Bear Swamp, New Jersey    Bruce Kershner
  Nov 13, 2002 17:09 PST 

Bear Swamp
??, New Jersey
One of the Northeast's oldest forests discovered in southern New Jersey

A visit to New Jersey's Bear Swamp is like a trek into a tropical jungle. It is "heaven" for deer ticks, mosquitoes, impenetrable briar thorn thickets, poison ivy, and quicksand. A trackless wilderness requiring a compass to navigate. The GPS device couldn't receive signals under the dense vegetation.

So, why did 25 people from four states convene in southern New Jersey to see a hellish thicket? Because Bear Swamp promises to be one of the oldest forests in the Northeast. It is populated by humongous black gums (tupelo), which are known to reach 700 years old in New England. These were larger; could they be as old?

The first old growth we reached was a 300-year-old, 45-inch diameter sweet gum, and two foot thick American holly and sweet bay magnolia (huge for these two normally small species). Red maples, as old as 260 years, displayed bizarre burls, stilt roots, gnarly trunks. But the black gums were still the center of attention, an amazing 32 to 44 inches in diameter. They could be recognized, despite the dense thicket, by looking up and out. They project high up, showing their old, flaky, crusty bark. We cored a number of them, but their annual rings were challenging to read. Bruce Kershner, co-leader of the expedition, counted the rings, getting ages of different trees 380 to 530 years. Later lab counts confirmed this range.

This remarkable forest is owned by a sand mining company. They are currently working with the state to donate this site and other properties, in return for a much smaller amount of land. One result we certainly support is for this 85 to 100 acre site to be formally protected as a preserve.

A nice addition to our trip was the sighting of a bald eagle twice, and one osprey, both soaring over the site. Our expedition was featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times.