Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.

A swamp in New Jersey? I suppose you could call it a swamp. But if the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge had been named today instead of in the 1960s, we might be calling it a wetlands. In fact, the 35,000 acres also include grasslands, sandy knolls, ponds, brooks, marshes, woodlands, and ridges.

I saw the Great Swamp on the day before my granddaughter graduated from Princeton. Since I live on the far side of the country, the “other grandparents” kindly invited me to stay at their house in New Jersey for a few days on either side of the graduation. They had entertained me with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art the previous day, so now it was time for some exercise and a dose of nature in all its green serenity.

The first thing we came upon after a quick restroom stop was this snapping turtle preparing to lay her eggs. When we first saw her, she was digging a hole with her back legs, pausing now and then to soften the ground with her urine. You won’t be surprised to hear that the whole process was very, very slow.

The turtle had a curious audience for her labors. We watched her for a long time. Finally we left her alone to finish the job.

Following the boardwalks and trails, we came upon some wild irises, also called flags,

crossed a little bridge with lily pads below,

and admired some fresh green ferns.

Can you see the frog and the two turtles?

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, nobody loved swamps and wetlands. They were just junk land, a place to be drained and filled in. The Port Authority of New York had what they thought was a good use for this part of New Jersey: turn it into a huge jetport with four 12,000-foot runways. (Jets were new and cool back then.) The Port Authority would bulldoze the hills, fill in the swamp, and in the process destroy 700 homes and other structures. Local residents were not happy.

Those were the days of paving over the wilderness, but a group of people pushed back against the Port Authority. Among them were enough determined, rich, influential, and environmentally conscious people to be successful in stopping the project. In less than a year, two organizations purchased, assembled, and donated to the federal government enough property in the core of the swamp to qualify for perpetual protection of it as a National Wildlife Refuge. Crucially, eminent domain does not apply to federal land.

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She’s working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early ’90s.

family, travel, walking , , , , , ,

18 comments


  1. Interesting to hear swamps and wetlands are becoming more popular and recognised these days. They are abundant with plants and wildlife, and are great places for a hike. Here in Australia they are becoming more prominent these days. The ones I’ve been to here in Melbourne usually have other recreational facilities nearby, like a park or a playground where you can have a bit of sit after a walk or even have a picnic there. Some might think swamps and wetlands are a muddy place to be around. To an extent this is true especially after a patch of rain. But the ones I’ve been to have marked paths – which also would come in handy for the gardeners maintaining the place.




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    • I’m just guessing, but I think wetlands are valued more than they were years ago because now we recognize their value in the larger scheme of things. For example, we realize how necessary wetlands are for migrating birds. The trail we took through the Great Swamp was sometimes on the ground, sometimes on boardwalks. It was a peaceful walk with few hikers.




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  2. I’m so glad that people fought to keep the wetlands. What a lovely area! I’m also amazed that the turtle didn’t head elsewhere with such a large crowd watching. 😀

    We still have many forested areas and animal refuges. But with the state needing money, I wonder how long those areas with stay untouched? 🙁




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    • I guess this project to save the wetlands was a trendsetter. According to Larry Fast, the co-chair of the Heritage Commission, “This was the first one that really had the right combination of people, people with enough countervailing power and consciousness about the environment, to push back, and successfully. And it became something of a template for what came later. Earth Day. The environmental laws. The establishment of the EPA.”

      There’s an editorial in today’s Seattle Times in which Dan Nordstrom worries about Trump’s recent executive order undoing national monument status for up to 27 sites around the US, including Hanford Reach in Washington State. He says that having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, he “always felt that getting into a forest repairs the mental traumas of city living.” I think we all need to get out in nature now and then.




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  3. New Jersey has quite a few preserved areas. Despite all the bad press, it’s a beautiful state.




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    • TV shows like Law and Order give us the wrong idea with their talk of “dumping a body in Jersey.” And the highways, bridges, and tunnels getting into New York City are not pleasant, but the rest of the state seems really beautiful. The “other grandparents” in whose house I stayed while attending my granddaughter’s graduation have a little forest behind their house–and he works in Newark.




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  4. Good for New Jersey! Maybe they will be able to hang onto their “Garden State” motto a little longer.




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    • I hope so, Autumn. Driving to Princeton, everything was fresh and green. One thing that surprised me, though, was Jersey City. I guess it has grown tremendously in recent years. It looks like you’re already in New York City, except you still have to go through the Holland Tunnel.




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  5. I love wetlands and swamps. In Finland where my parents have their cottage you can find swamps everywhere. Some are still being dried out for whatever reason but there are also many national parks you can visit and have the real experience with nature everywhere




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    • In the Pacific Northwest, we think more about the mountains for hiking and cabins. (My mom and dad had a cabin at the edge of the mountains.) Most of the wetlands I’m familiar with here are near where rivers meet the sea. In fact, we have a small wetlands here in Edmonds. This August my youngest daughter and her family will be visiting, and we plan to go hiking in the Hoh Rain Forest. My nine-year-old grandson is very active (soccer, tennis, swimming, martial arts, etc.), but he’s not sure he likes to hike. We hope he will change his mind this summer. Even something as natural as enjoying nature needs to be taught to some extent.




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  6. I grew up in the Garden State . . . but I’ve never visited this Refuge. Thanks for a great share, Nicki.




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  7. I’ve always enjoyed the swamps. There is so much life there and totally different from anything else. A wonderful post, Nicki. Thanks for sharing.




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  8. I like it that the “other grandparents” hosted you 🙂
    Swamps play a crucial role in the environment, although they are not very popular due to mosquitoes, for example, or crawling predators. Like you I prefer wetlands, not as swampy…
    But watching frogs (and listening to them too) and lily pads is quite wonderful. Great pics.




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