Tag: JJ Mish

Ode to April

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Eager and hungry fox pups survived the mercurial spring floods to feed voraciously on mom in the bright sunlight of a late April morning.

April is the quintessential month of spring, the first month to start with a vowel after a bleak winter of hard consonant constructed months. The name April is probably derived from the Latin infinitive, aperere, ‘to open’, but that consideration is at the risk of offending the claims of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and Apollo the son of Zeus, their namesake month.

I see April as a grand series of ever changing dance steps performed in tune to the great celestial choreography of the planets and stars. One planetary misstep and the world comes crashing down. It is, however, a play without flaw that brings the predictability of the seasons and the impish April to improvise her set of daily surprises that precede the full bloom of May.

April is a charming minx with dancing green eyes whose mercurial ways give false hope to early gardeners as she whirls in the white robes of a sudden snow squall. Days of bright sunshine are mixed with bone chilling moist air, frosts and gentle rain or hailstorms of biblical proportion. These are the veils April sheds as she improvises dance steps to tease and mislead, all the while faithfully delivering the solemn promise of May.

Edwin Way Teale, a noted author and naturalist claims that, “spring approaches from the south at fifteen miles a day”. If you were to drive from New Jersey to Maine in mid April, you could actually see spring approach.

Travelling north, you go back in time to see spring begin.

As you drive through New Jersey, forsythia planted along road medians would be in full yellow bloom as tree buds give birth to pale green leaves.

The crowns of naturalized red maple dominated hardwoods would have shed their maroon veil to now wear a haze of light green unfurling leaves that will continue to darken as they mature

Oak dominated hillsides and lowlands scattered with black gum, hard maple, beech, ash and sycamore appear as colorful as autumn with interlacing crowns covered in non reflective red, yellow, pink and salmon hued emerging leaves.

The color and blooms slowly fade as you travel north. The further you travel in one day, the more the landscape appears as if drawn on individual sheets of paper flicked by hand to appear as if moving. The individual frames of the ‘movie’ become alive and reveal the living, leading edge of the manifestations of spring.

The return journey south allows you to enjoy the second coming of spring and the insight that comes with a second chance.

Along the South Branch, a Great Horned Owl has been nurturing a clutch of eggs that will produce at least one full sized, flightless owlet to stand constantly alert for parental food deliveries in mid April.

During two trips down the South Branch in February and March, a female red fox ran along the river bank to expose herself as if to draw me away from her riverside den. She would run along the bare vertical bank then walk out onto a gravel bar, sit down and watch me approach. When I got too close she would run off and wait further downstream. At one point she ran across a sand bar that was flanked by a pair of mallards standing on the bare ground and a great blue heron posed in foot deep water. All three birds stood perfectly still as the fox ran between them. Neither the ducks nor the heron made any move to escape as if they knew the fox was not a threat that day.

I can only hope the fox waited until April to have her pups in light of the flood that came in late March. Perhaps April will reveal a gentle rain that favors the survival of not only the fox pups, but the bank swallows, flycatchers, muskrat and turkeys that might have dens or nests close to the riverbank and flood plain.

It is amazing how migration, breeding, births and nurturing coincide with seasonal events as if truly participating in a dance whose every step is critical to survival.

We have evolved physiologically to fit into a small, ‘temporary’ niche circling in an eddy on the river of change. If the changes take place faster than we can evolve, we go away.

Despite the vagaries of April’s whim, she shows the world an emergence of life that has learned her fickle ways and dances in step to lovingly embrace such a wild partner.

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.

Dam Surprised Fish

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The sea run shad, striped bass and herring that gather at the mouth of the Raritan River attract animals high on the food chain such as this harbor seal. Whales and dolphin have also been sighted over the last few years not in small part from the contribution of the Raritan River and its sweet water branches.

The spring-fed north and south branches of the Raritan River join in a marriage of sweet water at their confluence, on an endless journey to the sea. Each hidden spring and brook along the way, contributes its own genetic identity, mixed in a final blend at the mouth of the Raritan River.

Where the fresh water meets the salty sea, the ebb and flow of tides stir the brine into fresh water to create a stable buffer zone of brackish water.

These back bays and estuaries formed at the mouths of rivers are a perfect place for young of the year striped bass to gain in size before going offshore to migrate. American, hickory, gizzard shad, river herring, such as blueback herring and alewives also gather here and search for ancient breeding grounds located far upriver.

In the time before dams, sea run fish migrated far upstream into the north and south branch. Fishing was a robust industry in early colonial times where the seasonal migration of herring and shad was a profitable business.

The construction of dams to power mills along the river put a halt to upstream commercial fishing. The mills and dams were not welcomed by colonists who made a living from the seasonal fisheries. One account tells of early settlers in the mid 1700s, unhappy with a mill dam just below Bound Brook, making nightly raids to dismantle the dam and allow shad to continue their upstream migration.

Fast forward to today, the river still flows to the sea and the shad and herring gather to swim upstream.

In 1985 pregnant shad from the Delaware River were transplanted to the South Branch as part of a program to restore a shad migration along with planned dam removals.

Dams that have blocked migrating fish have recently been removed. The Calco dam near the former Calco Chemical Company built around 1938, cleared the way for migrating fish to reach the confluence of the Millstone and Raritan where a flood control dam was built. Known as the Island Farm weir, completed in 1995, it includes a viewing window and fish ladder to allow the dam to be bypassed by fish travelling upstream.

As part of the shad restoration project, volunteers working with Rutgers scientists tag shad and herring in an ongoing effort to gauge the success of the fish ladder and restoration efforts. Preliminary findings can be accessed at, http://raritan.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/NJDEP-2013-American-shad-restoration-in-the-raritan-river.pdf

A live underwater camera is placed at the dam each year after threat of ice has past. The camera is now operated by Rutgers University and may be seen online at  http://raritanfishcam.weebly.com/fish-guide.html and at http://raritan.rutgers.edu/resources/fish-cam/

Aside from the Calco dam, three of five dams upstream of the Island Farm Weir, two dams on the Raritan, the Nevius street and Robert street dam and one on the Millstone have been removed. All in anticipation that the head dam at Dukes Island Park and the low dam at Rockafellows Mills on the South Branch will eventually be deconstructed.

See the above link for the video of the Nevius street dam removal. Go to MENU, open videos/multimedia to see Nevius street dam deconstructed.

See this link for a look at the Duke’s Island dam today; https://vimeo.com/259404286

The dream to restore our rivers and fisheries to their unmolested glory is well on the way to reality. Bald eagles now nest along the Raritan and its branches, soon to be joined by spawning shad and herring.

The vision of a pristine river valley, interrupted by 300 years of abuse and neglect is slowly emerging from the river mist as a magical apparition. The magic supplied by the hard work of Rutgers scientists and dedicated volunteers who echo the words of Rutgers president Thomas, who served in 1930, “Save the Raritan”.

As an aside to this article, I will share a sobering and emotional experience involving the Island Weir Dam that took place in 1995. The intent is to emphasize the importance of safety while paddling in general and especially when near dams or in cold water.

See page three of this link for a description of what happened that day: http://www.wrightwater.com/assets/25-public-safety-at-low-head-dams.pdf

I was paddling on the Delaware and Raritan Canal which parallels the Millstone River about two miles from where the dam is located at the confluence of the Millstone and Raritan rivers. This was a training session for a cold water canoe race that takes place each April in Maine. I am an experienced paddler, familiar with cold water immersion and so was wearing a wet suit with a dry top and pants along with a life jacket/pfd while on the calm water in the canal.

As I neared the end of my trip at the Manville causeway, several police cars slowly drove by and turned around as if searching for something. Sirens were wailing and more police and rescue vehicles were seen and the road blocked off. First thought was the body of a woman who was reported to have ended her life in the Millstone a week before was found.

As it turned out a kayaker and two companions in a canoe decided to run the dam. According to my recollection of the news article; the canoe made it through first, while the kayaker who followed, failed to clear the dam and was stuck in the hydraulic.

According to the news article, ‘the experienced paddlers’ wore no thermal protection or pfds when they ran the dangerous dam. It was reported that the canoers paddled back to help their companion and they capsized in the hydraulic. Once you cross that line which marks the downstream flow from the water cycling upstream, you will be pulled into the hydraulic.

The kayaker and one of the men in the canoe were washed out of the turbulent water but the other was lost, his body never recovered.

A hydraulic occurs when the weight of falling water creates a hole which is then filled by downstream water being pulled upstream in an endless re-circulating current parallel to the dam. Low head dams may be altered to prevent or mitigate a hydraulic.

There is a point of no return where you can actually see a line that separates the water flowing downstream from the water flowing back upstream to power the hydraulic.

Island Weir Dam at the confluence of the millstone and Raritan River. You can see the horizontal shelves that are the fish ladder in the center and the subsequent stepped redesign to mitigate the dangerous hydraulic.

There have been several more drownings involving dams on the Raritan and its branches. I recall another at the Headgate, which is the dam created by the Duke estate below the confluence of the North and South branches. The paddler went over and was lost in the hydraulic below.

This is the headgate dam at Dukes Island Park. Created to collect river water via the Dukes canal to power the estates and supply water to the series of ponds built at decreasing elevations to allow the water to return to the river by gravity.

No warning signs are posted to alert paddlers to the danger ahead. On the downstream face of the dam is a warning to keep off.

Too little too late warning.

Paddling on the South Branch from Rockafellow’s mill rd, just below the low head dam that forms Red Rock Lake, this note was placed on my windshield. Though I was no where near the dam, contrary to what the note states, the message was at once heart breaking and shown here, now serves as a warning to all; beware of the dangers of low head dams.

This sign is placed about 5 football fields above the dam at red rock lake on the South Branch. It’s placement a puzzlement that mitigates its message.

Dam at Red Rock Lake.

Though rivers like the South Branch and North Branch are reputed to be no more dangerous than a swimming pool, tragedy can strike when least expected. Strainers, trees that fall into the river blocking passage, can snag and capsize a boat and entangle the paddler in its branches under pressure of a fast current. Low head dams can drown a paddler by immersion or entanglement on debris as the paddler is unable to wash out of the turbulent recycling water. Search on line to get an idea of how widespread is the danger of obscure low head dams and loss of life across the country.

Paddling when river temperatures are well below normal body temperature requires thermal protection no matter the air temperature. Wearing a pfd alone will not be enough to survive if your body temperature drops before you can be rescued or self rescue. Such was the case of a paddler on Round Valley reservoir a few years ago.

Typically water temp during the winter and early spring on the South Branch is 41 degrees. More than enough to cause a spasm to block your ability to breathe even before hypothermia sets in. See this link for a detailed explanation of the effects of cold water immersion. Remember, ‘cold water’ does not have to be that cold.

http://www.coldwatersafety.org/ColdShock.html

Overturning in fast water, a boat can instantly fill with a hundred gallons of water. Each gallon weighing 8 pounds, can pin or crush a paddler between the canoe and any obstruction. Such was the case on a locally sponsored canoe trip in shallow water on a beautiful day on the South Branch. One paddler was trapped under the canoe in a strainer. Eventually he popped out from under the boat, shaken but safe. The canoe was stuck fast in the strainer, filled with hundreds of pounds of water. Never be downstream of a capsized canoe.

Tragedy can occur on the calmest day under brilliant blue skies, always wear a pfd and be alert to potential dangers, especially dams.

Low head dam across the North Branch just above rt 202 makes a difficult passage during low water portage and a dangerous hydraulic during high water.

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.

South Branch Parade, Thousands to Attend

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Canada Geese in a snowstorm on the South Branch appear at ease as the falling snow softens the scene.

The January blizzard raged, turning the darkness into an opaque curtain of white. Almost a foot of powdered snow covered the ground before midnight.

The broadcast news reported that NJ had declared a state of emergency shutting down roadways throughout the state. The setting was just right for the midwinter parade on the South Branch. Thousands attended and the main thoroughfare was jammed with local residents and visitors. As I stepped outside to get a head start on clearing the driveway, the sound of geese, thousands of geese, overpowered the drone of the wind driven snow. So impressive was the magnitude of the unalarmed chatter, I was compelled to investigate. Alerting my family where to search for the body, I headed into the storm.
The closer I got to the river the louder and more beckoning the sound became. Moving slowly through the trees toward the river bank, the din from the geese on the open water was deafening. The river was filled wall to wall with migrant and resident Canada geese. Some started to get up and fly. Others just drifted by. All appeared as black silhouettes against the snow and reflective water. Thousands upon thousands all in chorus, the rhythm and sound of their calls rose and fell as if one voice. Occasionally all sound would hesitate into a moment of absolute silence. The silence was as dramatic as the din.

Animals generally become fearless in extreme weather and at the height of this snowstorm the geese collectively tolerated my close approach.

As I closed in, the birds parted, momentarily leaving a void of reflective water. The surface was again soon covered with geese as the specter of an interloper was confidently dismissed.

The Geese were packed so tight; they appeared as if in a big cauldron that was being stirred. One group was drifting down with the current while the other was going back up stream in a re-circulating eddy below the island.

Aside from the geese, the river was filled with joined platelets of gray and white ice, strong enough to support several of the large birds. A display of motionless geese rode atop drifting ice flows, escorted by a cadre of even more geese floating alongside, all travelling at the same speed.

This looked all so familiar. Suddenly it struck me. I could have been watching a fourth of July parade with themed floats and accompanying marchers. Certainly the band was playing a familiar tune as spectator geese lined the banks and joined in the chorus.

How odd that here was a gathering of what seemed to be all the geese in New Jersey having their own parade. As if to celebrate some event sacred to the hearts of all geese, each bird taking comfort in knowing they owned the night and there would be no human eyes to witness their ethereal rite.

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.

The Collection Agency

Article and photos by Joseph Mish

A thin blue line drawn on a map, comes to life in this photograph. A plaque, inset in a concrete bridge spanning the stream, constructed in 1923, a map showing a thin blue line depicting the stream and an image of the stream as it exists today just before it reaches the South Branch.

If all the water that ever flowed from the Raritan River drainage could be measured, its contribution to the depth of the ocean would be impressive. Think of that watershed as a collection agency for world’s oceans.

An aerial view of the Raritan River clearly shows its two main branches, the South Branch, and the North Branch. The South Branch draining more area than the North. The confluence of the North and South branch mark the beginning of the Raritan River.

A closer look reveals the larger tributaries which feed the main branches; Rockaway creek, Black River/ Lamington River and the Neshanic River, all of which are clearly noted on maps.

No less important, are the numerous smaller brooks and creeks whose contribution is significant and whose names may appear only on old maps or engraved on marble plaques set in the structures that bridge their banks; Peter’s brook, Chamber’s brook, Pleasant run, Prescott brook, Assiscong creek, Minneakoning creek, Holland brook and the First, Second and Third Neshanic rivers. Hoopstick, Prescott and Bushkill are lesser known streams, within plain view, that bear no identifying name.

There are dozens more minor streams whose names appear nowhere except on an obscure online list. Each one eventually feeds into the Raritan or its two main branches above their confluence. Knowing someone’s name is a sign of respect. Calling someone by the wrong name can be embarrassing. However, the sign that identifies the North branch of the Raritan as the Raritan River proper, has failed to embarrass those responsible for posting such signs.

Many smaller seeps and springs whose names have been lost to the ages, add to the accumulated flow. Driving along the Lamington, for instance, there are endless watery traces, arising from springs within the woods that empty into larger tributaries. Many are just moist creases worn through the soil over time, which collect rainwater and snow melt to supplement the downstream daily flow.

Maps show nameless springs, which make the cartographer’s final draft, as thin blue lines. Often, a network of converging shorter lines, each with a defined beginning, join to form larger streams like Pleasant run and Holland brook.

These obscure water sources fascinate me simply because their anonymity and remote location arouses curiosity. Their presence also represents a convergence of habitat types that attract birds and wildlife. Though they bear no labels to honor their faithful contribution to the next blue line and ultimate confluence, their importance should not be overlooked.

Many springs which appeared on old maps no longer exist, eliminated by construction of sewer lines or filled in. As maps are revised and generations fade, these streams exist only in a cartographer’s archive.

My appreciation for these disappearing blue lines was heightened when I recently discovered that as a kid, I walked over Slingtail brook every day on the way to school. At some point this little stream was diverted through a sewer line under the pavement. More amazing, even older residents had no memory of that stream whose name has been lost to the ages.

An extended winter freeze, preserving snow from a previous storm, beyond its expected stay, was interrupted by a thaw and heavy rain. The melting snow joined the torrential rain as it flowed over frozen ground to collect in every shallow crease leading to the river. The water’s velocity was enhanced by the decreasing gradient of deep well-worn pathways etched in the earth.

Where water barely trickled most of the year, a proportional biblical flood now ensued.

The banks of the successively larger streams barely contained the accumulation of water delivered from the network of anonymous thin blue lines. Acting as a single entity, the collection agency if you will, the Raritan River drainage, faithfully delivered its contribution of sweet water to the world’s salty oceans.

Cattail brook arises from the convergence of a network of bubbling springs, supplemented by runoff from rain and snow fall. It begins as hardly more than a trickle, directed by gravity, from the south facing ridge of the heavily forested Sourland mountains. The DNA extracted from a drop of water, taken from the deepest canyon in the ocean, would trace its lineage back to cattail brook through its genetic progeny. Cattail gives birth to Rock Brook, a tumultuous and moody stream that joins the more sedate Bedens brook on its way to the Millstone river. The Millstone brings its accumulated genetic material to blend with that of the Raritan to make a final contribution to the earth’s deep blue oceans.

We use our imagination as we await the technology that can trace the oceans DNA back up Cattail brook to show a single drop of morning dew that dripped from a box turtles face, was a critical contribution to the blue ocean we see via satellite images of the earth.

Rock brook derives its character from the influence of gravity which changes its mood from an idyllic mountain brook to a raging torrent.

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.

January Arrives Ahead of Schedule

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A Red fox fills out a page in its daily diary, handwritten in the fresh snow along the South Branch.

The thirty-one days allotted to January on the calendar is only a suggestion, as far as that month is concerned.

January arrived ahead of schedule this December in a fit of impatience at the slow start of winter. The dull cold and dark days that prefaced winter’s birth seemed to stall the arrival of January and the blistering pace of expanding daylength and razor sharp cold.

As December reflected on the satisfaction of delivering twins, in the form of winter and light, the cold, wind and snow remained idling in the dark, awaiting a new leader. January came to the rescue as it honed the sharpness of the cold to a razor’s edge with forceful arctic wind, in whose draft, daylight was pulled along at an accelerated pace.

The whirlwind that is January never rests as it constantly delivers snow and light wrapped in cold and often spiced with biting wind.

Despite being scheduled for 31 days, January makes the time fly along with everlasting snow and does its best to co-author February weather.

In an attempt to freeze time so it can linger longer than scheduled, January’s frigid breath turns the river’s surface into a crystal lattice of solid ice. Impressive, but not miraculous and arguably unintended.

It is actually possible to watch January at work as it arranges hydrogen and oxygen atoms into a three-dimensional arrangement as it forms ice. A fast-moving cold front dropped the temperature below freezing. The river water was already cooled to 38 degrees and colder in the shallow eddies along the shore. As I fumbled with my camera I noticed ice forming along the edges of one pool. Crystals began to grow from a branch, mid pool, as well as the edges. When I looked again a few minutes later, the ice had expanded several inches. It was like watching a time lapsed movie where time is condensed from hours to seconds. However, this was happening in real time. I was amazed how quickly ice was forming. Crystals grew especially fast from three different areas. Two looked amazingly like feathers, one mimicked a large bird feather while the second looked so much like the cut feather used to fletch an arrow. The third crystal was an exact image of a starburst, where five pointed spikes began to outgrow the shorter but expanding tines. I stared in amazement as the ice images grew before my eyes as if watching an artist at work. The arrow feather magically turned into the body of what I imagined to be a grouse. The other feather grew into the body of some other large bird, the intricacies of each quill carefully detailed. Ice grew from the edges until the sheltered water had been completely sealed with a plate of fine transparent etchings. Though the artist was invisible, evidence of his existence was apparent.

January may seem harsh at times but all life has evolved to cope with its overly enthusiastic nature. As a concession, January snow provides a comment section for life along the river to tell their stories. Even the wind has the opportunity to take a single blade of grass and delicately etch its thoughts into the blank white slate.

A gray fox reveals its path and daily activity, as if written in an open diary, from the moment it left its sheltered nook to the strategy used to capture a tasty vole and the heart of a January love interest.

Fox tracks in the new snow with strands of straw colored grass bathed in the contrast of subtle light changes would make a fine Christmas card from the fox. The tracks convey a signed message that translates even to those who aren’t conversant in the language of ‘fox’.

A page purloined from the fox’s diary reveals its thoughts and activity written in the January snow. The fox stopped here atop a snowdrift to scan the area ahead for a meal or a mate, whichever came first.

Loathe to depart, January wills its wintry legacy to February who politely accepts it to bolster the enthusiasm of the fading winter.

December is as far as the year will take us, though fear not, January awaits holding the door to a new year wide open with a welcoming ice cold wind to ensure we enter fully awake and energized.

A red fox is a magical creature but even a fox cannot walk on water unless January turns it into a crystal lattice. This fox crosses the river, lured by the siren call of a potential mate.

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’s White Shadow: Along the South Branch, December 2017

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Portrait of a sycamore branch with a fox in the background. Female fox was so intent on her early morning hunt, I was able to get within 30 paces before she noticed me.

Snow follows December like a lazy white shadow that lingers in the bright light of day. A shadow of some substance that accumulates to measurable depth, can be blown about by the wind and reveal hidden secrets of elusive wildlife.

The stillness of a cold overcast day can foretell the coming of December’s white shadow, soon to arrive. The first flakes drift slowly to earth as the shadow begins to appear. A single snow flake landed intact on my wool mitten, suspended on an errant fiber. The intricate artistry nature expressed in this one crystal represented the beauty of uncountable trillions more. The hidden beauty, however, is often lost as the shadow deepens.

Falling snow covered me and my canoe as I sought safe harbor in a narrow slush filled stream bordered by high banks. The canoe was stabilized in the slush and I felt comfortable adjusting my gear to warm my hands. As I sat hunched over the snow began to build, essentially hiding me within its shadow. Suddenly a large male mink came loping through the deep snow, intent on crossing the small stream. My snow-covered boat must have been a welcome bridge to avoid the icy water. Just as the mink, now four feet away, was about to jump into my boat, he suddenly caught my scent and retreated into a nearby groundhog den. This was a unique situation, where I saw what happened and then in hindsight, was able to read the story the tracks left in the snow. It was like being at the scene of an unfolding drama and later watching it in a news report.

Mink trail in the snow and tracks in the mud.

I followed fresh fox tracks one morning not realizing how fresh they were. With the wind in my favor and dressed in white coveralls, I walked along observing where the fox stopped to sit, waiting for sound or scent to betray the location of a mouse under the snow. Apparently, nothing materialized, as the fox continued on its original straight-line path, stopping again to listen for a scurrying mouse hiding deep within in December’s white shadow. Here at last were telltale signs the fox made an attempt to catch the elusive rodent.

From a sitting position, it shuffled its hind feet and leaped several feet ahead, going air born before landing and stomping around and stabbing its face into the deep snow. The absence of blood or fur suggested the effort was futile as the fox continued on, heading toward a large pile of tree branches deposited along the riverbank by a previous flood. I looked up from the tracks in the snow to see the fox a moment before it saw me. I had only a split second to react and get the camera focused. We were only thirty steps apart as I digitized the suspicious fox staring back at me. Neither of us moved for a long moment until the fox slowly turned, began to walk away and then stopped to pee. Perhaps she was expressing her displeasure at having her hunt disturbed and left her scent to reaffirm ownership of her home territory.

Fox tracks in the new snow with strands of straw colored grass bathed in the contrast of subtle light changes would make a fine Christmas card from the fox. The tracks convey a signed message that translates even to those who aren’t conversant in the language of ‘fox’.

December’s telltale shadow is an open book even the wind uses as a message board. Capable of producing destructive storms of biblical proportion, the wind shows its gentler side, using a single blade of grass to whimsically etch it thoughts in the snow.

December owns the darkest days of the year and when the moment of darkness is greatest, at the instant of the winter solstice, it gives birth to light as day length begins to increase. Light or dark, December’s shadow is not far behind, casting a trace of white.

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.

May I List You as an Entrée Today?

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The food chain is not a one way street, as a turtle whose kin may feed on baby ducks, gets picked on by a bald eagle

It is unthinkable to imagine a restaurant where the diners are often listed as menu items. Though when seated at nature’s dinner table, the catch of the day takes on a whole new meaning as predators and prey freely alternate position. The dietary choices are also a surprise as the variety of delectable meals is often at odds with expectations.

Sorting through my library of photos, I was perplexed trying to categorize some images showing two species in close contact. Obviously notable was the reversal of who was eating who.

The first image which prompted these thoughts was captured as I launched my canoe. Here was a very young painted water snake, brilliant colored markings, with a fish sticking out its mouth. Comparing the size of the snake to the fish, I wondered if the snake ‘bit off more than he could chew’, as they say. The fish was wider than the snake and it didn’t look like much progress was being made in the attempt to swallow it. I couldn’t identify the species of fish but thought it a moment of karma as small mouth bass which inhabit the river are well known to forage on anything that swims or crawls in the waters of the south branch. A small snake would hardly be ignored by a hungry bass.

Another image shows a larger painted water snake suspended on o vertical river bank holding onto the tail of a gold colored catfish. As the snake was in an awkward position and didn’t want to go into the water, it was a standoff with the advantage going to the snake. The fish would struggle and then lay still. Eventually the fish broke free. I then remembered a series of images documenting another struggle where a snapping turtle grabbed a painted water snake by the tail. As I paddled along, I saw a water snake swimming across the river and as it neared the opposite bank it suddenly reared up and began to thrash about. Mystery solved as a snapping turtle soon surfaced holding on tight, as the snake now alternated struggling and lying still. As I drifted closer, the turtle was intimidated into releasing its grip and the snake swam off.

A painted water snake has a catfish by the tail. The snake is barely holding on to the vertical bank , using a tuft of grass to secure its precarious position. the catfish would struggle mighily and then rest. After several tries the catfish appeared dead and lay still for quite some time. Suddenly the catfish came to life and broke free. Again, the scene was captured from a canoe.

A painted water snakes has the tables turned on it as a snapping turtle reached up to grab the snake swimming across the river.

Turtles are not immune from the proverbial soup bowl as they are prey to many birds and animals that share the same habitat. Even large water snakes will easily swallow a turtle hatchling seeking cover in the water, as will great blue herons, mink, fox, skunk, raccoon and birds of prey.

In a twist of fate, the turtle that killed baby ducks in a farm pond yesterday could very well be on a larger bird’s menu today.

Such was the case when I spotted a bald eagle standing on a log near shore, intently pulling and tearing away at what was probably a deer carcass or white sucker. The eagle would occasionally look up and certainly it saw me from two hundred yards away, apparently not at all intimidated. As I closed the distance, a bright yellow object was clearly visible and the focus of the eagle’s rapt attention. I began to take photos, drifting ever closer and as I started to pass the eagle, it flew off. It was then I realized the eagle was dining on a painted turtle!

Across the land where rivers flow, the lines between predator and prey begin to blur. Don’t be surprised when a squirrel is seen carry a baby crow or a muskrat is swimming underwater holding a baby blue jay or a blue jay is flying off with a dead vole. If you can’t imagine it, it is happening somewhere along our wild rivers.

Muskrat with a bluejay swims into its den’s underwater entrance. Mystery for sure.

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.

October is Alive with Color…and coming to a tree near you!

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Black oak leaves are ablaze in the most incredible orange color, which makes you wonder how the black oak got its name.

A robe of many colors is October’s alone to wear. It is a coarse cloth, woven with silken threads of yellow and orange, melting into the extreme end of the red spectrum. Set against a clear blue sky, the colors radiate with brilliance. While the sun is otherwise occupied behind gathering clouds, the colors are no less extraordinary, as they hold their sharp contrast, presenting with a soft matte finish.

As the robe is placed upon the earth’s shoulders, the colors slowly flow downward in an infinitely slow progression, best seen from high above the earth. With that image in mind, it is easy to visualize autumn as a living creature leaving a momentary trail of color across the breadth of the tilting earth.

An alternative to a live, time lapsed satellite image of autumn’s gradual crawl across the latitudes, is best seen from a lofty vantage point with expansive views. Though the view is static, the full range of colors is on display. The cloth of the colorful cloak lies tight against the contour of the wooded mountains, each undulating feature of the landscape accentuated by shade and light. On a typical sunlit October day, herds of white billowy clouds drift across the blue sky followed on the ground by their shadows trying to keep up. As the lagging shadows flow across the colorful mountainsides, the tints change for a brief moment to provide a sense of movement to an otherwise still image. The scene is more dramatic if you can imagine the passing shadows being that of the artist’s hand working as you watch.

Retreating from distant views to stand within the October woodlands, individual trees and stands of trees become the focus. Each species resplendent in their own genetically defined color, modified to some degree by soil conditions, specifically, available nutrients and moisture. Instead of looking at a mass of treetops where smudges of varied colors blend together, we now see the pixels that make up the distant image.

Comparing trees of the same species, we can see the individual variation of color. Many trees with yellow leaves such as hickories, Norway maples, cherry and tulip poplar trees are very consistent in color. Oaks, sweetgum and some maples, whose leaves have a red component, show the most diversity.

The most glorious displays of fall color are where we find them, scattered among the local landscape. Each, an emissary heralding the arrival of autumn; apart from the mass of color sweeping across the land.

We all have a perennial favorite we watch on a daily basis to gauge the progress of autumn color.

A lone white oak in the middle of a field or a native red maple pressing against the chain link fence in the backyard, as seen from the bathroom window, serve as daily alerts.

Among the many autumn images accumulated in my experience, the one that keeps appearing is an old abandoned farm road lined with Norway maples, all the same size. The tree tops form a tight canopy over the road, keeping it clear of weeds and paving it with a golden carpet of fallen leaves. The length of the yellow paved road has a hint of a vanishing point that beckons a traveler to follow deeper into the fire of autumn color.

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.

Autumn’s Argument to Own September

Article and photos by Joe Mish


An orange sky rests upon the impenetrable white fog as dawn breaks over Holland brook on the first day of September. The predawn landscape is shrouded in a heavy mist so deep, only the treetops can be seen.

As September exhales the last warm breath of summer, it begins to inhale cool autumn air in a respiratory sequence of endless seasonal change.

With barely 9 days of autumn out of 30, the title to September is in summer’s name, despite the lien filed by fall for possession. The struggle that ensues is openly expressed in fits of alternate ownership, where autumn takes over with chilly nights while summer responds with beautiful warm days, indistinguishable from its July and August menu.

The engagement of warm summer days and cool autumn nights, in a battle for dominance, leaves the river’s flood plain covered with heavy morning mist. The impenetrable white fog hides everything except isolated tree tops to give the impression of a primordial soup that first gave rise to life on earth.

White mist rising up from the South Branch, submerges trees in a dense early morning fog, characteristic of the drastic day and night temperature changes in early fall.

As autumn appeals its case to the heavens, the sun begins to shift its position and rides lower in the sky, away from its high summer orbit. Evidence of this collusion is signaled as the dawn light colors the morning mist with every tint from gold thru orange to deep purple; a precursor to the colorful foliage that defines the fall season. The colors signal another vote for autumn’s plan to own September.

Except for the silhouette of farm building on the high ground, this scene has played out along the South Branch for thousands of years when autumn approaches.

Ultimately it is the stars in the heavens which have the final say, as they align to signal the exact moment of the autumnal equinox to find in fall’s favor. There is no chance of appeal, though summer still resists.

Offering blue skies and warm days, scraped from the bottom of it’s now empty quiver, summer attempts to keep the foliage from changing to a colorful no vote.

First to buy into autumn’s argument is Virginia creeper and poison ivy. Summer ignores their decision and counters that vines showed color back in August. A time clearly owned by summer and validated by consensus. It is when the black gum trees’ leaves began to turn a bright salmon color that summer’s brave stance began to waver. Here was a tree whose leaves began to light up the greenery like old fashioned lights tacked to the porch rail to celebrate the holiday season. Once the trees began to turn, summer knew its days were numbered.

Black gum leaves mark the beginning of nature’s display of autumn color.

The stalwart oaks were the next to be counted as they sounded in favor of autumn, treating each fallen acorn as a separate vote. The deer found in favor of summer and began to eat all the fallen acorns in an attempt to cancel the oaks’ ballots. If summer was hard of hearing and the polling place rife with fraud, the oaks along with the sweet gum trees blinded the hillsides with color. Deep scarlet red oak leaves combined with a brilliant array of yellow, purple and old rose, star shaped sweet gum leaves. Norway and sugar maples chimed in with fluorescent red and yellow leaves. The final tally was overwhelming, a landslide in favor of autumn’s claim to September and an end to summer’s futile efforts to hang on.

A young buck searches the ground for acorns in early September. Acorns are the number one food that deer love. when you see deer hanging around under a tree in early fall, notice that tree is more than likely an oak. Deer dine as we are supposed to, they eat what is in season.

Summer looked upon the flowers of the field to see the drooping heads and faded colors of the delicate muses it so carefully nurtured and who, in return, stood by summer’s side until their death. Summer was finally moved to surrender its claim of September to autumn. With a last warm breath, summer whispered a vow to return, even before the final days of the next spring.

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.

August, a Fleeting Moment of Stillness

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Dining at the underwater salad bar, this deer enjoys more than a mouthful of greenery, obtained by submerging its face in the water up to its ears.

August is a deep relaxing stillness in the never-ending cycle of renewable life. It is the moment after the final brush stoke is applied to an artistic masterpiece. Work that began anew, a year before, has reached a higher level of maturity in an infinite succession of seasonal effort.

The terminal end of each season can be a time of reflection, as an endpoint immediately prompts the thought of a beginning. August, however, is different, as there is an aura of timelessness created in an extended moment of satisfying exhalation; an arrival after a long journey.

Time is now suspended by desire. August is the moment we want to last. There is no desire for summer to end or feel the chill of winter sooner than scheduled. Mentally we drag our feet to slow the calendar, even assigning 31 days isn’t enough, and in response, time accelerates.

While the berries harvests of June and July have gone by, the plants that sent their energy to the fruit, now direct it to the roots and leaves in preparation for next berry season. The berry season may have been the highpoint for berry consumers but for the blackberry or dewberry plant, August is a finish line in a race to recover and maximize growth for next year’s crop.

The dark green leaves and vegetation, that dominate the high summer landscape, are noticeably different than the array of green tints seen in the spring. It is as if colors went through a maturation process independent of natural influences. Where the palest greens began to darken in color, as each successive tint accumulated, until it reached a deep forest green.

The summer greenery is not limited to plants and leaves dancing in the wind. Beneath the surface of the river, underwater grasses have reached maturity by late summer. In clear shallow water, the fast current animates long strands of flowing grasses, isolated in bundles across sections of sandy river bottom. Dark green grass sways alongside pony tails of Kelly green and gray green grass to cast a hypnotic spell on a passing paddler.

Deer relish these grasses and spend many a high summer day, faces submerged, full to their ears, in an effort to enjoy that cool mixed salad.

Blooming raspberry colored thistle, topped with flocks of hungry yellow goldfinch, teasel, goldenrod, strands of deep purple pokeweed berries and off-white Queen Anne’s lace, act as colorful bejeweled timepieces set among the greenery of August. Listen closely and you can even hear the ticking of that seasonal clock as black walnuts begin drop. The ticking is especially loud and shocking when a plum sized black walnut falls into quiet water on a calm, windless day, to spike a paddler’s heart rate.

Goldfinch and tiger swallow-tail feed on the blooming thistle of late summer.

August can hardly keep a secret as it reveals a preview of things to come. Look closely and you can find isolated flashes of red and orange staghorn sumac, poison ivy and Virginia creeper. Even if you miss the visual clues, August provides an occasional chilly morning as a reminder that its moment of stillness is just an illusion.

The gold of August is revealed by its first two letters, au, the symbol for gold and awarded for achievement. The ‘gust’ or gusto represents the vigor of mature life that peaks in high summer.

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 4 5