Discover the wonders all around us

By Karen Zautyk |

Photos by Jim Wright/NJMC Osprey (with fresh-caught fish in its talons) soars over Hackensack River near Snake Hill

‘Drat!’ I thought, as the boat approached a small mudflat covered with scraps of paper. “Someone has been littering.”

Here we were, taking a cruise along the Hackensack River to view the ecologically revived Meadowlands, and it looked as if humans were still defiling the place.

If I had better vision “or had been smart enough to bring along binoculars”, I would have known the truth immediately. As we got closer, I could see it wasn’t litter at all. It was sandpipers, scores of them, feasting on a bug buffet they were pecking from the soil.

This was just one of the environmental surprises during a two-hour pontoon-boat press tour the New Jersey Meadowland’s Commission offered last week to launch this season’s explore-by-water programs.

We left from a dock at Laurel Hill County Park in Secaucus, tucked beside the N.J. Turnpike and behind that familiar rocky outcropping known to generations as Snake Hill. What strikes you first as you sail into midstream is how quiet it is, despite all that traffic speeding past in the near distance. Hearing the various birdcalls is no problem at all.

Our route took us several miles north on the Hackensack and offered vistas unique in this world. Off to the west, the hills of Bergen County exurbia; to the east, the streets of Hudson County’s crowded towns, with the majestic Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. But closer, and all around us, what is basically a wilderness: 8,000 acres of meadows, 2,000 of which have been acquired by the NJMC for a nature preserve.

These are what Springsteen immortalized as  “the swamps of Jersey” and once, not too long ago, that’s all they were. Swamps. Polluted ones, at that. But today, thanks to the NJMC and environmentally savvy individuals, the Meadowlands has been returned to its pristine beauty. And to its eons-old function as a habitat for an incredible variety of birds, fish and animals.

I must have driven the Rt. 3 bridge over the Hackensack thousands of times, but last week, from the boat, I saw, for the first time, one of its secrets: a magnificent peregrine falcon perched on a stanchion just below the roadway. Who knew?

Who knew that bald eagles were soaring over the river? And that ospreys were feeding from its waters? And that those waters are home to a huge variety of fish, including perch, catfish, carp and bluefish.

Years ago, the fish had left for cleaner tides, and the birds that depend on the fish for food left with them. As the pollution abated, the fish began to repopulate the river. And now the birds are back too, nesting and breeding, and it seems that each year brings sightings of more species.

The Hackensack cruises have an eclectic charm. Although you are traveling through a natural wonder, and wondering at the natural beauty, you are also getting unique views, up close and personal, of the various bridges that span the river. And at the commercial building and housing complexes you’ve seen only from the highways.

 And there are little mysteries, too. Like the ramshackle abandoned house sitting waterside near Xanadu. Story goes that it belonged to a gentleman who refused to sell his property when the Meadowlands Sports Complex was being built. He has since passed on, but the gray, clapboard bulding remains, literally falling to pieces. I wonder if it’s haunted.

You can learn the legends and lore, and much ecololgical information, from the guides who accompany each boat tour. Ours was Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, senior natural resources program specialist for the NJMC, who provided a wealth of information on the sights and the sounds and the wildlife and the Meadowland’s history as we floated along.

It is also she who is responsible for the 250-300 tree swallow nesting boxes that dot the landscape. “The birds who get the boxes with a view of Manhattan pay higher rent”, she noted.

She works with Scout troops, schools, etc., who build the boxes and if you’re interested in joining the project, I’m sure she’d like to hear from you.

What the NJMC is aiming for with the cruises is an increased appreciation of this hidden treasure in our midst, one that relatively few area residents have experienced. “There’s always something to see out here, no matter the time of year” Bennett-Meany said, adding that the hope is that, as they discover the Meadowlands, more people will become its “stewards.” And that, having taken one of the trips, “they will come away with that little bit of awe.”

Your correspondent certainly did.

Starting May 24 month and continuing through September, the NJMC pontoon cruises will be available to the public weekdays at 10 a.m. or 5:30 p.m. and at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays.

The trips, which launch from various Meadowlands locations, are for ages 10 and up. Reservations are required, and the suggested donation is $15 per person.  “Due to the popularity of the trips, it is recommended that reservations be made early”, the NJMC advises. Group trips are also available upon request.

For a complete schedule of trips and to register online, visit

Registration forms are also available at the NJMC headquarters and Meadowlands Environment Center, both in DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. For more information, call 201-460-4640.

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