Paddling the Pines
I had chosen the upper end of the stream, where the river was initially shallow enough to pole rather than paddle, and I pushed against the sandy bottom. However, within a half mile the depth increased. Indeed, the snaky path of the river (perhaps even more winding than the Mullica) grew in depth with surprising quickness at each bend, forming broad, deep pools that beckoned me to trade my paddle for a swim. I finally obliged, and my body was cooled from its efforts to negotiate the ever-curving stream. I still had a few lift-overs and some careful dodging of downed wood, but the Batsto is a relatively clean run, even in a September of low water levels.
Though logs were few, I did meet other discomforts in the close quarters provided by the crowding thickets of alder and inkberry in the first mile of paddling. I was the lone canoeist on the river that day, a setting in which I had hoped to find myself, but, if I saw them first, it required me to break spiderweb after spiderweb with my paddle. Twice, however, the bends and branches of the river had my mind and eyes elsewhere, and I found a surprise stream of invisible strands clinging to my face, and I was filled with an irrational fear that the eight-legged maker was crawling on me. Perhaps it could have caught the fly that found my bare ankles so tasty. So if you are canoeing the upper Batsto, have a web-breaking friend sit in the bow.
As the stream quickly grew, the Batsto regularly left the shores of dark cedar and red maple for small grassy glades and open sky above. The grasses there were thick, and more than once I was slowed by the mass of grappling green. So I kept to the river’s winding path as it cut through the glades, rather than attempt a shortcut and get stuck.
As I entered one of these glades, I spooked a merlin from a smooth and gnarled snag–the dark falcon’s pointed wings slicing the air as it cut along the river and wheeled through the cedars. The vastness of the pine barrens offers prime accommodations to such a wing-weary traveler migrating south for the winter.
Not far below that, I reached Lower Forge Campground, a wilderness site upon the pine-topped sandy bluffs that rise along the stream throughout the trip. Like the Mullica Campground, it is accessible only to hikers and canoeists, and it can be used to make a two-day trip of the 11 plus miles of the Batsto as it runs through Wharton.
Just below the campground, a barred owl called from a thick stand of cedars. I answered, trying to entice him toward me and my waiting camera. We called for a few minutes to each other, but our antiphon aroused the noisy disapproval of blue jays and chickadees, and the owl was soon harried into silence. I called a few more times, but the cedars stood dark and quiet, so I continued on.
It was a short distance from there to Quaker Bridge, and I cruised to the take-out, pausing to rescue a runaway bottle for a couple of men trying to reach it with a broom from the bank. They were the only people I saw all day.
Three other rivers or creeks can be run through Wharton. The most popular is the Wading. Aptly named, the Wading is a shallow, shoal-laden ribbon of brown water that is not as winding as the Batsto or Mullica, but winding enough for an interesting day of exploration. Its lower end is also wider than those of the Batsto and Mullica, minimizing snags and making paddling easier, particularly for beginners.
The Wading doesn’t offer the seclusion of the Mullica or Batsto. It is a minor thoroughfare, even on a cool October afternoon, but it offers much of the same pine barrens scenery, and on the day I went with some friends this fall, we found the changing leaves dancing in the remnant winds of the previous day’s cold front. But we did pick up a lot more floating trash along the Wading than on the Batsto or Mullica–the sorry by-product of being a popular paddling destination.
The final two streams, the Oswego River and Nescochague Creek, are best paddled at higher water levels, but offer a trip of excellent scenery and near-wilderness seclusion.