The Pine Barrens around Helmetta are a small, unique ecosystem within the Raritan River Basin, along the edge of its Manalapan River tributary. They are part of the Spotswood Outlier of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Many who think they know the Raritan River Basin are amazed to learn of this outlier with its acid cedar bogs filled with spaghnum moss and muck, porous soil and pitch pine forest. But Joe Sapia has lived here his whole life. His knowledge and appreciation of this special “neck of the woods” is found in each one of his series of almost 50 photo essays. NWNL thanks Joe for giving us a tour of his “backyard” and sharing this lovely photo essay.
A WALK ON THE EDGE OF THE WOODS
The Pine Barrens around Helmetta,
November-December, 2015; No. 46 by Joseph Sapia
As I hiked through Jamesburg Park, Jimmy Talnagi stood outside his cabin, lighted punk in hand.
Strange, I thought, I just had an online discussion with fellow, local baby-boomers about punks, or cat-tails. As children, we would light the cigar-like flower, ostensibly to keep mosquitoes away, but more likely to be one of the kids. Jimmy was not part of the recent discussion, but here he was, as if waiting for me, with the smoking punk. And, this being November, was not part of the season for mosquitoes.
I had three punks left from the warmer weather, what am I going to do? Jimmy said. They just start shredding, like a big puff ball.
True, the fluffy vegetation of this punk was coming apart, sticking to my sweatshirt. So, either light them for the heck of it or let them disintegrate.
Jimmy and the punk were one of various unexpected discoveries on today’s walk – a walk on the edge of the woods. The walk was meant to combine two things: one, a hike into nature, and, two, a pragmatic commute to the other side of the woods to Krygier’s Nursery, whose owner, Jimmy Krygier, was giving me a ride to pick up my Jeep, which was getting some mechanical work done about 8 miles away near Englishtown. Because I was tired and busy with house projects, I did not really have the will or the time to get into the woods. So, I compromised, turning down Jimmy picking me up at home, but sort of walking the woods – that is, walking on the edge of the woods – to Jimmy’s house.
So, around 2 p.m. on this overcast day of 55 to 60 degrees that was calm to having a light breeze, I set off toward Cranberry Bog. The idea was to walk the Pipeline to the ConRail railroad tracks, then to the bog, past Shekiro’s Pond into Jamesburg Park and out the woods at Jimmy’s, roughly a walk of two miles.
Walking the edge of the woods is not as good as walking deeply into the woods, but I made my first discovery hardly off the beaten track. On the natural gas Pipeline, I came across plentiful and huge acorns. This year is a “mast year,” somewhat of a mystery when oaks really kick out acorns. An oak in my yard was covered with acorns; Here, they were huge.
Continuing on, I turned toward Helmetta, briefly walking the ConRail freight tracks, before turning toward the Bog. Almost immediately I came across a microcosm of the Pine Barrens: white, beach sand-like soil mixed with oak, pitch pine and Virginia pine. If someone doubts this area is part of the Pine Barrens, have that person look at this scene.
As I continued, I came across blazing red tree leaves, the changing colors of vegetation during the transition from hot to cold weather. What a beautiful scene, but nearby there was evidence a local neighborhood is dumping its vegetative waste in the area. At the Bog, too, I was greeted by another sad scene: invasive phragmites. Not only overtaking the bog as a whole, but overtaking a nice stand of valuable punks.
As I moved on, the phragmites invasion continued. I counted five plants growing in Shekiro’s Pond. Five now, but how many in a short time? On the bright side, literally across the unpaved road from the pond, I found nice tands of winterberry. Not only beautiful, but food for birds and decorative material for my Christmas decorations.
Five shoots of very invasive phragmites, with the tassel at top, begins an invasion at Shekiro’s Pond. I dipped back into civilization at the former worker houses of the George W. Helme Snuff Mill, then worked my way out again into the woods passing Jimmy’s cabin and a few other homes. Finally, I was back in the woods, but out all too soon, my walk done.
Sometimes, life gets in the way of doing fun things, such as playing in the woods. So, one has to take advantage of snippets here and there.
As for the lighted punk, Jimmy insisted I take it as I continued hiking. But it was dry and leaves heavily littered the woods.
I don’t want to set the woods on fire, I said.
This went back and forth, with me finally agreeing. I took the punk, bit into its stem, and held it like a cockeyed version of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cigarette.
I tromped on, looking like a swamps-around-Helmetta aristocrat.
~ ~ ~ Joe Sapia, 59-years-old, grew up in and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin@aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia.