Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wharton State Forest Overnight

On the trail to Lower Forge
It's been a few weeks since my trip up to Harriman State Park and I have been itching to get out again, but I have been feeling under the weather.  So, when I started feeling better this last week, I decided to plan a quick trip out to the Pine Barrens.  My son had PSAT testing on Saturday and I couldn't convince him to come out with me afterward, so I made it a solo trip.

Saturday was clear - going up to the high-60s, with a forecast low in the mid to low-40s.  With that kind of weather I figured that there would be more than a few campers out, trying to take advantage of the moderate temperature - but I had no idea.  I got to the park office in Atsion just a little after 2:00, and planned to take a short hike down to the Mullica River campsite.  There were quite a number of cars in the office parking area in addition to the typical horse trailers from the usual equestrians.  When I asked the ranger for a permit for Mullica River, he asked if I had a reservation (in mid-October?).  I asked how many backpackers he had listed for the night, and he indicated that the Boy Scouts were out - about 75 of them.  I could camp in the middle of my neighborhood and see less people.  So, I switched plans on the spot and asked about the Lower Forge campsite...only 7 campers - much better.

Mullica River and Lower Forge campsites are the only two wilderness sites (hiking or canoeing access only) designated in Wharton Forest (in all of south Jersey, really)...and there is no authorized dispersed camping in the Pine Barrens (or anywhere in NJ that I am aware of).  Both campsites are similar, located on riverbanks (Mullica River obviously, and Batsto River for Lower Forge); and are provided with pit toilets.  Mullica River site is larger and has a well with a pitcher pump, so it typically sees more use (hence the 75+ campers this weekend).  You need to provide your own water at Lower Forge, which means either packing it in, or using a filter (or tablets/UV) and dealing with the iron (metallic) taste.  Between the tannins from the pine trees and the iron from the sandy soil, the streams and rivers in the Barrens run a unique reddish-brown color - it looks cool, but it could taste better.  Just bring spicy food to disguise the aftertaste, unless you like sucking on nails.

Clear-cut pines - I wonder why
So, at about 2:30 I departed the Atsion office, heading south on the Mullica River trail.  It is about a 2.5 mile hike along the banks of the Mullica River (yellow blaze trail) to the junction with the Quaker Bridge trail (purple blazed).  Surprisingly, I only saw two small groups out along this stretch of the trip - two backpakers, and three ladies out walking their dogs.  There was also an unusual area between the trail and one of the dirt roads (about a 1/2-mile south of Atsion) where a large stretch of pines was clear-cut...I'll have to find out why.  From the trail junction, I headed northeast along the Quaker Bridge trail (which stretches from the Mullica River to the Batsto River) for just under 2 miles, where it intersects the Batona (BAck TO NAture) Trail.  The Lower Forge campsite is only another 1.5 miles north along the Batona Trail.  The whole hike was about 5.5 miles, and I strolled into camp around 4:30.

There were only three other groups at the site - 2 threesomes and a family, so it was easy to spread out in my own corner.  I did come up with one good trick this trip...because the Wharton campsites are so popular, it is very difficult to scavenge any firewood within a reasonable distance around, when I was about a mile from camp I picked up a rather large staff that I used for the last leg of the journey and was then able to cut up for firewood.  I might have looked like Gandalf trekking through the forest with a 6.5' staff; but it was enough seasoned wood to burn for about 4 hours that night.  I used my newish Stanley cookset to boil the water for my Miso soup and couscous with sweet and sour tuna; and it worked great - quick and even heating.  I used my Swedish army Svea stove with three 16-penny nails as a pot stand, and a homemade aluminum windscreen.  I got my campfire started while the meal cooked in my Thermos, then enjoyed a good meal and chilled-out by the fire well into dark.

The temperature dropped into the low-40s overnight, and I found that was about as low as I think I could semi-comfortably go with my 32-degree Chinook Thermopalm bag.  As we get further into the shoulder season and on to winter, I will need to pick up a new winter bag to replace my bulky/heavy, 20 year old LL Bean 0-degree bag.  Not a bad night's sleep, though...I fell asleep kind of early, so I was back up at about 6:30 - just as the sun was coming up.  There was a good amount of condensation on the inside of the tent fly, but the inner tent was dry and comfortable - I was just going to have to air dry the tent back at home before packing away for next weekend...Maybe Round Valley Reservoir.

Anyway, after breakfast and breaking camp, the trek back to Atsion was peaceful and beautiful - very quiet.  I did not come across anyone until I was passed by a couple of dirt-bike riders about a mile from the office parking lot.  From here on out in the Fall and Winter there should be fewer and fewer people out here - the Atsion office closes up for the season after next weekend, then the park should settle down for just us diehards.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your post! I'm going tomorrow, good to know about the scarce wood!