A Maiden Voyage to the Legendary “Forks”

Pinelands Adventures launched an exciting new guided paddling trip this year, and I was happy to join them on the maiden voyage on May 1st. This trip began at Batsto Lake and ended just past Sweetwater Marina and Riverdeck. It included “The Forks,” an area with a rich and colorful history where the Batsto River empties into the Mullica River, widening the latter considerably. This part of the Batsto River offers ample opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the Pine Barrens, including encountering wildlife such as turtles, osprey, and eagles.

We began the trip at the Batsto Lake Canoe Launch. After paddling to the head of the lake, we took the kayaks out, ported them to the other side of the dam at Batsto Village Road, and put them in the Batsto River. This gave us a great vantage point of Batsto Village from the water. 

A view of Batsto Village during a kayaking trip along the Batsto River to The Forks in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
Batsto Village (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

History of The Forks

When author Barbara Solem wanted to write about the Pine Barrens, she decided to begin with a short book entitled The Forks: A Brief History of the Area. First published in 2003, the book explains how, before the arrival of Europeans, the Lenni Lenape maintained a “summer village” in the area called Nescochague in what is now Pleasant Mills. Before Scottish settlers later made the area their home, Eric Mullica became the first European resident when he moved to what was then known as Takokan near The Forks.

Barbara’s 2005 book, Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, contains an entire chapter about The Forks. She also touches on the history of smuggling at The Forks in her 2014 book, Batsto Village: Jewel of the Pines. Smuggling and privateering reached their height during the American Revolutionary War.

Situated where the Batsto and Mullica rivers converge, this quiet and lovely area was once a thriving port and trading center. Settled in the early 1700s by Europeans seeking religious freedom, The Forks soon prospered due to its location at the head of a navigable inland river. Merchant ships regularly left Batsto Landing (now called Stone Landing) at The Forks loaded with iron products manufactured at the Batsto Iron Furnace and returned there laden with goods for the furnace community. Due to its remoteness, the port at The Forks was a great place to unload cargo brought up the Mullica River clandestinely to avoid the hated British import tax. Smuggled goods were either taken overland by wagon to Philadelphia or sold right at the docks of The Forks. With the advent of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress authorized privateers (private vessels given license to harass and loot enemy ships) to capture British merchant ships and to seize their vessels and cargoes. These ships and their cargoes were often auctioned off at The Forks at the house (tavern) of Richard Wescott, a wealthy local businessman and landowner. Blatantly advertised in New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia newspapers, these auctions often brought large crowds to the Mullica River wharves.

Solem-Stull, Barbara. Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Plexus Publishing, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Beyond Batsto

With perfect spring weather, we encountered numerous turtles sunning themselves on fallen logs, an intrepid beaver who seemed unbothered by our presence, not even offering a tail slap before disappearing under a log, a great blue heron and a bald eagle. 

Three turtles sunning on logs near The Forks in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
Turtles Near The Forks (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Notable landmarks along the way included the Forks Inn, a favorite former restaurant turned private residence, and the now-deserted Rabbit Island. According to Barbara’s Ghost Towns book: “Captured goods destined for the Continental Army were stored on Rabbit Island in large warehouses protected by a military post. Near Rabbit Island was the Van Sant Shipyard, where many of the privateer vessels were built.” 

Rabbit Island located in the confluence of the Batsto and Mullica rivers known as The Forks in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
Rabbit Island (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

With the success of this inaugural trip, Pinelands Adventures scheduled another guided paddle to The Forks on July 30th. With a trip length of about four to five hours, the last part of which is through a no-wake zone where paddlers may encounter power vessels, Pinelands Adventures recommends this trip for intermediate to advanced paddlers. Cost is $70.

View of the Forks Inn from a kayak at the confluence of the Batsto and Mullica Rivers in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
The Forks Inn (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Halloween on the Batsto River: Kayaking Quaker Bridge to Batsto Lake

With my ankle feeling much better and back to normal, I decided to squeeze in one last kayak trip before the season ended this year on Halloween. I booked a spot with Pinelands Adventures for the last Quaker Bridge to Batsto Lake trip of the year. Pinelands Adventures describes the trip as a “favorite Pine Barrens Paddling Trip. This trip is our best option for all paddling ability levels” and “moderately challenging depending upon the paddler’s level of experience and physical condition.”

A brief summary from their site: “Your canoe or kayak trip begins on the Batsto River at Quaker Bridge about four miles into the Wharton State Forest from our location at Atsion Lake. The Batsto River is a narrow, winding Pine Barrens river with clean cool water and small areas to pull out for a break or picnic. You’ll end with a half mile paddle where the river opens into a lake formed by the dam at Batsto Village.”

We drove down Quaker Bridge Road past both 1st Beach and Lock’s Bridge to get to Quaker Bridge at mile marker 6 along the river. Unlike Lock’s Bridge, an actual bridge still exists at this spot with a poignant history. 

“In 1772 a group of Quakers built a bridge over this stream after several members of their traveling parties had drowned here on their way to an annual meeting in Little Egg Harbor. Today this site is often used by outfitters as a put-in spot for canoe and kayak trips down the Batsto River.”

Solem-Stull, Barbara. Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens . Plexus Publishing, Inc. Kindle Edition. 
Quaker Bridge, Halloween 2021 (photo by Beach and Barrens)

Although the Batsto River has many turns, they were not as sharp and the river not as narrow along this route as the first part of the Mullica from Atsion Lake to 1st Beach. I observed many cedar swamps, much more than I’ve seen on the Mullica, along the way, providing a good amount of cool shade.

I did this trip three times before in 2020. The first was in June when then-director Rob Ferber invited me to Pinelands Adventures’ soft opening when they were preparing for limited operations during the pandemic. 

I did it again in August on a serene Monday afternoon. Then, later in the autumn, I had two friends interested in doing more paddling so we booked a trip near the end of October. The fall color along the Batsto yesterday was just as spectacular as it had been last year.

Batsto River

The source of the Batsto River, which is a tributary of the Mullica River, is in Tabernacle. Skit Branch, Deep Run, Springer’s Brook, and Penn Swamp Branch join the Batsto. Along with Quaker Bridge, Hampton Furnace and Lower Forge are remnants of ghost towns near the banks. 

Batsto Lake

The dam built at Batsto Village, a historic settlement and ironworks founded by Charles Read in 1766, formed Batsto Lake. According to the Batsto Village website, “the lake created by the dam allowed boats to move bog iron from rivers and streams to the Iron Furnace. The lake also provided water power for the Sawmill and Gristmill.” Batsto Village avoided the fate of other ironworks of the past such as Hampton when the state of New Jersey purchased and preserved the site.

The Forks

Batsto River continues beyond Batsto Village and joins the Mullica River at The Forks. The increased volume of water received from the Batsto widens the Mullica considerably as it flows past Sweetwater Marina through Atlantic County and into Great Bay. In addition to writing a book about Batsto Village, Barbara Solem penned a short book about the history of the Forks starting with the Lenni Lenape inhabitants followed by European settlers and the importance of the area during the Revolutionary War when it was a hotbed for smugglers and pirates.

Barbara details in her book how Arnold was court-martialed when he used army wagons intended for another use to move his cargo off a ship moored at the Forks to protect it from the British. As his sentence, General George Washington, “conflicted over the matter, erred on the side of gentleness and only gave Arnold a mild rebuke.” Still, Barbara writes that it damaged the friendship between the two men and Arnold’s infamous betrayal followed shortly after.

“Today at the confluence of the Batsto and Mullica Rivers stands a tavern and restaurant named The Forks Inn (now closed). From the dining room of this colonial establishment, guests could look out at the tranquil river scene and envision a time long gone, when these waterways harbored a bustling seaport.”

Solem-Stull, Barbara. The Forks . Plexus Publishing, Inc.