Saturday, May 28, 2022

NJ Pinelands - Thirty-Some Miles in Four Days

"Although your sky may often be clouded, 

the sun will shine forth in the end, and its rays brighten your road to victory.” 

 Dr. James Still, 1877

Doctor of the Pinelands

I'm not complaining, but yet again my plans to thru-hike the long distance Batona Trail through the New Jersey Pine Barrens were thwarted by circumstances beyond my control (involving Amos) and so my week walking through the pines was a series of day hikes. But that's okay. After six previous attempts, I'm quite used to having to reconfigure my hiking weeks because "man plans and God laughs." Even so, Amos and I had a wonderful unplugged week of ten + fifteen + ten + three mile hikes that suited his coonhound style. 

The ritual ferry ride

The NJ Pinelands are not far from where I live in PA. The few hours drive and a ferry ride to Cape May from Lewes across the Delaware River has become somewhat of a ritual for me but Amos got to experience the ferry for the first time and he loved it, especially all the human attention as people walking the decks came up to his window to snuggle with him, flap his ears, and get coonhound kisses. The ferry ride and the beautiful drive up the Garden State Parkway to enter the National Pinelands Reserve gives me the time to mentally transition to "pines time." 

New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve

My destination this time was to first establish a basecamp at Bass River State Forest in the heart of the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve. Then I had to set up two shuttles with a farmer friend to get us back to the truck after two long day hikes. I was hoping the weather stayed cool and breezy for my heat intolerant pup and thankfully it did.  That done, we set off to explore Bass River State Forest our first day. With a recent storm system lingering off the coast, the skies were blessedly cloudy and the sea breezes cool so Amos walked happily for ten straight miles along the Batona Trail southeast through the forest and back to camp. Never mind it took half an hour to pull all the ticks off him afterwards - thank goodness for his Soresto collar. They were already dead or dying by the time I had the tweezers out.

The start of the Batona Trail on the edge of Bass River State Forest

We hear the clatter of Brian's stake-body coming down the road. Yay!

The next day we did (for Amos) an astonishing fifteen miles. Still breezy and cool with a smattering of sun through the pines, we discovered new wetlands on side trails off the Batona near Batsto Village. Late spring wildflowers and heathlands are in full bloom.  Sniffing along, Amos led me to a Northern Fence Lizard, a patch of Pink Lady Slippers, and a pair of mating Northern Water Snakes. I had to control his nosiness in case he stuck his snout into the hidden curl of a sleeping Timber Rattlesnake. Prairie Warblers were just about everywhere. My farm friend Brian met us at the end of this section and Amos was ever to ride, dead ticks and all, in the bed of a blue stake-body ears a-flapping in the wind back to my truck I  left at the historic iron furnace.

Turkey Beard

Pitcher Plants in blossom along the Batsto River

A pair of mating Northern Water Snakes

Northern Fence Lizard

Pink Lady Slippers

Sheep Laurel, Kalmia augustifolia

Our third day hiking I knew Amos would not go as far. He was slowing down but still up for another ten miles as we mixing a five-mile section of the Batona Trail with the Yellow Trail loop on the Franklin Parker Preserve. This circuit took us past an immense beaver pond and lodge, an Atlantic White Cedar bog and swamp, and along the levies of former cranberry fields now flooded to create a robust waterfowl refuge complete with Bald Eagles and Osprey. The constantly changing habitats and bewildering variety of plant communities challenged the concept of "pine barrens" as being austere and monotonous. It was a stunningly beautiful hiking day. 

What a beauty!

Our last five-mile section of the Batona Trail

Burn area on the Yellow Trail, Franklin Parker Preserve

Pine Barrens Sandwort, Mononeuria caroliniana

Pine Barrens Golden Heather, Hudsonia ericoides

Beaver lodge and pond - an immense area flooded by a beaver dam 

Former Ocean Spray flooded cranberry fields at Franklin Parker

From the top of an observation tower - Eagles, Osprey, Herons, Rails, Common Yellowthroats

On our last day we lazy-walked around Bass River Campground in the heart of the Bass River State Forest. There's an excellent set of trails that intersect and loop around so I knew that when Amos flopped down to say "enough" we wouldn't be too far from camp. He wander-walked about three miles before he wanted to go sleep in the warm sand so while he napped in preparation for the one mile walk back to camp, I composed a set of bark studies. We shared dinner with our neighbors, the only other occupied site in the whole campground, with a couple who had just spent four days paddling the Mullica River. Their little beagle hound Buck and big coonhound Amos hit it off but were both so tired the half-played, half- napped as I spoke with the paddlers about the sad news of the week. We had very little cell phone reception during our days out but a sand hill near camp provided just enough signal for us all to learn about another - and devastating - mass killing at a rural Texas school. It seemed enough to just sit in silence after supper and listen to the Cuckoos and Towhees.

Staying close to basecamp on our last day

Turkey Beard on Joe's Trail

Thank you, Joe!

Spending the last afternoon in true hound style.

I think about what keeps bringing me back to the pinelands after almost thirty years of camping, day-hiking, and thru-hiking attempts. I think it has something to do with making new discoveries each time I come here, uncovering surprising places or stretches of trail that resonate with me and leave me wanting more.  Maybe its the way the air carries the scent of pine and makes it easier to breathe, write, make art, sleep.

Atlantic White Cedar

White Oak

Black Tupelo Gum

Pitch Pine

Pitch Pine (alive) after a recent burn along the Batona Trail

The final night in camp was filled with the loud proclaiming of Whip-Poor-Wills and whispered kwalps of Yellow-Billed Cuckoos. I pulled my dog-eared copy of James Still's 1877 autobiography out of the library bin I keep in the back of my truck for trips away. Still was a self-taught botanist and medicinal chemist and everyone called him doctor because his knowledge of pineland botany was profound and effective. I've read the book four times already but I still include it in the bin when traveling to the pine barrens. I wanted so much to visit the James Still Historic Site this time around, but it is still closed due to the pandemic, which here in southern NJ is re-emerging in a concerning way. I wondered if, had James been around these past few years, if he would have had a remedy already concocted for Covid-19 out of some virus-beating tincture made from a highly flammable heath or pine? Maybe Timber Rattlesnake venom? It takes fire to fight fire. 

Fetterbush or Swamp Dog-Hobble, Eubotrys racemosa 

Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

Atlantic White Cedar swamp, Bass River State Forest


Doctor of the Pines, James Still was a pinelands country doctor whose parents escaped slavery from Caroline County, Maryland, and raised their many children in freedom at Indian Mills in the pines. James' brother, William,  became an important chronicler and conductor on the Philadelphia Underground Railroad who worked with Harriet Tubman, escaped from Dorchester County, Maryland, to bring freedom seekers north out of bondage. James became a skilled plantsman who studied the medicinal uses of pinelands herbs, trees, and shrubs and practiced medicine in Medford, a self-taught expert on pinelands botany and medicine.

NJDEP James Still Historic Site 

Cool first finds for this trip:

Wool Sower Gall Wasp gall - whoa!

Timber Rattlesnakes get new signs!

I looked really hard but I saw more signs than snakes.

I looked very hard for snakes while trying to keep Amos from sticking his nose into some hidden coil of Timber Rattlesnake but without the dog along I would have had much more opportunity to find more than Northern Watersnakes. I didn't have the opportunity to peek under logs or lift slabs of bark without his notorious nose being ahead of me. There's always next time. Pine Barrens Reptiles

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