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This story by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 5, 2000. All rights reserved.

A Stroll For All Seasons

E-mail: CarolynFooteEdelmann@princetoninfo.com

The best kept secret in New Jersey is not your boss’s

salary and bonus package. It is, instead, the towpath of the Delaware

& Raritan Canal, a well-worn trail that stretches back into the 1830s.

In its heyday, this pathway reached from New Brunswick to Burlington.

Along this spine, the coal of Pennsylvania moved to the mouth of the

Raritan, where it was shipped to Manhattan to fuel our young country’s

industrial might. In the process, New Jersey itself leapt to new economic

prominence.

Mules were the path’s first power source. For nearly a century, their

hooves tamped its sandy bed, tugging the barges that carried the coal.

Mule tenders’ barracks, canal tenders’ houses, mills, even functioning

locks are still reflected in these waters, — at Griggstown and

other nearby sites. Sail and steam gradually rendered the faithful

mules obsolete, as the railroad would consign barges and their tenders

to the past. But echoes resonate even now: Basin streets in Princeton

and in Kingston hearken to the time when these craft were tugged into

turning basins to reverse direction.

Even now, you can touch history at the Alexander Road entrance to

the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park. You’ll be standing on the

site of the Railroad Hotel which became the Steamboat Hotel, for obvious

reasons. You can poke around for remnants of Billy Lynch’s Bottle

Shop. You can conjure up — especially on a spicy autumn afternoon

— dapper yachstmen mooring their craft where barges used to reign.

These watermen were Princeton alums about to cheer their team to victory

or defeat in nearby Palmer Stadium. You can marvel that this compact

area was a small industrial mecca, turning out doors and window sashes

and iron roofing; providing a hay press; sheltering a coal yard, a

lumber yard. Nothing reigns there now but a ragged array of trees,

and the tall wild garlic mustard. There are no sounds of coal or lumber

moving. Rather the drone of bees, the doodle-doodle-do of spring’s

wood thrush. This stretch of the path is currently the most rugged,

either from roots and rocks or from the unforgivingly sharp grey stones

of recent restorations. This is not a trail to take, by the way, when

it is late or you are tired.

It’s not unusual for one of the venerable trees of the Institute Woods

to have succumbed in some recent storm. On the high trail south from

Alexander, a white ash was felled and sawn. Someone impeccable had

marked and numbered the tight annular rings of this slow-growing tree.

"1872" "1905" "1950." Rain has already had its way

with these pencilings, but it was a shock to see that the noble ash

had put on a mere two inches in girth since I entered grade school.

Whether you’ve ever heard of the Towpath or not, you cannot `go West,

young man’ or woman, from Route 1 without crossing a canal bridge.

Some are high and arched, some still painted the original tomato red.

Some set up a clatter that will jar any driver from 2000 right back

to the 1830s (Route 518 in Rocky Hill). For all hikers, bikers, joggers,

birders, fisher-people, even canoeists (for rent at Alexander Road

near Basin Street, and at the Griggstown Causeway), the towpath of

this Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is a kind of paradise.

An Eden that can be reached any night after work, and full of wild

gifts in any season. A garden where a new tapestry of flowers is flung

down every week; and one whose serpents are only slender, silent,

and water-borne.

For your flight from corporate reality, there is usually ample parking

near any canal bridge. North or south, you’ll be retracing steps of

voyageurs from other times. George Washington and his bedraggled troops

trudged alongside the Stonybrook River (water source for Princeton’s

canal) in January, 1777, on their way from victory at Princeton to

winter quarters in Morristown. Your quick stride follows the labored

steps of thousands of brawny Irishmen who dug and died for this towpath.

You’ll find yourself on the heels of birders over many decades; famous

scientists, brooding over experiments at the nearby Institute for

Advanced Study. You’ll partake of something I call "the fellowship

of the towpath," a certain knowing smile or word of welcome exchanged

among the blissed-out travelers. You’ll all be making the most of

the outdoors in a pristine setting, just inches from one of the busiest

corridors in America. The wonder is that, on this water-hemmed rail,

there is normally no sign of the man-made, save the dust under your

feet.

One of the towpath’s secrets is that it is a place of many moods.

You can significantly alter your adventure, depending on where you

first set foot. For example, if it’s hot or windy, Alexander Road

and south is the cool place. You’ll be sheltered by tranquil Institute

Woods, heron and thrush your boon companions. For an expansive experience,

hop on at Washington or Harrison and scurry north along Lake Carnegie.

Here you’ll scarf down draughts of sun and the fresh linen scent of

breeze over the waters. Any morning, when scullers’ oars are dripping

dawn, the lake can be so still that fish bubbles do not change their

patterns. Try not to think of Monet, as you make a turn and face an

infinity of lily pads. This stretch is easy enough that you can dare

to race the sun down, even walk by moonlight. Somehow the lake and

the path itself seem to cradle the light.

If you go far enough, you’ll cross the fishing bridge and may see

and hear various levels of exhilaration at that sport. I once cheered

with a triumphant man who held up his huge grey catch (which he told

everyone was a cowfish.) New Yorkers skimming by, challenged, "You

gonna eat that?!" Another morning, a grizzled man settled his

descendant onto an upended white lard pail. Grandpa lovingly inserted

the pole with its long string and baited hook into the little guy’s

clenched fist. "There. Now you know all there is to know about

fishing."

Glossy turtles line up according to rank (which means size — is

it pecking order with turtles?) on logs afloat on either side of the

trail. Anything that looks like a polished Prussian helmet is one

of the older generation of turtles. If you maintain your steady pace,

the sunning amphibians will stay in place. If you slow even a fraction,

concentrate on their shining presence, they’ll all slip into the impenetrable

canal. Turtles are the sure sign of spring. If they’re not up, it

isn’t. If they are, even slathered with winter mud, the season has

turned.

Farther north along Lake Carnegie, and you’re in Eastern Kingbird

territory. These slender, dapper, charcoal-garbed birds are rare and

special. Their Latin name doubly brands them as tyrants. Identify

the kingbird by the white stripe on the tip of the tail, as well as

by a certain feistiness toward larger (egg-stealing) birds, the crows

and ravens.

Soon, you’ll hear Lake Carnegie’s dam, and be treated

to our resident double crested cormorants. (Never mind looking for

the crests – they’re thin and frail and rarely evident and not common

to all cormorants at all times, anyway.) Newish to Princeton, these

slender goose-like birds represent resurgence in that species. Our

cormorants survey watery reaches from bare tree limbs beyond the froth.

Sometimes, they stand straight up like preachers, waving imperious

vestments (to dry feathers preparatory to future swims.) Cormorants’

arrow-straight flight is a lesson in determination. But it’s their

abrupt disappearances while swimming that’ll have you holding your

head in disbelief, wondering if you hallucinated that dark diver.

In autumn, this is the stretch where the shy bittersweet opens golden

gates to coralline centers; where wild grape reaches for cerulean

sky with brassy hands. Naturalists will tell you that an old wild

grape vine, deep in untrammeled woods, can yield a quart of water

between two gashes. In fall, pokeweed here is electrifying, sharp

magenta stems leading to vibrant blue-black berries. You want to know

how they taste, but remember that something is poison. Indians used

the crushed berries for war paint. Even poison ivy (fall-burnished)

joins the Virginia creeper in berry production — all essential

fat-providers for migrant songbirds. They couldn’t make it to South

America without the fruits of our towpath.

Know that the towpath alongside the lake will be the most crowded,

in most seasons. This can be the bad news or the good news, depending

on your mood. The path is also the best maintained, so that strollers

can be pushed there. Be aware that currrent traffic on River Road

above Route 518 has become auditorially unbearable. If you require

quiet, don’t start your northbound jaunt until the Griggstown Causeway.

If you get on the towpath next to Nassau Street/Route 27 (near the

Wine Press), you can walk north to Rocky Hill on one side and back

on the other. Two very different experiences, both seriously wooded.

Just watch out in floodtime — this stretch can be wild.

Of course, there used to be towpath all along both sides of the canal

— one for northbound and one for southbound vessels. But single-sided

restoration, over the last 25 years, is miraculous enough. People

who live near to and know the mostly empty, sometimes paved, often

forgotten Erie Canal, marvel at ours. On the more recently opened

side (right, as you’re facing Rocky Hill), there is a fairly extensive

pond. Last year, this was the site of a nest of most welcome rainbow-hued

wood ducks. On the other, more deeply wooded side, great horned owls

make nightly forays, if you time your walk correctly.

From May on, expect the towpath to spread a magic carpet of bloom,

like some profligate rug merchant, for your personal enjoyment. On

a recent evening walk, the yellow flags and their deep purple kin

(tall wild iris) spiked canal banks between Harrison and the fishing

bridge. Where flags wave now, look in six weeks or so for similarly

spiky, rangy plants of brightest scarlet bloom, one of whose names

is `firecracker plant’. Flags and firecrackers are both vivid signals

of healthy water. Take comfort in these signs, since this is our drinking

water.

The first fuzzy extensions of sumac remind one of the antlers of young

deer, and promise thick candles of deepest burgundy before long. Besides

tasting rather wonderful — something like strawberry — this

is a drink high in vitamin C. It can prevent scurvy (as will steeped

green pine needles), a disease one needs to fear far more than hunger

if stranded in the wilderness.

After the fishing bridge, look left at the lake edge, where pickerel

weed shoots its sturdy arrows. When the pointed leaves were about

the size of the human hand, Indians knew to pick up their travois

and migrate. In this season, by that sign, they relinquished their

hunter ways to become gatherers of seafood by the shore.

First crowns of daisies spurt beside the lake. Bank swallows dip and

sweep and chatter by the dark arced footbridge. There you can stand

and read of the ordeals of the Irishmen without whom we would not

have this path. How they came over as indentured servants, but to

a canal rather than a person. How they worked far more than a five

day week, for $1, with the most primitive sleeping conditions and

no sanitation. How they might supplement their income and win their

freedom, if they were really sturdy, by pulling out tree stumps, for

25 cents each. How hordes died of cholera and other maladies, some

being buried at the Griggstown cemetery; most just joining the landfill

where they fell. There isn’t even a place where you might weave them

a wreath of wildlings, thank them for their role in the prosperity

of our land. The mules then and we now trod over Irish bones, far

from old sod, sacrificed to new.

Where else can you hear a concatenation of orioles? By whatever name

(bird namers keep bouncing us back and forth between Northern and

Baltimore, the latter restored for the moment), these bright orange,

and dashing black (yes, most appropriate for Princeton) win the prize

for beauty of coat and of song. How wonderful when the orioles, the

svelte yellow warblers, the saucily military red-winged blackbirds

coast back and forth across the still waters of the canal. All that

glory, doubled, just for you.

Off in the distance, up near the dam, there is often the tease of

kingfisher rattle. If you see something a slightly duller, slightly

larger blue jay, plunging from a branch, it’s his majesty. Kingfishers

usually fly down. So if you hear a rattle, don’t look up. You’re most

likely to see the grey-white blur as a clear reflection rather than

reality. Kingfishers may remain over the winter, so you may have that

as a treat on a blustery day, along with occasional herons.

Be aware of numbered milestones hither and yon. True

denizens of the towpath tend to touch these angled stones for luck.

(Well, most are angled. When Lake Carnegie was dredged, workers set

one in absolutely straight, parallel to the path. I wish for the strength

to right this misleading concrete post.) The whole point of these

angled granite markers is to show bargemen how many miles remained

to Burlington (on one side) or to New Brunswick on the other, the

original ends-of-the-line. Flat milestones are not only meaningless

but invisible to a person in the middle of water.

At other places, you’ll be treated to clearer mementoes — locks

through which water still courses (above 518 in Rocky Hill toward

Griggstown); mule tenders’ barracks (Griggstown); lock tender’s house

and station and mill site (Route 27 at Kingston). If you extend yourself

to the Pennsylvania segments of the Delaware and Raritan Canal, you’ll

come upon a sawmill, gristmill, and linseed oil mill (along with art

exhibits and sometimes music) at Prallsville Mills on Route 29 at

Stockton.

Be aware that the towpath isn’t limited to Princeton. Hie yourself

to Lambertville. Park within the sound of falling water from canal

locks. You can leave the car on or near Swan Street. Walk east to

the towpath, then south, past serious fishermen. Strike out for the

wing dam below New Hope. Even early in a chill spring, this site will

reveal people kayaking as if this were the Salmon or the Snake instead

of the domesticated Delaware. You’ll see swimmers bobbing about in

the whitewater.

Listen now for the repetitive `witchety witchety witchety’ of the

Common Yellow Throat. Apart from his rakish black mask, this one’s

intensely yellow all over. On the other side of the towpath, you may

be treated to the `sweet sweet sweet’ of the paler Yellow Warbler.

More svelte than the Yellow Throat, the Yellow Warbler sports lovely

jagged tan lightning bolts (its identifying field marks) along its

slender belly. Your trek will be natural and even wild, with ducks

and geese and offspring piping on all sides in spring.

But you can catch the town life if you walk north. Here, the clocks

of Lambertville seem permanently set to the time when the canal was

thriving and a certain local (named Sutter) took himself to California

to launch a gold rush at Sutter’s Mill. Your trek will take you near

old railroad tracks, which see a smart tourist business on weekends.

If you keep going, you’ll end up in Stockton, where "There’s a

Small Hotel" was written and the wishing well still collects pennies.

Study their murals to absorb the spirit of canal outings, when fancy

ones dressed to the Edwardian nines to be barged along on a Sunday

afternoon. Check out the furious firefighting scene painted next to

the generous chimney.

Farther yet brings you to Bull’s Island, where locks preside and footbridges

can take you across to another state and back. Sixty-nine densely

wooded campsites beckon those who’ve thought to reserve in advance,

some of the settings at a point where two rivers course along, singing

lullabies by day and night.

It’s hard for me to absorb the fact that the two canal systems —

Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s — were linked by an overland trestle.

This overland stretch has vanished; as some of our towpath and canal

have gone underground (near Route 1 in Lawrence.) Green Acres funding

promises a future footbridge over the highway, so that determined

trekkers can follow the original path. The canal people have placed

good maps at many entries, so it’s possible to study and memorize,

once again, how it all was in barg time — prehistoric, really

— before Route 1.

Canal Walk, Canal Society of New Jersey, Mule Tenders

Barracks, Griggstown, 908-722-7428. A three-mile walk from Griggstown

to the new interpretive area in Rocky Hill. Free. Sunday, July

9, 10 a.m.

Canal Walk, Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park,

Lambertville Lock, Bridge Street, Lambertville, 732-873-3050. Guided

three-mile walk for all ages along the historic towpath. Free. Sunday,

July 9, 10 a.m.

Canal Walk, Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park,

Locktender’s House, Route 27, Kingston, 732-873-3050. Guided four-mile

walk for all ages along the historic towpath. Free. Sunday, August

6, 10 a.m.


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