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

indigo bunting!

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

below.

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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