Wharton State Forest by Jay Orlano, photo credit Albert D. Horner
Just off New Jersey Route 206, down an old dusty lane, used primarily by forest rangers, there's a place that I go to get away that's not known by many and ventured to by few. At first glance, one would believe they were in a barren, lifeless world. Lanky pines are randomly placed in this earth-toned environment. A thick layer of pine needles limits the amount of growth beneath your feet. Lichen sprawls along downed trees and spreads like sparsely placed patches of area carpet. There is stillness about the air. With the apparent absence of wildlife, one would assume the creatures had escaped to the city where the squirrels scamper across power lines like tightrope walkers and the birds feed at the neighborhood fast-food joint.
Looking deeper into the trees, you may start to see the forest that conceals its life so well. Small, camouflaged lizards jet across weathered trees fallen from a previous storm. Deer quietly pass by with barely a crackle in the leaves. A colorful array of small birds feed on the buzzing insects for their afternoon meal. The silence is broken only by the songs of the male toad in search of a mate. As a parade route of patrons, the blueberry bushes line the river providing sweet treats for the hidden residents of the forest.
The shallow waters of the river best visually conceal their secrets. Only a few feet wide with a murky hue of brown, it winds through the pinelands at a steady pace leading out to the Atlantic. A spinning leaf or floating twig seems to be its only travelers. The occasional group of water skippers jet across the surface like a finely synchronized hockey team looking for a goal. With a little encouragement, the river’s tenants can be beckoned. A greasy, half-eaten hotdog dropped into the water becomes a beacon. First one, then two, then three catfish slowly work their way up the river surveying the scene. While each fish is only 12 inches long, together they resemble a pack of hungry dogs, stealthily and methodically encircling the hotdog prey. Quickly as they came, they again disappear into the depths like thieves into the night.
You can see the local sunbathers perched motionless as you approach. These communities of turtles line the logs like a congested New York City street. The larger, domineering ones take to the higher ground as patriarchal lookouts. As you encroach into their invisible radius, they drop one by one. First back into the sanctity of the water is the lookout, giving reason as to why he is so large. Then, in succession, the smaller turtles retreat in an unwritten hierarchy. They drop like pebbles into the water, now invisible to peering eyes.
Even in this isolated place, far from the city, what is clearly evident are the after effects of human trespassing. Bottles, cans and trash are strewn everywhere from the previous night’s party. Tires, couches and four-wheel drive vehicles reconfigure the pathways where excursionists once easily trod. Little care is taken by the motorists as they trample their way through for a day of fun, leaving damage for years to come.
The pungent odor of burnt timber from the recent forest fire, caused by a careless visitor, still fills the air. Dark, broken figures resemble the trees that once stood proudly. The pain and destruction resonate as far as the eye can see. Winter now has a firm grip while life is in suspended animation, waiting. Soon, the warmth of the new spring air will once again awaken Mother Nature from her slumber to take hold and transform mans’ devastation into something magical. Just as a populated city rebuilds after a disaster, life resists and the reconstruction ensues. Small sprouts will penetrate the charred, lifeless ground. New shoots will reach out to grab the warmth of the sun. The new generation of the forest will be born.
As the forest and the river depend on the new generations, humans should as well. Edify your children in the appreciation of the natural world. It is a fragile subset of our culture from which we have become isolated. There are no iPods, cellular phones or new wave video game consoles that can convey its message. It must be experienced first-hand. Listen for its messages through the crackle of the leaves and the whispers in the wind. Seek out its treasures and feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Embrace and protect these areas, for some of us call them home.
Wharton State Forest is the largest state forest in New Jersey. It encompasses approximately 122,880 acres of the Pinelands northeast of Hammonton. Its protected acreage is divided between Burlington, Camden, and Atlantic counties.