South Jersey Times: Bear Swamp in Downe Township Stands Test of Time
The primeval forest is starkly beautiful in winter, with its centuries-old trees towering bare and skeletal hundreds of feet above the boggy floor of the Bear Swamp, one of New Jersey’s last remaining old-growth forests.
Nestled in an obscure, low-lying pocket of Dividing Creek, between Ackley Road and Route 553, among abandoned sand-mining pits and a short distance from the estuarine meadows of Dividing Creek, are about two hundred non-contiguous acres of trees that took root centuries before the founding of America.
Known colloquially for years as the bear swamp, the land was purchased and marked for permanent preservation some 15 years ago by the Natural Lands Trust, a nationwide non-profit that now manages the tract as part of its larger holding, the Glades Wildlife Refuge.
The wood itself is like something out of legend.
Hundreds of ancient hollies, usually a lower-growth tree but grown to canopy height over the centuries, ring a swampy tangle of bog that is rich in diversity of species. Massive black gum and sweet gum trees rise high above the newer growth that thrives on the hilly uplands above the swamp.
“The depth of the ridges on the bark is a good indication of the age of the black gums,” said Brian Johnson, preserve manager for the Natural Lands Trust. He points to a particularly massive specimen like an old friend, the ridges on the bark several inches deep.
“This tree is probably 300 years old,” he adds.
Nearby tulip poplars compete for sunlight. Younger than the gums but faster-growing, their columnar trunks rise 50 or more feet into the air, straight and bare. In the spring they take on pale flowers that bloom high above the ground and splash the upper forest with color.
Elsewhere in the tangle stand red maples, large but dwarfed by the gums, and even the state record sweetbay magnolia.
At the peak of the canopy mistletoe crowns the tops of the eldest trees, some of them more than four centuries old, verdant diadems that contrast with the austere splendor of the denuded winter wood.
“It’s an extremely rare plant in New Jersey,” Johnson said of the mistletoe. “It seems to grow almost exclusively on the black gum trees.”
Far beneath the canopy, the forest floor is soft and spongy, water flowing freely in many places despite the recent weeks of mostly sub-freezing. Gnarled roots interweave the boggy ground, largely bare of undergrowth besides the occasional gnarl of green briar.
The forest is dense and secretive, the bogs and briars making it almost impenetrable in places, but the trees are so massive that even from a distance they loom large and imposing.
Aside from the magnificent trees, the swamp is home to an incredible diversity of animal life including many birds of prey. Owls, hawks and eagles reside among the ancient trees at various times and in varying numbers throughout the year.
One notable native is the barred owl, a secretive hunter that prefers to nest in the hollow trees of old-growth swamps and avoids humans when possible.
“Because of the age of the swamp and its isolated nature, along with all of the hollows, this is an ideal habitat for barred owls,” Johnson explained.
Many of the raptors are seasonal.
“This has been a good year for short eared owls and rough legged hawks,” Johnson notes. “It depends on the winter.”
Eagles can be ubiquitous. Early in the morning and just before sunset they can be seen moving, often in great numbers, between the abundant hunting grounds of the nearby meadows and upland fields that surround the swamp. In the late morning they often come back to the partially-reclaimed sand washes that encircle the swamp to bathe and sun themselves on the gravel bluffs.
The return of the eagles is a welcome development. As recently as the 1980s there was a single pair of nesting bald eagles in Bear Swamp, the only known pair left in the state; today a patient visitor can see upward of 20 mature specimens over the course of one day in the swamp alone.
Recently, a rare-for-the-area golden eagle has even joined the surging population bald eagles.
But winter is not the only splendid season amid the old-growth. In the spring songbirds flit through the verdant under-forest in great numbers while the entire wood blooms fecund and green.
Beneath it all move deer, foxes and coyotes, raccoons, all manner of things except, apparently, the swamp’s namesake. “I haven’t seen any signs of bear,” Johnson said wryly.
People rarely enter, though visitors are more common now than they were in the days before Natural Lands Trust took control of the property. The area is open to hikers, birders and anyone else each day from dawn to dusk, and a number of deer hunters are issued permits each year in a bid to control the whitetail population.
Finding the groves of old-growth can be tricky without a knowledgeable guide however, and the trek takes more than an hour from the closest access point, a nearly imperceptible, ribbon-marked trail just off of the railroad track on Railroad Avenue in Dividing Creek.
Even that trail fades away before reaching the old growth, and visitors are forced to wend their way through an undulating stretch of hummocks and low hills and navigate around the ever present bogs and shifting streams of water that trickle from the swamp into the nearby ponds.
For those adventurous enough to make the attempt, the trip is well worth it, whatever the season.
How much longer there will be a reason to visit however, is very much in doubt. Despite standing and thriving for centuries without any help from humans, and despite the bets efforts of the Natural Lands Trust, the ancient swamp may not survive the coming decades.
“The trees are healthy, but the big threat is salt water because the swamp is interconnected,” said Johnson. “Some of the big trees are already dead before their time, and there are more and more every year.”
Salt water intrusion, in part a consequence of rising sea levels, is a common threat to forests across the Delaware bayshore region; as tides rise and salty waters penetrate further inland, trees that took root in what were once fast lands are submerged and slowly die.
The resulting dead woods are known as ghost forests, and can be found all along the marshes that mark the verge between the Delaware Bay and the uplands.
The Natural Lands Trust has been trying to work with the state to enhance the flood control structures along 553 in an effort to slow the encroachment of salt water and preserve what is left of the old-growth, and effort that is ongoing.
“Only time will tell,” said Johnson.
The old-growth forests of the Bear Swamp seem to be a land frozen in time, a recollection of what much of South Jersey must have looked like when the earliest European settlers came.
How much time the splendid woods have left is unknown. In a few decades trees that have survived centuries may succumb to the encroachment of the sea, becoming yet more ghosts of a time when all of New Jersey was wild.