Dedicated in 1991, the Marsh Discovery Trail - and its surrounding estuary - has been routinely offered as proof of the HMDC's ability to restore the Meadowlands, one of three mandates placed upon the commission when it was founded in 1969.
For the numerous visitors who come here from around the world, the trail is a surprise, a barrier-free boardwalk made of recycled plastic that floats on the surface of the water. The water, part of the Kingsland Tidal Impoundment, was once a dead pool thick with trash. Walking above it, visitors sway slightly as if strolling on the deck of a ship, while around them on either side, reeds press in on the hand rails. This section of trail is a maze of twists and turns, bridges of plastic that connect a series of dredge spoil islands to the western shore of the Hackensack River.
Over the next two weeks, John R. Quinn, the HMDC's Natural Resource Specialist, will conduct free nature walks over the trail. The walks will be held May 6, May 20, June 3 and June 17. The walks will take about an hour and a half and cover numerous topics.
School kids are already familiar with the trail's offerings. They have come from numerous parts of the state, clambering over the marsh as part of their nature study, over the plastic planks designed to minimize visitors' impact to the marshland. Kids study the bird populations from observation blinds, or they probe the wetlands from an outdoor classroom built into this floating maze. Over 250 species of animals come to the Meadowlands to roost, nest, and feed, or as a stopover point on their journeys elsewhere. Many of these are visible along this walk: bluebirds, red winged black birds, egrets, and even a few giant gray huron. "We've had some rare things here," said Quinn recently. "We have seen peregrine falcon, bald eagle and osprey, sometimes called a fish hawk and considered threatened."
Walking in the Meadowlands is nothing new for Quinn; he's been doing that since he was a small child. And as the author of Fields of Sun and Grass, an Artist's Journal of the New Jersey Meadowlands, Quinn has brought a unique artistic view to the area, detailing things he sees in drawings and stories he's collected over the years .
In his book on the Meadowlands, Quinn provides an artist's glimpse into the cycles of nature in what environmentalists have called "an urban wilderness." The book details with information and drawings of all that he has found during his trips through the Meadowlands, as well as historical background. Quinn's detailed illustration and vivid language give those who have not grown up here a clear picture of what might be found in this aquatic habitat.
Since childhood, Quinn has been observing the creatures and listening to the voices of the people who live in and around the Meadowlands, and his book highlights some of the geologic forces that shaped the land. It discusses the Lenape Indians who wandered here, and the European colonists who battled for independence on its fields during the Revolutionary War. Quinn also discusses the development and environmental movement of today, and the struggle to balance the needs of society with the need to preserve the ecology. Many of these observations, Quinn brings to his tours.
Quinn doesn't tell people he knows the Meadowlands like the back of his hand - the place is too unpredictable for that - but he has wandered the area for decades and has written extensively about what he has found here. On his tours of the Marsh Discovery Trail, he likes to share some of the things he's found while wandering here.
Investigating the urban wilderness
The Hackensack River estuary has been called "an Urban Wilderness,'' a definition made starkly real by the New York skyline which pokes up at the other end of the water like some kind of ghost city. Even the Harmon Cove Towers do not seem real, although they lean over the edge of the water like a set of red brick teeth. Mallard ducks and Canada geese use this as a migratory stopover. Yet over them, commercial airliners float above the meadows on their approach to Newark Airport.
The smells in this part of the Meadowlands are surprising, because this section is crisscrossed with major roads and railways. Route 3 divides the Meadowlands east to west. The New Jersey Turnpike runs from north to south. Route 120 comes into it, and Route 17 borders part of its western side. Yet it is the smell of seawater that is most strong, seawater edging upstream with each tide, converting the once strictly fresh water world into a world where numerous sea creatures come.
Recently, a seal was spotted in this area. At almost every pool, hundreds of ripples suddenly appear as the surface feeding killifish flee. Kids with long-poled nets struggle to catch these as teachers and local HMDC guides give them lessons about nature. School kids from everywhere come here on field trips and frolic along the plastic boardwalk, their voices rising and falling against the backdrop of wilderness, walking the long road from end to end.
After a mile of twists and turns, visitors arrive at a gravel path, and finches and bluebirds sing as they sit on a long decayed sign in the water. The gravel path is the Transco Trail, a road built in 1950 by Transcontinental Gas PipeLine Corporation to provide access to natural gas pipeline buried within the dike. It is a half-mile road that was converted in 1987 to another nature trail. On the other side, the tidal mud flats display a black expanse larger than Giants stadium with white specks of sea gulls sleeping upon it.
Office workers from HMDC walk along the gravel path at lunch time, settling onto benches. One end of the gravel trail is bordered by the Turnpike, following along the edge of the Kingsland impoundment. The plants here were selected for ability to provide food and shelter for the local animals. The Transco Pipe extended - at its height - 1,800 miles from New York City to the Gulf of Mexico, giving gas to 80 million people.
At the other end of this part of the trail, and near the edge of the headquarters building, is a 3.5-mile island created from household waste dumped here between 1967 and 1971. This garbage island is now a haven for birds, reptiles and mammals, with native grasses, shrubs and trees installed, illustrating the plant community that once existed in this whole region of upland. Quinn said recently that during a previous tour last fall, he found a baby corn snake slithering on the walkway when he brought his guests there.
"It was six or seven inches long," he said. "When I picked it up, I could hear the click of cameras as people took pictures."
Before 1987, the area around the trail was a destination for most of the metropolitan area's trash. As the path weaves through the reeds and the pools of muddy water, there is no sign of trash, except for a rare auto tire. Among the reeds, ducks swim and geese squawk. Occasionally, startled by the lone sound of a single footstep, small animals scurry along the dry fallen reeds in which they have built burrows. Field mice live here, as do other generally nocturnal creatures. Raccoons, woodchucks, and even deer have been seen from time to time along the fringes of the Meadowlands.
Over the last 25 years, the HMDC has been constantly monitoring the wildlife here. The most recent study showed as many as 250 species now using the wetlands as a permanent home or stopover place. At one point before the HMDC came, inventories showed fewer than 150.
What visitors will see
Quinn said the tour will take groups of up to 15 people along the trail, provide a running commentary on the origins of the Meadowlands while discussing human and natural history and provide a close-up look at the ecology and wildlife of the 100-acre Kingsland Impoundment, the Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area and other parts of the Hackensack Meadowlands that can be seen from the trail.
"We'll have some nets and pull out blue crabs and eels, let people examine them, then release them again into the environment," he said.
Quinn said, "People come on the tours because they heard so much about the Meadowlands and this urban wilderness, they want to see it for themselves. This is also a place they can reach easily and they can wander through for an hour and half without having to hike a great distance."
For more information about Quinn's walks or to register to join him, call 460-8300.
Quinn grew up in the north edge of what has come to be known as the Meadowlands in the village of Ridgefield Park in the 1940s, a two square mile once-densely wooded ridge between two rivers, from which he got his first glimpses of nature.
Surrounded by superhighways focused on New York City and other development, Ridgefield Park, as Quinn described it, was like "a smallish medieval city, casting a wary but not unfriendly eye over its potentially threatening surroundings." Over the years, even this hamlet changed to become one more bedroom community serving the needs of New York City.
Like many communities bordering the Meadowlands, Ridgefield Park's old timers can recall when there were woods, sand banks on the Hackensack river, and clear streams for boating, swimming and fishing. Indeed, as Quinn points out in his book, some people even considered that time a paradise made for boys and young men.
Yet even the author was hard pressed to find people who could remember clearly such Tom Sawyer-like scenes.
"Some older residents - my mother is one - can recall swimming in the Overpeck Creek, where, she says, 'You could see the sandy river bottom in clear water,'" Quinn wrote in his book.
Others could remember seeing the unbroken grasslands as far as the horizon, and the tiny, toy-like train that crossed the middle of the meadows on its way to Hoboken.
"Like the other South Bergen municipalities that abut the Meadowlands, my town was somehow inextricably tied to this wetland complex, but mostly in an indefinable way," Quinn wrote in the book, noting that only a handful of people - such as the muskrat trappers - actually made a living from the marshes, and most people avoided them.
An eye-opening experience
Like the Lenape Indians who had fished and hunted in the Meadowlands before European settlers came, Quinn found himself wandering into these meadows during the winter of 1949, and in one case, actually discovered "a dream quest" - that transition period in Native American Indian culture when a young man discovers his purpose and transcends into manhood. "It was on one of those opaque, silver-frost marsh dawns that occur only in the very first days of the young year that the bird and I crossed paths," Quinn wrote.
Quinn heard the bird singing, but in the still-dim light struggled to locate it.
"I stood there, chilled to the marrow in the silvery darkness, watching the meadows move seemingly in a million different directions at once."
While trying to locate that single bird, he saw much more, a air show of gulls above a landscape of marshes, roadways and concrete, and in the middle of that awesome moment, he became aware of the extensive beauty and grace of the meadows themselves as dawn rose over them.
Questions began to pour into his mind about how life managed to survive, and over a three-week period, he hunted, trapped and eventually released the bird he first heard.
"My experience with the rail [the bird] irrevocably influenced my view of the natural world and perception of the Meadowlands forever," he said.
Years later, he was drawn back to the Meadowlands, and sought to capture some of the changes he'd observed here with drawings, stories and tales.