Month: December 2015

The Pine Barrens of Helmetta: A look back afield

By Joseph Sapia

Sapia - Holly at Cranberry Bog, Dec 2015

Holly at Cranberry Bog

As Timmy Mechkowski and I walked in back of Helmetta Pond, we came across a patch of Lycopodium.

“Look at all that ground pine,” I said. “It must like it just a little bit wet.”

The ground pine brought memories of his late mother, Catherine “Kay” Holsten Mechkowski. She used to make Christmas wreaths, using running ground pine as the foundation; common ground pine, as we were seeing on this day, to fill in the wreath.

Sapia - Timmy Mechkowski and ground pine, Dec 2015

Timmy Mechkowski and ground pine

“Every now and then, she would find holly (in the woods) and poke them in,” Timmy said.

On this day a year ago, between Christmas and the calendar changing from 2014 to 2015, Timmy and I walked afield in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where we grew up. As one year turns to another, we may reflect on the general past or our reflections could turn afield, here, to a time when there was less development and, in turn, more open space.

“Many years ago, I used to know these woods,” Timmy said.

Sapia - Helmetta's Timmy Mechkowski, Dec 2015

Helmetta’s Timmy Mechkowski

Although Timmy, 54-years-old, lives adjacent to field, water, and woods, just as he did as a child, and works the land – in his case, gardening and cutting firewood on his property – he no longer ventures deep into the woods.

“I couldn’t even tell you,” said Timmy, speaking of the last time he explored the woods. “I was a kid, 17-, 18-years-old, had to be.”

So, on this day, Timmy and I hiked the woods.

We started about noon and walked counter-clockwise to places that locals would recognize, more so if they knew the woods, less so if they did not: the Ditch, Helmetta Pond, the Dance Pavilion, Jamesburg Park, Baron’s or Swing Hill (basically, the same place, but my mother’s generation knowing it by the former, those younger than me calling it the latter), Snuffy Hollow, the Pipeline, Cranberry Bog.

Not only do places afield have local names, but things in the woods, too, have names.

“What do they call that, a widow-maker?” Timmy said.

A massive widow-maker! An estimated 15-feet-or-longer part of a tree hung up 20 to 25 feet or so off the ground.

The typical view of Helmetta Pond is from the side of the former George W. Helme Snuff Mill, or from Helmetta looking toward the woods. Today, we had the other view, from the woods toward the Snuff Mill.

Nearby, a large oak had toppled thanks to the wind of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Its flipped root pan and clinging soil measured about 10-feet-tall, or well above Timmy’s approximately 5 feet, 8 inches.

Sapia - Timmy Mechkowski in front of uprooted tree, Dec 2015

Timmy Mechkowski in front of a tree uprooted, thanks to October 2012’sSuperstorm Sandy. The root pan is about 10-feet-tall

“Now, what is this, mountain laurel?” Timmy said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“I know some things,” he joked.

Actually, Timmy knows a lot, a fine mix of his maternal and paternal farming roots and his town upbringing. By trade, a mechanic. One of my first picks if I had to choose a team to live off the grid.

A coating of ice on a small pond near Helmetta Boulevard, which slices through the woods, was evidence of the day’s temperature of about 32 degrees.

Invasive phragmites grew in the swamps on both sides of Helmetta Boulevard. Yet, not far away, one was in a classic Pine Barrens uplands ecosystem of oak and pitch pine.

“Another pristine area,” I said. “This is beautiful, right here.”

Where the Dance Pavilion stood about 100 years ago – apparently the idea being to bring people out for a good-time night in the woods to sell them lots here – we could still find remnants.

“This is pretty cool,” I said, “you could still see them, the steps,” leading to where the pavilion stood on the top of a small hill.

Here, in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, there is a quick mix of nature and humans, some old, a lot current.

As we bushwhacked with Jamesburg Park behind us and Swing Hill ahead, swamp to our left, high ground to our right, a nearby path of white sand was hidden by the woods’s vegetation.

“You couldn’t even see the path a few feet away,” I said.

In the Swing Hill-Snuffy Hollow area, there was evidence of how this area of the woods is more accessible to the outside world: a stream washed out because of off-road vehicle riding and garbage dumped. But this walk was wrapping up, anyway.

On our walk, we passed swamp, uplands mixed with oak and pine, swamp hardwood forest and Atlantic white cedar swamp, sphagnum bog, a stand of baby pitch pines and invasive white pine, and what apparently was a coyote den, sometime the hum of the New Jersey Turnpike, only a mile or so away, in the background.

Sapia - Coyote den under the roots of an uprooted tree, Dec 2015

Coyote den under the roots of an uprooted tree

The woods is a funky place, a place to gather Mother Nature’s bounty. This Christmas, I did not get around to gathering materials for a wreath. Mrs. Mechkowski’s wreath is different than mine, which I make using pine boughs and inserting winterberry.

To next Christmas and, hopefully, a wreath. We are moving that way as another year has gone by.

On the way home, we saw winterberry, what I use for a wreath, and holly, what Mrs. Mechkowski used. For now, the outdoors is still here, but changing, too….

Sapia - Winterberry at Cranberry Bog, Dec 2015

Winterberry at Cranberry Bog

Joe Sapia, 59-years-old, grew up in and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.


Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia

A Walk on the Edge of the Woods

by Joseph Sapia

As I hiked through Jamesburg Park, Jimmy Talnagi stood outside his cabin, lighted punk in hand.

Strange, I thought, I just had an online discussion with fellow, local baby-boomers about punks, or cat-tails. As children, we would light the cigar-like flower, ostensibly to keep mosquitoes away, but more likely to be one of the kids. Jimmy was not part of the recent discussion, but here he was, as if waiting for me, with the smoking punk. And, this being November, was not part of the season for mosquitoes.

I had three punks left from the warmer weather, what am I going to do? Jimmy said. They just start shredding, like a big puff ball.

True, the fluffy vegetation of this punk was coming apart, sticking to my sweatshirt. So, either light them for the heck of it or let them disintegrate.

Jimmy and the punk were one of various unexpected discoveries on today’s walk – a walk on the edge of the woods. The walk was meant to combine two things: one, a hike into nature, and, two, a pragmatic commute to the other side of the woods to Krygier’s Nursery, whose owner, Jimmy Krygier, was giving me a ride to pick up my Jeep, which was getting some mechanical work done about 8 miles away near Englishtown. Because I was tired and busy with house projects, I did not really have the will or the time to get into the woods. So, I compromised, turning down Jimmy picking me up at home, but sort of walking the woods – that is, walking on the edge of the woods – to Jimmy’s house.

So, around 2 p.m. on this overcast day of 55 to 60 degrees that was calm to having a light breeze, I set off toward Cranberry Bog. The idea was to walk the Pipeline to the ConRail railroad tracks, then to the bog, past Shekiro’s Pond into Jamesburg Park and out the woods at Jimmy’s, roughly a walk of two miles.

Walking the edge of the woods is not as good as walking deeply into the woods, but I made my first discovery hardly off the beaten track. On the natural gas Pipeline, I came across plentiful and huge acorns. This year is a “mast year,” somewhat of a mystery when oaks really kick out acorns. An oak in my yard was covered with acorns; Here, they were huge.

acorns on the mast year - Joe Sapia 12.4.15 blog

Huge and plentiful acorns during this “mast year” Here, on the Pipeline.

classic pinelands white sand ecosystem - Sapia 12.4.15

Classic Pine Barrens ecosystem of white sand, pitch pine, Virginia pine, and oak.

Continuing on, I turned toward Helmetta, briefly walking the ConRail freight tracks, before turning toward the Bog. Almost immediately I came across a microcosm of the Pine Barrens: white, beach sand-like soil mixed with oak, pitch pine and Virginia pine. If someone doubts this area is part of the Pine Barrens, have that person look at this scene.

As I continued, I came across blazing red tree leaves, the changing colors of vegetation during the transition from hot to cold weather. What a beautiful scene, but nearby there was evidence a local neighborhood is dumping its vegetative waste in the area. At the Bog, too, I was greeted by another sad scene: invasive phragmites. Not only overtaking the bog as a whole, but overtaking a nice stand of valuable punks.

As I moved on, the phragmites invasion continued. I counted five plants growing in Shekiro’s Pond. Five now, but how many in a short time? On the bright side, literally across the unpaved road from the pond, I found nice stands of winterberry. Not only beautiful, but food for birds and decorative material for my Christmas decorations.

phragmites in Sheikiro's Pond - Sapia, 12.4.15

Five shoots of very invasive phragmites, with the tassel at top, begins an invasion at Shekiro’s Pond.

I dipped back into civilization at the former worker houses of the George W. Helme Snuff Mill, then worked my way out again into the woods passing Jimmy’s cabin and a few other homes. Finally, I was back in the woods, but out all too soon, my walk done.

Sometime, life gets in the way of doing fun things, such as playing in the woods. So, one has to take advantage of snippets here and there.

As for the lighted punk, Jimmy insisted I take it as I continued hiking. But it was dry and leaves heavily littered the woods.

I don’t want to set the woods on fire, I said.

This went back and forth, with me finally agreeing. I took the punk, bit into its stem, and held it like a cockeyed version of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cigarette.

I tromped on, looking like a swamps-around-Helmetta aristocrat.

Jimmy with a lighted punk - Sapia 12.4.15

Jimmy Talnagi with a lighted punk

Joe Sapia, 59-years-old, grew up in and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin AT or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.

Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia