There is a surprising amount of undeveloped land in the northwestern blob of Passaic County, far northern Morris County, and eastern Sussex County. This is the Highlands, old worn-down mountains still too rugged to be much good for agriculture, but with a history of iron mining. Stony hills, fetid swamps, boulder-strewn valleys and some beautiful second growth forest await the traveller. Some of the land is state owned, but more than 50 square miles of it belongs to the city of Newark. The Pequannock Watershed is home to a system of reservoirs, built up from the swamps, that provide drinking water and recreation.
As a public entity, the Newark Watershed presents a confusing face to the world. Threatening signs that say “Property Patrolled” and warn against being there without a permit, blanket the watershed’s boundaries and road frontages. The landing page of www.newarkwatershed.com consists of a notice about a meeting pertaining to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC), from two years ago. A few search results down and you find local news stories about the lengthy federal prison sentences of a number of people formerly in leadership positions in this organization.
Every hiking guidebook or map will tell you that to hike in the Pequannock Watershed, or fish or hunt or boat there, requires a permit, which must be purchased in person at the office, on a back road in the middle of the watershed.
Intrigued by the twin mysteries of nature and municipal corruption, I was curious what this office might be like. It was disappointing, but in a worthwhile way.
Signs are for “Camp Watershed,” and the woodsy brown office building is the “camp office,” but inside was all business. A collection of photos of dead bears and deer was on the wall. Two middle aged, white men sat at bureaucratic looking desks, seeming distinctly more like cops than park rangers. “What do you need?” said the one without the mustache, in response to my greeting. They took our drivers licenses and entered a lot of personal information about us into their computers. We were issued a “City of Newark” decal to display conspicuously on the car, and permits printed on white paper that we were to “keep on your person at all times.” Looking over our permits, about half of the information was incorrect, but it seemed imprudent to say anything. Swiping my card for the $14 fee - permit valid until December 31 - I noticed an unanticipated $3.25 “convenience fee.” At the time it seemed wise not to complain about that either. When I asked a question about the map, the officer maintained his silence.
The one with the mustache warmed up to us over the course of the transaction, and said something about “beautiful country, and lots of it.” He seemed politely interested when I pointed to Abram S. Hewitt State Forest (home of Beaufort Mountain) on the map and said I’d been hiking there. But the other officer wasn’t through with us.
“You’re not going today, are you?”
“Your’e not going hiking in those shoes.”
We had to explain that our boots were in fact still in the car.
With that, they handed us poorly printed maps and a glossy magazine-like pamphlet and sent us on our way. The pamphlet is an interesting document. It features a welcome letter from Newark mayor Ras Baraka, info about the day camp Camp Watershed open to Newark residents, recreational rules and regulations, bear advice for hikers and campers even though camping is prohibited, and info on Newark city social services, accompanied by photos of smiling seniors.
Behind the office, by a boat launch on the lovely Echo Lake, was a clearing. An enormous weathered-looking party tent was set up on un-level ground, starting to sag a little. Next to it was a row of port-a-johns. Nearby was an actual log cabin, with the roof caved in.
Our hike was nice, in the surprisingly wild area around Green Pond Mountain, but the trail was ridiculously poorly maintained. At some points we were just walking through thick undergrowth, looking for blazes on trees, with ticks swarming up our legs. A joke we made at the time is actually not a joke at all: where is the money going?