Pitstop dutifully dropped me off at the Kittatiny Point Visitor Center near Interstate 80 to resume my hike after the one-week “intermission,” during which time I flew back home to Colorado for graduation. Getting back on trail after a week-long break does bizarre things to one’s mind and body. There was a noticeable mental interruption as well as a physical reversion that took place; I felt unfocused and lethargic. Muscles in my legs had atrophied in this short time, and I needed to work back into a rhythm.
New Jersey, although only a 72.6-mile section of the Appalachian Trail (AT), turned out to be a lovely state through which to hike. Springtime foliage and greening underbrush were evident on the forest and prairie floors. Dandelion flowers, the ubiquitous yellow flower a child playfully picks and brings to their mother as an innocent gesture, were coloring the hillsides—a sure sign of spring. Grassy hills led me up to numerous view windows overlooking rolling hills with picturesque country estates and red-barned dairy farms. While on one such hill, a timber rattlesnake slithered out in front of me but it was a most peaceful encounter. Notwithstanding the fact that my hiking sneakers came within inches of the long tubular creature, no rattle was ever sounded. The serpentining snake apparently came out from the bushes into the sunlight to charge its scaly body under the warm energy-producing sun rays. Flicking its tongue to gain a better sense of its surroundings, the limbless reptile became an object of much fascination and delight.
Decommissioned fire lookout towers stood prominently on the high hills and mountain tops of New Jersey. These metal-braced structures formerly provided a protective housing for the resident worker, known as the fire lookout, whose assigned duty involved searching for wildfires in the wilderness below. Situated within the top room, known as the cab, the fire lookout had a commanding high-elevation panorama above the treetops and a wide field of view of the surrounding terrain. As smoke was spotted afar, the fire watcher (aka lookout), using a device known as an Osborne Fire Finder, could accurately determine the location of a fire by obtaining the azimuth and distance to the suspected blaze. A smoke report would then be called in based upon the lookout’s measurements. The tower personnel was also responsible for monitoring weather changes and would carefully plot out the location of lightning strikes—a common culprit in wildland fires.
Fire towers, run both privately and by the United States Forest Service (USFS), can be found throughout the United States, although many have fallen into disrepair with rusting platforms and rotting decks. From the lower platform, towers are typically accessible to the public all the way to the cab, or at least to the bottom hatch door. Narrow galvanized steel staircases to the top landing are open for climbing at one’s own risk. On a windy day, there is often a squeaky swaying motion as one approaches the dizzying heights of the upper cab. “It’s perfectly normal,” I am told!
Historically, before the development of radio communications and telephones, carrier pigeons were used to report fires; signaling Morse Code heliographs were also not uncommon. In some areas of the world, lookout trees, made by attaching a series of spikes to a tall tree, were used. While thru-hiking the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia, I climbed the Gloucester Tree, an enormous karri tree within Gloucester National Park; it’s the world’s second tallest fire-lookout tree. With a view of the surroundings far below from the upper branches, people and cars appeared the size of ants! The “high anxiety” of acrophobia began to set in and, from then on, I had a newfound appreciation for the occupation of fire lookouts and the nature of their high-perched operations.
Beaver ponds were another curious feature that proliferated the Jersey segment of trail. Considered to be “nature’s engineer,” I observed several beavers swimming in a pond that they had literally transformed into an engineered fort of sticks and twigs! The more I learned about beavers, the greater appreciation I had for these semiaquatic rodents which seldom get the credit they deserve. Beavers are herbivores, eating tree bark, grass, and aquatic plants. They have a stout body, webbed back feet, chisel-like incisors with powerful chewing muscles, and a distinctive flat tail used as a rudder for swimming. They can hold their breath for some fifteen minutes.
Beavers skillfully construct dams and lodges to provide protection from the elements and enemies. The dam, constructed of small stones, mud, and sticks, is built to ensure an adequate depth of water. A storage pile of branches is stored for winter use when the pond is frozen over. Canals are excavated for transporting trees to the beaver’s house and dam.
As for the lodge, which is built of sticks, small stones, and mud, there are also numerous components. An air vent gives ventilation to the house. A sleeping platform is made of wood chips. There is also a drying platform whereupon leaving the water, the beaver works the water from his fur. Tunnels are also made, one serving as an entrance, another for escape in time of danger.
An exhibit at the Trailside Zoo along the Hudson in New York would succinctly tell of the beaver’s vivid characteristics:
With but four large front teeth and two small but highly adept paws, this animal is capable of performing engineering feats of remarkable dimensions. Beavers have built dams over 2,000 feet in length, houses over 50 feet in diameter, and what some believe the most impressive of their labors, canals over 600 feet long. They are also capable of cutting down trees almost 4 feet in diameter.
As I passed by the elaborate dams, I steadily began to realize the extent to which these creatures were conducting their work. Much of the beavers’ fortress is submerged; therefore, it is difficult for a second-hand observer like a hiker to comprehend the full layout and scheme that is being prepared. Sometimes regarded as a water pest, the beaver plays an important role in the ecosystem, as the exhibit would illustrate:
Although considered at times a nuisance, this animal does far more good than harm. The dams reduce erosion and the ponds produce water in time of drought. Many forms of life, including fish, birds, and mammals, take advantage of the varied habitats created by their never ceasing efforts. When the beaver pond is eventually abandoned because of a lack of food, the area becomes a highly fertile meadow. Not only is the beaver an engineer, but a valuable conservationist.
With an admitted ignorance, I sought to know more of the natural world and the animal kingdom to obtain a deeper scientific understanding of that which was along the trail. After all, the word science (Lat. scientia “to know”) involves knowledge by derivation—the known world and that which has yet to be known. “Why then do beavers chew at trees in the manner that they do?,” I asked my twin nieces who are both zoophilists (i.e., animal lovers). I posed this question after observing numerous trees that had been feverishly chomped to their core by busy-toothed beavers. My young neices’ philozoic response, to no surprise, was much in line with the zoo’s exhibited analysis:
Without the four large orange wood choppers in front, the beaver would be unable to survive. These are used for felling trees and removing bark for food. These teeth are constantly growing and self-sharpening as the front is of hard enamel and the rear a softer material, so by use, they keep a sharp edge. The molar teeth in the rear are used for grinding the bark, twigs, and leaves.
Perhaps a Harvard University article entitled Dammed if They Do summarizes the workmanship of a beaver best. Paul Massari, quoting Ph.D. student and researcher Jordan Kennedy, records:
They [beavers] need extensive trail networks so that they can travel back and forth to support material transport for lodges, dams, and food cache construction. They also excavate extensive canals and fell trees right alongside so that they can float them back to the dam. It’s a pretty sophisticated and large-scale engineering project, particularly when you consider that we’re talking about rodents only as big as a mid-sized dog.
The highest point in New Jersey is accessed via a side trail that leads up a steep hill. The point is marked by a 220-foot-tall obelisk, which was built in 1930 as a war memorial and observation tower. Mile upon mile, the New Jersey section presented observations of much interest. The sleepy town of Unionville, which was on the New York side of the border, provided a swell place for me to eat a calorically satisfying meal, charge up my electronics, and resupply. Annabel’s Italian Restaurant offered classic New York style slices of pizza with a menagerie of exotic toppings and combinations. The Horler’s General Store stocked satisfactory food provisions for a full food resupply, making the stop worthwhile. Packing out a made-to-order pastrami sandwich from the store’s delicatessen, I began making my way back to the trail. Across the street was a volunteer medical corps building, and up the street was the historic Unionville Cemetery.
The Pochuck Boardwalk was a unique meandering wood deck built above the swampy bogs, attracting mostly local day hikers. Boardwalking at dusk made for the perfect ending for my sweaty day of hiking. Upon reflection, New Jersey had a peculiar rural charm, ranging from cow pastures to steep climbs with rocky outcrops. There was a pleasantness to this section that was different from other states I had hiked. The NJ/NY state line had been reached and the Garden State was behind me. Overcome with a sense of gratitude to be outdoors for such an extended period, I thought about all of the wondrous things I’d seen and experienced up to this point. Every day was a surprise filled with exhilaration and anticipation of the unknown. To tread an unseen territory is something new and fresh. “Between every two pines,” John Muir once wrote,“is a doorway to a new world.”