Plans to spend my 33rd birthday on the water were thwarted by work this year, but I still managed to get out paddling with some good friends the days leading up to it. The original idea was to paddle and camp at Assateague Island this time, but finding a third sea kayak for the group was proving to be a challenge. Loren had suggested a trip in the pines earlier this fall, and I had been intrigued by the giant green spot on google maps in southern Jersey since I had moved north, so we decided to make the flat water rivers of the pine barrens our adventure.
The Pine Barrens are located in Wharton State forest, in New Jersey. All of us involved in this adventure were within a 2 hour drive or less, so it was pretty convenient. I arrived Thursday evening, just in time to catch the sunset at the Goshen Pond campground - a car camping spot near the beginning of our adventure. I struggled to find dry wood to get a fire burning, since it had rained the last 4 or 5 days here. The rain had been great for the water levels, but bad for the camp fire situation. I managed to get a fire burning, and devoted most of my time to keeping it going until Frank arrived later that evening with some dry wood from the grocery store. Despite a forecast of rain and high winds, we had a very calm first night in the Pine Barrens.
Loren met us at the campsite around 10 that morning, so we had plenty of time to eat, get the gear packed up and meet the other resident of the campsite, Smitty. He had spent a lot of time in this area, and shared his best Jersey Devil stories, click this link if you want to know more about this mythical creature. We got all the boats and gear in/on Loren's CRV, since we were unsure if the VW could handle the sugar sand road to the put in. After a bit of a detour to get our camping permits at the visitor center, we got to our put in around noon.
I planned a pretty adventurous route on this trip, we would be starting on the Batsto River going downstream, portaging 1/2 mile to the Mullica river, and paddling upstream the rest of the way. I called the local outfitter, and spoke with one of the owners about river levels, and my level of sanity for doing this route. He confirmed it would be doable, but certainly not easy. Check out the map here. At the put in for the Batsto, the river was only about 15 feet wide, and less than a foot deep. If we hadn't had rain the previous days, we probably wouldn't be going anywhere on this river. The only USGS gauge in this area is on the Mullica, it was at .9 ft when we put on after the rains, previously it had been holding steadily at .6 ft. We finally got on the river around 1 pm.
The tight turns, downed trees and overgrown banks made for slow going on our first day.
We made it to camp just before sundown, it was a long 4 miles of paddling over, under and around downed trees.
We were on the water at 930 on Saturday, with 6.5 miles to paddle downstream on the Batsto, a "short" portage to the Mullica River, and 2.5 miles to go upstream to the Mullica campsite.
After our 1/2 mile (more with the initial back and forth) we were at the banks of the Mullica river, to begin our upstream journey. The portaging was by far the easiest part of the Mullica river.... We had 2.5 miles to go to our next campsite, and as we began paddling against the current, around the twists and turns, under and over trees, I realized I had greatly underestimated the difficulty of paddling upstream on this river. It was brutal, I took zero pictures because we were too busy fighting our way around each turn and paddling upstream like spawning salmon. After about 1.5 miles, I switched boats with Frank, so he could experience the joys of having a rudder for steering, and no keel line. Big Blue was a nightmare to paddle upstream in this river, and I quickly understood Frank's frustration. Around each bend, the keel line (which is great for keeping the boat straight, but horrible for tight turns) would catch the current and swiftly push the bow to the opposite bank, essentially making for a very frustrating game of pinball, and an incredibly worn out back. Add in downed trees and beaver damns, and you can picture the nightmare for yourself. We eventually made it to our campsite, with little light to spare. We were drained, but set about the duties of finding firewood and setting up our shelters. As darkness creeped in, we sat around the fire and boiled water for our MRE's.
It got cold on saturday night, we discovered ice on our boats around 830, so we stoked the fire, put on all the extra gear we could, and drank the small amount of booze we had saved from the previous 2 nights. We all turned in around 1030, and for the most part we kept warm and slept well. Frank's fancy watch informed us the outside temp was 27 when we went to sleep, so I am sure it dropped a few more degrees as the night wore on. When we got up the next morning there was frost on everything, it was a partial winter wonderland.
We had 6.5 more miles to paddle upstream, and after much discussion of paddling only a few miles, finding a roadside take out and hiking to the cars, we decided we were feeling up for the challenge. We were on the water by 930, and began the journey upstream.
After about 2.5 miles of upstream, at least twenty-five 90 degree bends, and 2 small beaver dams, we stopped to eat our lunch. I decided to get back in Big Blue for the rest of the trip, and give Frank a break - worst decision ever. If you do this trip upstream, do not paddle a boat with a keel line, unless you want your back to explode into a knotted up mess from manhandling it around each bend.
With 3 miles to go, we encountered another series of beaver dams. The first one we were all able to paddle furiously at and make it over, the second was a drag over for me and Frank, and Loren found an alternate water route around it. Above the dams, there was a pond like marsh, which gave us some slow moving, less winding water to paddle. The river remained like this for about a mile, then it was back to the winding narrows and strainers. With two miles to go, spirits were high and we powered on. We reached a makeshift landing called "washout 1" by the local outfitter. It was here we thought we may get out and hike to the car, but I decided we had come this far, we were going to finish it. A bad call on my part. The last mile of this river had more turns, more obstacles and was way smaller than the last 17 miles we had paddled, in short it was a pain in the ass. The river here is so small, I think it should be called a creek instead. With plenty of cursing, mostly from me and my lack of control over Big Blue and the current, we struggled on and finally made it to the landing, mile 0 - where most sane folks would put in.
Once off the water, Loren and I took a short hike to my vehicle and drove that to retrieve his at our put in. Frank stayed behind to watch the gear and start organizing it for the load out. We had everything loaded before sundown, and headed to the nearest diner to chow down on greasy hamburgers, fried foods and milkshakes with the early bird blue hairs (it was 5 oclock). After our gluttonously satisfying meal, we said our good byes and climbed in our cars to return to our respective rat races in the cities we call home. This trip was an adventure, which is, after all, what we were after, but I am pretty sure I won't be paddling the Mullica upstream very far again.