Hike MWA's Educational Trail
On a recent walk along the Musconetcong Educational Trail, led by MWA’s Alan Hunt, Director of Policy and Grants and longtime watershed resident, eight watershed residents spanning three generations, and a dog, got the normally extraordinary experience offered by this trail.
Hikers on a recent Educational Trail walk, led by Alan Hunt, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Riverside forests and wetlands are full of plant life and animal activity. Each time one visits this trail, there is something new in store. The highlight this time was the third sighting of a pair of Barred Owls, preening each’s feathers, which from a distance looks like kissing. Earlier, four owls were spotted, likely including two fledglings. Barred Owls are rarely seen in pairs, advised one of the walkers, who was trying out their Merlin Bird ID app to identify a range of bird types, including a yellow warbler and a flicker.
A hiker using binoculars to spot a pair of Barred Owls preening on a tree branch.
This walk’s title was, “The Life of an Educational Trail.” The trail originally began as an Eagle Scout project in 2010. Part of that project was constructing bridges to cross a number of streams. Getting sturdy, durable materials and anchoring bridges so they are not swept away in floods is a challenge. Over time, some bridges need repair, and unfortunately a few needed to be replaced. This original trail, blazed blue with paint on tree bark, ran from the Musconetcong River Resource Center in Asbury, parallel to Maple Avenue, and ended at the fishing access parking area at Shurts Road, next to a green metal truss bridge. However, with two large stream crossings without bridges, about two thirds of this 1.5 mile trail fell into disuse, and became overgrown.
A pair of Mallards were spotted swimming in this larger vernal pool. Vernal pools are critical breeding areas for amphibians.
Along the trail walk, a pair of common mergansers were spotted, a small American Toad, and a pair of mallards in a large vernal pond, which will later dry up in the summer heat. Along with the wildlife, there were a number of native and invasive plant species that caught the group’s attention. In May, it is common to find Dame’s Rocket along rivers and streams. Its light purple and lavender flowers are a close lookalike to native phlox, but was introduced as an ornamental landscape plant from Europe. Also, the trailside was dense with hemlock – yup, like the poisonous hemlock that Socrates drank. This one came from Europe as well, and as long as it is not eaten, it is not a safety hazard.
Pretty, but crowding out native plants, are the invasive purple Dame’s Rocket and the white flowered Hemlock.
Perhaps, most impressive was taking the thousands of skunk cabbages along the trail. This native perennial species is unusual in a few ways. Did you know it emerges from the ground in January, and makes its own heat to melt through snow? One other giant plant of wetlands meadows caught the group’s eye. The Purplestem Angelica was leafing out and rising above the skunk cabbage. In a few weeks, it will send up tall stems with large globes (10” wide) of tiny flowers, resembling a 1960s era “Sputnik” chandelier.
Paul Schroeck of Windward Consulting evaluating one of the two stream crossings in need of a bridge. Bridges, once they exceed certain widths and deck thicknesses, require the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to approve the engineering, design, and location of the bridge. December 2020.
The Musconetcong Educational Trail has been getting some updating, which made this trail walk possible. The original Blue trail has an Orange spur that follows long the river, thanks to a stepping stone crossing installed by a Troop 92 Eagle Scout project. As an AmeriCorps Ambassador, Ryan Jiorle's service project was relocating the Blue trail out of a wetland onto an abandoned earthen road. Ryan is now MWA’s Community Engagement Coordinator, and organizes volunteers to maintain the trail. Another spur, the Yellow trail, allowed the trail to become a loop.
Stepping stones at the start of the Orange Trail provide access across a flowing stream (left). Planks made of locally-milled White Oak cross a wetland. Both improvements installed by a Troop 92 Eagle Scout project. December 2019.
If you want to try out the loop, start following the Blue trail. About a tenth of a mile, Orange turns off at the right with the stepping stones. Orange transitions to Blue. At the fence line, Blue continues onward along the river, and is being cleared this summer by a Student Conservation Association Trail Crew. But, for now, take a turn left inland onto Yellow, which begins with the wooden planks. Following Yellow is pretty easy, as it is an old earthen farm road. It will join up Blue, and take you back to the start. This approximately 1-mile loop is the current trail network.
Current Musconetcong Educational Trail map, showing the loop that can be completed using the Blue, Orange, and Yellow Trails. Online map link: http://arcg.is/1Wnfuv.
Part of a long-range vision the Musconetcong Watershed Association conducted in 2002, was making a longer 3.4 mile loop trail, from Asbury, to the Shurts – Valley Road Bridge, and returning on the Hunterdon County side of the river to River Road. At that point the trail would be on-road back to Asbury (proposed route map). A recently awarded grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called “Linking Up the Landscape” is providing the ‘umpf’ to put this vision into action, and install the two longer bridges needed to put the Blue trail back into service.
An angler wading in the Musconetcong River adjacent to the Musconetcong Educational Trail.
Very little of the land the trail is on is owned by the MWA, so the project is being conducted with permission from the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, which maintains over 300 acres of public Musconetcong Wildlife Management Area lands adjacent to the trail. The project will expand public access to the Wildlife Management Area, not only for walkers, but for anglers and hunters. MWA is also working with the Ramapough Culture and Land Foundation to share the Lenape history and cultural uses of the area, and even include Lenape language on the trail signs.
MWA’s Alan Hunt (foreground right) and Ryan Jiorle (middle) introduce the Musconetcong Educational Trail to the Ramapough Culture and Land Foundation’s Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann (rear) and Michaeline Picaro (foreground left) in December, 2021.
Beyond the fence line, the group took in the trail work in progress along the rather shaggy looking Blue Trail. Funded by a National Park Foundation grant, the Student Conservation Association is hiring a trail crew this summer of 15-18 year-olds to put this trail back into shape – you can find the job announcement here – please share it! Applications are due June 1, 2022.
But, we also need your help. The trail is maintained by volunteers, and by people using the trail. Here’s what you can do:
Walk the trail often. The more it is used, the easier it becomes to maintain.
If you see wildlife, share it using the iNaturalist app.
Consider volunteering. Help is needed with weedwhacking, brushhog mowing, chain sawing, removing old trail-side signs, and tree plantings. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider donating. Larger donations can support tree purchases to re-forest an area of dying White Ash trees, which is now being colonized by invasive shrubs and vines because of the open tree canopy. Contact email@example.com.
Help protect the water quality along our public lands. One thing the group noticed was how clear the Musconetcong river is. But, invisible bacteria contaminates almost all of the river, exceeding levels for swimming, and new discharges to this National Wild and Scenic River are currently allowed by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. You can learn how to take action to maintain, and restore water quality by visiting our Great Waters campaign website: http://www.greatwatersnj.org and signing the petition.
You’ll never know what you’ll see on the Musconetcong Educational Trail. Geese and White Tail Deer are relatively common sights, and both were seen on this walk. We didn’t see the two beavers in Paddy’s Pond on this walk, but signs of beaver activity were visible on nearby trees and shrubs. Other trail visitors have spotted painted and stinkpot turtles, both Osprey and Eagles fishing, a Bittern, which is rarely an inland visitor, Egrets, and Great Blue Herons. The best times to see wildlife is during morning hours, between dawn and the first hour of light, and about an hour before sunset to just past sunset. But often times, ducks will be active during the day, both in summer and winter.
What might you see? Go find out by taking a walk on the Musconetcong Educational Trail.