A wilderness adventure in the center of New Jersey Nature: Despite encroachment by commercial development, the Pine Barrens remain an unspoiled area where you can get away from most of the irritations of modern life.

June 23, 1996|By David Rosenthal | David Rosenthal,SUN STAFF

In 1967, John McPhee wrote an unusual love letter, addressed to a swath of wilderness smack in the center of New Jersey.

At the time, the Pine Barrens were being ogled by government planners as the site of a new city and a huge airport -- four times as large as Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports combined. And despite McPhee's lament, the acres of pitch pine and shortleaf pine, sheep laurel and bracken fern seemed vulnerable to the big-government planners and the developers eager to fill in the megalopolis that sprawls from Boston to Washington.

Well, years have passed, and the airport proposal has come and gone. With some steady encroachments -- a Wal-Mart here and a Taco Bell there -- the unlikely wilderness remains.

You just have to know where to find it.

My son Jack and I found it in Wharton State Forest, which has more than 110,000 acres and covers a large chunk of the Pine Barrens.

Gilbert Mika, the park's naturalist, pointed the way, mapping out a route along some of the park's unmarked trails and sand roads. As we walked, there was no noise, except for the crunch of our sneakers on the dry, brown pine needles lining the trail and the whir of the wind in the pines above.

Along a river with water that seemed to be dyed a rich reddish-brown, we watched two herons resting on a felled tree. Farther on, Jack nearly tripped over a 3-foot-long snake, a Northern black racer, that was lying motionless along the trail -- a magic moment for an 11-year-old.

The forest had a comforting sameness, and only on the sand roads, which crisscross the pinelands, was there a clear line of sight.

The world of fast foods and the fast lane seemed far, far away.

"In a state like New Jersey, which has one of the highest population densities in the country, it's hard to believe there are some areas of wilderness left," Mika said.

"I live in Monmouth County, and the difference is like night and day. This is like going to another part of the country. You really can get kind of lost out here. It's really neat. That you can do it in New Jersey."

The pinelands, which lie between the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, include about 1.1 million acres of protected land. The area represents the largest tract of open space between Washington and Boston, according to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

But the vast natural resources have lured industrialists for well over two centuries.

During the mid-18th century, an ironworks was founded near the mouth of the Batsto River, on the southern end of what is now Wharton State Forest. By extracting bog iron and refining it, workers supplied the Continental Army with munitions, camp kettles and artillery fittings. Later, the area produced cast-iron water pipes and other products.

The pinelands also have been home to glass manufacturers and sawmills, cranberry bogs and blueberry fields.

One of the nation's most ambitious early industrialists, Joseph Wharton, had another plan for the pinelands -- one that, in failing, helped to preserve the wilderness.

He sought to exploit the qualities of the area's distinctive sands and gravels, deposited millions of years ago, when the edge of North America was about 100 miles to the west. The sands allow rain to pass through quickly, and below the surface is a huge reservoir -- an estimated 17 trillion gallons.

After the area's iron and glass manufacturing had faded, Wharton bought tens of thousands of acres with the idea of supplying fresh, clear water to the city of Philadelphia.

Failure and success

His plan failed -- one of the few failures for Wharton, whose name graces the University of Pennsylvania's school of finance. But in time, his huge landholdings were acquired by the state, for its park system.

Batsto Village, where Wharton had a gentleman's farm, remains a centerpiece of the state forest.

Jack and I strolled along dirt paths, past exhibits of a long, flat boat once used to transport raw bog iron ore, barns and a primitive kiln -- the reminder of another local industry, manufacturing charcoal. We stopped in the restored trading post, and in a demonstration at the sawmill, watched a huge log being sliced into boards -- for Jack, a process almost as inspiring as that snake.

The mansion, which looms over the rest of the village, was transformed by Wharton from a rather plain structure to a stylish, Italianate residence suitable for a man who supplied the U.S. Mint with nickel for its 5-cent pieces.

It has been restored with period pieces, although little of the furniture is from the Wharton household. Inside, we saw touches of 19th-century elegance: a dining room large enough to accommodate a table with 12 leaves, canopy beds, a sweeping wooden staircase and a billiards room.

But Wharton and the previous owners of the mansion were practical, too.

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