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The “Jekyll and Hyde” River

By Margo D. Beller

@MargoDBeller

Every river, even the mighty Mississippi, starts small. Water bubbles to the surface from underground and gravity brings it downhill. As it rains, the waters rise, the flow increases and brooks and streams are created. They feed larger water forms that have become rivers.

Before highways took us from Point A to B, New Jersey and the other original 13 colonies were wooded wilderness. It was hard traveling over the land so people and their goods got from one town to the other via river. If you remove the highways from a map of New Jersey and look at where the state's original towns were located, the importance of rivers becomes more obvious.

For a small state, there are many rivers, among them the Delaware on the state's western coast, the Hudson on the east and, within, the Raritan and the Hackensack.

What these rivers have in common, besides their importance in trade and transportation, is they are natural borders between states and counties.

Passaic River, Scherman Hoffman

The border between New Jersey's Morris and Somerset counties is the Passaic River. "Passaic," if you believe Wikipedia, is from the Lenape word "pahsayèk," which has been variously attributed to mean "valley" or "place where the land splits." There are many sources where you can learn more about the river's history, starting with the formation about 11,000 years ago of the Ice Age's Glacial Lake Passaic.

At 80 to 90 miles (depending on which source you use), the Passaic is one of the the longest rivers in New Jersey, starting in Mendham, Morris County, and ending up the much larger river that drops in a giant waterfall at Paterson and flows by Newark before emptying into New York Bay. The Passaic starts its run not far from Hardscrabble Rd., which is why when you head to New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary it isn't easy to see. Unless you know where to look for it, it is obscured by houses on the road or woods.

However, it is very noticeable if you are walking Scherman's yellow-blazed River trail. At this point the Passaic is about the size of a large brook and filled with rocks.

Water draws bugs, and the Passaic is no exception. Birders put up with this because bugs draw the birds that feed on them. The movement of the river draws flycatching phoebes and the Louisiana waterthrush, which have nested at Scherman for years.

I've heard the distinctive rattling of a belted kingfisher flying back and forth along the river looking for fish. The river provides birds and other creatures a place to bathe and feed. Families come to Scherman's part of the Passaic to sit on the shore and cool off during a hot summer day.

cinnamon fern fiddlehead

The river ecosystem encourages such plants as trout lily, Canada mayflower, cinnamon ferns (pictured) and skunk cabbage, one of the first plants to grow in spring. Rivers are a source of life.

The part of the Passaic at Scherman is clean water. But the part at the Newark end is not and its tortured industrial history reminds us rivers can be killed quickly.

Many of suburban New Jersey's rivers are threatened by too many suburban houses and homeowners who over-treat their lawns with chemicals that not only kill beneficial insects but run off in heavy rains into storm sewers and from there to rivers.

That's nothing compared to the lower Passaic. If the upper Passaic is Dr. Jekyll, the lower Passaic is Mr. Hyde.

It has been a major chemical dumping ground for decades, filled with toxins that have hurt people living downriver. Paterson, for instance, was once known as the Silk City because of its mills. That was a long time ago. More recently it has been a byword for crime, urban decay and, thanks to its many now-closed factories, the creator of the "toilet river" that was the Passaic.

As a 2009 New York Times article put it: "The Passaic begins in the clear trout streams of rural Morris County, provides drinking water to 3.5 million New Jersey residents, reaches a peak at the Great Falls of Paterson and then devolves at the end of 80 increasingly foul and dispiriting miles into a dark, malodorous industrial sink."

Six years later I wouldn't eat any fish caught in Paterson.

If you go to Scherman Hoffman to hike the trails you are what has become known as an ecotourist. It is a big business in some parts of the world. Towns in New Jersey have been catching up to the concept. The people running the cities and  towns along the Passaic, whose people got sick from the chemicals in their air and water, have been literally trying to clean up their act, promoting ecotourism opportunities such as fishing, kayaking, and in the case of Paterson visiting the Great Falls, which only recently became a federal park. Scherman sign

Environmental groups have used the river as a teaching aid. The Hackensack Riverkeeper, for instance, within the last few years has run an ecotour that takes people up the urban end of the Passaic. As with their trips up the Hackensack - another river trying to recover from nearly being killed by industrial pollutants dumped into the Meadowlands marshes - the idea is to show the importance of the river and and how fragile the river's health is still.

Things are slowly improving for the lower Passaic, despite the long time it takes to get a polluting company to pay for river cleanup and government inefficiency.

At the upper Passaic, along the Scherman Hoffman River trail, we don't have that problem -- at least not yet. It is easy to forget the clean, Dr. Jekyll, suburban one and the polluted, Mr. Hyde, urban one are the same river. But it is connected. The upper Passaic is healthy because its headwaters are not in an industrial area. But it wouldn't take much - say a farm sold to developers who build a massive condo development in a watershed, as many would like to do in the New Jersey Highlands - to do a lot of harm.

Rivers are fragile and their health shouldn't be taken for granted.