If I hadn’t already known that the run would be passable for the entirety of my 10.5-mile trip, I probably would have left my canoe on the car and driven home. At the put-in near the Atsion Ranger Station, the Mullica River looks more like a glorified drainage ditch than a free-flowing stream. But this slender cord of orange-brown water, stained by tannins and iron deposits, winds its way around snags, logs, and low-hanging boughs, into the heart of South Jersey’s Pine Barrens through Wharton State Forest. It is a stream of hairpin turns, rarely revealing more than 50 yards in a straightaway before it dives from view behind alder- and cranberry-choked shores.
The maze of snags and logs found plenty of reinforcements from below, thanks to the low water levels of a hot summer’s end. I found myself pulling my canoe over submerged logs and impassable beaver dams. This can make the trip on the upper Mullica River frustrating for beginners, especially those who don’t want to get their feet wet. Since the September afternoon was warm, I didn’t mind. About a mile and a half downstream, the creek’s tight quarters opened into a red maple swamp, accented with old gray snags and new white pond lilies. The river still wound its tricky path through this open space, somehow finding a way to remain in the swamp and avoid the woods, even when it seemed destined to re-enter beneath its dark boughs.
When the Mullica eventually did re-enter the forest, it did so with a splash over a pair of low beaver dams. The forest’s shade was cool and welcome, and I was happy to escape the warmth of the autumn sun.
With that, the stream continued its meandering as it ducked and dived around tight corners. The snags lessened as the stream gradually grew to 25 feet across, making passage easier. It was about this time that I began to consider how far I had yet to paddle. The scenery had made me forgetful of time and distance, and I had been delayed by low water. I looked in vain for the campsite located roughly halfway along the run, where canoeists can stretch the trip into two days. I was not camping on this trip, however, and was surprised when two passing kayakers told me it was four o’clock. I would have to paddle hard to avoid darkness. Paddling solo the entire length of the Mullica River through Wharton is fatiguing, but I found a rhythm in my efforts. Sometimes kneeling, sometimes sitting, I pushed along the subtly growing stream as I passed the campsite high on its sandy bluff. Although I was working harder than I had planned, I found what I had set out to see-a world of cedar and pitch pine, sunbeams cutting through the dark forest, and white cranberries waiting to turn red.
Much of the flora of the Pine Barrens is reminiscent of more northern climes. It’s a slice of Ontario wilderness somehow misplaced in the Garden State. With that in mind, it’s a joy to realize that the Pine Barrens of Wharton State Forest have somehow been protected from the blight of suburban sprawl so prevalent in South Jersey. I paddled without the sound of engines, the smell of exhaust, the eyesores of condominiums or industries. This might not have been so had a plan by Joseph Wharton in the 1890s succeeded in selling the region’s aquifer to the city of Philadelphia as a water source. Wharton used his huge estate for forestry and agriculture, including cranberry farming, but the landscape was left largely undeveloped, and in 1954 his heirs sold the land to the state.
The Pine Barrens offer wondrous seclusion, but it is still a relatively short-lived isolation, and it was not long before I reached Constable Bridge, a small wooden plank bridge signaling that civilization was all too near. I was about a mile and a half from my take-out. Happily I slackened my pace, knowing that I would beat the impending darkness. I sat and listened, breathing in the best wilderness New Jersey has to offer, rejoicing in its solitude, and enjoying the growing shadows at day’s end. I paddled on, hearing the sound of traffic on Route 542 grow louder until I passed beneath the bridge upstream of the take-out. I paused there and listened to a screech owl as I waited for my brother-in-law to come pick me up.