Sex and Gluttony on Delaware Bay
Before my hand found third gear, New Jersey's famed pine barrens had closed in on both sides of the road, buffering us from the Wawa and its mayhem. Much of eastern Cumberland County falls within the boundaries of the Pinelands National Reserve-a 1.1-million-acre tract of mostly forested land. Not a park or refuge where human endeavors are strictly proscribed, the reserve is a jurisdictional hybrid
according protection to areas of high environmental or cultural value and permitting compatible development in
others. Created by Congress in 1978, operating under a comprehensive management plan, and governed by the representatively diverse Pinelands Commission, both the reserve and the plan are variously acclaimed and decried.
People who want to see the environmental and cultural heritage of the region preserved generally applaud it. Large property owners and developers whose ambitions might undermine environmentally sensitive areas commonly fault it.
Like it or not, what is certain is that this creative initiative resulted in the protection of 22 percent of the most crowded state in the Union and preserved the largest body of open space between Boston and Richmond. Those shorebound travelers taking old Route 47, as Linda and I had done, are tracing the southern boundary of the preserve.
For some reason, the Delaware Bayshore was not placed beneath the umbrella of the reserve's protection. Its heritage and biological riches have, thus far, been preserved largely as a result of good fortune.
We passed several turnoffs, marked by weathered signs, directing travelers to communities with names that skirt all but local recognition-names such as Dorchester (pronounced, in the syllable-compressing dialect of the bayshore, DOR-ster), Leesburg, and Heislerville. While few travelers ever do turn off to explore these obscure towns, those who do wander into a New Jersey that is alien to nine out of ten residents of the state.
A land of black ducks and blue mud. Tight-knit communities composed of cedar-roofed and dowel-framed houses that hark back to a time when two-masted schooners and two-story homes were built by the same men.
Pickup trucks, not cars, occupy most of the driveways. Cats keep watch from behind age-rippled glass, and dogs, slumbering on porches, stir only at the sound of unfamiliar feet. And when you happen, as is certain you will, upon one of the old church cemeteries that command the high ground, you'll find the gate unlocked and age-blackened stones bearing the same names as the mailboxes you just passed.
Until recently, saying you lived on the bayshore was as good as saying you were born on the bayshore. This means you have roots that go back very far.
Not every road off Route 47 delivers as promised. Travelers bold enough to follow now rusting highway signs to Moores Beach and Thompsons Beach are headed for consternation. In two decades, these bayside communities went from shore towns to ghost towns to no towns as the roads leading out to them surrendered to marsh and the houses fell (literally) under the dominion of the tide.
Today, if you own a four-wheel-drive vehicle that you don't mind marinating in salt water, you can still drive to Moores Beach and the rubble-strewn strip of sand that borders the bay and once supported a town. But the road leading out to Thompsons Beach is impassable and gated. Beneath its blanket of salt grass there is macadam. At low tide it is navigable to foot traffic (or, more accurately, knee-high-boot traffic). But under the very best of conditions, the road that once led to this fishing community is treacherous. A person (or persons) would have to be very foolish, or very motivated, to attempt it.
“Eahhh!” Linda cried, the sound of her protest barely audible over the cries of laughing gulls and the belly-laugh grunts of clapper rails-both of which are common summer residents.
“What?” I asked, turning, looking back at my wife, who was swaying, ominously, at a better than twenty-three-degree list, in the middle of a puddle that was the size and depth of a kiddie pool, though a good deal muddier.
Why ominously? Because the pack on her back was crammed with about twenty thousand dollars' worth of camera equipment and, as the Nikon owner's manual cautions, digital cameras and salt water don't mix.
Linda's no stranger to portaging stuff on her back. A onetime National Outdoor Leadership School instructor, she once climbed Denali wearing a hundred-pound pack-a pack that weighed as much as she did. Concluding, therefore, that ballast was not the source of my wife's consternation, I explored the possibility of an equipment malfunction.
“Boots leak?” I asked, when her gyrations had stabilized enough to support conversation.
“No!” she shouted. “They're too large. The muck keeps sucking them off my fee--Ehh; ahhhh.”
I tensed as Linda survived another arm-swinging battle with gravity. Search the world over, you'll find hardly anything more slick, slimy, and boot-suckingly treacherous than good ol' Delaware Bay blue mud. The fine particulate matter, ferried and deposited by the waters of the Delaware River, has the color and consistency of graphite and the sulfurous smell of hell. Dark spatterings of the stuff were already marring Linda's pretty face. But since she wasn't going to be on the receiving side of the cameras she was carrying, it hardly mattered.
“We're almost there,” I encouraged. “The road's better ahead.” This was true as far as it went. What I didn't say, which was also true, was “and then it gets worse again.”
Ten minutes later, our boots, still numbering four, were planted on packed white sand. In front of us was a sun-splashed Delaware Bay. Around us the rubble that used to be Thompsons Beach.
“There are no birds,” Linda couldn't help noticing.
“Well, there were,” I asserted.
“When?” she wanted to know.
“About twenty years ago,” I said, smiling quickly to let her know it was a joke.
“This way,” I said, turning east. “Another quarter mile. I scouted it yesterday. An hour earlier. The tide should be about the same, and there absolutely were birds.”
“Including knots?” she asked, pinning a name to the poster bird of Delaware Bay's famed spring shorebird concentrations.
“Including knots,” I said. “Some. Ready to go?”
She was, and we did. Walked east along the narrow strip of sand and through the remains of the town. But I couldn't help thinking of the way it had been twenty years ago - both with the town and with the birds. And how the diminishment of what was one of the planet's greatest natural spectacles was anything but a joke.
Crabs and Shorebirds for Lunch
My introduction to the now-famous spectacle of spawning crabs and migrating shorebirds came in May 1977. I was responding to an invitation by Jim and Joan Seibert, residents of the bayside hamlet of Del Haven-a cluster of houses clinging to the land about halfway up the Cape May peninsula.
They said that the beach in front of their house was awash in birds.
“Fantastic,” they assessed. “Unbelievable,” they promised. “Come to lunch.”
I did. And while, as the newly minted naturalist for the incipient Cape May Bird Observatory, I would have come just to see the birds, the promise of a free lunch was irresistible.
Naturalists the world over are opportunistic feeders. Since my position with the New Jersey Audubon Society was earning me a whopping $250 a month, such flex...