By Joseph Sapia
The last time Jimmy Mechkowski and I had walked the woods in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, it was an ominous time.
Early November, 11 days after Superstorm Sandy, a combination of nor’easter and post-hurricane, and 2 days after a snowstorm deposited 6 inches.
The weather was clear that November day, but a figurative black cloud hung over us. I had unexpectedly retired from my newspaper reporter’s job the day before; Jimmy, now living in Idaho, was back home to see his dad, John Robert Mechkowski Sr., before cancer took him in January.
On this day in mid-May, the weather was again clear. But the black cloud again hung over: Jimmy, 54, was back home because his mother, Catherine “Kay” Holsten Mechkowski, 79, undiagnosed when her husband, 81, died less than five months earlier, was now dying of cancer.
Jimmy had called me the day before, we made plans to walk the woods, I would meet him at his brother Timmy’s house, which backs up to The Ditch.
When I arrived that May 17 morning, I found out Jimmy’s brother, John Robert “Robbie” Mechkowski Jr., 58, who moved to Tennessee about five years ago, would be joining us. Fantastic! Robbie and I were long-ago buddies in Helmetta Boy Scout Troop 81.
How’s your mom doing? I asked.
She passed during the overnight, they said.
Look, we don’t have to hike.
No, we want to go.
As I say, some people drink, some people do drugs, some people go to a therapist; I walk the woods. On this day, it would be a group therapy session, the three of us, walking “our” woods, the Pine Barrens around Helmetta….
“We knew these woods like the back of our hands when were kids,” Robbie said. “(But) I haven’t done this in a long time.”
A dozen years, Robbie figured.
Overall, the three of us grew up in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta. But, as kids, we had our own patches of woods. The overall woods were bigger back then: literally, because development had not encroached in various places, and, figuratively, too, because children do not generally stray that far from home.
So, the “other side” of Helmetta Pond, or opposite from the town, was too far away for us as kids. A whole extra half-mile or so to Cedar Swamp. Hank’s Spot was less than a quarter-mile away, but walking there or to Cedar Swamp would have required additional distances around the lake, taking us into unfamiliar woods. I might have walked that back end of the Pond once in Boy Scouts. Otherwise, the back of the Pond is an adult experience for me. For the Mechkowski brothers, the back end remained a mystery.
We entered the woods on a path up the Park, or the Jamesburg Park section of East Brunswick.
“The woods is quiet, you just hear a bird here or there,” I said.
Then, a jet flew overhead, breaking the quiet. Hey, it is New Jersey!
A more quiet invader was white pine, probably escaping from nearby homes up the Park. I took a cluster of white pine needles in my hand and counted the individual ones, “W-H-I-T-E.” Five needles on a white pine, unlike the clusters of two or three needles on the natives.
We came across a large feather – “Looks like somebody got a turkey,” Jimmy said.
A pine fly, or deer fly to others, buzzed by. In season, they will buzz one’s head in a cloud.
“I see no blossoms on the blueberries yet,” I said.
The Mechkowski brothers are woodsmen. So, when I asked if it was OK to bushwhack, Jimmy responded, “We’ll go.”
“Just lead the way,” Robbie said.
On a path toward the Pond, Robbie called out, “Buck rub,” identifying where a male deer had rubbed its antlers on a sapling, leaving a scent, marking his turf.
“That’s an old one,” Jimmy noted.
Robbie Mechkowski spotted this buck rub, where a male deer scraped his antlers on a sapling, leaving a scent, marking his turf.
“That’s one thing I enjoy in life, deer season,” Robbie said. “It’s not so much about getting the deer. It’s sitting in the woods and watching.”
We passed water-absorbent sphagnum moss. Cinnamon fern had not fully unfurled, instead it was it its fiddlehead state.
Nearby at the Pond, a bullfrog called. Jimmy checked the water for the frog’s head poking out, but was unable to find it.
More important, though, was another frog we did not see, but heard: the hammering sound of a carpenter frog. In New Jersey, it is a Pine Barrens species and in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, disconnected from the main Pine Barrens to the south, we still have it. The carpenter frog exists only from the Florida-Georgia boundary to the Pine Barrens outlier of which Helmetta is a part.
“If I saw nothing else today—” I started.
“…That made your day,” Jimmy finished.
For I am concerned about the carpenter frog disappearing from the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, lost to habitat changes or predation.
“Here’s a swamp cedar,” said Jimmy, referring to an Atlantic white cedar.
At a sphagnum bog, we found meat-eating plants: sundew and pitcher plants.
Here, I got wet feet, standing in water shin- or knee-high. Earlier, Jimmy joked about my guiding: “Joey, leading the way, fell in” a swamp.
And smelling of swamp?
We headed to higher ground of pitch pines and oaks, making two interesting finds.
One was the skeletal remains. Of what? Dog, coyote? We did not know.
The other discovery was a patch of pink lady-slipper orchids, numbering about 60.
“This is an unexpected find today, because this is the most I know of (in one spot in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta),” I said.
I hope this spot remains undisturbed.
We visited the site, where a dance pavilion once stood, where a band played and building lots were hawked to New Yorkers on Saturday nights in the early 1900s. Basically, the development never came to be.
Back at Timmy’s house, amid photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Mechkowski, we ate pizza and drank Angry Orchard Hard Cider.
When the Mechkowski brothers were kids, they would walk the woods with their mother, friends in tow.
“It was a good walk (today),” Jimmy said. “It was worthwhile. …I didn’t want to stay in.”
Joe Sapia, 56-years-old, lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin@aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
Copyright 2013 by Joseph Sapia