David Harp

This soothing stretch of the New Jersey coast rewards closer inspection.

Serenity. It cradles the vast New Jersey coastal marsh like amother's caress.

"Sometimes when you're in this environment," says ecotour guideAngela Andersen, "you forget that this is the most denselypopulated state."

Angela's small flock of kayakers paddles lazily along narrowwaterways that meander through the spartina grass. The lumpy graysky accentuates the vivid green of the landscape. To the north liesthe old port town of Tuckerton, now mostly a quiet collection ofhouses and memories. On the southern horizon, you can just make outthe glitter of Atlantic City's high-rise casinos.

In the marsh, part of the 4,000-acre state-owned Great BayWildlife Management Area, an egret flies overhead, brilliant whiteagainst the dull clouds. Barn swallows zigzag tirelessly, trackingtheir abundant insect prey. ("Bugs are part of the marsh," Angelawarns explorers.) Unseen birds chirp. Rud, a Chesapeake Bayretriever who spends his days at First Bridge Marina & Kayak,splashes ecstatically in the shallows, pausing occasionally toanalyze the rich, earthy smell of the muck.

"This is just the way you want a salt marsh to look," saysAngela, who's also the South Jersey director of the AmericanLittoral Society. ("Littoral" refers to the boundary between landand sea.)

Then she subverts the pastoral illusion. Her kayakers learn thatthe marsh's placid appearance conceals a bustling and sometimesbrutal metropolis of insects, fish, crabs, birds, and othercreatures.

When the paddlers pause for a few moments, half-dollar-sizefiddler crabs cautiously emerge from their holes, first in ones andtwos and then in hordes. The crab gets its name because one of themale's two front claws is much larger than the other, giving it theappearance of toting a fiddle.

Nearby swims its much larger cousin, the tasty blue crab.Coffee-bean snails scour the grass stems, staying just above therising or falling tide. Ribbed mussels suck in great quantities ofwater, filtering out bits of food and in the process cleansing theecosystem. Billions of baby fish, some almost invisibly small,wriggle in the shallows.

Bigger fish, plus a variety of birds and animals, see the marshas a serve-yourself banquet. Scooped-out shells of mussels and bluecrabs testify to successful hunts.

Angela plucks a handful of pickleweed and encourages nibbling.This relative of beets and spinach appears in some vegetarianrestaurants. It's really not bad-mildly flavored, crunchy, andsalty.

Come autumn, pickleweed turns a vibrant red, which shows upvividly as the grass turns brown. In the warm light of the risingor setting sun, the entire marsh becomes a stunning golden tapestrywith thousands of migratory waterfowl decorating the blue ribbonsof water.

Marshes have not fared well at the hands of humans. We havedrained them, plowed them, covered them with dirt, harvested theirgrasses, poisoned them with pollutants, disturbed their water flowswith dikes and ditches.

Rud the dog has a better idea. Just enjoy them.

For ecotours (including sunset, night, and overnight tours) andkayak or boat rentals, contact First Bridge Marina & Kayaks,Tuckerton, New Jersey, 800/ 505-2925 or fbkayak.com. Bring some insectrepellent.

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