Corrections or additions?
This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 12, 2000. All rights reserved. For an article on the
Sourlands Planning Commission, see www.princetoninfo.com/200007/00712c02.html.
Sojourn to the Sourlands
Face it: You don’t usually think `New Jersey’ when
you hear "Where the Wild Things Are." And yet, there is a
place not 30 minutes west of U.S. 1 that now welcomes you with the
sign, "Attention: You Are In Bear Country!"
High on a ridge that extends from Hopewell to Hillsborough lies the
Sourland Mountain Preserve. This place of impervious stone creates
poor aquifers, but sources the headwaters of the Stony Brook and seven
other vital streams. The ridge stretches from the storied Delaware
River to the Raritan, from the Millstone to the D&R Canal. It’s a
place where concrete and hard drives and viruses — electronic
and otherwise — are replaced by tall trees, babbling brooks, and
the insistent sounds of thrushes and warblers.
Lately, however, the Sourlands promise an added attraction. Black
bears are being driven and/or lured (depending on your paradigm) from
their traditional landscapes to what we had been considering "our
own." No, you’re not likely to see these denizens in their haunts.
But you will come across their "sign" on trees and trail.
Follow me to Hopewell and my favorite entry into the Sourlands. Route
518 West leads to Greenwood Avenue in Hopewell, near the old pharmacy
(see map, page 33). Right up the road, past the roadhouse with its
hints of nefarious doings over the years, cross Featherbed Lane (purportedly
named for the Revolutionary suppliers who tied torn quilts to horses’
hooves to silence their passage to needy troops). Go over a quasi-bridge
of metal and past a road with Church in its name. Make a sharp right
(even though there’s a mailbox) at the subtle brown sign to Hunterdon
County’s Sourland Mountain Preserve. Here you will find parking for
half-a-dozen cars (and no rest room).
You’re entering the domain of the glacier, where rocks the size (and
some say, the power) of Stonehenge have been put in place by primal
forces. You’ll walk under a tall and varied forest canopy that will
shield you from most elements, even on the hottest days. You’ll be
treated to birdsong and silence, rather more of the latter than the
former. You’ll be less than 45 minutes and light years from Route
Wear hiking boots, and the New Jersey anti-tick costume of long sleeves
and long pants tucked into high socks. Carry your insect repellant,
and apply it at the outset — at least to a bandanna around your
forehead. Carry enough water (pint on a normal day, quart if it’s
hot), and set out.
You’ll walk on a road that was once used to remove the imposing rocks
to an ignominious fate as road gravel throughout our region. You’ll
walk alongside a stream that will tug at you, but save that for the
finale. You’ll almost immediately hear the "teacher, teacher,
teacher" of the furtive Ovenbird; you may be treated to the high
cry of the hawk.
You’ll have learned at the parking area bulletin board
what blooms are likely this day. You’ll be warned of wintertime hunters
(Sundays are safe, or any day wearing Day-Glo orange). You’ll be told,
yet again, about the ubiquitous deer ticks. And suddenly — for
the first time this year — you’ll be notified: "You are in
Bear Country." Yes, within minutes of the Route 1 business corridor.
Don’t worry, they’re black, not grizzly. It’s said they’re warded
off by noise (try singing). Don’t carry any food, not even a granola
bar. But they are likely to be far more shy than you, or you wouldn’t
have that desk and computer.
Deeper into the Sourlands, you’ll see "bear sign:" freshly
clawed trees at the human height, or prone — blazing the unlikely
yellow of freshly-cut lumber, shining like torches in the woods. Your
dog, if he or she is with you (leashed), may sniff out a significant
track. Tracks are deep (because of the bear’s weight), oval, sturdily
clawed, — there’s really not much question who leaves these marks.
If it has been raining, the trails will read like newspapers of earlier
arrivals. I have seen serious deep round indentations with heavy-duty
claw marks that, if encountered in the Berkshires, would be indisputably
tracks of a catamount; whether or not that’s true here, I don’t know.
Deer tracks inscribe their own stories: Heavily pointed at the front
means the deer was rushing; little hills thrown up at the back signifies
fear; splayed marks reveal the heaviness of pregnancy, when the protuberance
on the doe’s leg touches down to incise a triune sign. Unknown "scat"
(that’s tracker talk for defecation) may show up mid-path. Its placement
has little to do with elimination and everything to do with territoriality.
(I know, you get enough of this at the office, but this is where it
If you’re lucky, you may come across a spurt of spiky, ash-grey very
straight wild fur. Hopewell residents admit to hearing coyotes these
days. Rising from the pond is a rickety hand-made ladder. Could it
be Richard Bruno Hauptman’s? You won’t actually see Revolutionary
footprints, but you’ll likely remember that patriots coursed through
these woods, hiding personnel and supplies in groves and caves. John
Hart, signer of the Declaration of Independence, fled Tories here;
ultimately losing his "life, his fortune, but not his sacred honor."
In the Sourlands, anything is possible.
You set out easily enough on the broad track that once was used to
remove the imposing stones. I always wonder which New Jersey highway
has been formed of Sourland boulders "ground exceeding small."
The road rises and suddenly ends in a stony ground. No, this is not
the evocative stone circle that lies about an hour ahead of you. This
is where you begin to practice woodcraft. (1) Stop. (2) Drink deep
of your water supply (recommended rule: drink before you become thirsty).
(3) Reapply insect repellant. and (4) Look around.
Your task now is to locate the gray blazes painted on tree trunks
and some rocks to mark the trail. Do not move until you’ve found at
least one, preferably two. Luckily, blaze frequency and visibility
have been markedly increased since 1999. (Three blazes on one trunk
signify a crossroads.) Do not be tempted by a seemingly easy path
to your left — this is a stream bed. But go through the rocks,
blaze-by-blaze. It gets easier. Think of this part as a crossword
puzzle for the feet rather than the brain.
In the depths of this preserve, there is no sight nor sound of anything
man-made. These woods "are lovely dark and deep," as if you’d
driven a good seven hours due north, to New Hampshire or Vermont.
In addition to examining trailside for the flowers to which you were
alerted at entry, be on the lookout for trees growing through trees,
trees growing on top of (felled) trees, and trees thriving although
their roots have clawed their way across, around, and even through
boulders. Memories of these signs of persistence will come in handy
back at the office.
As the trail gently reaches its crest, there is a fork. If you go
to the right, you’ll end up at a fence complete with Holstein cattle
in a green field. Instead, go left at the cairn. Cairns are piles
of rocks, loosely yet carefully arranged by hikers and/or devotees
of the goddess Hecate. She is the deity of the crossroads (which most
cairn-builders do not know). No sacrifice required. Nonetheless, feel
free to follow the convention, leave your own rock, acorns, mosses,
oakleaves in place for Hecate.
You’re in a mostly deciduous forest with few evergreens.
It may be lit by sun in paling beech leaves. The April drop of beech
leaves is nature’s way of giving an infusion of acid nutrition just
when the beeches most need it for spring resurgence. Some could call
this gilding the lily, as the Germans who settled this region in the
1600s named the land for its acid soil.
In late April and early May, the understory is piqued by light in
the green parasols of May Apple. Under waxen white bells, in later
summer, will burgeon "apples" the lime green of Granny Smiths.
The forest canopy holds light like votive candles, in hues of chartreuse
and orange. These blossoms resemble tulips, giving the many tall tulip
trees their name.
In a warmer time, you’ll be treated to trills of wood thrush, but
not to many thrush sightings. This elusive bird (relative of the robin)
almost exactly matches the brown duff so plentiful in the Sourlands.
Shadows across your brow are the gift of turkey vultures against the
sun. You’ll probably be assailed on all sides by the sound of "witchety,
witchety, witchety" from courting common yellowthroats. You’ll
know them by their saucy black masks and feathers brighter than dandelions.
If you’ve delayed your walk ’til the afternoon hours, you may be rewarded
by the silent rush of owls.
Try never to set foot in the Sourlands on a schedule. Leave time and
tasks behind. Think about how long it took that glacier to scour the
waterway you are crossing on solid logs and rocks. Now you come around
a corner to the flat grey cirque boulders. Stop and sit awhile. Look
far out over the emptiness, and feel the southerly flow of that primal
force. Consider the Lenni Lenapes, Native Americans who surely sat
cross-legged in seasonal council in this power place. Try not to think
of determined Hauptman, high on a nearby crest with his spyglass,
his ladder, and his greed. Nor of the innocent Lindberghs, tucking
their sniffly baby in for the last time.
Greedy yourself for more wilderness, move on below the cirques (stone
circles) until you’re back on the logging and stoning road. If you’re
still enthralled by woodland and by timelessness, take a left at the
trail that soon shows up. It will delay your departure by about 20
minutes, most of them spent in lovely underbrush. You’ll sharpen up
your tracking skills, as the trail flirts with the watercourse (yes,
a glacial remnant; last signature of this fine artist). In a moist
time, colorful mushrooms will light your way. On felled logs, there’ll
be sunbursts of vivid yellow fungi, cabbage-sized and the color of
scrambled eggs. They’re dramatic enough almost to tempt this hiker
to sample them, sauteed in a bit of fruity olive oil. You’ll come
to a fording or balancing place (with handy staffs left by earlier
pilgrims), where the crossing delights the child in all of us. There’s
just enough danger of falling into the waters to generate the thrill
of accomplishment on the other side.
And then, too soon, you’re back reading the bulletin board — what
you should and should not have encountered. Personally, this newly-admitted
possibility of bear adds a delicious frisson to the experience. Yes,
I had seen "bear sign" on earlier trips, and cherish the confirmation.
You might think about hunters and how you really feel about them,
especially if you have many friends with Lyme disease. And you might
consider buying something orange, even if you hate that color, so
that fall days, too, will be welcoming in the Sourlands.
This woodland gem, like Bowman’s Hill Wildlife Preserve or the Brigantine
Refuge, is not a place to check off a list like a conquered tourist
destination. Sources and resources — they are there to return
to again, and again, aquifers of the spirit.
Open daily, sunrise to sunset. Www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/depts/parks/parks.htm.
Somerset County Parks Commission, Hillsborough, 908-722-1200.
A life-long New Jersey resident and environmental activist,
Clem Fiori is a freelance photographer and artist whose work has been
exhibited and published widely. Born and raised in Somerset County,
he lives in Blawenburg, in Montgomery Township, with his wife, Joanna,
and their two sons.
An appointed municipal official, he is chair of Montgomery Township’s
Open Space Committee. "As a conservationist involved in local
open space planning, I am dedicated to doing what I can to revise
the sense of priorities of those around me regarding what is happening
right here," he says. His book, "The Vanishing New Jersey
Landscape," a collection of photographs and writings about rural
places in central New Jersey, some of which are reproduced in the print edition of U.S. 1, is
published by Rutgers University Press.
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