Grass Menagerie

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

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Grass Menagerie

With development nibbling at its edges, a 4,000-acre salt marsh stretches along the south New Jersey coast near Great Bay. Kayak-borne eco-tours provide a leisurely way for even novice paddlers to explore its secrets.

David Harp

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

"Sometimes when you're in this environment," says ecotour guide Angela Andersen, "you forget that this is the most densely populated state."

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

In the marsh, part of the 4,000-acre state-owned Great Bay Wildlife Management Area, an egret flies overhead, brilliant white against the dull clouds. Barn swallows zigzag tirelessly, tracking their abundant insect prey. ("Bugs are part of the marsh," Angela warns explorers.) Unseen birds chirp. Rud, a Chesapeake Bay retriever who spends his days at First Bridge Marina & Kayak, splashes ecstatically in the shallows, pausing occasionally to analyze the rich, earthy smell of the muck.

"This is just the way you want a salt marsh to look," says Angela, who's also the South Jersey director of the American Littoral Society. ("Littoral" refers to the boundary between land and sea.)

Then she subverts the pastoral illusion. Her kayakers learn that the marsh's placid appearance conceals a bustling and sometimes brutal metropolis of insects, fish, crabs, birds, and other creatures.

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

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

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

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

Come autumn, pickleweed turns a vibrant red, which shows up vividly as the grass turns brown. In the warm light of the rising or setting sun, the entire marsh becomes a stunning golden tapestry with thousands of migratory waterfowl decorating the blue ribbons of water.

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

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

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

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