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Escapes: In the New Jersey Pine Barrens, slipping through the silence

By Jesse Smith,

Standing on the sandy bank of the Mullica River, my partner, Rob, and I agreed that he would take the front of the canoe and I would man the back. After we’d loaded our camping supplies, he took his seat and I pushed the boat onto the tea-colored water. Then I jumped in and gave the shore a firm shove with my paddle.

We were off, but only technically speaking. Our canoe hit the opposite bank just three seconds later.

“We’re just working out the kinks,” I said to Rob.

I was partly to blame. As rear paddler, I was responsible for steering the canoe. But I also blamed the Mullica. Like most rivers in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the Mullica is an extremely narrow body of water. Most people would probably call it a stream. Here, at the start of our trip just below Atsion Lake in Wharton State Forest, the Mullica is, well, just about three seconds wider than the length of a canoe.

We’d come to experience the Pine Barrens at their most secluded. This 1.1 million-acre region in southern New Jersey is valued for its distinctive environment, which is made up of white sandy soils, clean waters and rich plant and animal life, including such unusual specimens as the carnivorous pitcher plant, the venomous timber rattlesnake and the Pine Barrens tree frog.

But the Pine Barrens (also known as the Pinelands) are just as often celebrated for what they are not: namely, the surrounding sprawl of New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state. As the region’s advocates and promoters are quick to point out, the Pine Barrens represent the largest area of open space on the East Coast between Boston and Richmond. The Barrens were designated the country’s first national reserve in 1978; in 1988, UNESCO named them an International Biosphere Reserve.

Still, many encounters with the Pine Barrens involve cars and crowds. The Mullica River promised something more primitive. We would paddle 51 / 2 miles to the Mullica River Wilderness Campsite, which is accessible only by boat, on foot or on horseback. The next morning, we’d continue four miles down toward Batsto Village at the park’s southern end, where our outfitter would pick us up.

Our first encounter with the riverbank would not be our last. We quickly realized that successfully canoeing the Mullica would involve both an improvement in skill and an acceptance that, on a tight river with frequent, sudden bends, crashes happen.

For the first few miles, Rob paddled and I steered. Deciduous trees and shrubs lined the upper stretches of the river. Their branches reached out over the water and hung at precisely face level. Or at least it felt as though they did. But we didn’t mind: The sun shone through the trees, and bright neon-green grasses exploded from mud along the banks. We were outdoors in early spring and happy for any encounter with nature.

As we moved downstream, we paddled into large marsh areas where the river spilled over islands of grasses. Here, the water was smooth and reflective; the cloudless sky seemed to surround us. What few ripples there were glimmered in the sunlight. The occasional airplane hummed in the distance, but we heard no cars and saw no other people, except for a lone fisherman on the bank, who reeled in his line when he saw us coming.

“You guys camping tonight?” he asked. “Good night for it.”

We agreed: The afternoon was warm, but we knew that the night would be cool. We looked forward to a campfire and the comforting warmth of our sleeping bags.

As we rounded bends in the river, we heard splashes and saw rings expanding on the water’s surface. We started paddling more quietly and soon began spotting red-bellied turtles the size of dinner plates sunning themselves on branches in the water. We weren’t the only species soaking up the unseasonable warmth.

In narrower sections of the river, fallen trees and piles of leaves blocked our path. A good burst of speed was enough to get us over most logs. In other cases, Rob had to grab an overhead branch and pull us over; in still others, I’d count, “One, two, push,” and we’d both lurch forward, repeating this until we were free.

Most of the river was calm and slow-moving, allowing us to keep our eyes open for wildlife. We saw a beaver jump off the bank and dive underwater. We spied woodcocks nesting on the shore. We watched red-winged blackbirds dart from tree to tree and great blue herons slowly flap their wings overhead. At one bend, we came upon white-tailed deer feeding at the river’s edge. When they saw us, they dove into the water, swam across the river and darted into the forest.

After four hours of paddling, we landed at the campsite. We pulled our canoe onto the shore and started unloading our gear. On this spring weeknight, we had the place to ourselves.

We pitched our tent on soft sand right by the river. After laying out our sleeping bags, we walked over to the water pump for a drink. That’s when we saw the sign: “Stage 1 fire ban: No open ground fires.”

“This is going to be a cold night,” Rob said.

The dryness of the previous few months, coupled with the lack of a thick leaf cover, meant that the area was ripe for forest fires. We’d later learn that on this same night, 400 acres of the Pine Barrens had burned in two fires.

But we never ended up feeling as cold as we’d feared. We took our canoe cushions and sat against some trees, eating cold veggie dogs. As the sun and the temperature dropped, we added layers and talked while the sky turned dark and whippoorwills began calling in the distance. We looked up at stars that we could never see back home in the city.

The darkness didn’t last long. A full moon rose slowly, illuminating the campsite the way car headlights do at all too many campsites in state and even national parks.

“I can’t believe how bright it is,” Rob said. “I can see your face as clear as day.”

Eventually, we drifted off to sleep while chatting in our sleeping bags. In the middle of the night, I woke up for a drink of water and crawled out of the tent. The moon was so bright, I could see my shadow on the white sand. The whippoorwills had quieted down. No airplanes flew overhead. The next morning, we would paddle three more hours downstream to a bridge where we’d meet our outfitter. We’d return to the city, which wasn’t far away. But here, in the silence and the moonlight, it felt as if we were a world away.

Smith is a writer in Philadelphia.

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