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A northern flicker heads to its nest at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

A northern flicker heads to its nest at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June.

New Jersey tends to get a bad rap. From alleged comedians on late night television to a certain neighboring state who, in their wisdom, erected a sign at the border stating, “America starts here,” we get no respect. We are the Rodney Dangerfield of American states. A recent national poll conducted by YouGov found that New Jersey is the least liked state.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s borne out of ignorance. It’s true that New Jerseyans can be a bit gruff. We’re known for our attitude but not for our patience. We’re also not known for our beautiful and diverse landscapes and wildlife.

Despite all that, people continue to come and stay. That’s why we are the most densely populated state in the union. What do these people know that the ignorant masses do not? Come, take my hand, and I’ll show you. On second thought, keep your hands to yourself. New Jerseyans don’t like to be touched by strangers.

Remember when I told you that we’re not known for our landscapes and wildlife? Apparently, those are our best kept secrets. If you dare to venture away from the NYC and Philly areas, you’ll find that New Jersey has some amazing, natural treasures. One of those treasures is High Point State Park (HPSP). It is located in Montague, a.k.a. “The top of New Jersey”, and is home to the highest elevation in the state.

A narrow trail winds its way through High Point State Park, Montague, NJ. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

A narrow trail winds its way through High Point State Park, Montague, NJ.

When I go hiking or shooting–as in photos–I prefer to go where there is water. HPSP has beautiful, scenic lakes, gently flowing brooks and streams and bustling wetlands. A favorite place to begin is Steenykill Lake, which is just off Rt. 23. It is popular with fishermen, kayakers and folks who just want a quiet place to relax. When you’re here, it is easy to forget that the entire state of New Jersey is considered a metropolitan area.

Fishermen cast their lines in Steenykill Lake at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

Fishermen cast their lines in Steenykill Lake at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July.

There are no “facilities” here, so families and their screaming children tend to go elsewhere to enjoy the outdoors. Therefore, you can, usually, enjoy the peace and quiet while you watch the eagles, hawks, turtles and other assorted critters. Occasionally, however, people discover the joys of screaming and breaking the beautiful silence of this place.

If someone does come along and throw your peace out of kilter, you have the option of following the light blue blazes along the shore of the lake toward the monument and into the peaceful woods, where you can leave the screams behind. The beginning of the trail is thickly lined with lush, green ferns. As it begins its ascent, the path becomes a bit rocky. You’ll begin to hear the trickling of a small stream to your left, and then the trail splits. Hang a right and hike a short distance to where the trail comes out of the woods near the park office. I realize that “short” is a relative term but if you are even moderately into walking, this should be cake.

Ferns obscure a trail in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

Ferns obscure a trail in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June.

From here I hang a left away from the office and follow the road to the Dryden-Kuser Natural area, which is also known as the Cedar Swamp. According to the state’s website, this Atlantic white cedar swamp is the highest elevation swamp of its kind in the world. You can get an interpretive trail guide at the office.

About a quarter of the way around the swamp there is a boardwalk that cuts through the middle of it. I highly recommend taking it across and looking closely at all the happenings on either side of the walkway. In late spring and early summer rhododendrons, blue flag, and wild calla bloom. A thick layer of sphagnum moss gives it a magical, fantasy-like feel.

A wooden boardwalk traverses the Cedar Swamp in the Dryden-Kuser Natural Area in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

A wooden boardwalk traverses the Cedar Swamp in the Dryden-Kuser Natural Area in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July.

Rhododendron blooms along the trail in the Dryden-Kuser Natural Area in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

Rhododendron blooms along the trail in the Dryden-Kuser Natural Area in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June.

Blue flag blooms along the boardwalk in Cedar Swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

Blue flag blooms along the boardwalk in Cedar Swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in late June.

Then again, that could just be me. I love swamps. They are some of my favorite places to be. They may be a bit smelly, a bit buggy, a bit mucky, but you won’t find a place that’s more alive. And you never know who might show up. My very first close encounter with black bears was at a swamp in HPSP. It was quite a funny scene.

As I emerged from the swamp, I came face to face with a mama bear and her two cubs. We all began backing away from one another and found a tree to hide behind. We then peeked out from our respective trees to gawk at one another for several minutes before mama wandered into the swamp with her babies.

A family of black bears peeks out from behind a tree in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in July of 2007. Photo is not for sale. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

A family of black bears peeks out from behind a tree in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in July of 2007.

On a more recent trip in June, I was putting my boat into the water when along came a beaver. Jersey beavers tend to have a bit of an attitude–surprise, surprise. Once aware of my presence, they usually slap their tails on the water with that tell-tale kerplunk and disappear under the surface.

A beaver zigzags throught the waters of a swamp in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

A beaver zigzags through the waters of a swamp in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June.

This time the beaver seemed very curious and slowly zigzagged toward me. It would get within 15 feet or so, retreat and repeat. Unfortunately, I was still too close to shore and was being eaten alive by giant, man-eating, Jersey mosquitoes. I finally had to move deeper into the swamp, but I followed the beaver to its lodge where it continued its cat and mouse game.

Suddenly, there was lot of commotion behind me in the distance. I began to slowly row toward the sound, when I saw something stick its head out of the water. To my old, less thane20/20 eyes, it looked like a snake–a really, really big snake–and it was steaming toward me.  In actuality, it probably wasn’t moving all that fast. It’s all about perception.

It’s quite extraordinary how many thoughts can course through your brain in a relatively short span of time. “Holy [bleep], did someone release his python into the swamp?” I wondered. “No, the water’s too cold. It couldn’t survive. Could it? I don’t know. I can’t out row a python in the swamp. I’m going to have to beat it to death with my oar.”

So then I picked up my camera with the long lens attached to get a better look and, hopefully, a few shots before my imminent death and was relieved to find that it was just an otter. Then it was two otters and then a whole family of otters. They didn’t hang around long, but I did manage a couple of shots before they left.

A river otter checks out a strange interloper in swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

A river otter checks out a strange interloper in swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June.

A few years ago there was a heronry of six nesting pairs. Unfortunately, all the dead trees they had built their nests on fell into the swamp, so they are no longer there. However, there are plenty of other things to see, whether it’s this swamp or any of the others that help to make up this amazing park.

This is only a small slice of the wonders you can find. So you can turn your nose up at New Jersey, if you want to, but you’ll be missing a lot.

A great spangled fritillary checks out some milkweed at Steenykill Lake in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

A great spangled fritillary checks out some milkweed at Steenykill Lake in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July.

Trees reflect in the water of a swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in early July. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

Trees reflect in the water of a swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in early July.

A tree swallow peeks out from it's nest in a swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

A tree swallow peeks out from it’s nest in a swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June.

A green heron hunts in a swamp in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life.

A green heron hunts in a swamp in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-June.

A bumblebee checks out the purple loosestrife in a swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

A bumblebee checks out the purple loosestrife in a swamp at High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in mid-July.

A grackle feeds its babies in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in June of 2008. Photo is not for sale. Dawn J. Benko for Pike and Monroe Life

A grackle feeds its babies in High Point State Park, Montague, NJ, in June of 2008.