We traveled an old Stage road stopping at the site of the old Sooy's Tavern built in 1773 where recruiting took place for the American Revolution army.
We traveled an old Stage road stopping at the site of the old Sooy's Tavern built in 1773 where recruiting took place for the American Revolution army. (Andrew Aughenbaugh photo)

There is a post-a-note on my desk with a list of places to visit this summer. The first on the list was the Pine Barrens in New Jersey.

Wharton State Forest in New Jersey is a three-hour drive from the Carroll County making for a perfect weekend getaway. While not all of the Pine Barrens fall within the Wharton State Forest, that is where we concentrated our trip.


During my pre-trip research of the Pine Barrens, I discovered there are several rivers and small lakes perfectly sized for canoes and kayaks. I placed a call to Pinelands Adventures and scheduled a shuttle. Talking with Rob Ferber at Pinelands Adventures, he helped me choose a section of river he thought I would enjoy. We settled on a six mile stretch of the Batsto from Quaker Bridge to Batsto Lake.

Because of the iron rich sandy soils and natural vegetation dyes such as tannin, the local waters of the Pine Barrens are a dark tea color. I have floated similar rivers in both Maryland and South Carolina and find something soothing about the crisp clear dark tainted waters.

The fishing rod and small tackle bag sat in the bow of the canoe, but as I made my way twisting down the wildly meandering Batsto, I made few casts. Instead I took in the scenery. Wild blueberries lined the banks between the stands of pine and cedar. The river bottom consisted of white sand.

I was surprised to find such a pristine place hidden in a state most think of as one big suburb.

There was a nice current drawing me down creek. With the creek being narrow and twisty, I sometimes found myself back paddling to make the turns. No rocky rapids are found on the Batsto to concern yourself, however, the narrow twisty track through the woods work on your kayak turning skills. The first five miles is a soothing shadowy paddle through the woods, and then the scenery changed when I entered Batsto Lake. In the open sun, I paddled around the grasses and Lilly pads of the lake. A slight breeze pushed my canoe thankfully toward my take out location. I followed the open water path between the patches of grass and pads until reaching the orange ball marking the take out where the Pinelands Adventures van waited to pick me up.

On Friday evening I was joined by Chris and Brittney, two friends from the Mid-Atlantic Overlanding Society. Late in the evening after they set up camp, we discussed trucks, campers, and places to visit around the campfire until late into the night.

The campgrounds in Wharton State Forest are simple marked campsites in a quiet natural setting without being overly developed. This is a place for tents and smaller self contained units. There is no electric or water hook ups, but there is an outhouse and a hand pump well.

We stayed at the Batona camp which is 12 unimproved shaded camp sites laid back on a sandy two track covered with pines and bordered by a swamp on the backside. The camp is on the Batona hiking trail and we watched as a few small groups of hikers dropped camp for the night before continuing to hike the trail in the morning.

One of the things I like to do before taking a road trip and visiting somewhere for the first time is to find a few books and read up on the area. In this case I found two books that really made our trip. The first was John McPhee's "The Pine Barrens."

John McPhee's book provides great incite to the history of the area, explaining the interesting people that once lived in the pine woods of New Jersey and the places they lived, worked, and gathered.

To find these places, we used "Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens," written by Barbara Solem-Stull. Besides in depth information on the communities that once existed, the book included handy little maps of the ruins and outlines driving loops to find and check out what little remains of the communities that once existed in the Barrens.

Saturday with both books on the seat of the truck and the USGS map of the area uploaded on the iPad navigation system in the Tacoma we took off on an adventure exploring the history of the area. We found empty fields with stone foundations of what once was the 1870's thriving cranberry farming operation in Friendship and Speedwell. We traveled an old stage road, stopping at the site of the old Sooy's Tavern built in 1773 where recruiting took place for the American Revolution army.

An early Pine Barrens industry was "bog iron," which is formed when iron-bearing groundwater oxidizes and accumulates in shallow streams and bogs. It is relatively easy to mine, and many bog iron furnaces operated in this area from about 1765 and the iron was used during the American Revolution. In a small open grass area deep within the pine forest, many of the foundations still exist. As we explored the old stone foundations, you could help but think about how much different life was back then compared to today.

Hampton was an irons works during the late 18th and 19th centuries and later was turned into a cranberry village.


We ended our day watching the sun set from a top the Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower. From the tower we gazed at the sweeping 360 degree view of hundreds of square miles of wilderness. When one thinks of taking a weekend camping trip in the wilds of nature, New Jersey is not the first state one would think of visiting.

However, this place is not the Jersey Shore or the suburbs of New York.

We were exploring a past world where man has left and the natural world is growing.