Tag: JJ Mish

Forever Summer

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Fresh picked bright red dewberries, packed in open top containers, cooling in the shade on a partially submerged rock, in a shallow flowing stream, elbows its way to mind when thoughts of summer arise.
Cattails grow in profusion and provide food for humans and animals. Golden cattail pollen used as flour is a summer treat, while its roots are edible year round. Burned for entertainment or mosquito repellent, the fluff of the brown heads have been to stop bleeding from deep cuts.

An hour past dawn, the source of daylight was still obscured, as if the sun took a holiday and to honor its daily commitment, left its dimmest bulb to light the overcast mid-summer day. The reference points of shadow and light, used to mark the progress of the day, melted in compromise to obscure the passing of time. The temperature change from night to day, that stirs the wind, was on this day, unable to raise a breeze. The stillness and faded light were precursors to either rain or bright sun, as the saying goes, “a morning fog burns ere the noon”. Either way, this quintessential day defines the comfortable retreat into the natural harbor of deep summer.   

Summer may be considered the offspring of the coordinated efforts of winter, spring and autumn. All preparation for a time, when new life and old, can strengthen and renew energy spent on elemental survival. Summer temperatures reduce the energy cost of life to maintain its existence. A savings that allows imagination and creativity to be directed to places other than immediate survival and to accumulate warm memories to heat the cold days of winter.  

Stacking the wood shed with summer memories leaves no carbon footprint, is considered renewable and burns as an eternal flame. 

Images of fresh picked bright red dewberries, packed in open top containers, cooling in the shade on a partially submerged rock, in a shallow flowing stream, elbows its way to mind when thoughts of summer arise. Enough berries to make two batches of jam, used to spread summer throughout the year, to share with family and friends. 

The light show performed by fireflies, in the meadow along the river, is a legacy act that reaches back in time to childhood and a world of wonder. The purpose of the display, critical to the lightning bugs, is lost to the magic of tiny incandescent dots of yellow light, floating in the air above the darkened meadow. Magic is the honey tasted by the mind that initiates a journey of exploration. Its direction and depth as unpredictable as the choreography of this mid-summer light show.  

Cattails are another image stored in the summer album of memories and trademarks. They grew in profusion along with swarms of mosquitoes which would forage for fresh blood when the sun went down. The summer heat would force neighbors outside to sit on porch steps, their presence betrayed in the darkness by the red glow of their burning cigarettes. The smoke was a deterrent to the mosquitoes, though restricted to smokers and anyone immediately downstream. Through primitive oral history, the legacy of burning sun dried cattails to keep mosquitoes at bay and safely light fireworks was kept alive. Cattails would be cut and brought home, muddy dungarees a dead giveaway that you roamed beyond the territory deemed safe by mom. The price of the harvest was a lecture from mom about being swallowed up by quicksand in the swamps. Cattails were picked while still slightly green as they could be stored over winter without losing their fluff. Courting danger, I would scramble up to the neighbor’s low, flat garage roof then take a running leap onto our peaked garage roof and set the cattails out to dry. After a week on the garage roof aged the cattails were ready to be lit and fend off the nightly aerial attack and defend the blood supply. Waving the burning cattail produced a cloud of smoke and unlike the anemic volume of cigarette smoke, could be directed upwind to wash over the legs or neck. Aside from the favorable aroma and copious smoke, you were sanctioned to play with fire and produce your own light show by waving the glowing brown magic wand, to create the illusion of circles, figure eights and words, which disappeared as if using invisible ink.   

The images and memories contained in your summer archives are yours alone, collected at a moment when time stood still, indelibly etched, to be released when the right combination of summer conditions align.

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.

Memories are Where You First Met Them

Article and photos by Joe Mish

This maroon shale cliff forming the river’s bend, serves as a memory retrieval bank for times gone by. I was canoeing with my late friend Jimmy, who caught and released a feisty smallmouth bass just upstream of that shale prominence. Memory storage may be why the shore of a river is referred to as a ‘bank’.

Over the course of time everything we experience is stored as a memory. Having limited capacity for recall, it is the most impactful memories that linger. By no means are memories ever lost, they are stored in pristine condition in unconscious archives. The key to recovery can be a scent, sight or a sound. Prompted by clues hidden in unrelated conversations, a single phrase or word can bring an experience back into sharp focus. Old, faded photographs of no particular beauty or composition can instantly bring the past into laser focus as the prompts to our memories are as individual as fingerprints.

So it is that each time I paddle the river, it becomes a physical journey through the accumulated memories collected over hundreds of miles, paddled on the same stretch of river. Each trip is like opening the old family album to add new photographs and seeing the older images as the pages are turned. It is as if a gravitational pull compels you to linger a bit longer in the realm of old memories.

There is hardly a location on the river that does not hold a memory for me. Digital images and photographs, abound, however, it is being present on the river that provides access to memories not captured by the camera or pushed aside by the endless flow of freshly minted memories.

Every time I pass the drainage above the mouth of Pleasant Run, my mind immediately plays the video of the snowy winter day I pulled out of the current into the safe harbor of a drainage stream to warm my hands under my arms. The heavy snow quickly covered me and my boat as I leaned forward, folded arms resting on my thighs. I felt safe and comfortable as the canoe was stabilized in the heavy slush and well within the six-foot-wide drainage stream away from the main current. The snow was almost a foot deep along the high bank and to my surprise a dark brown mink was porpoising through the deep snow toward the drainage and my canoe. The mink came within arm’s reach before it realized the convenient bridge and large lump of snow was an existential threat.

One summer day I had my young daughter in the bow of my canoe, as we approached the tower line near home, a large fish jumped clear of the water, hit the gallon jug of juice she was holding, bounced off the opposite gunnel and fell back into the river. Her expression was priceless, as was mine, to witness a scene that could only happen in a cartoon. Can’t pass under that tower line without reliving that moment! Though many years have passed, the clarity and even the emotion of that comedy is still retained in the tower line archives.

On an initiation canoe trip with my four-year-old grandson, I paddled close to a high shale cliff, as in my experience cliffs were a major attraction to young boys. Sure enough, Caleb was impressed and asked how to get to the top. Before I could answer I noticed a large animal on the narrow shelf at water’s edge below the cliff. We closed in on a supersized beaver munching some delicate vines growing on the cliff face. The beaver slowly moved into deeper water but not before swimming on the surface a few yards in front of the canoe. You will not be able to see it, but when I pass that cliff, it reveals a crystal-clear video of that priceless moment. Of course, the next day Caleb never mentioned the beaver to mom but was totally impressed by Grampy carrying the canoe over his head.

One early spring day after ice-out, the river was running high, and the only ice that remained was found in deep cuts into the bank where trees were washed away. As I rounded a sharp bend in the river, I kept about three feet off the left bank to avoid the main current. Immediately on my left was a large ice-covered cove about twelve feet into the high vertical bank. I could not believe what I saw! Standing in sharp contrast to the empty expanse of graying ice, was an otter!  As it ran toward me, I realized its only escape route was into the water next to my canoe. At less than two feet away I watched the otter dive into the fast-moving muddy water in the narrow space between my boat and the ice shelf. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps hypothermic. I never saw an otter on the river before or since. Consider, this bend in the river projects the memory of my close encounter with an otter, exclusively for me. It is my personal archive, available to no one else.

Memories are where you first met them, they are safe from prying eyes and remain where you last left them. The storage capacity is infinite and the keys to unlock them are everywhere.

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.

Scent by May

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The gentle month of May steps out of character to finally terminate winter’s lease on the land. May does what March and April were unable to do and does it with authority and grace. 

Winter has been served an ironclad, last frost warning, and nature celebrates. Delicate plant life now bursts from its dormancy to join their hardier kin who dared unpredictable early spring conditions. 

Floral scent now fills the morning air to conjure pleasant memories of warm weather suppressed by winter doldrums.  

Walking through the meadow grass, canoe balanced on my shoulders, the scent of multiflora rose fills the air. My path meanders around these thorny bushes and prickly eastern redcedar as if I were bouncing around in a pinball machine. 

As I walked into the wind, aromatic meadow grass replaced the floral scent of the scattered bouquets of wild rose. A three-strand barbed wire fence, intended to keep generations of dairy cows honest, now delineated the lush meadow, but could not contain the whimsical direction of the perfumed air. I slid the boat under the sagging bottom wire, laid face down on the grass and inched to the other side. 

The river was flowing gently, sun sparkling off its rippled surface which lay just beneath a parallel current of air which carried, intermittent quantums of the unmistakable perfume of black locust blossoms. 

Though my olfactory senses were immersed in the current of scent, I had to walk further into the river to set my boat in water deep enough to float, with me aboard. I had to walk-in ankle-deep water to the main channel and each step sent a cloud of muddy water downstream, while upstream, the water ran clear. A pickerel frog escaped my intrusion by lying motionless on the bottom of the shallow water. His spots blending in so well among the small stones. Fresh water clams showed telltale depressions in the mud that revealed their presence. I stopped for a moment to pull up a clam, check to see if it was alive and set it back down to watch it bury itself out of sight.

I had been dragging my boat by a short bow line through the shallows. As I near the main flow and deeper water the current swung the stern downstream. I pulled the boat back up to the center seat to set my paddle in against the forward thwart and snapped my spare into clips mounted on the seats’ pedestal. Then secured my pack behind the center seat with a figure eight knot and two half hitches. Swinging the boat around with the bow now facing downstream, I gingerly got in, sat down, picked up the paddle and just drifted for a long minute before I made a correction. I began to slowly paddle downstream, careful to take in a 360 view. The clear water, blue, cloudless sky, both lush overgrown river banks and the water ahead all held my interest.  

May is the time of year to see young creatures of all species and thier parents gathering food to feed hungry pups or kits freshly weaned.  

The first week in May I saw and photographed a mink transferring her kits to a new den. That was certainly unexpected. Fox will also move pups from one den to another.  One den with six pups, situated in the pasture, was abandoned after two weeks. The pups were moved further uphill and closer to human habitation. As the meadow was really a flood plain, the vixen made a smart move, perhaps for the wrong reason, but her pups did survive the next week’s flood.

A high vertical bank, perhaps constructed by a muskrat and remodeled by a groundhog, now served as harbor for a daydreaming raccoon. A masked face momentarily peered out as a face might be seen glancing out behind the sheer drapery of a window in a high-rise city building. Yellow, white and purple flowers screened the den’s doorway.  

Further downstream a flightless great horned owl perched in a tangle of a fallen tree beneath a red shale cliff. It was now old enough to ‘branch’. The stage where the owl leaves the nest and begins to walk, climb and flap its wings, strengthening them for a first attempt at flight.

The sights sounds and smells that appear in late spring under the banner of May, whether from the perspective of the rivers or backyard gardens, are the first floral wrapped gift box, filled to the brim with new life, to be opened after winter’s reign has ended. 

The Eagle Has Landed

Article and photos by Joe Mish

It was a fine day on the river, blue sky, light breeze, air temperature in the 60s, and a perfect water level.

Having paddled several times a week throughout the winter in preparation for a canoe race in Maine, this mid spring post-race trip down the South Branch was a soothing balm to mind and body.

After the trout season opener, the South Branch was closed to fishing on Tuesdays during in-season trout stocking. So, Tuesdays were my choice to paddle and be assured no human company would spoil the sense of wilderness the river trip provided.

Though not in race mode, the smooth rhythm of my paddle stroke and resultant speed was mesmerizing as well as a distraction. I would zone out as if each stroke was a repetitive chant in a litany. So, for short periods, my attention would drift away from observing the world around me. Who knows how many deer or mink watched from the woody bank as I passed within yards of their position?

On a long straightaway, as I transitioned from hypnotic state to consciousness, I was shocked to see a very large raptor sunning on an overhanging dead branch under which I would pass. The sun silhouetted the bird as I traded paddle for camera and a chance at a very close photo op. I set the course with one hand on the paddle and the other holding the camera. Keeping movement to a minimum was critical as the canoe drifted perfectly into position. The bird seemed huge as the distance closed. I figured the ‘hawk’ would soon fly off, but to my surprise it tolerated my presence. I turned the canoe to face upstream and take more images. The ‘hawk’ spread its wings to sun itself but gave no intention of flying away.

For the rest of the trip, I kept wondering about the size of the bird and extra large beak, never thinking it was an eagle. Eagles were not a possibility, at least on the course of the river from Clinton to South Branch. Eagles frequented the upper Delaware and weren’t that commonly seen and never on the South Branch. Aside from no known local eagle sightings, this bird was primarily brown, and everyone knows bald eagles have white heads and tail feathers.

The closer I looked at the images later that day; it became clear the ‘hawk’ was a year-old bald eagle!

Even the celebrated nest at Duke Farms, discovered in 2004, was thought at first to be an osprey nest.

Bald eagle fledglings start out covered with brown feathers. Each year more mottled white appears on their body and not until their third year does the head and tail begin to turn white, though still marked with brown streaks. To see an illustration of plumage changes by year, check out avianreport.com.

My eagle 2011 encounter was a prelude to the construction of a nest on the lower South Branch of the Raritan in 2014. That nest has fledged eleven more eagles to cast a shadow over the wilds of New Jersey and states far beyond. Last year an eagle banded in 2017 on the South Branch, was seen paired with another eagle in Connecticut on the Connecticut River

Today eagles are a common sight along many of our major waterways. Given that the bald eagles’ characteristic pure white head and tail do not emerge until they are three and a half years old, juvenile eagles are easily mistaken for hawks.

Consider, you may have been given the privilege to see an eagle and not known it. If able to get a close look, see that its beak in comparison to any other hawk is huge. Keep an open mind to unexpected possibilities and know, for that reason, many self professed birders have missed the thrill of seeing their first eagle.

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.

Let there be light

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The eternal cosmic clock, rewound by the choreographed dance of celestial bodies, precisely marks the rebirth of light and the start of winter.

The runway for January’s landing is lit nine days before, during the winter solstice. The lights grow brighter as the spinning earth tilts in relation to the sun. This delicate earthly pirouette is anything but a solo performance. Only in a state of cosmic equilibrium, held firmly in place by gravity, can the possibility of life occur.  

The relative stability of atmosphere and repetitious seasonal changes found on earth, provide the predictability and time, life requires to evolve and adapt.  

While the January first rewind is a human convenience, all life forms, humans included, have evolved to key in on the periodicity of increasing and decreasing day length.  Light, along with atmosphere, temperature, and gravity dictate the detailed specifications that must be met to exist. Life on the other hand, has no bargaining power and must somehow develop a form that embraces all the requirements set forth by the cosmic design as found on earth. 

Successful adaptation is critically dependent on the stability of environmental conditions. Life forms whose ability to adapt, lags behind the speed of change, simply go away. The constant effort to achieve existence,  results in an almost infinite variety of life, whether it be a blade of grass or an elephant. Each develops unique mechanisms to deal with seasonal changes in atmosphere and light.  New life forms are constantly being discovered while other life forms go extinct.

I find it amazing our existence depends on heavenly bodies, light years away, hurtling through space in well-choreographed orbits controlled by gravity. Even more amazing is how oblivious humanity is to its existential condition, hanging only by an invisible thread. Though cosmic events are out of our control, its link to our existence sparks imagination and wonder. The curiosity that arises when we look toward the heavens has a gravity of its own which draws us in to seek deeper knowledge. Imagination and creativity are set afire when faced with a gap in information. We are compelled to temporarily bridge the unknown with subjective theory, a vestige of our innate survival skills.  

As humans we are surrounded by natural wonders whose intended or unintended purpose is to fire our imagination and fuel our creativity to enhance our survival. In that way nature is teaching us how to fish as well as providing our daily bread. 

Wise words spoke of rendering to Caesar and following that advice we celebrate January first as a nod to society. Let us also be inspired by the brightness of January traced back to the winter solstice and that moment of perfect equilibrium between light and darkness. A celebration of the moment life began to stir on a planet spinning in the blackness of an infinite universe bounded only by our imagination.

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.

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.

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