Corrections or additions?
This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann appears in the May 25, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Nature Creates Her Own Green Version of Route 1
People want to know why I’m always out on the Towpath. Replying, I
steal from Sir Edmund Hillary: "Because it’s there." That’s only part
of the truth. In the process, I discover a whole lot more behind
Hillary’s flip answer. "Because I HAVE to!" would really be the better
answer, delivered with reservoirs of urgency.
For months now, I’ve been driving beneath the super-handsome,
modern-yet-retro D&R Canal Footbridge that weaves across two ribbons
of Route 1, just north of Franklin Corner Road. You may have seen this
bridge and wondered, where does that go to? This sturdy structure
fulfills the long-held dream that the severed Delaware and Raritan
Towpath could be safely reattached. The bridge design and glistening
black surface echo stylized wrought-iron signs gracing long-ago canal
crossings. I have driven under this icon of one of New Jersey’s key
treasures hundreds of times. But never set foot on it. What does it
feel like up there? And where does it actually lead?
It is possible to park just below the bridge, on northbound Route 1,
above Franklin Corner Road. But I wanted to sense this passage as the
continuance of the trail I always take, and have taken for years.
Would it extend my towpath experience – or cruelly interrupt it?
I parked in the little towpath lot at Quaker Bridge Road – just south
of the Nassau Park complex, going towards Princeton (make a sharp left
turn where the road makes a sharp right). Accessing the towpath here
holds many gifts, not the least of which, usually, is silence. Taking
the "high road" – up a small hill, stubbornly maintained by nostalgic
walkers – one is spared the harsh granular surface and D.O.T. taint of
the restored path. On high, there is a greater chance of encountering
avian rarities. Try green heron, cedar waxwing. Here’s where my hiking
self wars with my birding self. The legs want OUT! The birder wants to
stay put and not miss a thing. The birder nearly aborted the whole
hike before it even began.
A buttery bird pumped on a wire like a child on a swing. But what
could it be? What has a yellow belly? Long pause: Then, "Idiot!" – I
say to myself – "of course, a yellow-bellied sapsucker!" That name
always made us guffaw as children. But I had only glimpsed one in my
entire life, in Illinois: a male, in breeding plumage, he became
highlight of my canyon excursion. The yellow-bellied sapsucker I saw
on the towpath posed and played with that wire like a trapeze artist.
I had plenty of time to study and memorize its features, which would
later point to immature male.
In addition to the towpath one comes come across rows of sapsucker
holes in healthy tree trunks, deep in the Hamilton/Trenton/Bordentown
Marsh, the Plainsboro Preserve, and probably the Institute Woods. They
drill tiny "wells" to generate later sapflow for themselves, for other
long-billed nectar-loving birds, and many insects. But I had never
before watched the little driller at play in the wind.
On a weathered fence below him, a mother robin stuffed some hapless
insect down the beak of her somewhat stymied offspring. It looked to
be a first-flight day. I could not budge, eager to witness yet another
Happy Meal. A black-and-white warbler hopped down a slanted trunk,
imitating the nuthatch, as only black and whites do. Just then
something impossibly blue zinged across the trail. Too petite for
Eastern bluebird, especially perching, balancing on that slender
canalside weed. No rosy belly either. Could it be – it had to be, an
As with the yellow-bellied sapsucker, I had only seen one indigo
bunting ever – as I arrived to begin wilderness survival training at
Tom Brown’s Tracker School. That was 1983. This morning, glued to the
spot, I attempted to take in this generosity of nature, immediately
behind Big Box Central (you know – Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy)
and all of 10 steps from my car.
As if my bird cup hadn’t already runneth over, one male cardinal
zapped right across the lens of my monocular, his fiery color doubled
in the dark canal water. Two feisty Eastern kingbirds flared their
white-edged tails and lived up to their tyrannus tyrannus name,
targeting a complaining fish crow. A golden-shafted flicker showed
those crazy characteristics that make you decide that a child’s been
cutting up a bird book: woodpecker head, baby robin breast, diagnostic
white rump spot borrowed from Northern Harriers. In the woods behind
me, for the first time in weeks, I heard the
witchety-witchety-witcheties of common yellow throats. Across the
canal, one kingfisher rattled possessively.
There were more critters here than in Snow White’s living room, a lot
of them carrying out housekeeping chores. It was as though I were
riffling the pages of a Sibley – any David Allen Sibley guide to birds
anywhere – masterpieces posing and flitting within reach of my two
hands. That is, until the cyclist whipped through, and my little stage
emptied, not to be refilled.
Some treasured silence was shattered by a large mower that took all
morning to trim a few yards of slanted greensward. Some quiet was
negated by a large New Jersey Water truck, banging behind itself an
open wagon, strewing the path with torn branches. I went past the
one-third-mile trail over to the 1761 Brearley House. That trek is
rich in forest undergrowth, and therefore interesting birds. But I was
not to take the jungle today – I had bridge-on-the-brain.
Below Brearley House I heard a mellifluous wood thrush song. I count
on hearing that liquid silver anytime I hit the Institute Woods, on
foot, or alongside it in a kayak. Deer having devoured most
understory, thrushes other than robins have become exceeding rare.
Near Brearley, three caroled this morning, forgiving my late start.
Too soon, however, nature sounds were drowned by highway roar. I am
not an industrial strength hiker, preferring nature wild and raw. To
my dismay, I soon faced five elephantine overpasses, each louder than
the previous. Jarring highway signs pointed to routes 1, 95, 295. All
abutments had been garlanded with graffiti. I tried to focus on the
natural – tracks plunged into luscious mud alongside a subtle stream.
There was an array of interesting "scat" – something berry-studded,
yet mammalian; something shiny and dark that Tom Brown taught is
weasel; fur-laden leavings of some large four-footed creature. This,
in the Sourlands, the Berkshires, would be coyote. Traffic howl
intruded, more unbearable than cicadas. The similarity could explain
my frenzy to escape that din.
But then, there was the footbridge, slanting up and over Route 1, an
approximate 30-mintue walk from where I started. Gleaming, it brought
back grade-school’s just-washed blackboards. Its solidity was
impressive, an artistic statement in itself. Its cage quality was
unsettling – we humans so dangerous now that there must be no
apertures through which anything difficult might be thrown at cars
I had called Jim Amons, executive director of the D&R Canal
Commission, to ask about safety on and immediately off that bridge.
Amons was most reassuring; walking it all the time. I managed to wring
from him the admission that he had something to do with that handsome
design. Take the best of America’s Industrial Revolution, stir in the
pride of craftspeople who worked with iron in our early days, and add
a pinch of the loft and electricity of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then you
will have a slight sense of what has been created here.
Yes, it is odd being on foot above all those cars and trucks,
especially when one bearing the odd name of your Swiss ex-husband goes
sailing past. The noise can be terrific, even exhilarating. Traffic,
like Delaware River floods, creates its own wind. No, it didn’t feel
like the towpath, but neither was my trekking mood destroyed.
I eagerly tromped down the other side, feeling as though I had crossed
something significant – the Delaware River in the 1700s; the Rubicon.
I plunked myself like a child upon a sturdy wooden rail, imbibing
deeply of hiker-water. It felt like champagne after a team victory. Or
looking back up Aspen Mountain after a long day’s skiing. From now on,
every time I drive under the D&R Canal footbridge, I’ll realize I have
made it my own. And to think I was introduced to this transition icon
by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, indigo bunting, and occasional coyotes.
— Carolyn Foote Edelmann
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