The Pine Barrens

River of the month #89

author: Pat Reilly
date: May 2006

Okay, the New Jersey ‘ Pine Barrens’ is not a river. But it is a great place to visit by boat. Most eastern US paddlers have heard of the Pine Barrens. It is highly regarded by boaters. I can’t think of a better tribute to the area’s worth than when Ed Gertler, in Garden State Canoeing, refers to the barrens as a paddler destination that is, in terms of uniqueness, every bit the equal of West Virginia’s Gauley River or Arizona’s Colorado! Yes, the place is that special!

Actually the Pine Barrens consists of many rivers, 10 to 20 depending on how you define the area, all flowing from its heart in marshy and sandy south Jersey. This area, though built up on its firmer western side and along the Atlantic coast, has been generally left free from development. The soil is too sandy for normal agriculture and too wet to build on. The only industries to gain a foothold have been cranberry and blueberry farming and timbering. Fringe industries such as charcoal production, the collection of holly berries, pine cones and turtles, and the mining of something called ‘bog iron’ go largely unnoticed or have disappeared altogether. This leaves a vast swath of our most densely populated state largely untouched. Rather amazing!

To properly appreciate this wilderness in our midst you will want to get into the middle of the swamp, far enough from any road, railroad, farm or dwelling so as not to hear any unnatural noise (not even a barking dog) save for the unavoidable occasional airplane. To really immerse oneself in the Pine Barrens, an overnight trip is in order. However, since rivers originate in the middle of the barrens and drain from them, gaining access to their headwaters can be tough. They also tend to be small and most trips are too short to consider for camping. Plus, finding a good (or even legal) spot to camp in the swamp can be problematic. Enter the Wharton State Forest, the crown jewel of the Pine Barrens. This huge 110,000-acre expanse of public land preserves the best chunk of Pine Barrens. Draining the heart of the state forest are the Pine Barrens’ two most celebrated rivers—the Mullica and the Batsto. And both these rivers have designated wilderness camp spots. Problem solved! Each of these rivers features about a 10-mile trip with the camp spot in the middle.

Now normally I’d scoff at only 5 miles a day for a river trip, but 5 miles on a Pine Barrens river can be a good day. These rivers are truly unique. They twist and turn through the swamps and pine/oak forests with literally one 180- degree bend after the other. There are just no straight stretches! You’ll often think that the river is going nowhere, that you’ll never get through. But when you get to that ‘dead-end’ spot, sure enough, there’ll be a tight turn into another passage through the brush. The key branch or log will be sawed off with just enough clearance to fit your boat through and proceed. While each river is unique, all these Pine Barrens rivers are similar in characteristics— swampy, woody and remote, and very twisty and congested. This is one paddling destination where I’ve had to forget about going fast.

The Pine Barren rivers are very popular, and being so close to huge urban populations, you can expect them to be well-used. This is a mixed blessing. The popular Pine Barrens runs are ‘cut out’, meaning paddling clubs keep the strainers sawed up and cleared. If this were not so, a trip down one of these rivers would be a tremendous undertaking, a real expedition. As it is, you probably won’t have to walk a single strainer unless you boat in the winter or early spring before the year’s new obstacles are cleared. An occasional beaver dam may need carried though.

The rivers’ popularity can be a problem when searching for that ultimate Pine Barrens immersion experience. My camping trip down the Batsto was in October—Columbus Day weekend— and I was surprised to find so many folks camped at the designated site (Lower Forge). It was peaceful—they were all good campers, but it wasn’t the same as this past winter when three of us camped on the Mullica over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. We had the big swamp all to ourselves. Yeah, we had to put up with the temp dropping to 14 degrees, enough to freeze our Nalgene water bottles solid by morning. But we were able to ‘hear’ the silence.

I understand the Wading River draining the eastern edge of Wharton State Forest is a fine river with scenery similar to the Batsto and Mullica. But with its multiple access points, it reportedly suffers from overuse in summer when the rental crowd takes to the river. And its designated camp sites are all car accessible, not the wilderness experience that will do the Pine Barrens justice. (Keep in mind that it is illegal to camp anywhere other than designated sites in the Wharton State Forest.)

Winter in the middle of the Pine Barrens offers solitude that is hard to top here in the Middle Atlantic States. But of course, the barrens are great all year around. On a summer trip, you’ll experience a richness of life that is hard to duplicate on other rivers. Birds, turtles, frogs and an abundance of unusual plant life, including the carnivorous pitcher plant, greet the summer visitor. Fall colors are wonderful in the barrens, not the splashy bright colors of mountain lands but soft pastels in a dazzling variety of shades as the streamside shrubs mix with oaks and plentiful red maples. The different waterscapes and terrain types also help make the Pine Barrens the special paddler place that it is. You’ll paddle through open lakes formed by beaver dams with craggy dead wood protruding from tea-colored water. Then there are the little hidden ponds off to the sides of the rivers, surrounded by thick brush that turtles and birds seem to favor. These open water areas are mixed with silent, mysterious passageways through deep green pine forests. Sometimes you’ll see steep 10- foot high sand banks topped with mixed oak and pine. My favorite is probably the cedar-lined banks that appear on the lower reaches of the rivers where they are a bit wider. I’ve always been a big fan of cedar trees, and in the Pine Barrens they grow right from the water’s edge, tilt out over the river and gently bend upward reaching for the light, their branches dangling in graceful curves.

How can these rivers be paddled all year, if they are so small? Well, the sands of the barrens hold a huge amount of underground water much like a big sponge. This sandy aquifer is not unlike Pennsylvania’s limestone aquifers. It provides a reserve of water that the rivers will draw from all year. And it prevents them from freezing. On my first visit to the Pine Barrens, I set out to do a day trip down the Mullica. But there was no water at the Atsion put in. From what I understand, this was a rare situation that was caused by the drought that year (1995) or by a temporary upstream diversion to flood a cranberry bog or by both. Disappointed, I nevertheless had a good trip by returning to the normal takeout at Route 542 near Batsto Village. The Mullica and Batsto nearly merge about 2 miles above Batsto Village and parallel each other for their final 4 miles before they actually do merge in tidal water below Route 542. I paddled down the Mullica that day into tide water and back up the Batsto to the village. This made a nice loop that I supplemented by paddling in the beautiful little lake formed by an old mill dam on the Batsto at the village. Being a sunny fall day, I couldn’t help but enjoy my introduction to the Pine Barrens, but I was hungry to return the next year and camp out to experience the whole package.

Batsto Village, the takeout for both 10-mile wilderness camp trips (and where you get your $1 permit to camp) is a neat place to visit in its own right. It is a restored old iron mill town complete with craftsmen in period dress re-enacting the way it used to be. It also has interpretive trails, an informative nature center and a beach on the lake. A great family spot!

Want to know more? Get a copy of John McPhee’s book—The Pine Barrens. It’s humorous as well as very informative, as it describes the history and geography, the colorful local people, and the facts and myths (like the infamous Jersey Devil) of this unusual place. McPhee is a well known outdoor writer and I guarantee if you are a paddler and check out a copy of his book, it won’t be long before you’ll be loading the boat and heading to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2006 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.