Today, Elizabeth and I hiked a loop to Wyanokie High Point in New Jersey’s Norvin Green State Forest.
We left behind New Jersey’s interstates and suburbs and parked at the Otter Hole trailhead. The air was hazy and, even at 9:30 in the morning, already warm.
The forest canopy was filled with fresh, green, deciduous leaves that cast dark, humid shadows. We are in the New Jersey Highlands, the hilly northern third of New Jersey. Contrary to most people’s perception of the state, the New Jersey Highlands are still heavily forested, and these forests are generally well protected by parks and preserves.
We crossed Posts Brook, skipping from boulder to boulder over several small waterfalls, then followed it east. We passed Otter Hole, a cool, dark pool below one of Posts Brook’s waterfalls, perfect for dipping on hot days like today.
We turned away from the brook and climbed a hill into the interior of the forest. Rocks and boulders jutted out of the thin soil. Soon we were on top of the hill, following a ridge through alternating views and forests.
Elizabeth and I have been spoiled by California, where we can hike for an entire summer day without breaking a sweat. But here, the warmth and moisture gave rise to a fecund landscape of vegetation and bugs. As we hiked, sweat wet our faces and clothes, flies buzzed around us, mosquitoes bit us, inchworms landed on us, and spiderwebs clung to us.
Getting higher, the rocks became extensive outcrops with only small trees and bushes growing between their cracks. We saw the tops of the trees we had just walked through and the forested hills beyond them. As we climbed higher, we got more outcrops and more views. We couldn’t see very far through the hazy air, however; we could hardly make out the shapes of the clouds in the sky.
From a break in the forest we saw a knob of rock jutting out from the hill ahead of us. I hadn’t planned on hiking to it, but it was too alluring to resist. We dipped back into the forest, then contoured around the base of the high point, scrambling over and around big boulders. Soon, we had left the forest and were walking up round, polished rock. We were sweaty from the climb, and the sun, humidity, and 85-degree heat combined to microwave us. We were on Wyanokie High Point.
We sat down in the shade of a pine and enjoyed the warm breeze. I looked around as we ate our lunch. Even though I’d been hiking in New Jersey for over a decade, the continuous expanse of forest I saw astonished me. There were rocky ridges and summits with scrappy trees and shrubs clinging to the thin soil. Below them were thickly forested valleys split by tumbling streams.
The expanse of forest was beautiful from our high point, but in truth it was not healthy. Deer are abundant–too abundant–and their browsing is keeping the forest from regenerating. The only new plants growing are those that the deer refuse to eat. Why has this happened? Because the deer’s natural predators, wolves and cougars, were hunted to extinction here centuries ago.
Forester Aldo Leopold observed this phenomenon as long ago as 1949, when wolves were being extirpated from America’s western states:
I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.
The deer population won’t decrease, and the forest won’t be healthy, until we allow its predators to return. How do we know that predators will do the job? Consider my home state of California. From the 1960s to today, the deer population in California dropped from 2 million to 440,000. Why? In 1963, the cougar in California went from being a “bountied predator”, where the government paid for killed animals, to being a “game animal”. In 1990 it became a “special protected animal” and hunting of it was outlawed. As the cougar population increased, the deer population fell.
We walked down from Wyanokie High Point and back into the forest. Our sweat had dried in the wind and we were cool from resting. We got back to our car and finished our hike at 1:30.
Here are the details for the loop we took:
R on Hewitt-Butler Trail (blue)
R on Posts Brook Trail (white)
L on Carris Hill Trail (yellow)
R on Hewitt-Butler Trail (blue)
Stop at Wyanokie High Point
continue on Hewitt-Butler Trail (blue)
L on Macopin Trail (white)
L on Otter Hole Trail (green)