By Joseph Sapia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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 Snufftin@aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia
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.
Huge and plentiful acorns during this “mast year” Here, on the Pipeline.
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.
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 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 aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia
by Joe Sapia
As the 1800s turned into the 1900s, wild turkeys apparently were extinct in New Jersey.
“It’s a native species,” said Tony McBride, the state’s turkey biologist at the Division of Fish and Wildlife. “It requires large areas of upland forest interspersed with openings.”
Turkeys roost in trees, but it is important for the young to feed on insects, available in open areas, to get necessary protein.
But, at the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th Century in New Jersey, land was being cleared for farmland, resulting in the loss of forest habitat. Additionally, there were no limits on hunting turkey. Translated, turkeys disappeared in New Jersey.
“They were gone, as far as we know,” McBride said.
Today, though, the Pine Barrens Around Helmetta – as well as the rest of New Jersey, with an estimated population of 20,000 to 30,000 — are thriving with turkey. And they are easily seen – I see them often as I drive my Jeep down paved roads, for example.
Or I may get a glimpse of them in the woods, even though they are stealth and, when threatened by my approach, make sleek getaways – sometime simply scrambling into heavy understory and fitting in, camouflaged.
“They’re very wary,” McBride said. “They have good vision, hearing, and they taste good, so everything’s after them. They’re constantly on the lookout for predators.”
Turkeys can fly 55 miles per hour, once they get going.
“Turkeys are good fliers,” McBride said.
In January, I was attending an afternoon wake at a funeral home that backs up to the woods. On the funeral home grounds is open space. The funeral director mentioned how turkeys frequent the property. None were in sight when he said it, but, within minutes, there they were.
Even if one does not see them, their three-prong tracks are obvious on the ground or in snow.
“When we release birds in an area, they disperse,” said McBride, adding “every once in awhile,” turkeys, with a range of up to 2 square miles, will settle miles from the release point.
Bob Eriksen, the state turkey biologist from 1977 to 2001, said he once had a release in the Walpack area of Sussex County ending up in Sullivan County, New York, or 28 miles away.
The Pine Barrens around Helmetta have nice turkey habitat of woods and open space. Here, there is forest with farmland abutting it and utility right-of-ways cutting through it. Basically, that explains the re-population of turkeys here, apparently beginning in the late 1990s.
Looking back to the 1950s and 1960s, East Coast game farms would release turkeys. These farm-raised birds, however, “would persist (perhaps for a few years) and fizzle out,” not having the instinct for general survival and feeding, McBride said.
In the early 1970s, scientists learned restoration would be successful with releasing a “true wild stock” of adult birds, McBride said.
“There’s something to be said about these birds growing up in the wilds and passing the skills along,” McBride said.
Around 1977, 22 adult turkeys – 15 hens and seven toms – from New York and Vermont were released in Sussex County. Thus began successful restoration in New Jersey.
By 1979, New Jersey was moving around in-state birds, Eriksen said.
“When a turkey population is first established, the growth is really fast,” McBride said. “The thinking is the predators are naïve.”
Predators of eggs in the ground nests include skunk, raccoon, and crow. Predators of adults and babies include coyote, fox, red-tailed hawk, and great-horned owl.
Within four years of that 1977 release, it had been so successful “we were hunting them,” McBride said.
The Pine Barrens around Helmetta are part of Turkey Area 12, which runs north to south from the Raritan River to Interstate 195 and west to east from Trenton to the Atlantic Ocean from Sandy Hook to Belmar.
In 1995, the state opened a turkey-hunting season in Area 12, because the birds were well-established in the Sourland Mountain area to the west and the Colts Neck area to the east.
In 1996 and 1997, looking to populate the area between Sourland Mountain and Colts Neck, the state released 18 birds on Dey Road, Cranbury – eight birds over two days in January 1996 and 10 birds on Feb. 9, 1997.
A file card from Jan. 3, 1996, shows an adult female, caught in Hampton, Sussex County, and weighing 10-1/2 pounds, was released on the Simonson Farm on Dey Road in Cranbury.
Apparently these were the only two releases near the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, which are about 5 miles away. But that was all that was needed. Soon, turkeys were being recorded in those Pines.
My field notes indicate I first noticed turkey in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta in the fall of 1998.
November 28, 1999: “Turkey in tree in area behind Helen Maslanka’s house,” which is at Jamesburg Park.
January 20, 2001: “Tracks in snow by Jamesburg Dump/Manalapan Brook floodplain area.”
May 22, 2006: “Turkey, saw 2 on Washington Avenue” at Jamesburg Park.
May 25, 2008: “Saw turkey tracks in wet area” along Lincoln Boulevard.
March 24, 2010: “Saw a few wild turkeys on the other side of (Cedar) Brook, or behind the houses,” in Spotswood.
Early May, 2010: “Turkey trots up (Swing) Hill.”
April 14, 2011: “About 6:10 p.m. at the corner of Helmetta Boulevard and Old Stage Road, a turkey flew across Helmetta Boulevard from north to south.”
January 25, 2012: “A flock of turkeys in (Cranberry) Bog. Only heard them because they moved, rustled vegetation. Guess I spooked them.”
I have seen either turkey or its tracks in various places in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta: Snuffy Hollow, the Power Lines at the Cranbury Road farmland, behind Holy Cross Cemetery, in my neighborhood between Helmetta and Jamesburg, across Manalapan Brook from my neighborhood. Basically, they are all around.
Area 12 hunting records suggest the success:
In 1995, during that first season in Area 12, the area had 43 kills of the state’s 1,581. In and around the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, the kills were 3 in South Brunswick, 1 in Monroe, and 1 in East Brunswick, with no kills recorded in Helmetta, Spotswood, Jamesburg, and Old Bridge.
In 2012, Area 12 had 113 of the state’s 2,956 kills. In and around the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, the kills were 16 in Monroe, 7 in Old Bridge, 2 in Helmetta, and 1 in East Brunswick.
In Area 12, turkey hunting is allowed with shotgun or bow and arrow from late April to early May. (The state also has a fall turkey season, beginning in late October and running for one week, but that season is not open in Area 12.)
Turkeys mate from March into April. Nests are hidden on the ground, either in a field at the edge of a forest or amid shrubs or fallen tree in a forest.
“When they make their nest, you generally can’t see them,” McBride said.
A hen will lay about a dozen eggs during the last two weeks of April. About May 1, she will begin sitting on the eggs. They take 28 days to hatch – or at about Memorial Day.
A hen will re-nest to achieve successful hatchlings, laying eggs as late as mid-July.
Of the dozen or so eggs, four poults will make it to 16-weeks-old “in a good year,” McBride said. By the end of September or early October, the young are no longer dependent on the adults.
At that time, they will flock, the young staying with the hens, the adult males, “toms” or “gobblers,” forming their own groups.
Turkeys achieve adulthood at 2-years-old. Their life expectancy in the wild is 3 years.
The best turkey habitat in New Jersey is Cape May, Cumberland, Salem and south Gloucester counties, possibly along with parts of Atlantic County, McBride said. That is because these areas have prime habitat of rich forest and open space.
“Adults eat plenty of acorns, berries, other vegetative matter, and they can also rely on feed associated with dairy operations and backyard birdfeeders, especially in cold weather,” McBride said.
About a dozen years ago, the state basically stopped releasing turkeys.
“By then, we pretty much had turkeys in all of the available range in the state,” said McBride, who became the turkey biologist about that time.
Turkey restoration “skyrocketed” in the 1990s, because dry springs were perfect for nesting and the raccoon population was diminished by disease, Eriksen said.
“The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife did a real good job,” said Eriksen, who, for the last 12 years has been the biologist in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “It was a very aggressive program. The results are impressive. It was tremendous time and energy by the agency.”
Joe Sapia, 57-years-old, lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin@aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828. This article was first circulated as an e-mail to friends in 2013.
We can’t think of a better way to launch our new website than with a recap of the fun had on September 27, 2015 at the annual Raritan River Festival in New Brunswick’s Boyd Park, and with the story of the first Raritan River Festival held on August 16th, 1980.
The first Raritan River Festival was held as part of the 300th Anniversary Celebration of the City of New Brunswick and combined community entertainment and celebration with environmental awareness and action. The goal, according to the Festival Chairman MC (Mac) Babcock was to “demonstrate the recreational and artistic potential of our riverfront.”
On that sunny Saturday in 1980 hundreds of people crowded the banks of the river to watch parades of decorated boats, raft races, canoe races and to witness the arrival of Folk Music Legend, Pete Seeger on the good ship Clearwater. The Festival has since been awarded “Living Legend” status by the United States Library of Congress.
At the LRWP we are driven by the same spirit that launched the Raritan River Festival 35 years ago. We too want to demonstrate, and celebrate, the potential of the Raritan River throughout the Lower Raritan Watershed. We do this through data gathering and reporting, civic science and environmental education and outreach. We do this through a host of collaborative work with artists, academics, planners, engineers, and local and regional stakeholders, and by having a lot of fun.
Speaking of fun: This year the rubber duck and cardboard canoe races were nail biters. Sorry to say the LRWP ducks didn’t win, but the LRWP canoe came in 4th overall!
Many thanks for help at the Festival to our new AmeriCorps NJ Watershed Ambassadors Program Ambassadors for bringing out their enviroscape, to our wonderful volunteers and interns, and to the amazing COLAB ARTS sculptors who installed the “Found in the Watershed” sculptures on river’s edge.
Please plan to join us for more fun at our gallery opening fundraiser “sculpture unveiling” from 6-9PM October 29 when these artworks will be installed in the Robert Wood Johnson Fitness & Wellness Center. For more information about the gallery event and to purchase tickets, check out the sculpture project website.
Thanks for visiting, and see you in the watershed!
Heather Fenyk, President
Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership