Tag: JJ Mish

By the Light of the Silvery Spring Moon

Article and photos by Joe Mish

In the dark of night or by the light of a full moon, screech owls are on the prowl for food. Spring peepers sound a dinner bell for a hungry owl and are the perfect size for the diminutive screech owl.

The last full moon of winter rose in the night sky to escape the clouds which hung just above the horizon. As the moon passed above this dark velvet curtain, an infinite army of dark shadows suddenly appeared and stood tall in contrast to the silver-gray tinted background. Though the moon light turned night into day, all color melted into shades of gray.

A chorus of spring peepers provided backup music to solo performances by pickerel frogs, toads and green frogs. The sound ebbed and flowed with brief moments of sudden silence as if to gather audience attention. The amphibian love fest seemed heightened by the silvery mood light hovering high above. The calls professing infinite amphibian love, also attract predators whose love extends only to a dietary delight. The flash of a low flying owl, was revealed as moonlight reflected off its white under feathers during a sharp turn. This aerial pirouette coincided with a dead silence from the chorus of frogs. When the sounds of love returned, haltingly at first, then to full volume, it was impossible to tell if there was now one less second tenor.

Turning back from the meadow, I began to scan the moonlit surface of the gently flowing river. Any disturbance in the perfectly smooth, glass-like water surface would reveal the presence of some otherwise elusive creature or unfolding drama. Locally common aquatic furbearers, mink, beaver, muskrat, along with land dwellers, especially raccoon, are most active at night and may occasionally be seen.

There was a substantial inventory of sticks and barely exposed rocks causing irregularities in the smooth water that had to be checked off as false positives. It became a game of concentration to recall which disturbance to ignore. One sure sign of interest is the half circle pattern of ripples moving out from the shore, perpendicular to the water flow. Many a muskrat leaving its submerged bank den will send telltale ripples to preface its appearance. Same goes for mink, or raccoon investigating nooks and crannies in the labyrinth of tree roots. One night, a large wake appeared to reveal the presence of a barge size raccoon, paddling from shore to island. The moonlight revealed a perfectly dry ball of fur, slowly swimming, as if to not get its hair wet. It soon disappeared into the deep shadows of the island’s trees.

Another moonlit night, during very low water, the smooth water flow was interrupted by something walking from shore to island a distance away and partially obscured by branches. I fully expected to see a deer as its relatively long legs dismissed the possibility of a raccoon. I was shocked to see a fox walking in the water. The digital image captured is visual blur but clearly shows a red fox willing to get its feet wet for something its nose demanded to investigate.

Though the natural world is a never ending, non-stop feature film, we see only out of context isolated frames which are inadequate to understand the complexity and co-dependence of the natural community of which we are an inseparable part.

The light of a full moon becomes the movie projector used to provide an opportunity to see what goes on in the dark of night and add needed perspective to our knowledge of the natural world.

Note some moon fun facts. The diameter of the moon is less than the width of the United States. A case of “objects in the mirror appear closer than they really are.” The moon’s axial rotation matches exactly the time it takes to orbit the earth. The moon is capable of raising and lowering the sea level, triggering migrations and influencing animal and human behavior. Bird migrations are associated with the full moon and in the case of woodcock, provide a well-lit stage for a display of early spring mating flights. A recent study has found that a protein exists in birds’ eyes which allow it to actually see and navigate by the blue light generated from the magnetic poles. The influence of moon phase on migration and animal activity is well documented.  See Solunar Tables by John Alden Knight, Also Richard Alden Knight https://www.usprimetimes.com/theory.html  for more information on sun, moon and tide affects on behavior.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

What does the fox say?

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Look in to my eyes and tell me you know I exist, hear my voice and know I am near

The hiker, skier and the fox

Passed this way on a snowy walk

The same path was taken on that day

Though each saw things a different way

What does the fox say?

A series of hair raising, high pitched screams pierced the darkness, made blacker by the invisible February new moon. The sounds echoed in the still night, their source, initially speculative, was attributed a red fox.

Late winter marks the renewal of life for many wildlife species including red fox. What set fox apart from most other wildlife, are their screams made during the night time mating ritual. Mating fox do not confine their mating ritual to the night and may on occasion be heard during the day.

The screams sound quite like a screech owl or a young great horned owl and the range of vocalization is wide and varied. That is what makes differentiation between owl and fox calls so initially challenging. The sound they all share is like a ‘blaat’, elongated into a screech. The giveaway is that an owl will move locations while the fox screams are stationary and muted because they are made close to the ground, the sound obstructed by trees and brush.

Male fox referred to as dog fox, roam far and wide looking for a mate and are often seen during the day. South facing hillsides are a favorite place for a fox to fall asleep.

The air currents travel uphill in the warm sun and carry delightfully interesting scents to a nose that never sleeps.

Additionally, any approaching danger will be detected at a distance, allowing time for the alerted fox to seek secure cover.

It appears more of a magic trick for a red colored fox to hide in the middle of a pure white expanse of snow. When observed, is akin to an apparition performed in a magic act. You can’t believe what you are seeing.

A male will court and mate with one or more females, also known as vixens. It is interesting, that like mink and other wildlife, the implantation may be delayed several days or more as in the case of mink. Theory suggests the first mating may not be with the ideal mate and when a better male comes along it allows his genetics to be passed on.

Late one January, among a jumble of boulders on a snowy hillside in mature woods, a female was preparing a den, as evidenced by the fresh orange earth scattered on the deep snow. Dens may be used year after year but generally a new den site is selected.

The initial den site may be abandoned and a new site selected for the growing pups. I imagine security and cleanliness are some considerations in moving a litter, though there are many examples of a single den serving until the pups explore on their own. One female moved six pups from a pasture to a groundhog den nearby. Mom picked up each pup by the scruff of the neck, head held high and carried them a couple hundred yards to their new home.

This nursing session coincidentally took place on Mother’s day, May 15th. Mom moved six pups 400 yards up from the river flood plain just in time before a heavy rain covered the pasture with 4 feet of water.

Gestation is generally 60 days and litter size may vary from two to six. I have observed a litter of six pups though four or five are more commonly noted.

As the newborn pups are totally dependent upon mom for food and warmth she rarely leaves the den and depends on the male to bring her food. When the pups are old enough to control their body temperature and require less attention, mom will begin hunting again. I have seen one fox, hunt and kill several mice in one session. She then picked them all up, at least three tails dangling from her mouth, and trotted off to her feed her pups.

As I was writing this, I heard intermittent screaming, which sounded quite like a yapping ten pound lap dog. the sounds were consistent with mating fox, though it was nine in the morning. The strong wind carried the sounds afar to confuse the location of the fox. At one point it sounded as if I was just yards away. Nothing! As I returned I heard the sound again at a distance, closer to home. Unexpectedly, a fox trotted across my path from where the barking originated. So I mark this day to project a birth date sure to take place nearby in about 65 days.

Dog fox on the run, love on his mind, suddenly appears and then is gone. Quick draw photography a requirement.

When we go beyond text books and actually observe wildlife, we come to appreciate individual personalities that stand in contrast to the declared behavioral generalizations. We are misled in that way to think of wildlife as isolated, inanimate objects, predictable in nature and nothing more to see, that’s all there is.

The fox that came into a neighbor’s yard and began tossing a dog toy in the air, pouncing and leaping in a playful moment, fits no description of its kind in any Wikipedia summary.

Another neighbor further down the road noted a fox to be a regular visitor and she discovered the fox would steal her pony’s rubber boots. I wondered how common it was for fox living near homes to steal or play with dog toys or other objects a dog might be expected to have fun with. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence of fox engaged in such antics.

During late spring on Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, I watch a family having a picnic and observed a fox sitting perfectly still and upright about 30 steps away in the open. The picnickers saw the fox and tossed some food his way. The fox came forward, took the food and retreated to his original position, politely waiting for a second handout.

We all have our own unique style and flair as does every individual wild creature. Fox display an intelligence and creativity, as if to say, “Look in to my eyes and tell me you know I exist, hear my voice and know I am near.” A plea often seen in the eyes of little children and the elderly; We are kindred spirits with all living things and share many needs in common, the fox is an animal spirit guide in that respect. That’s what the fox says!

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Whispering Shadows Tell Their Mid-winter Secret

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A female cardinal fluffs her feathers and settles in to wait out a midwinter snowstorm

The autumn light gradually dims, as it follows its well-worn path deeper into December. Like a long circular tunnel with a vanishing point, the swirling colors fade away until they disappear, engulfed by dark shadows on the threshold of winter.

From this darkness, caused by the celestial despair of the planets, new light instantly begins to grow while shadows hidden on the far side of light begin to withdraw.

The apparent low orbit of the sun across the sky in winter produces the longest shadows. Shadows, which when measured at the height of the day, over time reflect the ebb and flow of the seasons. It is as if the shadows whispered their secret to early sky gazers, bestowing upon them, the gift of predicting the future.

When the position of stars and planets were noted in association with the occurrence of the longest and shortest shadows, a living calendar was discovered. Sunrise and sunset defined a day, full moon a month and the longest shadow to the longest shadow was a year. The concept of time was now measurable and the occurrence of future events predictable; predictability being an innate need and prerequisite to human survival.

As the primitive calendar became more refined, certain times were marked for celebration. Surely, the longest and shortest days were noted and given special attention. Humans will bridge gaps in knowledge with mythology and paleo societies revolved around myths used to explain natural phenomena.

In the northern latitudes, winter was a critical time of survival. During midwinter the sun appeared to stand still. If you look at a perpetual calendar of sunrise and sunset, the change in day length is minimal during that period.

Many were the rites and ceremonies during that period of darkness. Some gave rise to modern celebration when religious holidays overlaid pagan rituals. Druids burned a yule log to encourage the return of light. Holly, which was evergreen, was given as a sign of life. The birth of light marked a new year, a time to plan and celebrate future success.

I take comfort in celebrating the shortest day and birth of light with a campfire, lighting a cattail and roasting a piece of venison on the glowing coals. This day is my paleo New Year celebration, identifying more with primitive ancestors than ethnic DNA. January first is of no consequence.

To hunt with a traditional bow and arrow and bring a deer to ground to share with the clan is the ultimate act of caring and community. It becomes a communion of spirit and flesh where the animal is assimilated, a sign of respect for its sacrifice. It also transcends time and allows me to share in the emotions felt by my ancestors who looked to the sky and listened to the whispering shadows for guidance and survival.

Welcome to winter and new life. Sophisticated calculation of planetary movements indicates that this year winter will arrive December twenty-first at 11:19 am. Like magic, the descent into darkness instantly gives way to the ascent into light.

If nothing else, give a glance up at the stars on the twenty-first. Know the wonder your ancestors felt when they looked to the heavens in awe, their imagination encouraged by the stars and planets moving across the night sky.

A female cardinal turned upside down, perfectly reflects the new year of light ushered in by the midwinter solstice. It is a chance to use the light to see your world from a different perspective and discover all the treasures hidden by unconscious routine and preconception.  A legacy of the ancient Roman midwinter celebration of Saturnalia where “social order was turned upside down” while merriment and wild celebration ruled the day.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Good Bye Dam!

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The large letters written in white chalk on the old concrete dam simply said, “good bye dam”. That sentiment was accompanied by other names and sketches, not unlike a farewell card signed for a departing fellow co-worker.

The dam on the Lamington River at Burnt Mills was scheduled for removal after several iterations of mills beginning in early colonial times circa 1754.

Dams and mills came and went on New Jersey rivers and streams. Some destroyed by floods, fire or angry upstream neighbors deprived of migrating fish. British troops did their part and burned the mill on the Lamington, in Bromley, which was henceforth named Burnt Mill. These days the dams are being removed by private organizations and groups in cooperation with the National Fish and Wildlife Service. These organizations are dedicated to the restoration of rivers and the downstream benefits to native wildlife and soil stability.

Hundreds of dams across the country have been removed or are being scheduled for removal. The results are, for the most part, shockingly positive. From California to Maine, stories of returning fisheries, reduction in sediment accumulation, reduced flooding and a greater diversity of wildlife have been documented.

Every dam is its own story, its significance dependent on location. Downstream of the Lamington, on the lower Raritan, removal of dams allowed the upstream travel of anadromous fish.

In colonial times, netting alewives and shad as far upstream as Raritan, generated a profitable commercial fishery. Mills and dams put an end to that business.

Most early mills were situated on feeder streams to avoid seasonal floods and raging current. The Lamington dam was perfectly situated in that regard.

Mature trees lined the banks to stabilize the soil and as a result the stream bed suffered minimal erosion during seasonal flooding. Runoff was minimal due to the surrounding land being unsuitable for farming. Even today as development has exploded, the stream bed of the upper Lamington and Rockaway is mostly sand and gravel. The difference is striking when compared to the nearby lower South Branch which suffers from erosion and a build up of silt.

This image above the Burnt Mills dam captures the character of the Lamington and South Rockaway. Mature trees lock in the soil and a heavy canopy shades the shallow water. 

The low concrete dam across the Lamington had been breeched in the early 1950s and misdirected the streamflow into the opposite shore causing severe erosion. An aerial view comparing the intact structure in 1953, to breeched version in 1956, shows the progress of the resulting erosion. An aerial view as seen today, compared to 1956, is even more dramatic.

The image on the top shows the intact dam in 1953. The image on the bottom shows the impact of erosion caused by the breeched dam in three years time in 1956.
 

The Lamington is the recipient of water released from Cushetunk Lake and Round Valley reservoir via South Rockaway creek as well as runoff from extensive upstream development. The added flow into the lower Lamington has hastened its meandering as directed by impervious shale cliffs and the concrete dam. Concrete walls designed to prevent erosion, speed the streamflow otherwise slowed by natural shorelines. Concrete walls line an upstream golf course, and another wall lines an outside curve along the road about a half-mile above the dam. During times of planned water release and seasonal storms, the water volume and speed create a high-pressure nozzle at the point of the breeched dam. The sum of upstream water, that makes up the Lamington, flows around a sharp bend a few hundred yards above the dam, careens off the high straight wall of red shale, slams into a concrete barrier perpendicular to its flow, then left, into a bank of unstable soil.

Free flowing rivers exhibit pure energy and it is energy and movement that define life. Science aside, it is the magic of perpetual motion and endless flow that we embrace. Flowing water is a magic carpet which requires no effort to travel, whether it be by vessel or imagination.

Any interruption of the energized free flow is representative of progressive pathology and an existential threat. The ‘damnation’ of rivers and streams represent stasis, blockages and clots; their removal, a life saving intervention.

So it was, the landmark Burnt Mill dam came down. Mixed feelings for those whose youthful memories were cast into the concrete substructure. The sight of the dam served as a reminder of an idyllic time and sunny days. A momentary retreat from the harsh reality that, on occasion, bites us all, was erased.

The removal was well planned and orchestrated as opposed to a charge of dynamite and a call of, ‘fire in the hole.’

The course of the river needed to be shifted and so large boulders were placed strategically to form the foundation of a left bank to replace that which was lost.

A 323 Caterpillar excavator fitted with tracks, moved into the river above the dam and began to scoop river bed gravel to line the upstream side of the length of the concrete dam. Apparently, this prevented water from flooding the work area during removal. Boulders in place, a second 323 Cat positioned on the downstream side, fitted with a ram driven spike, began to break up the concrete starting at the midstream end, working toward the right shore. It appeared the first foot and a half was easily penetrated. The second and third pass strained the hydraulic ram, the concrete’s resistance futile. After each session with the spike, the front-end loader scooped up the rubble and dumped it in-line with the boulders to form a new shoreline. The effort continued and half the dam was broken up and redistributed in about four hours. https://vimeo.com/367086739

Before and after images show the progress of the removal. Images 3 and 8 are the same view. Images 1 and 7 represent the same view. This work took place over three days.

Work continues as the removal of the dam was the first step in restoring the Lamington to its original course, pre-1754.

A new generation will know a different river, just as the last generation knew only a river interrupted by a dam.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Encounter with a Gray Ghost

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The elusive gray ghost of Native American mythology appears out of the river’s mist, as we stare into each other’s eyes.

February fourth, late afternoon, marked a close encounter with a gray ghost I have been chasing for decades. Face to face at eighteen paces, the apparition materialized out of the river’s mist. So close, our eyes met as I looked unavoidably through the lens of its honey-brown/yellow eyes and into its soul.

Just as an opening act raises the energy of the audience, three terrified deer ran past moments before on the same trail and I do not use the word ‘terrified’ lightly.

I quickly picked up the camera in anticipation of more deer running through the constricted pass. I was sure there would be a second act, though had no idea what it might be.

To my amazement, shock and awe, a coyote appeared. I always wondered if I could tell a coyote from someone’s pet dog. Well I’m here to tell you, the recognition was instant and left no doubt which canine version stood before me.

The eyes, the yellow eyes, commanded full attention at that close a distance. The coyote’s mottled gray fur blended so perfectly into the leaf covered ground, its eyes appeared as two gleaming orbs hovering, unattached, in the air, above the ground.

The eyes, those yellow eyes, were a personal invitation afforded to me as a momentary portal through which to view the heart of a wild spirit.

The coyote is a mythological character come to life whose reputation for intelligence and adaptability is well documented in ancient tribes’ oral histories. Amazing, our interaction with coyotes in ancient times has continued unabated to this day. The coyote appropriately goes by any one of several aliases, yotes, song dog, brush wolf, prairie wolf, so fitting for a reputed trickster as described in the myths of many early cultures.

Originating in the west, coyotes have migrated east on their own, as well as spread by intentional redistribution. The first documented sighting of a coyote in NJ is reported to be 1939 and today they have been reported in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Song dogs have been legal game in NJ since 1998. Many states have been conducting genetic studies on coyotes and some, like NJ require the killing of a coyote by legal means or roadkill, be immediately reported to the state division of fish and wildlife.

The eastern coyote is generally much larger than its western cousin. The largest coyote has been reported at 55 pounds, though they average much less. DNA sampling has documented coyotes and wolves have mated, which may explain the larger size and the color variation in their coats. Coyotes will, on rare occasion, mate with dogs and are referred to as coydogs.
Coyotes are now well established in our area and often, a red or gray fox will be mistaken for a coyote. The visual differences between the two species are dramatic, size and coloration the most obvious.

Coyotes have always been at the center of controversy, especially in the west where livestock depredation is a concern. Their adaptability includes a diet so varied as to take advantage of whatever fare is available. That menu may include pets, insects, plants or poultry. Coyotes have been trapped, poisoned and shot and yet persist in viable populations in close proximity to man, thus have earned a ghost-like reputation. Someone once said of a coyote, ‘if you turned a coyote loose on a tennis court it could disappear behind the net!”

In the court of popular opinion, defenders stand opposed.

A doctor I know was nonplussed at my excitement of encountering a coyote. He regularly sees them on his property and one often comes to play with his 110-pound German shepherd.

Another strong proponent and defender of coyotes is Geri Vistein, who has written a great book, “I Am Coyote”. Geri also has a website and Face Book page, “Coyote Center, Carnivores, Ecology and Coexistence”. Geri explains that coyotes are an indispensible part of our living web of life and points out coyote management errors that add to the problem of negative human/ coyote interaction.

However you view coyotes, this wild and untamed spirit, wrapped in gray fur, is worthy of admiration. If you love dogs, it is not a leap to extend that feeling to their wild cousins. But be warned, not everyone shares that love.

It is quite a feat for any species to have flourished in times gone by and still maintain genetically viable numbers in the midst of an expanding human population and chronic loss of natural habitat.

The coyote remains more of mythological character of dubious existence, as it is rarely ever seen; you are more likely to hear a chorus of melodious howls on a cold and still winter night than to ever see a coyote. As with any sound in the night, its source and location are left to pure speculation which only deepens the mystery of the gray ghost’s existence. Doubt creeps in when your eyes fail to confirm what your ears hear.

For more information on coyotes see the link on the NJ Fish and Wildlife site.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Hidden Natural Treasures Revealed by Invitation of the Rain

Article and photos by Joe Mish


Access to some of the tributaries feeding the North and South Branch of the Raritan River is strictly a trail blazing event. The rewards are worth the effort.

Like a spectacular desert flower that only blooms after a rain, many tributaries of the Raritan river’s North and South Branch suddenly blossom into navigable waterways if only for a brief moment.

These ephemeral watery threads weave though otherwise inaccessible places of pristine beauty and undisturbed wildlife. Visitation is exclusively by invitation of the rain. The chance of appropriate water level matches the odds of winning at roulette. However, the opportunity to enjoy runnable water is increased, as it can occur at any time of the year, unlike many northeast rivers that are seasonally dependent on melting snow and large drainage areas.

One jewel of a stream went a full year before the shadow of my canoe silently passed over its sandy bottom in time with the midsummer freshet racing to the sea. The rarity of such a small stream sojourn increases the value of the experience.

The appearance of an apparition is the best way to describe the transformation of a small tributary into a navigable waterway. Water that lazily followed a convoluted path through a twisting labyrinth of exposed rocks, now flows over them with self-determination. The exposed stream bed is flushed clean of fallen leaves and broken branches while smaller rocks and stones are subtly rearranged into future sand bars and shoals.

For many years I had my eye on a tributary of the South Branch too shallow to run and whose character was totally unknown to me. On these small streams, strainers, trees that span the watercourse from bank to bank can be life threatening, especially in high water with minimal possibility for evasive action. Even on the main course of the North and South branch, strainers have claimed paddlers’ lives.

So, it was with caution that I approached what I considered to be a reasonable water level, after studying the historic stream gauge data. The possibility of another as yet undiscovered eagle nest, was also a consideration in choosing this stream.

While not situated in the wilderness, a solo trip like this, even in central New Jersey, is not to be taken lightly. I checked topo maps as well as aerial views and road maps to confirm my location at any given point.

Though I certainly wasn’t the first to paddle this stream, it sure felt that way. The initial stretch was one of several locations where the water level could be viewed from the road and rarely were the midstream rocks covered with water. Today, however, I floated easily, inches above the largest rocks. Five minutes later I was out of sight, around the first bend and on my way to explore the unknown. A very strange thought to have amid the congestion of central New Jersey; a little kid’s fantasy come to life.

The scenery did not disappoint, hardwood trees dominated the shoreline and formed a wide greenway to serve as a protective margin against runoff from cultivated land and residential properties. The intimacy of the stream’s narrow course bought both banks into view while looking straight ahead.

Bare red shale outcroppings provided a cutaway of the contours seen on the topographic map. Some more dramatic than others.

At the point of highest elevation, through which the stream cut its course, a palisade of red shale stood so high, it felt as if I were paddling through a canyon. Atop the sky scraping cliff stood a wall of giant trees which appeared to be on the same plane as the cliff face. Their combined height and singular appearance could not be taken in with just a tilt of the head and an upward glance. It was as if the trees were standing on the earth’s shoulders in a successful effort to touch the sky.

As is characteristic of these small streams, changes happen quickly and dramatically.

One moment later, the unobstructed view of the blue sky and towering prominence vanished, as a sharp bend in the again green canopied river, demanded my full attention. Here, the main current was rushing to the inside of the almost angular curve and through the branches of a fallen tree. Several forceful draw strokes were required to avoid entanglement.

The rest of the trip was easily navigated through a few rock gardens and shoals. Deer were everywhere, while a pair of geese and a few wood ducks provided a downriver escort, warning the world of my otherwise silent approach.

No eagles were to be seen, though a close encounter with a great horned owl made up for the absence of a new eagle nest site. I eagerly await my next rain drenched invitation to another, one of many, tributary paddling options.

Each tributary has its own character, no two alike, other than they share invitation by rain only.


Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Red Shale Cliffs Mark the River’s Course

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The sentinel red shale cliffs host a garden of moss, wildflowers and lichens as they stand watch over the meandering South Branch. The wandering river has its way after honoring the boundary set by this shale outcrop

The meandering South Branch has changed much of its course over the decades, restrained in its wandering, only by the presence of red shale cliffs that mark its course.

In an area of rolling hills, flood plain and the absence of field stone, the last thing you’d expect to see is a cliff. The cliffs are an exposed edge to the earth’s crust, forced above ground by never ending geologic activity along a fault line.

Growing up along the lower Raritan, there wasn’t a cliff to be seen. So when I ventured upstream in later years, the presence of a cliff was a big deal. It added drama to my paddling adventures. A genuine, bonafide cliff, like the ones you see on TV and in the movies, where heroes hung by their finger tips and from which villains fell to their death.

To top it off, these cliffs are red, well really maroon, which set them apart from any other cliffs, most of which are composed of hard gray stone.

I cannot paddle past one of these outcroppings without looking for some sign of a petroglyph. Shallow carvings made in stone by paleo inhabitants. What paleo hunter/gatherer would not leave some indelible sign on those giant billboards untouched by seasonal floods? Haven’t found any, but still keep looking.

One thing I did find is a shale slab underwater, etched with the name, “J N Stout”, followed by a roman numeral. Stout is a name common to the area of some of the earliest settlers. That inscription still remains a mystery. It would make sense to use that cliff as a boundary marker, even early 20th century deeds listed trees and rocks to mark property lines.

Surely there must be some sign from paleo travelers scratched into those cliffs. Perhaps when the light is right, a shadow of a deer or a turkey will magically appear on that red stone tablet, a testimony to a successful hunt from post glacial times.

While not finding ancient artifacts of human origin, there are ancient travelers who set down roots in the cliff face. To my amazement, columbine, a native wild flower, flourishes only on the cliffs and flowers in the April/ May timeframe.

Portions of the cliffs, shaded from the sun, will be covered with a carpet of thick, dark green moss and scattered patches of the pale green lichens, to compliment the dark maroon shale.

It was beneath one high shaded cliff, notched with narrow ledges, that I silently walked, searching for photo ops. The cliff on one side and the river on the other, separated only by a few paces, my steps were confined to one narrow trail.

Suddenly, the sound of frantic scrambling in the leaf litter on a small ledge just above, got my full attention. A red fox had been sunning comfortably, protected from the wind and safe from any danger. Now, as it scrambled to escape my presence, it slipped and fell, as leaf litter rained down upon my head. Fortunately, the fox regained solid footing and headed for parts unknown.

The cliffs held another surprise for me as I paddled by on a bright sunny day in the early spring. It was a time when large flocks of geese gathered on the river. In the distance, the river made a sharp bend to the left, directly opposite a high, bare faced shale cliff.

The noise the geese made was deafening, a misrepresentation of the few geese that were visible. The greater mass of the flock was out of sight, downstream of the bend. At first glance, the overwhelming noise, out of proportion to the geese that could be seen, amounted to an auditory hallucination and set the stage for what was yet to come.

As expected, the massive flock exploded into flight as I got closer. The sound was undiminished, though the geese were out of sight, below the river bend.

I suddenly realized I was watching the endless shadows of the geese that I could not see; fly across the face of the cliff.

Because the sound the geese made echoed off the cliff and only the shadows were visible, it appeared the shadows were the source of the sound. The cliff acted as a giant movie screen complete with sound track and shadow puppets in the form of geese.

So, it is with awe and expectation that I look upon the stalwart cliffs as timeless reference points, immovable sentinels that add beauty and dimension to the scenery along the North and South Branch, their tributaries and the upper Raritan River.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Expect the Unexpected

Article and photos by “Voices of the Watershed” Contributor Joe Mish

A white fronted goose, rarely seen west of the Mississippi river, enjoys grazing on central New Jersey grass.

Long before President Eisenhower signed the interstate highway bill into law in 1956, The Atlantic, Central and Pacific flyways served as major superhighways for migrating birds.

The primary exit ramps for these super flyways are the rivers which radiate out along the north-south migration routes to distribute the migrating birds far and wide.

New Jersey sits directly on the Atlantic flyway, bounded by the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean. Within the state’s interior flows the Raritan River, the longest inland river in the state which serves as a major migratory off ramp.

The confluence of the North and South Branches may then be considered the prime visitors center and rest area, as birds funnel down the Raritan to disperse inland.

Look at a colored distribution map in any bird book and discover that many species are specific to defined regions.

You might not expect to see a rufous hummingbird from the northern Pacific coast, sipping nectar in central New Jersey. However, in 2012, a rufous hummer showed up in our midst and stayed the winter, surviving by the kindness of human intervention. Marlene Scocco reached out to this wayward hummer providing food and shelter, causing a stir in the birding community which gratefully documented this migratory anomaly.

Checking the records for rare hummingbird visitors to New Jersey, other hummer species like the calliope and green violet eared were also documented.

How these birds end up on the east coast is pure speculation. The point is they do and they are here for you to discover.

Feathered visitors from faraway places to the Raritan valley are not just limited to hummingbirds. In 1963 I was handed a small owl taken from a guard tower in the Raritan arsenal. It died shortly after. I mentioned this to a friend’s dad who was an avid bird watcher. Told him it was a boreal owl. He smiled and assured me it was probably a saw whet owl. We ended up at the Newark Museum and showed it to the curator, Irving H. Black. Confusion ensued and experts from across the country were consulted. The experts concluded the bird was indeed a boreal owl. It set a new record for the southernmost sighting in the US. The boreal owl, briefly known as the Richardson owl, is a fulltime resident of the coniferous forests of the arctic region. The owl is preserved as a study skin at the Newark museum.

The visitors keep coming. In mid March of this year I noticed an inconsistency in the color pattern of a flock of grazing geese, as I drove by. The geese blended together in one giant mosaic, painted with repetitive splashes of black, white and brown. I pulled over and focused on the colors that didn’t belong.

I was looking at a white fronted goose, another bird that was obviously unfamiliar with distribution maps found in bird books.

The white fronted goose is rarely seen east of the Mississippi river, the main artery of the central flyway. To see a white fronted goose in central NJ is therefore an unexpected surprise and evidence that nature has a tendency to violate scientific generalizations.

The following week, a Canada goose with an orange and white collar marked OHOX was observed along rt 22. It also had a metal band on its left leg. While editing images, I was shocked to see the goose standing next to it also wore a leg band. Reporting this goose to the USGS bird banding website I was provided with a certificate noting that the goose was a female, banded as a flightless gosling near Varennes, Quebec, Canada on the Fourth of July, 2016.

Adding to the distinguished list of local visitors was the osprey I observed April 7, 2016, just upstream of the confluence of the North and South branch. The osprey had a blue plastic band on its left leg, with stacked letters, DV, visible on one of the images taken. Again, making a report to the USGS banding website, a certificate soon arrived, stating the osprey was born on a bulkhead in Portland, Maine and banded on July 27, 2011. To report a banded bird, visit the USGS bird banding website, bandreports@usgs.gov

The spring migration is now in full swing. And along with colorful warblers, ruby throated hummingbirds, woodcock and osprey, come the errant travelers.

Diverging from their evolutionary migration patterns, these intrepid winged visitors explode the myth that, “birds of a feather stick together”.

Migrating birds that nest in our region, along with birds just passing through, are now appearing along our waterways. The confluence that forms the Raritan River is the staging area that hosts a feathered extravaganza of unimaginable variety.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Jimmy Rides Again!

Article and photos by Joe Mish

As elated as Lewis and Clark upon reaching the Colombia River, Jimmy and I proudly pose with our intrepid craft , “The Wild Turkey”, in the back of an old Ford Pickup

The eternal waters of the South Branch flow with memories and reflections, kept safe for those who have opened an account along its banks and written their story upon its waters.

I have a longstanding account, opened years ago, from which I make occasional withdrawals. The memories are recalled, polished with reflection and returned for safe keeping.

Hazy events, prompted by a scrap of paper that fell from one of my books, brought a canoe journey made decades before, into sharp focus. The lined, yellow paper, in my handwriting, was a record of time and places noted on a trip down the South Branch to the sea with my good friend Jim Serchio.

Jim worked across the hall from me in the pharmacology department at J&J. Intrigued by my stories of paddling solo to the mouth of the Raritan River; Jim recruited himself to join me on another run to the sea.

A hasty plan was hatched and a day chosen. We would launch from Main st in Clinton and paddle down to Keasbey. I would then walk to ‘Billy Vack’s Loop In’, an old iron workers bar located under the Parkway bridge, phone my brother-in-law, and get a ride in his pickup truck to my parent’s home, about three miles away.

The chosen canoe was my old canvas covered 1910 Old Town OTCA 16 named the “Wild Turkey”. Now stripped of canvas and covered with fiberglass, the hull was painted a flat, dead grass green and weighed in at about 85 pounds.

No cooler, just a couple of blue cushions and two guys in the canoe headed downstream. Jim was brilliant guy, studying biomedical engineering. I suppose it was his scientific inquisitiveness which finally prompted him, once we were underway, to ask, how long would the trip take. In my best carefully calculated estimation, I answered, “pretty much all day, we should be there before dark”.

As we passed under interstate 78, just after launching, I noted the time on my scrap of paper. Every time we passed a landmark, clock time was recorded.

Route 202 was reached at 9:23 am.

Looking over the sequence of shorthand notes, I now realize we had paddled under and over landmarks that are now gone or restored differently from their original form. Many of the metal bridges have been reconstructed over the years, their fieldstone supports now replicated by fieldstone veneer. I counted five bridges between Clinton and rt 31. The old dam we portaged below Dart’s mill is now essentially washed away. One bridge downstream of Neshanic station was not yet constructed. The scenery on the same trip today would be quite different.

Route 206 was reached at 1:09 pm

One entry made at 2:45 just before the second downstream pass under interstate 287 makes me smile; I wasn’t smiling then. I recorded the word ‘surgery’.

There was the wreckage of an old wooden bridge just before the last pass under I 287. It blocked our passage so we had to go up and over. As we set the heavy boat down on the rough planks, we did not see a huge spike that punctured the hull below the water line on the starboard side. The situation was looking grim as we were about to enter tide water on the last six hours of the trip. This meant navigating a running tide and staying clear of the main channel to avoid the large wakes churned up by tugboats and deep hulled pleasure craft.

Undaunted, we set the boat back in the water and began down river to see how bad the leak was. It was bad, real bad. How were we possibly going to finish. Pulling to shore, we looked around the debris, left by high tide, for a possible solution. Seeing a piece of yellow polypropylene rope, I had a flash of brilliance. As a kid I loved playing with fire, burning all sort of material including little plastic soldiers. The drops of melting plastic would quickly cool to form rock hard globs and even make a neat hissing sound as it dripped. On a hunch, I took the piece of rope, set it ablaze and dripped the plastic into the large hole in the hull. A perfect watertight fit and we were on our way.

At 4:30 we passed under rt 27, the low water encountered from 287 to Landing Lane Bridge road really slowed our progress. Now we had to deal with the wakes of large watercraft, which showed no mercy to two guys in a canoe. The resultant waves forced us to divert course, turn the bow into the wake and then re-correct to head downriver.

We passed the old drydock across from Crab Island at 6:15 and finally reached our destination under the New Jersey garden state parkway bridge, the former site of the Keasbey Outboard Motor Club, at 7:05pm.

While Jimmy entertained the bystanders, I headed up to Billy Vack’s to call my brother-in-law.

When I returned to the boat and Jimmy, someone asked where we put in. We were actually embarrassed to say, Clinton. We figured they wouldn’t believe us.

Our ride soon arrived and we could finally relax. We did it! Paddled from the NJ highlands to the Mouth of the Raritan river in about 12 hours in a 1910 Old Town canoe pressed into service for an epic journey to the sea.

Jimmy passed away a few years later from a medical procedure gone badly.

I still have the canoe and think fondly of the epic river journey shared with my good buddy Jim. The diary of times and places serves as a reference for memories and the ever changing river landscape.


Two of three pages from the ship’s diary, documents the journey of “The Wild Turkey” and its crew, serves to sharpen the memory of a dash to the sea by two friends in a turn of the century canoe.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

December – A Fall into Light!

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A female cardinal fluffs up her feathers to ward off the cold, as winter wind sweeps the snow covered landscape.

The first breath of winter is felt in the last days of December’s autumn. The frigid wind, intent on erasing the last vestige of fall color, convinces reluctant rusted oak leaves to cleave from their lofty anchorage and sail free. The dry, stiff leaves rattle their objection before finally letting go to add depth to the leafy woodland carpet laid in October’s grand leaf fall.

The branches swept clean of obstruction; darkness deepens as theatre lights fade to heighten the drama of winter’s opening curtain featuring the winter solstice and the birth of light.

The winter solstice describes the time of the year at which the tilt of the earth is such that the sun appears at the lowest point above the horizon. ‘Solstice’, directly translates to, ‘sun stands still’. An impression one gets when the earth’s tilt changes to make the sun appear to halt an instant before it changes direction and ‘rises higher’ on the sky on the first day of winter.

Early observers reasoned the earth was a stable platform and the sun moved from one horizon to the other, above the earth. During the course of the year, the height of the sun was noted each day, measured in some primitive way. Stonehenge comes to mind as one version of tracking periodic celestial events, which led to the concept of time. Days and months were easy events to track and filled in the gap to mark time and define seasons.

That predictability was noted and celebrated as a whisper from the gods, sharing the future forecast of animal migration, weather and plant succession with those who pleased them.

The shortest day of December, which translates to the darkest day of the year, occurs on the last day of autumn. At the instant of the deepest darkness, the wick of the winter candle is lit, glowing like a beacon, getting brighter each day as winter progresses.

Look at a sunrise/sunset chart, cross referencing minutes, hours and days against months, to provide a visual representation of day length over time. Though you may not have noticed the change over a few days, you are now conscious of the minutes of light gained each day. That tangible bit of information acts like bio feedback and goes a long way to physically quell the sadness that the dark winter will never end.

Even if you forgo charting daylight, your body has physiologically evolved to capture trending day length and alters your hormones and mood accordingly. The pineal gland at the base of the brain monitors the day length to mediate release of hormones, primarily melatonin, which affects sleep cycles and behavior.

An odd situation, when you consider that while being consciously unconcerned or oblivious to changes in day length, your pineal gland is hard at work, keeping track.

A candle, glowing in a distant window, giving off a flickering halo of warm amber light, is a perfect tribute to mark the early days of winter and celebrate the birth of light.

This year, winter arrives December 21, at 5.22 pm, so make a conscious effort to mark the time and celebrate the first flicker of light that grows longer each day to make the winter much brighter and improve your mood.

December owns first rights to freezing weather and whimsically decides just which week will host the initiation of winter. The calculated movement of the planets determine the exact moment of the winter solstice right down to the second. Practically, however, winter begins when December decides.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

1 2 3 5