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The Old Oak Survives Super Storm Sandy

A 100+ year-old tree known as the "Old Oak" located in Lenape Woods Nature Preserve, Atlantic Highlands, NJ survived the harsh 80 mph winds of Hurricane Sandy.

It has been a long two weeks since super-storm Sandy, also known as a late-season post-tropical cyclone, clobbered  the Jersey Shore, Lower New York Bay, and much of Long Island.

Sandy made the record books as the largest hurricane to have formed in the North Atlantic, according to the National Hurricane Center.  The diameter of the hurricane was an impressive 1,0000 miles with gale force winds stretching from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake Bay. Sandy was also the strongest hurricane north of Cape Hatteras to ever make landfall with a record low barometric pressure of 946 millibars,. The center of the enormous storm made landfall on Monday evening , October 29, near Atlantic City.

Sandy was a big, bad girl. She pounded the New York-New Jersey metro region all day with wind gusts over 80 mph, a storm surge over 13 feet, and wave heights over 20 feet. The storm left more than a hundred people confirmed dead, thousands homeless, millions of people without power, and countless coastal communities ruined. The super-storm even overflowed much of New York City's waterfront and made mincemeat out of the city's subway system, power stations, and rail lines. Early damage estimates put Sandy's cost around $50 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

No matter how I try, I can't forget Sandy. I can never put out of my mind how the house shook with every gust of wind as I watched tall trees bend back and forth in every direction like they were being slapped around by the storm. Many big branches and old trees near my house toppled over in the blustery weather as if they couldn't keep their balance.

A few days ago I decided to head inland a bit to clear my mind and start the healing process. I went to visit Lenape Woods Nature Preserve, approximately 100 acres of woodlands and freshwater wetlands located in the Borough of Atlantic Highlands and Middletown Township in New Jersey. Just a short distance from my house and not far from Sandy Hook Bay.

Lenape Woods Nature Preserve is a small pocket of nature-rich land surrounded by human development. It's home to many tall trees, attractive plant life, and many species of backyard wildlife including chipmunks, raccoons, white-tailed deer, box turtles, screech owls, woodpeckers, and sparrows. Though with Highway 36 nearby, the preserve doesn't  offer much in the way of peace and quiet to meditate with cars and trucks whizzing by, but it's still a good place to appreciate the complexity of nature and the persistence with which Mother Nature is holding her own side by side with many private homes, public roads, and people on the go.

Unfortunately, as I started walking on the Old Oak Trail, the main circular path within Lenape Woods, I was startled to find so many trees down and dead, especially white and red oaks, and a small number of evergreens. It appeared as if someone was trying to clear-cut the preserve. Instead, it was done by a super-storm Sandy.

Strong storm winds twisted and bended the trees so much that it caused them to topple over or fall due to the failure of supporting soils. Seventy foot tall trees gone, toppled over without difficulty by powerful hurricane force winds.

All through Lenape Woods there were numerous large branches and blown-over ancient trees sprawled across trails, some trees dating back 100 years. Although it was difficult to tally, my guess was that over 50 trees went down from the storm within my sight. Certainly the storm took down many more in other parts of the preserve. 

In the distance, though, I could see that thankfully one particular tree had survived the storm. It was the oldest tree in Lenape Woods.

Ascending to the top of a ridge on the Old Oak Trail, there it was. An elderly white oak, which the trail is named after. The grand old tree was still alive and well. The "old oak" survived the mighty 80 mph winds of Sandy.

Among the oak forest in Lenape Woods, this individual tree stands out. The tree is well over 100 feet tall. It has a great crown on top with branches extending fifty feet long or more, covering countless generations of people and animals that have walked below.

It's leaves are simple, the twigs are stout, and the branches are long and straight. The tree's bark is especially distinguishing. It's a very light ashy grey, scaly and rough too. It can be up to two inches thick to protect the tree's vascular system from the cold.

It's no wonder that the trail is named after this old white oak. It's a grand, tall tree still growing and bringing delight to many people and animals within Lenape Woods Nature Preserve. In fact, a family of Gray Squirrels calls the tree home now. I saw some dash out from a hole near the bottom of the tree as I approached. 

With a tape measure in hand, I estimated the age of the oak tree to be around 134 years old. I simply just measured in centimeters the circumference of the trunk 1.5 meters high off the ground and then divide by 2.5. Crude, but useful.

Although not as old as some other trees found in the NY-NJ metro area, this white oak has lived through many tough times and powerful storms. Rutherford B. Hayes was US President when this tree was just a seedling in 1878. That year was also when a hurricane know as the "Great Gale of 1878" pounded the Jersey Shore with winds of up to 84 mph. The storm downed many trees and telegraph lines across the state, and loads of railroad lines were  washed away from higher than normal  tides.  The hurricane caused 8 deaths and significant damage in New Jersey.

It didn't get any easier after that for the little white oak. The tree grew through the great hurricane of 1903, which made landfall in Atlantic City as an 80 mph hurricane, and the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane that paralleled the Jersey Shore as a Category 2 hurricane bringing a storm surge of up to 10 feet, high waves up to 40 feet, and strong winds gusting up 125 mph. The tree also survived the 1991 Halloween Nor'easter also known as the Perfect Storm, and other intense storms over the years. The white oak has  endured past numerous forest fires (thus the gash on the side of the tree) and people during the 19th and early 20th century logging local forests for firewood and furniture. 

White oaks are considered mature when their 200 years old. So this tree is not even fully grown. Yet, during its life so far the tree has gone through some pretty intense events.

The tree is resilient for sure. Possibly its staying power has been forged by tragedy or tough times.

Perhaps we can all learn something from the old white oak in whatever has brought about this tree to be so enduring here in Lenape Woods. For the durable, survivalist aspect of nature. The awesome power of Mother Nature is not for the tree to control, it must try to adjust to never ending changeable conditions in order to stay alive. On the other hand, maybe the tree was just growing up in a real fortunate spot, oblivious to its surroundings.

As I was leaving the preserve, a male white-tailed deer with antlers passed my way along the trail, stopped to look at me, then continued onward. And what, I wondered was that all about.  

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ann Loftus November 12, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Great pictures! Love the angle.
Joe Carelli November 13, 2012 at 01:20 PM
Joe, about that monkfish skull in your blog. You're probably right, a cast off from a fisherman. However, when I was little, they used to come into the shallows of Barnegat Bay. We used to spear them. (I know, I know, sorry). Their stomachs often contained flounder and sometime ducks. It was generally the fall and winter. I don't remember seeing them in the warmer seasons. We called them Headfish because they were all head.

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