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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.