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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Fall Comes to the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh

When I exult over my Hamilton-Trenton Marsh excursions,

I often hear "Impossible!" "What marsh?" "Oxymoron!"

And, sometimes, "You go there alone?"

Not yet, but soon. In the meantime I have been fortunate in the finest

guide, my own "Beatrice" to the Marsh: Mary Leck. For 31 years

Leck served as Rider University professor of botany, plant physiology,

marine botany, and field natural history. Since 1975 more than 50

scientific articles based on the Marsh have been published, many by

Mary. She has helped put it on the map.

Her expansive knowledge and sweet enthusiasm complement that of her

husband, Charlie Leck, who for 30 years at Rutgers taught ecology,

ornithology, birds of the world, natural history, and animal behavior.

Little that burgeons, withers, swims, or flies escapes this couple’s

attention. Throughout the year they lead groups for the Audubon, Sierra,

D&R Greenway, and other area organizations.

Mary and Charles, with Patricia Quinby of the D&R Greenway, have turned

formidable talents to exploring and documenting these nearby natural

wonders. In the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh power towers rise on the periphery.

Highway abutments circle and stretch. Yet visitors can experience

wilderness right in our own back yard.

John A. Roebling Memorial Park, purchased by the state in 1958, introduces

you to the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh. These 260 acres were whittled down

to around 200 when highways 129, 195, and 295 were threaded through

this land. The entire wetland complex comprises 1,250 acres, straddling

Trenton, Hamilton, and Bordentown. The remainder of the Marsh belongs

to various municipalities and some private owners. In other words,

there is no official protection at this time.

In this "ancient meander of the Delaware River," Lenni Lenapes

and other Native American tribes gathered for ritual and reunion more

than 10,000 years ago. Europeans are Johnnys-come-lately here. The

park’s Abbot Farm has been deemed a National Historic Landmark, a

shrine not only to the family’s early residency but also to the practice

of colonial archaeology. Revolutionary war boats rest at a creek bend,

where loyalists scuttled them, lest they fall into British hands.

It is stirring to kayak past this point and sense such history just

below the waters.

Tidal fresh water marshlands, swamps, a constructed wetland, and upland

forests — all hold memorable surprises. Owls swoop and foxes slink

by moonlight. A stately stairway leads to the fake but fruitful Spring

Lake, named for the springs sacred to Lenni Lenapes. The pale staircase

testifies to faded glory, remnant of White City Amusement Park (circa

1800). Patrons in fancy clothes toured amusements; bathers slid down

a primitive water slide.

Marsh hikes do not require special gear; beyond footgear (preferably

waterproof), hat, sufficient water, and bug spray in season. This

park is also accessible by canoe and kayak. Mary Leck leads a canoe

and kayaking tour through the marsh for the Central Jersey Sierra

Club on Saturday, October 19. (See below; preregistration is required.)

Over 825 species of plants and more than 250 species

of birds have been identified here. A Viceroy butterfly welcomed us;

a blindingly bright yellow Cloudless Sulfur waved farewell; just two

among the 28 species of butterflies tallied. Sixty fish species, 19

of amphibians and reptiles, reside in and near these watery reaches.

In spring we were treated to the sight of a mute swan on her nest;

mate (cob) defiant at her side. Here I watched my first great-crested

flycatcher actually catch a fly. In late summer, a flame-red hummingbird

moth fooled us all, at first, busy among marsh flowers. A fury-red

crayfish arched and snapped, contesting our right to the foot trail.

(I had never before seen one raw.) Speaking of food, Mary found an

impressive stand of wild rice. It towered, over 10 feet in height.

Most seeds have already been appropriated by red-winged blackbirds.

The Marsh’s bounty is unique because of its freshwater tides. The

Delaware is tidal almost to Scudder’s Falls Bridge; the Crosswicks

Creek tidal nearly to the Turnpike. Twice daily, new nutrients flow

in; inappropriate substances flow out of this healing expanse. The

Marsh plays a significant role in rain absorption, preventing flash

floods. Being both broad and shallow, it also serves to moderate air

temperature.

Charles and Mary Leck dedicate redoubtable energy to chronicling the

Marsh, especially colonization of plants and animals in the 94-acre

human-created wetland of Duck Island. (This "land mitigation"

project involves wetland creation in exchange for acreage lost to

highway construction.) It rests in Crosswicks Creek, below Bordentown

Bluffs, at the end of Lamberton Road.

In February, 2002, Mary discovered two new species of duckweed. Our

tiniest flowering plant, minute disks of blinding green span water

surface like the algae it is not. Duckweed could take on new significance

for the Marsh: Each added species enhances the case of local ecologists,

determined to secure Federal depiction and protection of this vulnerable

region as a National Wildlife Refuge. If you know the Brigantine,

also known as the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge at Oceanville,

you know what such designation can do for areas essential to wildlife.

And the human spirit.

The Hamilton-Trenton Marsh is indisputably a treat for all seasons.

In mid-September I visited with Charles and Mary for a fall preview.

Yellow will be present soon, starting with lakeside willows and wild

grape vines. It’s already here, overhead and on the ground — courtesy

of this year’s summer drought — in eponymous tulip tree leaves.

Scarlet accents erupt, high on branches and underfoot. Goldenrod is

just beginning. Joe Pye Weed is already mauve-to-purple; boneset the

characteristic hue of venerable linen. Golden bittersweet remains

clenched, soon to erupt with marmalade-orange centers. Arrowhead,

named for its pointy leaf shape, spurts springlike white petals, gold-centered

at water’s edge. Wild cranberries will mimic new Beaujolais among

their short heather-like foliage.

Our first Marsh bird was a swan of great presence, afloat in a Monet-like

landscape of leathery lily leaves. (Charlie reported that swans are

the heaviest flying creatures, some attaining 40 pounds.) A familiar

squawk revealed two sooty Great Blue Herons lifting off like Concorde

jets. The sharp, too-swift shadow of Green Heron zipped by.

Mary, meanwhile, was preoccupied with white underfoot. In muddy trail-side

depressions, soft waxen shards had been turtle eggs. In spring, snappers,

red-bellies, and painted turtles had heaved themselves out of the

Marsh, scouring eddies in the trail with frantic flippers. Infant

turtles are tidy in their birth process and do not leave visible shells.

Those pale shreds were evidence of successful predation: Bad news

for turtles — good for snakes and raccoons.

I could not induce either Leck to name a favorite creature, nature

site, or season. But naturalists grow dreamy remembering their "Ice

Hikes" on the frozen Marsh. Hard to tell whether bubble patterns

in the frozen Marsh or new access to muskrat lodges and beaver residences

held precedence. Walk-sliding over Marsh ice, they have actually seen

beaver breath in the still January air.

Swamp maple will be an early slave to autumn fashion, donning coral

colors ahead of its fellows. Scarlet and crimson will twine in dread

three-leafed poison ivy and benign five-leaved Virginia Creeper —

Longfellow’s woodbine. Sensitive fern — which looks large and

tough — will succumb first to frost, flaring yellow, buff or brown.

Moss on the hummock where spring’s enormous water snake warmed will

remain green to the last gasp. False Solomon’s seal — pearly pink

at this moment — will sport lipstick-red berries as days shorten.

As will Jack-in-the-Pulpit, ubiquitous and commanding in springtime.

"Fall is the fruiting time," Mary murmured, ever optimistic

that fall colors would not be blighted by continued drought. Her eager

curiosity reminds me of Thoreau, whose idea of heaven was a fall walk

involving "one or two berries whose names I do not know."

What Charlie sees in berries is warbler fuel. Even the gray gloss

of poison ivy fruit is essential for migration. Thickly clustered,

fragrant bayberries (think Christmas candles) will also feed the small

travelers. Charlie’s eyes lit at the prospect of migrants chowing

down in weeks ahead, before their impossible journeys to Mexico, South

America. Fall can seem the emptying time. But to "aerobic botanists"

like Charles and Mary, this is the fullest season. Charles studied

tumultuous clouds, wind-driven: "…good hawk day." We all

turned glasses skyward, hopes high.

The Lecks spoke yearningly of foxes. Of 17 species of Marsh mammals,

many are nocturnal. Beavers, too, prefer hours of little light. But

Clyde Quin and Warren Liebensperger (known as the "Godfathers

of the Marsh"), are in and out of these liquid and solid environs

in all hours and weathers. There’s nothing better than kayaking or

hiking alongside these two men. I hang on their stories of setting

up wood duck boxes. And when Clyde and Warren hammer new bluebird

boxes from their canoes, new blue tenants fly in, claiming residence

before the men complete their task. They maintain trails. When rowdies

light fires, Warren and Clyde call fire squads; join in the battle.

Despite drought and fire, though, this Marsh remains wet and healthy;

its recovery a balm for bruised spirits.

Certain scenes intrude — like bulldozers growling atop a ruddy

berm — even on Sunday. Plans were proposed to turn this dump-capping

operation into new hiking and biking trails; however, for bureaucratic

reasons these plans were scotched. Attention and monies are being

funneled to other Mercer County parks less accessible to significant

population centers, less democratic in appeal. Berm rawness insults

this primal arena.

Here Charles and Mary remembered a recent full-moon

walk. Striding between lake and marsh, they were startled by a Great

Horned Owl sailing intently past them to a convenient stump. You never

know what gifts the Marsh will bring.

We explored another public area that is part of the Marsh. An unnamed

Bordentown park hides off Route 206 (295 South to 195 East; get right

off onto 206 South. After Bradlees, turn onto Glen, then Orchard to

the end. No sign, just a wooden barrier similar to D&R towpath entries.

Be considerate parking in this residential area.)

You will find yourselves in woods where you can still sense Lenni

Lenapes. It feels inappropriate to be there in anything other than

moccasins and a loincloth. High above a sandy Crosswicks Creek tributary,

you’ll thread your way among crimson and cinnamon fallen leaves, below

black-green conifers, alongside glossy mountain laurel and rhododendron

of imposing height. The presence of these shrubs reveals soil radically

different from that of the lower Marsh. Expect splendor in spring

bloom.

You will recoil from the rawness of the ATV (All-Terrain-Vehicle)

damage here; as well as depredations of the greedy, seeking artifacts

of ancient times. This newly preserved area has been barely rescued

from developers by the D&R Greenway, learning that a religious organization

had decided to sell. You’ll be in a stretch of 1,200 or so acres owned

by an ex-king. France’s Joseph Bonaparte fled here to heal from the

loss of his kingdom, his dreams, and his brother.

You will think you’re a million miles from everywhere, when you pop

out on the crest of Bordentown Bluffs. Here Indians hunted, cooked,

and slept during part of their nomadic year. Here alliances and marriages

were forged. In this woods they held council. In waters below Indians

netted and speared fish, including sturgeon that reached 18 pounds.

From this magnificent vantage point, tribes scanned land that seemed

to stretch forever.

It was hushed in this haven. Below us, the Creek shimmered. Suddenly,

riding tide-spawned air currents, a bald eagle floated out from evergreens

behind Charlie and the group. Sun dazzled along the bird’s noble visage.

The intensity of gold beak and talons made us blink. I could follow

it through the camera’s viewfinder, but my hands would neither focus

nor shoot. Soaring beside us, this legendary creature barely moved

a feather. For moments we were cheek-to-cheek with our nation’s traditional

symbol. Now we can only hope to remain worthy of it.

Canoe Trip, Central Jersey Sierra Club, Hamilton-Trenton

Marsh, 609-688-0282. Canoe and kayak trip through the Marsh led by

Mary Leck. Trip will last about four hours depending on tides. By

reservation. Saturday, October 19, 11:45 a.m.

Fall Colors and Birds, Stony Brook Millstone Watershed,

609-737-7592. Mary Leck leads field trip and guided fall walk. Preregister.

Saturday, November 16, 9:30 a.m.

Winter Walk, Washington Crossing Audubon Society,

609-730-8200. Field trip led by Mary Leck. Preregister. Saturday,

January 11, 9:30 a.m.

Spring Walk, Washington Crossing Audubon Society,

609-730-8200. Field trip led by Mary Leck. Preregister. Saturday,

May 3, 8:30 a.m.

To join the Friends of the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh, a grass-roots

initiative to protect the marsh, call the Delaware & Raritan Greenway,

609-924-4646.


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