Saturday, May 19, 2012


The smell of pine opened a flood of memories. It has been a while since I have been here, but I used to spend summers here growing up. The Jersey Pine Barrens have always held a special place in my heart. Maybe because my parents first took us camping here. Maybe because it is where I first tasted adult freedom. First in the form of solo early morning bike rides on deserted roads as whip-poor-wills called while the rest of my family slept, then as unsupervised canoe trips down the tannin waters of the Mullica and Batsto rivers. I miss those days, and the people I shared them with.

I could feel my heart beat just a little faster as I geared up, a result of the usual expectancy of exploration. Snorkeling the Mullica is not like a first attempt on Everest, or challenger deep descent. But this was new territory for me. Creek snorkeling often gives me that small jolt of exploratory excitement. While rivers and streams are familiar to us, their underwater views are not. I used to feel at home in the barrens but now I am a stranger here. They are a mystical place full of lore and legend, and I looked over my shoulder frequently. I felt a little uneasy, and wondered if the Jersey devil was watching. I never snorkeled dark waters, and didn’t know what to expect.

Tannins leach from decaying vegetation and stain the waters to a dark burgundy tea. Water flowing out of bogs is especially dark. One of the unique aspects of the Pine Barrens is the contrast between adjacent systems: very arid nutrient poor sands interspersed with areas where the aquifer surfaces and forms bogs. There was a bog located just upstream so I couldn’t see the bottom of the few foot deep Mullica as I reluctantly stuck my head under the water.

The water was clear but dark and being here was a little unnerving. Everything was tinted red, as if there was a crimson lens in my mask. It was like swimming through the set of a horror film, with everything under a red light. The stream scape was interesting, at least what I could see of it was. Sand bars looked orange striped and some kind of underwater grass grew from the cut bank of the river like fine green hair. I didn’t see any fish, but didn’t spend a lot of time looking. Jeremy Wade and his search for river monsters planted a small kernel of possibility that assured a short trip in this dark water.

But still I was glad I got in. I can say I tried to snorkel in tannin stained water. It gave me a different perspective of a very different kind of stream.

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