Tag: Voices of the Watershed

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. 

March Re-gifted

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The messenger of spring magically appears out of the gray face of a late winter blizzard, wearing ragged white robes, shedding skiffs of pure white snow and shards of blue tinted ice.   

The visage of spring’s early march forward from the bowels of deep winter, presents a menacing image whose heart will soon melt to reveal the bright colors of spring.  

March is a character of ill repute whose final dying act redeems its ice-cold legacy of unpredictable weather. A child of contradictory parentage, whose annual re-birth brings forth a new genetic balance favoring one or the other parent is the rule. 

Each March conducts its business of shepherding in the promise of spring from winter pastures in its own unique style. Warm sunny days with blue sky, endless gray days threatening snow squalls and subfreezing temperatures are the ingredients each iteration of March combines in varying amounts and serves cold. 

The third month is thus difficult to characterize, however, it is a month which hosts a cosmic time piece to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring, down to the millisecond.  

When winter turned on its light, to give hope on the darkest day, daylength began to steadily increase. Two months later, at the time of the vernal equinox, daylength and night reach perfect balance, but just for an instant.  

The ever-increasing time between sunrise and sunset is a welcome gift that is rewrapped, regifted and accepted with enthusiasm and anticipation.

Once the white wrapping is removed and the gift box opened, the colors of early spring emerge. At a distance, the wash of maroon, orange and red appear as broad-brush strokes across the dull gray and light brown canvas of wooded hillsides. A closer look reveals the bright colors to be pixilated, each dot an individual tree bud.  

In the absence of foliage, colorful migratory warblers fluoresce against the bare branches and leafless thickets along the river corridors. Their movements like intermittent flashes of a strobe light, reveal their presence. Gold and ruby crowned kinglets, yellow throat, parula and magnolia warblers are a sampling of transient feathered jewels strung across the treetops at peak migration. Redstart, indigo bunting and scarlet tanagers are a portion of the natural treasure of exquisite rare feathered gems whose beauty makes their identities irrelevant. 

A less colorful migratory bird is the woodcock, an odd collection of parts that specialize in probing the soil for earthworms. Mating flights of the males in the fading light of day are a spectacle of sight and sound to behold in this month.    

Now is the time to scan the rivers, ponds and flooded fields for waterfowl not usually seen locally seen except during spring migration. Blue and green winged teal, ring neck ducks, widgeon, brandt, grebes and coot have been known to briefly grace us with their presence. 

Though the arrival of March each year and the gift of light it brings, is a foregone conclusion, the content of its character is always a question.  

What is not in question is the measurable instant daylength outpaces the night. This cosmic event serves to provide the predictability which allows all life to adapt and evolve and thereby exist.

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.

Rivers Were Here First

Article and photos (except where noted) by Joe Mish

Imagine glistening water appearing on the south face of a retreating glacier at the end of the last ice age. The warming atmosphere sent a cascade of water onto the bare earth where it pooled to create an echo chamber, sounding the arrival of each drop of icy water. This scenario describes the theoretical birth of the Raritan River watershed.

The rivers were here first, post glacial retreat. Consider the main branch of the Raritan River, the South Branch, was formed at the start of a brief ten-thousand-year moment of post glacial, relative geologic stability.

The weight of megatons of glacial ice removed, the now unburdened earth began to squirm. Seeking to ease tension and reach a state of equilibrium, mountains, valleys and ridges were formed and reformed as tectonic plates shifted. Low areas filled with glacial melt and rainfall till overflowing. Large lakes formed as water accumulated, the weight of water then destabilized the ground to breech these impoundments. The sudden release of water further altered the topography of the land. Over time equilibrium was reached where water accumulation and flow were balanced. Gravity then directed the relatively constant overflow downhill, seeking a path of least resistance dependent on soil structure and around hard rock to reach sea level. The current source of the Raritan, which arises at Budd Lake, is approximately 933 feet above sea level.

Source of the main branch of the Raritan River arises from a glacial lake 933 feet above sea level and flows for fifty miles to its confluence with the Raritan and North Branch  at 50 feet above sea level.
The South Branch of the Raritan flows from Budd Lake, aka Hattacawanna, to its mouth, aka Tucca-Ramma-Hacking, aka, the meeting place of waters. Standing at the convergence of the the two branches, each is named for the direction from which it joins to form the Raritan, though both the North and South Branch begin north of the confluence. Aerial image courtesy of flight provided by LightHawk and No Water No Life

Tucca-ramma-hacking, the meeting place of waters. South Branch on the right, north Branch on the left. Raritan begins at the confluence of the North and South Branch.

Looking at the stability of today’s river we must appreciate the almost evolutionary natural selection of its watercourse. Locally we see deep valleys far outsized in comparison to the small streams flowing through them; Holland Brook and Pleasant Run are two examples. Somewhere in the past these pastoral rills were raging rivers, perhaps overflow from the volcanic vent that formed Round Valley.

The outlet of the Hudson River was determined at one point to be in the area of Bound Brook and formed what is now the lower Raritan River. The South Branch of the Raritan eventually meandered through rock and rill to merge with the Raritan River, orphaned by the mercurial Hudson in its adolescent stage.

The first rivers and streams were simply situated where the combination of elevation/gravity, rate of flow, soil structure and rocky obstructions were random. Flora and fauna had no stable conditions upon which to flourish.

Once the river course stabilized, it provided ideal conditions for an interdependent community of plants, animals and eventually humans. Undeniably the river is referenced in every aspect of planning and development. Suffering good and bad decisions, its endless flow serves as innate immunity, susceptible to remediation and full recovery.

Human habitation along the river has to be considered dramatic as human intervention has the greatest impact upon the environment in any given era. Whether it be the first colonial dams which were burned because they blocked the upstream alewive migration or twentieth century chemical effluent from industry which poisoned our waters and the cascade of life from which it arose.

The river is an immovable constant which provides stability when change rages in an ebb and flow of perceived progress. This watery touchstone provides a north star upon which to re-direct an awareness of community and balance.

Look closer at the flowing water and realize what appears as an enduring entity is made up of endless stream of new water molecules. A river looks static in that its bed is always filled with water. I just find it fascinating to realize I am looking at the closest thing to infinity, as unique water molecules have passed by the same point for eons. The individuals come together to create a seamless enduring entity.

A great place to contemplate the river and come to the realization each drop of acrobatic water bubbling over the boulders is new to the journey to the sea. The river is alive and constantly renewed! Never the same.  

It is mind boggling to consider that view, but helpful to see life as a continuous flow of new recruits and how decisions made today will impact the future. It also provides a new perspective from which to view an issue. Too often problem solving suffers from restricted contributions.

Our rivers provide tangible benefits as well as being a source of inspiration to expand our imagination and fire our creativity for the benefit of all. The rivers were here first and life grew up around them in an expanding spiral of interrelated communities.

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.

Pollinators in Disguise

Article and photos by Joe Mish

One fox says to the other, “Huh, my nose fits perfectly in your ear!” Something along those lines a humming bird might say to a trumpet vine flower.

The midsummer morning dew covered the green meadow grass with a transparent layer of condensation. In the light before sunrise the green grass appeared to be covered with a dull silver wash.

I was making a morning pilgrimage to an isolated jumble of trumpet vine in hope of capturing hummingbird images.

The freshly made trail of an animal, passing through the tall grass, caught my attention. Its fur wiped off the droplets of moisture clinging to the meadow grass. The image was that of a long single brush stroke of dark emerald green overlaying a dominant pewter green tinted background.

In the distance near the trumpet vine I saw a fox repeatedly bounce in the air as if on a trampoline. I edged closer hoping for a better view with binoculars.

The fox sat up and turned its attention to the tangle of vines covered with large trumpet shaped orange flowers.

As if out of curiosity the young fox stretched forward and sniffed among the vines and actually stuck its nose up one of the flowers. A closer look revealed a smudge of orange pollen on the tip of the fox’s wet black nose!

I knew what to look for or I would never have noticed the telltale pollen dust. Whenever I identified a flower for my daughter, she instinctively held the flower to her nose. The weaker the scent the closer to their nose it was placed. Curiosity then demanded another flower be sniffed in comparison to the first. Inevitably she would comment on the scent totally unaware the tip of her nose was smeared with bright colored pollen. In doing so, genetic material from one flower was transferred to another in an act of incidental pollination by a pollinator in disguise!

Flowers have evolved along with primary pollinators for mutual benefit. The flower’s structure provides an ergonomic accommodation resulting in an automatic pollen dispenser. This is essentially a primitive method of artificial insemination, where genetic material is collected from one individual and dispensed to another.

When we think of pollinators, honeybees and butterflies first come to mind. There are however, scores of other insect pollinators along with highly adapted birds, hummingbirds being a prime example. Bats and orioles are also listed as pollinators.

Primary pollinators and flowers have developed unique structures that fit together perfectly to serve the needs of both.

Bees have pollen baskets on the side of their legs while hummingbirds have the ability to hover motionless over a delicate stemmed flower and feed by way of a highly adapted beak and tongue, avoiding damage to their food source.

Flowers use color, shape and placement of reproduction structures to accommodate specific pollinators. Flat faced zinnias are perfect for bees and butterflies while the cone shaped flowers of trumpet vines are best suited for the long thin probing beaks of hummers. Specificity and dependence between species in nature often comes with a price. Where major crops like blueberries are grown, a die off of honey bees will result in a poor harvest. In this case, the relationship between pollinator and flower expands to include agriculture, economics, commerce and consumers.

The beauty of flowers extends to their adaptability to recruit incidental pollinators. When a non targeted pollinator, fox or human, walks though a field of flowers, pollen will collect on fur or clothing and brush off on other flowers. Not an efficient method of genetic transfer, but some pollination will occur.

If the inquisitive fox were to sniff another trumpet vine bloom, genetic transfer would be complete.  That flowers can use a fox to transport pollen makes one wonder if an argument could be made that flowers are an intelligent life-form.

Consider that flowers are living things that in some magical way recruited man to further their propagation in exchange for a glimpse of eternal beauty, dreams and imagination to expand the universe of human potential with unbounded creativity and expression.

More detailed information on pollinators in NJ may be found at Conserve Wildlife New Jersey’s website.  http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/pollinators/

If you look closely you can see a smudge of yellow pollen top center of the hummer’s head as it feeds on cardinal flower. The pistil containing the pollen is perfectly positioned just above the hummer’s head. As the bird will visit multiple flowers it carries pollen from one flower to the next.

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.

On climate risks, hazards containment, and the Lower Raritan’s “Dark Waters”

By LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk

In the opening scene of Mark Ruffalo’s devastating new true-story legal thriller Dark Waters, released this week in New Jersey theaters, we watch as a car travels rural roads to a swimming hole. In the dark of night three teenagers exit the car near a “no trespassing” sign, jump a fence, and dive in. The camera pans to signs marked “containment pond,” where chemical byproducts of Dupont’s manufacturing plants – specifically Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA – are ostensibly “contained”.

The year is 1975. PFOAs are unregulated. Things end badly. We soon learn that PFOA is related to an abundance of health risks. The film traces a decades-long corporate cover-up of these risks, as well as loss of life and tremendous suffering. The film also makes clear how exceedingly difficult it is to contain toxic pollutants.

The issue of historic pollutant containment is the focus of a report released last month by the US Government Accountability Office that identifies the nation’s Superfund sites deemed most “at risk” of climate crises including flooding, coastal inundation, and wildfire. Of the 945 sites on the GAO list, 24 are in our 352-square mile Lower Raritan Watershed. That’s an incredibly disproportionate 4% of the most at-risk toxic sites in the United States. Our almost 900,000 watershed residents don’t have to travel rural roads to encounter pollutant hazards, they are proximate to where we live and work. More info on the GAO report, and a list of these sites, is on the LRWP website.

GAO-identified Superfunds in the Lower Raritan that are at-risk of natural hazards impacts (2019)

Of course the GAO only looks at Nonfederal Superfund sites. Here’s a map of all Known Contaminated Sites (KCS) in the watershed, many more of which are likewise at risk.

Not surprisingly, the concentrated band of sites that runs through the middle of the watershed traces along the Raritan River and feeder waterways. Our challenge will be containment of hazards impacts, particularly tough when stilling ponds and uses are proximate to flooded waters.

One of many Raritan River-adjacent landfills/Superfund sites at-risk of flood impacts
Photo by Alison M. Jones, No Water No Life – taken during a LightHawk flight, April 2019

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.

Remembering Superstorm Sandy prompts us to #lookfortheriver

As we travel through our communities, few of us think about the hidden world of streams and rivers that once flowed across the landscape. In the face of climate change and increased precipitation, real life has shown us that stormwater runoff and flooding have intensified. #lookfortheriver is an outreach campaign to engage New Jersey residents in examining changes made to our urban streams and hydrology over time.

Seven years ago my family was without power and heat following Superstorm Sandy. We spent days off from school and work, charging phones in a local fire station, shopping at A&P in the dark, and mopping up our flooded basement apartment. We mourned with our next door neighbor who lost a brother to generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning, and with a colleague who lost a neighbor when the storm’s vicious winds downed a tree.

Today we stop to remember. As we do, we think about those for whom Hurricane-related devastation is fresh. The Bahamas is still assessing damage from Hurricane Dorian. Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria. And just last month Tropical Storm Imelda dumped 43 inches on the Houston, Texas region, causing wide scale flooding, a near repeat of the intense rainfall seen during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Imelda and Harvey in particular have brought attention to the likelihood that global climate change will increase the frequency of powerful hurricanes and other storms, and not just in Texas. The northeast has already experienced a 71% increase between 1958 and 2012 in rainfall from intense storms. If the amount of rain that saturated Houston during Harvey or Imelda hit Raritan Bay, our Lower Raritan Watershed riverine communities, including Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Sayreville and South River, would be completely inundated through a combination of storm surge and overland stormwater flow. Although rainfall amounts akin to Harvey are unlikely in our region, we know we must adapt to a wetter, stormier reality.

Intense rainfall is especially devastating in heavily urbanized areas that are characterized by impervious cover, and by streams that are completely culverted, buried, or otherwise covered up. The impact of “hiding” so many of streams causes serious problems. Communities are alienated from their waterways and historic ecologies, habitats are degraded, water quality is compromised, and stormwater runoff and flooding intensify. In the context of intensified precipitation, healthy, open streams play an important role in stormwater management. Open streams slow and control stormwater surge, and stormwater gets absorbed and gradually released by soil and plants.

On this seventh anniversary of Hurricane Sandy the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP) is rolling out #lookfortheriver, a new campaign designed to inspire care for neglected waterways – our lost or forgotten streams – in the context of climate change, intensified urban flooding and sea level rise. We see #lookfortheriver as a way to build social resilience, and to empower communities, particularly folks in harms way with respect to flooding, to value and restore freshwater ecosystems and the environment as community care and resilience.

#lookfortheriver is a way for ordinary citizens to learn how to adapt and prepare for a wetter, stormier future. It involves training in how to read a topographic map, identify watersheds, and understand basic hydrology. It is designed to support residents and communities as they explore their own local landscapes, and to open up discussion about historic patterns of land management and how we might do better. 

The LRWP will be gradually building a portfolio of #lookfortheriver offerings. To start, in 2020 eligible entities like libraries, historical societies, museums, civic associations, public agencies, senior centers, and other community groups throughout the state of New Jersey can host a #lookfortheriver outreach session through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH) Public Scholars Project.

We are excited about this new initiative, and hope you will join us as we look to the future and #lookfortheriver.

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.

A Final Blast of Flaming Fluorescence

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Another autumn, like no other, passes through an ageless portal, as all seasons must.
Autumn’s final blast of flaming fluorescence is embodied in these black oak leaves that appear to be on fire.

A profusion of spider webs and hopeful strands of silk, looking for a second anchor point, weave throughout the late August woods in an attempt to hold the fleeting summer hostage.

Though the formidable silken net poses enough of an obstruction to divert a hiker’s footsteps, its hold on summer goes unnoticed by the celestial choreography that declares the arrival of autumn.

Color begins to appear as careless drips and blotches on the faded green palette left behind by summer. Scattered specks of yellow mist the crown of a wild cherry tree, as if clearing the sputtering nozzle on a can of yellow spray paint.

Deep scarlet splashes onto leafy vines of virginia creeper to appear as strands of a necklace lying against the perennial greenery of an eastern red cedar.

Swaths and stripes of color appear in fields and resemble an artist’s palette, holding an array of colored oils.

Fields offer the greatest diversity of any stage of plant succession and so, are showcases of color in the fall. The earliest news of the changing seasons is published in full color ads in open fields for all to read.

Pokeweed, drooping with clusters of deep purple-black inkberries, standout among the yellow swaths of fully blossomed goldenrod. The main stem of pokeweed always gets a second glance as it appears to be some odd placed artifact that does not belong. The arrow straight magenta stems are so dramatic in color they deserve a long moment of admiration simply for the boldness of nature’s artistry.

Native cardinal flowers which favor damp soil, is a personal favorite, which signals that the end of summer is near. Blooms begin mid-August and last well into September. A favorite of humming birds, this small, delicate tube-shaped flowers glow with a flat reddest red fluorescence and contrast beautifully against pale green cattail leaves, which often grow nearby. If ever a color was to catch your eye it would be an isolated cardinal flower bloom that glows with the power of a lighthouse beacon.

Bright purple ironweed, swamp and common milkweed add to the scene of fall color. Begging a closer look, an isolated stand of ironweed or a yellow swallowtail butterfly on a cluster of milkweed, often offers a surprise in exchange for curiosity. Hidden among the dominant grasses and blooming plants, hide the volunteers. Long thin pods of dogbane, used to make bowstrings and cordage, odd placed wildflowers or other cultivated escapees, find safe harbor and anonymity within these trackless fields.

An isolated single plant of Beardtongue penstemon was an unexpected surprise hiding in obscurity among the dominant field grasses
Dogbane

As summer begins and ends with colorful flowers, and Autumn, bearing genes of summer parentage, carries on that tradition of color in a final blast of flaming fluorescence.

Black gum and native persimmon begin the lightshow, subtly at first. Random isolated leaves are electrified and take on the appearance of old fashioned decorative light bulbs, salmon and orange, respectively.

The concocted color combinations composed of various tints used during the early seasonal transition, now overflow, mix and explode in brilliant colors used by October to paint the tree tops.

Oak and sweet gum take the full blast of color shot from October’s paint gun. Add a clear autumn day under full sun and blaze orange oak leaves absolutely glow against the blue sky.

The sweet gum produces a kaleidoscope of color ranging from shades of reddish purple to pure red, maroon, orange and yellow. Individual trees favor one color over the other but all sweet gums offer the complete spectrum of possible tints and shades.

It’s fun to imagine, spiders, as in Charlotte’s Web, spelling out the word, AUTUMN, in silken letters, to foretell the coming season.

Another autumn, like no other, passes through an ageless portal, as all seasons must, only to reappear and fade and reappear and fade again. The ephemeral concept of life seems at odds with the reality of nature.

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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