Mysterious memorial in the Pine Barrens: A shrine among the snakes

Devon Rutherford and Greg Preston watch as James Rutherford Sr. puts up a new photo of James "Jimmy" Rutherford Jr. at his son's favorite spot in the Wharton State Forest. The budding biologist felt at home there.

People who love Jimmy Rutherford visit him sometimes, deep in the woods, where the snakes are.

Mudholes along the way would swallow most cars, and when the route becomes too narrow for trucks, it’s single-file by foot down a sandy, half-mile path choked with briars. The trail opens to a dead end, forest swamped by beavers and probably teeming with water snakes and whirligig beetles and snapping turtles that could cleave a toe clean off with one bite.

Mud or mountains, fangs and slime: It was all paradise for Jimmy Rutherford. “I have now discovered true admiration for the beauty of nature and all it has to offer,” he wrote in one of his many dog-eared field journals.

On April 22 — Earth Day — Jimmy’s dad, James Sr.; his sister, Devon; and one of his closest friends, Greg Preston, all made the trek, water the color of chocolate milk crashing over their hoods as they maneuvered the flooded road off Route 206 in the New Jersey Pinelands.

They stood and surveyed the memorial, pictures fastened to the sugar maples, bottles of Yuengling that had long since lost their labels, and the large wooden turtle Jimmy's dad, now 65, carved with a chainsaw.

A light rain made the forest feel more silent.

There was Jimmy in the Adirondacks overlooking a valley, in one picture. In another, Jimmy in the mud with a net and a beer in his hands. Also, Jimmy cradling a timber rattlesnake, as thick as his arm, with a snake hook. He rarely wore a shirt, always a smile.

“We usually like to come back and have a beer with him,” Jimmy’s dad said.

Once the Coronas and Dos Equises were passed around, James Rutherford Sr., of Medford,  took out a power drill and replaced some of the pictures, the ones that had faded over the years. It’s been nine years since Jimmy died, since his friends and family started coming back to the hidden, faraway places in the pines to commune with him.

Early on the morning of Feb. 1, 2008, Jimmy Rutherford was driving back to his home in a wildlife refuge from a party for one of his professors at East Stroudsburg University. Police said his vehicle drifted off Route 191 in Stroud Township, Monroe County, Pa., hit a rock, and flipped over. Rutherford was not wearing a seat belt. He was pronounced dead at Poconos Medical Center in East Stroudsburg.

Police told the family Jimmy likely fell asleep.

Soon after, the family gathered for a camping trip at Goshen Pond in Wharton State Forest in the Pinelands.

Jimmy Rutherford was 27 when he died, working and living at the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Cherry Valley, and being a graduate student in biology at ESU.  The family established a scholarship in his name there, for students studying graduate-level biology.

When he died, Jimmy was documenting timber rattlesnake populations in Northeastern Pennsylvania, something he’d been doing since the day his dad said he couldn’t have a pet snake at their home in Medford.

“We said,  ‘No, if you want a pet snake, you go out and catch one,’ and then he caught them all and filled the whole house up with snakes,” Jimmy’s dad said, laughing.

Rattlesnakes were his favorite, but Jimmy studied pine snakes, too.

“He loved any snake,” his dad said.

Jimmy was bitten by a poisonous copperhead once when he went on a solo summer trip down South at 19. It left him feeling nauseous.

Devon Rutherford, 34, carried a picture of her brother at 10, holding two bullfrogs. He had sandy-colored hair.

“I hope when I grow up I am very athletic, but I really want to be a biologist,” Jimmy wrote then in a journal.

Devon said her brother was infamous for just disappearing, driving into the Pinelands for days at a time, often in the middle of the night. He never got lost but often got stuck.

Preston said it was risky to go camping with Jimmy, who was a best man at his wedding.

“You never knew when you’d get back," said Preston, 36. "He’d say, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and you wouldn’t see him for eight hours."

Hikers and hunters sometimes stumble upon Jimmy’s memorial and it has drawn interest as a “mystery” on a Pine Barrens web forum and Reddit. Many note the care that's been given to the memorial, how loved the young man must have been.

Jimmy's family says there’s a small memorial by the Pennsylvania road where he crashed,  but they don’t visit it as much.

That’s where Jimmy died, not where he lived, out in the woods with the snakes.