The Pine Barrens

by Wayne Heinze

old floodgate dam“The Pines are the wildest portion of the state … the forest is broken only by a few lonely roads….(and) narrow, swift, resinous-colored streams …” Gustav Kobbé, New Jersey Coast and Pines, 1889

Kobbé’s quaint tome is outdated in many specifics, but gives an excellent snapshot of a region poised on the edge of the 20th century. The last blows of the forge hammers echoed through the Pines by the time the Civil War was over. Richer ore deposits, taconite rather than limonite, were discovered in western Pennsylvania, and the bog iron industry expired. So at the time of Kobbé’s book, the region was turning to other forms of commerce: fishing, farming, and the real subject of Kobbé’s book, tourism. Except for the town of Lakewood, which was a thriving resort by the time he wrote his book, Kobbé glosses over the standing waters here, with just an occasional mention of a cedar swamp.

Much of the standing water in the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey’s coastal plain consists of what are actually small reservoirs. The glaciers never made it that far south in New Jersey, so the lakes and ponds are all impoundments of some type. Most were created for the long gone bog iron forges, sawmills, and cranberry growing bogs. We’ve all seen the Ocean Spray commercials, those kind of bogs. Many of these bogs remain commercially active, some small farmer owned, and others maintained for corporate agriculture. New Jersey has ranked as high as third in cranberry production annually, trailing only Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Cranberries are second to blueberries (another Pine Barrens icon) as fruit crops in Jersey, according to federal and state agricultural departments. The prime growing region for cranberries has shrunk to mainly just Burlington County. The epicenter of the cranberry there is generally acknowledged to be Chatsworth, a town rural enough that black bears have been found sleeping on the wood porch of the General Store. Yep, they have a General Store, and a lot of cranberries. And the requisite bogs.

John McPhee authored the seminal work on the area, his book aptly titled The Pine Barrens. Among the many fine points he makes, as only he can make, is the fact that the woods here are far from barren. Still relatively barren of people, the most prolific organism that exists in New Jersey it seems, change and development has come to the Pines. But it comes comparatively slowly, due in no small part to the substantial acreage in the woods here. Much of the Pines is composed of state parks, state forests, wildlife management areas, and land holdings and private easements provided by a handful of conservation organizations. And preserved along with the flora and fauna in these public spaces are former cranberry bogs.

Ecologically, the bogs are fascinating in their diverse nature. Some remain essentially lakes, supporting myriad bird, reptiles and amphibians, and fish. Most notably among the fishes is the chain pickerel (Esox niger), the once rightly dubbed “King of the Coastal Plain.” Due to the high pH level caused by the tannic acid leached into the soil from the pine needles, a fish tolerant of this water chemistry is the logical choice to move to the top of the aquatic food chain here. And the pickerel fits the bill nicely, and has thrived in these cedar stained waters throughout the years. The former world record chain pickerel was caught in the Pines in 1957. Unless the bogs are actively maintained, particularly the often minimal wood construction of the floodgates, the bogs evolve. Eventually, left to nature, nature returns them to swamp, then marsh, then fields. The bogs were often de-watered at different times, for different reasons.

Each of the many stages of the bog evolution offers a different experience to the naturalist. Species populations vary greatly depending on how far the transformation has progressed in an individual bog. The bogs were often laid out as a series of smaller impoundments crisscrossed by causeways and dikes. There are areas. Where all four stages of the bog can be seen in an afternoon’s hike. And even with the accessibility of satellite imagery, you don’t always know what you will find as you leave your vehicle roadside and trek down the inevitable labyrinth of sand roads, hiking trails and game trails. Bring water and bug dope, but also a camera and fishing gear.

I remember one April morning hiking into the bogs and impoundments near Bamber Lake, in what is now Double Trouble State Park. I waded around the shallow bogs and reservoirs, casting spinnerbaits for pickerel, who participated enthusiastically. The fish weren’t particularly large, but were plentiful and beautiful in the clear, tea tinged waters. I had picked an area where it required a hike of a few miles to reach the water I wanted to fish. I switched out my hiking boots for old tennis shoes to navigate the sandy bottom while wet wading. While one of my favorite recreations in the Pines, it can get a little bone numbing that early in the season. Especially so after the bluebird skies and west wind were delivered courtesy of a frontal system that had passed through the night before. After wading about half way around the second bog, I came upon a small sandy beach on the west shore. I left the water and plopped down in the sand, stretching my legs out to soak in the warming rays of the sun rising over the tops of the pitch pines.

From that perspective, the water, dappled by sunlight and ruffled by the steady breeze, looked as blue as you please, the distinctive cedar stain obscured by the optics. The only sound was the wind, blowing through the pines, rustling branches for woodwinds and creating the percussion with the wavelets that broke steadily on my little refuge. The novelist / judge John Voelker (aka Robert Traver) once wrote that one of the reasons he loved to fish was because it was only while out there that he could find solitude without loneliness. I absolutely agree, and have found this to be the case with few exceptions. But this section of the Pines, Bamber Lake, can be one of those the exceptions.

There was a touch of melancholy in the woodland symphony that day, one that I’d felt here before. Not a depressing feeling by any means, but more like a paean to the overwhelming solitude and ever present movement of the air and water here. It is never still, always moving, always seeming to be bringing something. Salt air from the sea, rain from the west, musky scents of the swamps at the headwaters of the lake, always something on the way, something from another place. Maybe it only serves to remind you of the vanished towns and economies that once flourished here, forgotten bog iron towns, sawmills, and glass making and nail slitting operations. The resources are still here, the bog iron, the wood to make the charcoal, the sea shells for flux. Maybe the ghosts of the ironworkers, colliers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths still move on the winds here as well.

Something makes the deer here more skittish, the snipe and rail harder to spot, and the mallards and buffleheads always cruising on the furthest point of the lake. years ago my college professor took exception to a phrase I had used in a term paper I wrote on the Pine Barrens. I had referred to the area around Bamber Lake as a “particularly desolate section of the Pines.” She was looking for a source footnote, but there was none, still isn’t as far as I know. I explained what I’ve just related to you, the abandoned bogs, the woods and of course the wind. I like to think she understood, but it probably just made her uncomfortable. Maybe the fact I described the spot from my own experience afield, rather than a field guide, or maybe just the description itself.

Decades later, it is not nearly so desolate at Bamber Lake as it was. But at the expense of a little shoe leather, you can still get to the heart of the place. And if it is an April morning and you are wading and casting for pickerel among the emerging spadderdock in a freshening breeze, so much the better. But regardless of when you are there, you will sense the movement of the air, and will have to decide if it is a desolate wind on the rise, or if it only the earliness of the season that has you turning up the collar of your jacket.

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