your human and flash a big, wide coonhound grin.
  • Every now and then, let out a super big, bawdy, full-throated holler. It keeps bad things away.
  • Every now and then, just stop and lay down. It forces the human to appreciate surroundings.
  • Never dig holes in or poop on the trail.
  • Be polite to polite dogs. Be polite to polite humans.
  • Warn off aggressive dogs. Warn off sketchy humans.
  • Tree squirrels when off leash. Never pull your human up a tree on leash. It hurts them. 
  • When you get home, enjoy a long nap. 

Rest easy, Bug.  2006 - 2019


Coonhounds make excellent hiking partners, but do require consistent training early to learn trail etiquette. They "read" human companions very well and convey expressions and signals that I feel are the closest to dogs communicating with people that I've seen in any working/hunting breed. They love children and senior folk, are protective without being aggressive (unless required in dangerous situations), and extraordinarily goofy-funny-lovable.  If you want to bring a coonhound companion into your hiking and adventuring life, please consider adopting from the American Black and Tan Coonhound Rescue.  http://www.coonhoundrescue.com/