Wandering the Wading River
by Jeff Bowen
June 9, 2007
I usually like to sleep in a bit on a Saturday morning, but on June 9th I got up just before my alarm clock started ringing. I had loaded the truck the night before with my kayak, paddling and camping gear, so all I needed was a cup of coffee, a check of the straps and lines holding my boat on the rack, and I was headed south on the Parkway to the Pine Barrens.
Down in the Barrens once you exit the Parkway, you enter an area of sandy soil and pine forests that dominate the mostly flat landscape. Once in a while you will pass a blueberry farm or a cranberry bog or a swamp. There are fewer buildings than in North Jersey, and they seem to cling to the roadside with their backyards melding into a seemingly endless expanse.
The Wading River put-in at Speedwell seemed hectic when I arrived. A small group of Boy Scouts were putting in, but were being seen off by most of the rest of their troop. At first I thought that we would have lots of company on the river that day, but in the end, only about 4 canoes were launched, and the rest of the crowd piled into the SUV's of the Scout Leader and the other Scout Dads and left.
As I was unloading my boat, Phil, our intrepid Trip Leader pulled up with Robyn. Scott Hagaman and Ken Bald were just behind them. We unloaded in short order, and proceeded to the shuttle.
I don't think I'll ever forget that shuttle. It was to be the first time I traveled to the Hawkin's Bridge campsite by car. Phil got in his car, smiled, waved and took off. Ken followed close behind, and I followed Ken. Phil quickly turned onto a paved road which deteriorated in the first mile or so to a sandy "improved road". Suddenly, with no sign apparent other than an old 2X4 nailed to a tree on the opposite side of the road, Phil turned onto what looked like any one of the thousands of other sandy jeep trails in the area. Straight into the Barrens we drove, the scenery to either side whizzing by, yet somehow strangely always seeming to be the same...endless pines and scrub. Deeper and deeper into the Barrens we followed Phil who slowed only occasionally to traverse large puddles or an area of potholes. If I had had radio communication with Phil, I would have called him to ask him if he was sure we were on the right road.
"This dinky little trail can't be the right way" I thought.
My spirits were lifted momentarily when it looked as if we were approaching something different. Yes! It was another nondescript dinky little trail that intersected ours at some odd random angle at an unmarked and anonymous intersection. Seemingly unfazed, Phil continued on.
This continued until I was seriously considering honking my horn and flashing my lights to bring our little convoy to a halt so I could question Phil on just exactly how sure he was that he knew where he was going. Just then we saw it...Hawkins Bridge Campsite. I tried to look non-chalant as I got out of the truck and joined the others for a parley.
The campsite was busy with about three Boy Scout troops and other campers. The sites next to the river take-out were crowded, so we set off on foot to scout the area for a suitable campsite for our group. A short way off we found a nice spot which was more secluded from the crowds. We staked our claim with two of our vehicles, and headed back to the put-in in the third.
We quickly and easily launched our boats, and I headed downstream in the lead. I hadn't gone 20 yards when I chose the wrong path and ended up getting wedged in a tight spot. The current prevented me from easily maneuvering back out. The rest of the group passed me as I assured them I could easily maneuver back out.
The Wading River in this portion of the trip was narrow and twisty with strong currents and eddies. There were obstacles in the water and above the water too. In many places the vegetation forms a virtual tunnel through which one paddles. Frequently the plants are so close on either side that it is impossible to swing a double blade effectively. This is when good canoe skills come into play.
I stowed my double blade and pulled my "spare" paddle, a short canoe paddle, from under the bungees on the back deck. With it I could maneuver my boat without the interruption of the trees and bushes grabbing the high end of my paddle and altering my intended stroke, hitting me in the face, or flipping me over. I noticed that Scott and Robyn in their canoes seemed serenely ignorant of the problems that Phil, Ken and I faced with our double blades, although I might have caught them smirking now and then.
The tannin stained water of the river was cool, and the day was getting warm. The Gods of Weather and Water had favored us once again. Once we got into the rhythm of the river we were able to play the current and glide over the shoals of rounded pebbles, dodge the ends of logs just below the water and anticipate the eddy lines in the bends.
We passed through majestic stands of Atlantic White Cedar, alongside grassy swamps and skirted the edges of the sloping sandy banks that are characteristic of Pine Barren streams. Blueberry bushes along the banks reached out over the stream seeking sunlight. They bore an impressive quantity of berries not yet ripened.
Deep in the wooded sections we would pass areas where the banks were coated with a smooth, soft, velvety green moss. In other spots we saw Pitcher Plants and we identified the cranberry plants that would yield their red, tart berries in the fall.
It was late afternoon when we rounded a bend and saw a pile of canoes and several people on a small beach where another stream joined the Wading River.
“We’re here,” our trip Leader announced. We put ashore and set about getting our boats hauled up the steep bank, shuttling them to the campsite, and retrieving the vehicle we left at the put in. With efficient teamwork we were soon ensconced in our campsite while the westering sun shone through the trees and we started to make ourselves at home. The sun would set quite late as is usual in June, so we had plenty of light as we set up camp and started our dinner. We had brought a more than ample supply of firewood, so we did not wait for darkness to start a campfire.
Ken Bald had brought along the makings of a fine gourmet meal, and exhibited the skill and experience in camp cooking that he has gained.
We had discovered earlier that Gypsy Moth caterpillars were plaguing the area, especially the oak trees. They made their presence known by the nearly denuded trees they had feasted upon, and by occasionally dropping onto one’s hat or shoulder. Disconcerting, but better than bird poop.
It finally grew darker, and as we sat around the lively campfire and discussed the day, we were pleased to note that despite the relatively high population of Boy Scouts just a couple of hundred yards away, it was very quiet. The Scouts were either very well disciplined, or very, very tired.
Once in a while we would hear the sound of a whippoorwill on one side and then another. Once one even landed for a moment in the midst of our campsite and startled some of us.
At last it grew late, and before we headed off to our respective beds, we gave the rest of our firewood to a group of young campers in the campsite down the way. They were most appreciative.
Sunday dawned bright and warm. After breakfast we loaded up our gear in the trucks and then set off on the shuttle. Once again we followed Phil down the sandy tracks of the Pine Barrens as he led us unerringly back to a paved road again, and then to Bodine Field where we parked the trucks. Ken drove us back to the put in, and then bid us goodbye as he was off to visit with family.
The river’s character was much changed from the upper reaches we had paddled the day before. It was wider and not as congested with logs and gravel bars. The weather was beautiful, warm and sunny, and we took our time and enjoyed the day. We passed a few campsites on the river, and were ambushed by some kids with buckets of water and super-soakers. Our speed and craftiness allowed us to pass them largely unscathed. We passed some other people who were enjoying paddling in the Barrens that day, many for the first time, it seemed. I tried to offer paddling advice to one group, but I doubt I made much of an impact.
At last we arrived at the take out at Bodine Field. As we unpacked our gear from our boats and loaded up our vehicles we got to witness several other people we had seen on the river arrive for their take out. One pair of guys tipped over as they approached the shore. One woman I had tried to teach the bow rudder to was telling her friends about how she had almost lost her “oar”. Everyone was in high spirits, and that was good. All I needed was to find my way to a paved road again, and my contentment would be complete.