(Jakes Landing, Dennis Creek)
The Delaware Bay shore is one of the last of the wild places on the Atlantic Coast, an accident out of time and place. The Jersey Pines, cut with roads leading east to west, shielded the region from the North; Delaware Bay was a buffer to the South as well as a link to markets in Philadelphia. The area was settled early, in the 1600's.
In the style and flavor, the coastal agricultural society that developed in Cape May was not unlike the Antebellum South (complete with plantations and slavery). Geographically isolated, economically self-sufficient, and defended by a formidable host of biting insects, the bay shore has retained a beauty and character that even the burgeoning population and frenetic mobility of the North have not eroded.
Who was Jake? Nobody seems to know. The name precedes the reach of Dennisville's oldest living residents and has escaped the pages of the books and documents jealously guarded by the Cape May Genealogical Society.
What purpose did the landing serve? Why, shipping (of course). Shingles, cut from white cedar "mined" from the muddy bottoms of local swamps, were the economic mainstay of the area when the nation was young. (Congress Hall was roofed with shingles shipped from Dennisville.) When the cedar disappeared, cordwood to feed fireplaces in Philadelphia kept the boats moving upriver for a time. But that disappeared, too. The industry died. Shipping ceased. The region slept.
Jakes Landing, proper, is merely an access route and a vantage point. The area surrounding it is owned by the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife and called Dennis Creek. The parking area at the end of the road is surrounded by broad coastal wetlands, a vast pocket of tidal marsh protected by woodlands and cedar swamp to the North and East. (Incidentally, two large tracts of cedar swamp near the headwaters of Dennis Creed, accessible by boat, are New Jersey Audubon Society Sanctuaries.) Extending south and west, for as far as the eye can see, is open marsh ending abruptly at the bay. The only sign of human habitation is a farm building or two and the white steeple of the church in Dennisville that reaches over the trees to the Northeast.
The headwaters of the creek lie in the Great Cedar Swamp in northern Cape May County. The mouth lies at the very junction of the peninsula and the mainland.
The dominant vegetation near the landing is Spartina alternaflora (cord grass), but on the south side of the creed, S. patens (salt hay) occurs, bisected by straight-cut formations of Iva bush (the vegetative evidence of mosquito-control practices).
Though Jakes has something to offer at any season, it is properly a winter place--not only because of the solitude of the place that is in keeping with the season, but because of the birds that winter there. The marshes are a haven for wintering raptors.
From late November on, Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) course low over marsh and forest edge. As many as 25 have been seen in one binocular scan. Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) are always present from Thanksgiving through March (though their numbers fluctuate widely year to year). Scan the horizon and look for these hovering birds, but remember, Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jaimaicensis) also hover and are common here (in fact, nest locally). Be patient. Raptors do a great deal of sitting, particularly during the middle part of the day and on overcast days when thermals are few. Early mornings and evenings are best; birds are hunting then. Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) are annual. Look on the south side of the creek for a pale bird, a beer keg that flies like a moth. Look for these birds at sunset (but Short-eareds are also active on dark, overcast days).
The principal attraction of Jakes is Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Eagles need solitude and prey (qualities that Dennis Creek has to spare). The thousands of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) that return to the marsh with the first spring thaw (late January or early February) provide a dependable prey base; the edge and the standing skeletons of trees east and west of the road provide peace and perches.
Scan for eagles over the marsh. Watch the geese; they'll let you know when an eagle is up and hunting. Search along the trees bordering the marsh, particularly the stands of dead trees you will see behind you, on the edge. These are favorite perches for eagles as well as Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and, occasionally, Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) occur, usually in late February and March, but these are migrants that stay only a day or two.
In March, harriers begin courtship, and females start "skydancing" even before sunup. Males, who seem to need encouragement, pick up the pace in April, goaded by the hormones racing in their system into spectacular aerial displays of roller-coaster loops capped with a backwards somersault at the height of each climb. Skydancing continues through June and sometimes into July.
Visitors in March or early April (before the landing becomes popular with the boating and crabbing crowd) may witness a special treat. Dennis Creek is frequently used by river otters. Look for this secretive mammal in the creek and along its banks, particularly in the evening or early morning. Deer are occasionally seen out on the marsh, and muskrats are quite common--but the most abundant mammal will probably go unseen. Rice rats, a southern coastal rodent whose status is unknown in New Jersey, are very common in Dennis Creek. This information was only recently gleaned as a result of Rene Kochenberger's small mammal work for NJAS.
In summer, the area supports large numbers of Clapper Rails (Rallus longirostric) and Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus). The bay shore is also the stronghold of the Black Duck (Anas rubripes) a species in decline.
The summer also finds an incredible number of strawberry flies, greenhead flies, mosquitoes (of several species), and no-see-ums. What are no-see-ums? Wait 'til the wind dies. You'll find out. And you'll also discover one more reason why Jakes Landing, Skeeter Point, is a Winter Place.
From East or West:
Pick up Rt. 47, which runs along the contour of the bay from Wildwood north to Millville and Glassboro.
From the North:
Via the Garden State Parkway, exit at the Sea Isle City exit. Turn left off the exit ramp to Ocean view, then left, onto Rt. 9 S. Continue to a full stop in Clermont and turn right onto Rt. 83. Rt. 83 runs into Rt. 47 (bear right at the junction, heading North to Dennisville). You will cross Dennis Creek (a sign on the right will cite the shipping history). Continue on Rt. 47 past the WAWA food market and past two lakes on the right. The road to Jakes Landing is on the left, opposite the Cafe 47 Restaurant. A sign reads "BOAT RAMP." If you hit the town of North Dennis, you have gone too far.
From Philadelphia or Wilmington:
Pick up Rt. 55 via Rt. 47 or Rt. 40. Rt. 55 runs into Rt. 47. Continue on 47 through the town of North Dennis (Rt. 557 goes north to Woodbine here). Stay on Rt. 47. Jakes Landing is less than 1/2 mile ahead on the right across from the Cafe 47 Restaurant. It is marked by a sign that reads "BOAT RAMP."
Jakes Landing Road runs through woodland heavily damaged by gypsy moth and managed by Belleplain State Forest. At the 0.6-mile point, there is the first of two stands of white pine (planted by WPA crews during the Depression). At the 0.9-mile point, a small cemetery is on the right. In it is the grave of Zilpaha Ludlam, wife of Thomas Ludlam, who died February 13, 1829. Thomas Ludlam was a descendant of Anthony Ludlam, who purchased Skeeter Point (and most of the land around Dennisville) from Jacob Spicer in 1720. At the 1.1-mile point, the road turns to dirt and onto open marsh. It ends at the parking lot 0.3-miles ahead.
Dress for the season, but at any season, any wind will make Jakes cooler than protected areas. In summer, particularly if there is no wind, the biting insects are fereaux. Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and bring lots of gnat-thwarter. Walking out onto the marsh is not encouraged.
Binoculars are a must; spotting scopes are useful. The spot is popular in summer with crabbers (whose gatherings are quite festive). If peace and quiet figure prominently in your value system, perhaps another time would be best.
Reprinted from NJ Audubon magazine, Winter 1986.