The Mullica River springs as a small stream from sleepy south Jersey suburbs through the deep woods of Wharton State Forest before it widens and converges with the Batso River, passing just north of Atlantic City casinos as it meets salt and spills into the Atlantic Ocean.
Near its source, sunlight dances on its tea-stained surface, painting reflections of the trees towering over its banks on a late-summer afternoon. It babbles as its waters part for fallen branches and tumbled rocks — and the paddles I dip in to propel me forward in my kayak.
The New Jersey Pinelands encompasses over one-million acres of farms, forests, and wetlands. But it is floating down a three-mile stretch of the Mullica River in the heart of the Pinelands where you experience why this region is so important.
‘Lifeblood of the Ecosystem’
I joined a Pinelands Adventures guided kayak trip led by John Volpa with several Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation colleagues this August. We met Volpa and Carleton Montgomery, Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s executive director, at the canoe livery’s Shamong headquarters to learn about Pinelands ecology before slipping into the river in our boats.
“The No. 1 reason the Pinelands were preserved is because underneath this 1.1 million acres of land is 17 trillion gallons of pure water that is the lifeblood of the ecosystem,” says Volpa, who oversees Pinelands Adventure’s guided trips and education programs. “Visualize the state of New Jersey under 6 feet of water that is pure and clean.”
As I start to imagine what it would be like commuting to work in a kayak, Montgomery pipes in.
“Mostly,” he says. “Mostly pure and clean.”
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance is the watchdog of the Pinelands, the largest surviving swath of natural wilderness on the east coast between the forests of Maine and the Everglades of Florida. Its Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer is one of the cleanest in the world, supplying people, plants, and coastal bays with pristine fresh water.
Pinelands Preservation Alliance fights for the public’s rights against those of private interests ensuring future generations can enjoy the Pinelands and reap its resources without further endangering the Eastern box turtle, Pine Barrens Gentian, or the region’s water supply. These days, that means continuing to battle suburban sprawl while fending off newer threats like oil pipelines and off-road vehicles that cut into this vulnerable place.
Reconnecting With Nature
With the mission of reconnecting people to nature to inspire the kind of ardent passion it takes to protect places of ecologic importance with valuable resources, Pinelands Adventures was born.
Pinelands Adventures rents kayaks and canoes and organizes trips and outings that get people outside to explore the Pinelands. Volpa and other guides lead visitors, including new and experienced paddlers as well as school and community groups, on a range of guided trips.
“This year we’ve been working with students from Newark and Camden — students who have never been in a canoe, so the fear factor is real,” Volpa says. “We teach them basic strokes and do team building games. By the end, you can see they’ve met a challenge, overcome a fear, and they feel different by the end of the day.”
One of the messages Volpa says he tries to get across to youth is the idea of that there are many ways to be smart.
“There’s math smart, music smart, nature smart,” Volpa says. “When you are open to learning, you can find your inner talents and passion.”
Volpa’s passion is environmental education, and Pinelands history.
Holding two jars — one filled with a rich, dark soil and the other a coarse grained sand — he asks which looks like it could grow vegetables.
The answer is obvious — not the sand.
Pinelands’ soil — gravelly, porous, acidic, unable to retain enough moisture for crops and interspersed with layers of clay — is the reason early colonists named the region the Pine Barrens. What the soil is good for, Volpa explains, is filtering water to create clean drinking water.
In 1978, Congress established the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve as the country’s first National Reserve. Although it features hiking trails and plenty of other recreational opportunities, some people live in Jersey their whole lives and only experience the Pinelands trees you have to drive through to get to the Shore.
Up for Adventure
The Pine Barrens Discovery Tour lasts about three hours and takes you by boat through a twisty stretch of river and through the woods to a shore walk to learn about the Pinelands’ uplands and Atlantic Cedar Swamp habitats and the region’s bog iron-and-glass-making past.
Back in the water, the sky opens up as you paddle through a beaver pond covered in lily pads before ending your trip checking out carnivorous plants and seining for small invertebrate.
You’ll see turtles, snakes, and a wide range of Pinelands flora along the way.
There are no rapids to contend with — it’s mostly a gentle ride with the current drawing you down. On our trip, one person who shall remain nameless went overboard twice.
It’s inevitable your kayak will run into the riverbank at some point as you find yourself quickly back paddling to make sharp turns or maneuver around obstacles in the river. But each snag is a reminder to remain calm, enjoy the scenery, and be intentional about where you’re going.
Meghan Jambor is the Dodge Foundation’s communications manager. For more information on the Dodge Foundation and its environmental grantmaking, click here.