The past year has been a difficult, life-changing one for everyone, with everyone being impacted in different ways. But for many, the past year has also provided the opportunity for discovery; self-discovery, discovery of new hobbies, of places to visit close to home…And some, like myself, discovered a new perspective on life. Many of the things the world discovered in 2020 were in their own backyards, small and unnoticed until there was time to slow down and look at them. For me and my family, these discoveries were literally in our backyard.
In the early days of the pandemic, people turned to the great outdoors for comfort, finding peace among the trees and in the breeze. One of those people was my father, who used the past year of lockdown to finally complete a project he’s been wanting to do for a long time — create a hiking path through the woods behind our house, connecting it to the Musconetcong River.
Growing up, I’ve always been in love with my home and yard. With 3 1/2 acres of space, one acre of which was our lawn, I always had a new spot to play in and explore. But a large part of that land went unexplored for the longest time. My dad had a short path that went through part of the 2 1/2 remaining acres, but could never reach the river at the end because of marshy wetlands in the middle.
So, the backyard woods remained a mystery.
Until last fall, when my dad took out his chainsaw and property survey and began the months-long journey to the river.
I remember watching from my bedroom window as he walked to the woods starting in late autumn, chainsaw in one hand and a bucket with his tape measure, stakes, and string in the other. Each day, he would cover a section of woods along the property line, placing stakes to mark the edge of our property so he would know what parameters he could work within. This involved a lot of measuring with the string and tape measure, surveying with a printed property map — aged enough to look like a pirate’s treasure map — and cutting down brush that blocked the way. It was a lot of hard work, and a treat as I watched and helped by occasionally holding string still.
There was a period of rest during late winter, when several snow storms coated the ground and sleeping trees in white. Luckily, we were able to follow the stakes along the property line all the way to the river, taking in the magical snow throughout the woods and along the water. I remember one afternoon where I watched gentle snow flurries float down into the river, landing softly and slowly drifting away downstream.
As soon as the snow and ice thawed, my dad was back at it, measuring, triangulating and placing down stakes in a perfectly straight line. By the time March rolled around, it was time for my dad to officially mark a path. It was while we were marking where the path would go that we discovered the middle section of the woods were less woods and more swamp. But, luckily, one edge of the property is higher and dryer, so my dad was able to carve the path from the middle of the woods to the section he had previously cleared while placing the stakes. Soon, we had a lovely trail flowing through the woods, connecting our home to the “Musky.”
And it wasn’t long before spring came, and greenery and wildlife began popping up. It was during this time that I began to see how diverse our backyard ecosystem is — it’s really three ecosystems in one! First, there’s the woodland; next, wetlands; and third, the river and riverbank. There’s a fourth ecosystem, if you include our meadow-like front yard.
And the plant life! I’ve seen so many cool plants, some that I’ve never seen or heard of before. The first to emerge was the skunk cabbage, which came up so fast and suddenly, you could no longer see the ground! We also had Jack-in-the-pulpit and mayapples, and — the most exciting — ramps! When I first saw the ramps smack on the side of the trail, I didn’t know what they were or that they’re a rare delicacy in the foraging world. When some friends identified them through my Instagram stories, I was ecstatic to learn what a treat I had hidden away in our yard! I made sure not to disturb them much, though — they need to be harvested sustainably, and it’s really best to mostly leave them be so they return year after year.
And then there’s the wildlife. I already knew we had deer, foxes, raccoons, bears, opossums… but I came across some new animals along the river, like herons and a muskrat that would sometimes swim so close to me! In the early spring, there were spring peepers and leopard frogs in the swampy section of the trail. I spent a couple days just watching them hop through the mud, listening to their springtime song.
The most peaceful part is being by the river itself. Our property sits right on a bend in the river which also forks, creating rapids that snake around an island. Directly across from the clearing where I often stand to meditate is a large sycamore tree, watching over the calmer portion of the river. As I breathe in the river scent, I often see families of geese and mergansers, trout leaping out of the water, and the neighborhood muskrat paddling about.
It’s here, in these moments, that I feel most at peace. I feel centered and connected to the earth as I sit by the river and hike through the woods. And it amazes me that this is our home, which we share with only the wildlife — and that my dad created this wonderous path that we get to experience.
The most recent adventure we had in the river was kayaking. My boyfriend and I started further upriver and slowly drifted to the backyard, where we landed and hiked back to the house. My dad engineered a way to hitch the kayaks to a trailer on the back of the lawnmower, carrying them with ease to and from the river. I’m excited to kayak even more this summer!
When I take in this path, the fresh air, the calm river and lush greenery, I feel an immense sense of pride for my dad. I watched him work tirelessly for months, daily, like a true woodsman. The trail’s beauty is a testament to his work ethic. I’m proud to be his daughter.
As life slowly returns to “normal” and the world begins to reopen, there are some habits and perspectives I intend to carry with me. One is my daily walk down this path, embracing the slow-living mindset and mindfulness that comes with being immersed in Mother Nature. Another is spending time with my loved ones, like I did when helping my dad with the path, kayaking with my boyfriend, and sitting with my mom while watching my dad’s work take shape. These are the moments that matter most, and should never be taken for granted.
So take a moment to get outside and explore whenever you can — you never know what you might find in your own backyard.