As the sixth grade students from Huber Street School gathered under a picnic pavilion in Schmidt’s Woods on a cool day in April to get last-minute instructions on what they should do, their teachers strolled between the picnic tables as if they were still in a classroom.
In some ways it was. The students were participating in an outdoor lesson on the environment as part of their Earth Day observance.
Allan Bonin, a teacher at Huber Street, said the students had come to clean up and plant flowers, but also to learn a lesson on taking responsibility for the environment, one that involved them as caretakers.
Students Alexis Kloepping, Kaite Cardenas, Gabrella Pinentel, Madison Sedel, Kayla Ramos, Genesis Coor, and others nodded slowly as the teachers gave them rakes, gloves, and bags. Then they set out into the woods to help undo damage that was not only the result of human negligence – such as bottles and other items carelessly dumped – but also to recover items that drifted into the woods on floodwaters during and after Superstorm Sandy struck last fall.
And so with determined looks and no shortage of humor, the students wandered on and off the paths in search of trash, often coming upon discoveries they’d not expected, particularly large trees overturned in the storm.
“We wanted to help the environment.” – Alexis Kloepping
“We came to help clean up the woods,” Cardenas said.
Six months after Superstorm Sandy struck, Schmidt’s Woods still shows the wounds. Although the water levels have dropped back to their pre-storm norms, trees are down and the woods that generations have fought to save look thin with many of the older trees fallen or cut up.
For the students there was plenty still to do.
While they could not lift the fallen trees or cut up trunks of trees, some of which were almost as tall as they were, the students could clean up trash and twigs, and help plant flowers that would restore a little of the ancient beauty.
They fanned out into the woods, picking up as they went along, and carting back loads of junk left by the flooding as well as by careless visitors.
The 13.9-acre Schmidt’s Woods municipal park is one of the last remaining sections of the original woodlands that date back to before the arrival of Europeans. The woods contained a mixture of mature Pin Oaks, Maples, and Sweet Gum as well as many natural shrubs such as viburnum, spice bush and dogwood.
One report said more than 20 species of wood warblers have been recorded in Schmidt’s Woods during spring migration. At least 15 species of resident birds nest there. A variety of animals, including the red fox, muskrat, raccoon, and opossum use the park for resting and refuge, and two species of mosquito-eating bats have been spotted there. One naturalist reported that a pair of Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron had actually nested in a tree at the edge of the woods at one time.
George Shoenrock, who has lived side by side with Schmidt’s Woods for over 70 years, said the hurricane hit the woods hard, noting that the woods not only accommodates picnickers and those using the nearby municipal pool, but numerous squirrels, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, and numerous species of birds.
Prior to 1958, the woods were largely wild, and served a kind of hunting area for rabbits and even pheasant. Then-Mayor James Moore turned a portion of the woods into a park to serve as a popular site for passive recreation such as picnicking, bird watching, walking and family outings. It has seen two significant upgrades, one in 1982 and again 20 years later.
Located on Mill Ridge Road near the sewage disposal facility at Mill Creek, Schmidt’s Woods along with Little Ferry’s Losen Slote constitutes the last remaining lowland forest habitat in the Meadowlands District. But over the years, the trees in these woods have suffered from disease and invasions of carpenter ants, termites and damaging undergrowth.
Giggling at times, the students swarmed through trees, packing their black bags with junk while admiring the landscape.
Many paused to look at the larger trees and the devastation, or to hold up some odd item they had found during the cleanup.
“Come see this, you have to see this,” several of the students yelped from off one of the paths. They stopped at the foot of a once-tall tree that had fallen during the storm, roots and all, leaving a large hole which had since filled with water. “Can you believe that?”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.