This eager beaver world of ours

| 31 Dec 2013 | 03:12

We step out of the dark woods into the brightly lit breach of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline right-of-way. It looks shorn, and somewhat shocking, like the head of a military recruit after the first stroke of the razor. Over my left shoulder and my right I could see the cleared ribbon of land ripple away from us, ridge after ridge, toward infinity.

The line of demarcation between forest and clear-cut strip is stark. We work hard to get to expansive views like this one, which has opened up before us so unexpectedly. But I don’t feel like lingering here. Like a small blinking animal caught out in the open, I look anxiously for cover. Where does the trail go? The sunlight bouncing off the snow is blinding me after so much time under the trees. I look for the blaze that I hoped would lead us, sooner rather than later, back into the woods that make up most of the Terrance Pond Loop.

The pipeline is a subterranean river of natural gas that passes through the New Jersey Highlands on its way deep into other states, and even into other regions of the country. If you didn’t mind the dull, unshaded plod of pipeline walking, as numbing in its way as interstate driving, you can travel great distances mostly unseen, in the manner of an outlaw or runaway. Infrastructure respects straight lines. It cuts through mountains, rivers, and interstates in the service of unfettered flow. Hunters use these rights-of-way to stalk deer, which like to hang out at the edge, where tasty green tendrils reach for the light from the depths of the forest. But everyone else seems to avoid them.

The energy that supports our modern way of life travels through out-of-the-way places like this one. Few people see them unless, as Tom puts it, you “hoof it out there.” Some of the trails we hike have short sections that follow pylons strung with electric transmission cable. The high-voltage hum sets up a sympathetic vibration in my nerve endings that quickens my steps, as I hurry past what feels like danger as quickly as possible. I resent this interruption of my fantasy of perfect countryside, nourished in childhood by scenes in picture books that do not show sewage treatment plants, cell phone towers, interstate highway interchanges, airports, or distribution warehouses but only dirt roads, silver silos, red barns, and outhouses with half-moons carved in the door. I think of the ecologist Aldo Leopold, who wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

Even so, I am coming to appreciate the quiet of these trails. When Tom and I lived in Jersey City, we found space, air, and solitude on the roof of his apartment building, if you didn’t mind sitting next to the great big ugly air conditioning unit, or getting melted tar on the bottom of your sneakers. Most people did mind, which left us a good deal alone up there, drinking wine and exchanging confidences. Or we’d just watch the lights go on in Midtown Manhattan while contemplating the hugeness and complexity of the world we were about to inherit. In fact, Tom’s wilderness ethic was born right down the street, when as a boy he spent his days exploring the vast, swampy wastes of the railroad right-of-way, a place most adults never knew existed.

The Terrance Pond Loop is quiet but not neglected. A long stretch of trail flanked by cut logs shows the work of heroic volunteers who cleared blowdown after Hurricane Irene. I was astonished at the tremendous labor, done by invisible hands and silent chainsaws, that went into removing the obstacles from our path.

The trail proceeds over a series of rigorous rock spines and ledges, then down to the pond, which on this day was frozen and windswept. As we completed the loop, we traced the perimeter of a long wetland punctuated by beaver huts. We stepped carefully through the field of spiky stumps left after the beavers dragged the felled trees toward their housing projects. All around us, in this eager beaver world of ours, are the signs of industry.

Sneak Peak: Terrance Pond Loop

Trailhead: Clinton Road (1.7 miles past Warwick Turnpike) in Wawayanda State Park in Hewitt, N.J.

Blazes: Triple-blue blaze and marks the start of the Terrace Pond North Trail and triple-yellow blaze the start of the Terrace Pond South Trail

Follow the yellow to yellow dot trail (yellow-on-white blazes), to red-blazed Terrace Pond Red Trail, back to yellow-blazed Terrace Pond South Trail. Continue on white-blazed Terrace Pond Circular Trail to blue-blazed Terrace Pond North Trail. Turn left, following white and blue blazes. At junction with triple white blaze, continue to follow blue blazes of the Terrace Pond North Trail.

Distance: 5.2 miles