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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
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
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.
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.
609-737-7592. Mary Leck leads field trip and guided fall walk. Preregister.
Saturday, November 16, 9:30 a.m.
609-730-8200. Field trip led by Mary Leck. Preregister. Saturday,
January 11, 9:30 a.m.
609-730-8200. Field trip led by Mary Leck. Preregister. Saturday,
May 3, 8:30 a.m.
initiative to protect the marsh, call the Delaware & Raritan Greenway,
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