The Pine Barrens: Another Side of New Jersey
By Linda Arntzenius
Photography by Richard Speedy// Snapshots by the author
For outdoor adventure in New Jersey, few settings rival the Pine Barrens. Covering over 1 million acres, or 22 percent of the state, this is an ancient and unsullied land of breathtaking diversity. Less than two hours south of Princeton, visitors can boat, hike, cycle, canoe, fish, horseback ride, camp, explore old abandoned towns, or simply enjoy the otherworldly beauty of a quiet, pine-filled forest. Dozens of tucked-away rivers, creeks, and lakes of cedar-tinted water make the Pine Barrens a dream spot for canoe and kayak enthusiasts.
When I first moved to Princeton from California, all I knew of New Jersey was that it was “The Garden State.” While Princeton and environs lived up to this description, the rest of New Jersey, seen mostly from the window of an N.J. Transit train, did not. Until I discovered the Pinelands, an area of unspoiled nature unique in flora and history almost the size of Yosemite National Park.
From a rented cottage on Snowden Lane, I had found my way around town and explored the picturesque villages along the Delaware and Raritan Canal. It was time to venture further afield. Studying a map of New Jersey, I found a dot for Quaker Bridge smack dab in the middle of an area of green and yet close enough to Route 206 South that it would be easy to find. The name sounded promising, both historical and rural. Surely there’d be an inn or wayside tavern where we could lunch and perhaps even board for the night after a day of hiking and discovery.
No spoiler alert necessary. Suffice it to say that what my small family found at Quaker Bridge was just that, a bridge. No inn, no tavern, barely even a road. But the water that ran below the bridge had the color of good strong tea and it was crystal clear. I fell in love with the Pine Barrens that day and discovered why it holds such an attraction for birders, kayakers, canoeists, historians and just plain ramblers like me.
This is a place where nature and history intertwine. At Quaker Bridge, numerous sandy tracks lead off into the forest-miles of forest. Some lead to rivers, others to inexplicable clearings, perhaps spots where charcoal was once made.
It’s easy to get lost here. And easy to get spooked with tales of the Jersey Devil, the horned and winged monstrosity said to have originated as the 13th child born to a local family in the 18th century. “Mother Leeds” is supposed to have cursed her child’s arrival and it was born with a tale, hooves, a goat-like head, and leathery wings. The legend might go back even further, however, to tales of the Lenni Lenape, who called the area “place of the dragon.”
Place names in the Pine Barrens indicate a rich history of Quakers, Huguenots, Native and African Americans, English, Irish, German, and Scots: Hog Wallow, Jenkins, Mt. Misery (Miséricorde), Indian Mills, Speedwell, Chatsworth. It has long been a place of isolation and refuge and today it’s a rich resource of solace and solitude as well as a playing ground for families seeking outdoor adventure. And all within an easy drive from Princeton. One of the best ways to enjoy the Pine Barrens is a canoe trip on one of the many meandering tributaries to the Mullica River.
THE WADING RIVER
It’s a glorious late spring day. Fluffy clouds dot a bright blue sky. It’s not too hot and there are no pesky mosquitoes. The river is swollen from recent rains so our wide-bottomed canoe with three adults aboard will have plenty of draft and there will be enough action for the single light one-man kayak to make it fun.
It has been several years since I’d canoed in the Pines and even with fond memories of lazy paddles on several lakes and rivers, I’d forgotten just how magnificent this area of New Jersey is, with pristine nature to delight every sense.
Our party of four arrives early at our put-in place on the Wading River at the bridge on Route 563 just south of Mick’s Canoe & Kayak Rental and are on the water by 9AM. It’s still cool and as we paddle along and the temperature rises, the air takes on the scent of cedar.
There are no sounds but birdsong and water, alternately lapping the sides of the canoe or tinkling over the rocks. We drift along with the current or paddle to avoid the sand banks or any number of obstacles usually encountered on river trips-here and there a submerged log, the pilings of a long-gone bridge.
While there are plenty of opportunities for kayaking rivers that twist and turn, we have chosen a part of the Wading River guaranteed to provide lots of leisure, with places to stop for bathing, hiking, picnicking and plain daydreaming. There’s just enough current to keep it interesting and plenty of sandy banks on which to pull in. For serious hikers, the Batona Trail runs almost 50 miles through the Wharton State Forest, the largest single tract of land within the State Park System. Today, however, we are satisfied with picnicking, reading the good books we’ve brought along, practicing our photographic skills, and having some delicious food. If we had carried drinks and fruit juices in a jerry can holder along with us, our meal would probably have been more appetizing.
The play of sunlight on tea-colored water is designed to relieve stress. Its reddish brown color comes from tannic acids in the Atlantic white cedar and from naturally occurring bog iron that once formed the basis of a thriving industry here. Batsto Village was an industrial center for iron and glassmaking from 1766 to 1867.
On this trip, our guide is a friend who knows these rivers well, having grown up in Hammonton (the blueberry capital of the world according to the sign by the side of the road) and worked summers for one of the many outfits that offer rentals to visitors. Just returned from California, Paul is eager to renew his acquaintance with the little rivers of the Pinelands. “If you travel quietly, you’re bound to come face to face with a deer sipping from the stream; along the banks you might see snakes sunning themselves and you are sure to see turtles,” he tells us from the kayak. We do. But it is a turkey rather than a deer that startles us, standing motionless and staring at us as we go by.
Other wildlife to watch out for in the Pines are bald eagle, varieties of hawk, osprey, great blue heron, owls, bluebirds, hummingbirds, purple martins, goldfinch, beaver, river otter, and fox. But no bear.
The Pine Barrens exudes the aura of an ancient land, time seems to stop here. One feels that one might encounter some Lenni Lenape around the next bend. There is no rush, no bustle. Except in high season, one can spend an entire day on the river without encountering anyone at all. For peace and tranquility it would be hard to find a better spot. Every time I think of the place, I just want to click here and buy myself a nice solar powered generator, get some proper camping and survival equipment, and set up camp by the riverbank-fishing, canoeing, lazing by the river with not a worry in the world.
We picnicked on a sandy bank just a couple of miles before Bodine Field Camp and then carried on to our pull out at Beaver Branch. The sandy soil of the Pine Barrens covers a natural aquifer, an underground reservoir of pure sand-filtered water that supports New Jersey’s blueberry and cranberry industries and provides drinking water for hundreds of thousands. It’s said that if these estimated 17 trillion gallons were above ground, the entire state would be a giant lake about ten feet deep.
Although we had journeyed no more than two hours from Princeton, it was like visiting another world. On our way home, we stopped in at the historic Chatsworth General Store, or Buzby’s as it is known, now owned by Marilyn Schmidt, a noted author of books on seafood cookery.
Built in 1865, the store was owned from 1894 until 1939 by Willis Jefferson Buzby, called the King of the Pineys, who passed both store and title to his son, Willis Jonathan Buzby. It features in McPhee’s seminal 1967 study of the area’s unique ecology and history, The Pine Barrens. It was reading this book that prompted New Jersey State Governor Brendan Thomas Byrne to step in and thwart planned development that would have included a new city, a jetport, and an industrial park.
The Batsto is one of the least traveled and therefore quietest rivers of the Pines. It’s my personal favorite. If you put in at Quaker Bridge you can paddle all the way to Batsto Lake and historic village, about 4 hours downstream, with lots of swimming holes en route. You can also put in at Hampton Furnace farther north but then it’s an 8 to 10 hour trip. The closer you get to Batsto, the wider the river becomes, eventually turning into a shallow marsh and lake (formed by a dam before a small stream finally connects the Batsto to the Mullica), and it can run challengingly low in summer, when it can also be busy with scouts and other groups served by a rental outfit in Atsion (pronounced at-sign, by the way).
Atsion Lake borders Route 206 in Shamong and offers camping as well as water activities. Its accessibility can make it very busy at times. At half a mile wide and a mile and a half long, it takes a little over two hours to paddle the perimeter.
The Oswego is our guide Paul’s favorite, a beautiful scenic river and ideal for canoeists since you can both start and end at a lake. The trip from Oswego Lake in Chatsworth just off Route 563 South to Harrisville Lake off Harrisville/Chatsworth Road takes about four hours with lots of spots for picnicking and swimming.
Wherever you go in the Pinelands, you will find water so clear and clean that just floating along is tantamount to a thirst-quenching drink on a hot day. As McPhee said, “The picture of New Jersey that most people hold in their minds is so different from this one that, considered beside it, the Pine Barrens, as they are called, become as incongruous as they are beautiful.”
CANOE AND KAYAK OUTFITTERS
Two vehicles were needed for this trip; one to drop us off and one at the end of the trip to pick us up and return us to the starting point. We had our own canoe and kayak, but for visitors there are numerous outfitters from which you can rent. When water levels are low, you may have to portage over sandbars; obstacles such as fallen trees add a sense of adventure. Canoe-rental firms are a good source for local conditions before you go. Always wear life vests for every member of your group, and don’t forget one for the dog too.
For the Mullica and Batsto Rivers: Adams Canoe Rental, 1005 Atsion Road, Vincentown, N.J. 08088; 609.268.0189; Bel Haven Canoes, Kayaks & Tubes, 1227 Route 542, Green Bank, N.J. 08215; also serves the Wading and Oswego Rivers; 609.965.2205
For the Maurice River: Al and Sam’s Canoe and Boat Rentals, 2626 West Weymouth Road, Newfield, N.J. 08344; 856.692.8440 For Cedar Creek, Double Trouble State Park Cedar Creek Campground Canoe and Kayak Rentals, 1052 US Highway 9, Bayville, N.J. 08721; 732.269.1413
For the Oswego and Wading Rivers, and Oswego and Harrisville Lakes: Mick’s Pine Barrens Canoe & Kayak Rental, 3107 Route 563 (Jenkins), Chatsworth, N.J. 08019; 609.726.1380
For the Mullica, Batsto, Wading, Oswego Rivers: Mullica River Boat Basin, 1118 Route 542, Egg Harbor, N.J. 08215; 609.965.2120 For the Wading River Wading Pines Camping Resort, 85 Godfrey Bridge Road, Chatsworth, N.J. 08019; 888.726.1313
For more information, visit: www.pinelandsalliance.org/exploration/todo/canoeing/
For more on photographer Richard Speedy, visit: www.richardspeedyphotographer.com.
The Pine Barrens by John McPhee (Farrer, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1967)
Pine Barrens Legends & Lore by William McMahon (Middle Atlantic Press, Moorestown, N.J., 1980)
Canoeing the Jersey Pine Barrens by Robert Parnes The Globe Pequot Press, Old Saybrook, Conn., 1978)
Exploring the Little Rivers of New Jersey by James and Margaret Cawley (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J., 1993)
Voices in the Pines: True Stories from the New Jersey Pine Barrens by Karen F. Riley (Plexus Publishing Inc., Medford, N.J.)