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The unique charm of the Mullica River comes from its extensive savanna marshes and numerous high, sandy banks that offer ideal places for a snack, sunbathing, or a swim. At the upper end the banks are crowded with deciduous trees and bushes, but downstream, below the marshes, the terrain is open except for a few cedars and scattered pines. With its consistent beauty, ease of paddling, and isolation from development, the Mullica has to be everyone's first or second favorite river in the Pine Barrens. It would be my recommendation for anyone new to the area.
In recent years beavers have moved into the Goshen Pond area and along the run between Atsion and the old campground. They can be observed by quiet groups, especially in the early morning or evening. Breeding boxes for wood ducks, made of wood or two plastic buckets glued together, have been placed in many beaver ponds.
The segment from Atsion to Pleasant Mills is now designated as a "Wild River," part of the Wild and Scenic River System of New Jersey.
A word about pronunciation: Atsion is now commonly pronounced "At-zigh'un," with the accent on the second syllable. But if you don't want to be taken as a newcomer to the Pine Barrens, slur the second and third syllables together and say "At'zine" as the old-timers do.
The best one-day trip for beginners who intend to rent canoes (including hauling) is between the old Mullica Camp and Pleasant Mills. The run starting at Atsion is no more difficult, but its extra length may be too much for the novice. Nevertheless, those who bring their own canoes should start at Atsion unless they have cars with four-wheel drive or are willing to risk getting mired in the sand on the way to the old Mullica Camp.
At Atsion, putting in directly from Route 206 is hazardous because of heavy automobile traffic. The best put-in location is just off Route 206: Drive a few yards down a small dirt road on the south side of the river toward the ruins of an old mill; at that point, there is a short, narrow path leading back to the river, along which the canoe can be carried.
The trip from Atsion to Pleasant Mills actually makes a good overnight run, with camping at the Mullica River Camp. An alternative trip with a long second day is from Jackson Road (Route 534) to Pleasant Mills, with camping at Atsion Lake. The stretch of river between Jackson Road and Atsion is short, very narrow at the beginning, and has many sharp turns. But getting an early start the next day, one can enjoy the morning mist on the lake and finish the trip with little difficulty. The ultimate in casual canoeing is a three-day trip from Jackson Road to Pleasant Mills with overnight stops at Atsion Lake and Mullica River Camp.
Until recently, cars parked overnight at the canoe access at Pleasant Mills were susceptible to vandalism, but apparently this has stopped. It may be prudent, however, to confirm this with local people perhaps at the Batsto Village headquarters. In any event, anyone with a camping permit at the Mullica River Campground may park free at the Batsto headquarters, where the parking area is active and well lit; otherwise there is a nominal charge. The walk to the Pleasant Mills access takes less than fifteen minutes.
Below Pleasant Mills, the Mullica is tidal. Canoes can continue and take out at Crowley Landing, where the state operates a boat ramp off Route 542. This adds about one and a half hours on the river. This could be extended with a side trip up the Batsto to the spillway at Batsto Lake, which would add another one and a half hours. Pleasant Mills to Batsto would take about two hours, including a short walk to or from one car. As a short day trip, however, the run from the dam at Batsto to Crowley Landing is more attractive.
Atsion Family Campground
Bel Haven Lake
Buttonwood Hill Camp
Goshen Pond Camp
Mullica River Camp (inaccessible by car)
Paradise Lake Campground
Canoe rental agencies
Adams Canoe Rentals
Bel Haven Lake
Forks Landing Marina
Mullica River Boat Basin
Paradise Lake Campground
From New York City access is via Atlantic City Coachways. Purchase a ticket to Hammonton, and ask the driver to stop at Lake Atsion. Canoes can be rented at the lake from Adams Canoe Rentals. Arriving there in the late afternoon, one can put in at the lake, paddle up to Atsion Lake Camp for the night, and start downstream early the following morning. When returning to New York, ask the canoe hauler to take you to the railroad crossing south of Atsion to meet the city-bound bus. From Philadelphia one may take the New Jersey Transit bus to Mount Holly, then walk to High Street and up High Street as far as Rancocas Road (about 2 blocks in all) to catch the Atlantic City Coachways bus from New York City.
The nearest hospitals are situated in Hammonton and Mount Holly. Both cities have other amenities as well. Cabins are available for rent at Atsion Family Campground. There are motels and diners on Route 206 north of Route 70, and a market on Route 206 south of Route 70. A public recreation area with a beach and swimming is at Lake Atsion, across from the Atsion Family Campground.
At the Atsion Bridge, there is a gauge on the abutment on the river left on the downstream side, but it may be difficult to read, owing to dirt and water turbulence. The bridge is too large to determine the water level by measuring from the underside of the bridge. An alternative is to measure the height of the lower end of the abutment on the river right, across from the gauge. A gauge reading of 2.8 corresponds to a height along the lower end of the right abutment of about 53 inches. On the spring run the water level was 36 inches, and in the fall it was 57 inches. The canoeing downstream from Atsion is good at both levels, except that at the lower levels, canoes may have to be hauled over beaver dams. This section is generally navigable throughout the year, except in August or September of a very dry summer. The river above Atsion, however, contains less water and is narrower. There is a gauge upstream of the bridge at Jackson Road. Paddling should be good when the gauge reads 2.9 feet. At 2.5 feet there may be one or two liftovers, but at 2.3 feet, many of the bends in the river would be difficult to negotiate in a 17-foot canoe. The river from Jackson Road to Atsion Lake has been cleared by members of the South Jersey Canoe Club, so liftovers should be minimal.
River details from Jackson Road to Pleasant Mills
Initially the width of the Mullica is about 3¼4 of a canoe length. But within ten minutes, it narrows to 1 to 3 canoe widths for a considerable time, sometimes passing through dense bushes, with very tight and frequent turns. In high water the river overflows its banks, and the channel may be hard to follow. The trees are mostly deciduous, numerous, and slender. After a half hour the bushes thin out and the river is wider; then the growth is alternately dense and sparse. Debris is minimal, although some liftovers may be necessary in low water. An hour after the put-in, the trees thin out, and stands of grass begin appearing here and there. Then some cedars appear along with leatherleaf bushes and lily pads. Soon the river crosses under the wooden bridge of the old Jackson-Atsion Road. There is a small, sandy bank on the downstream side of the bridge that makes a good rest stop.
After the bridge the river gradually widens to 1¼2 to 1 canoe length; turns are still tight but not as frequent as before. Deciduous trees show up occasionally but are gradually replaced by cedars and pines. Soon grasses become more common, alternating with bushes, which become predominantly leatherleaf. Gradually the river widens into a "spong," or marsh-an open, dense field of leatherleaf bushes and grasses, framed by distant cedars and pines. Along the edges of the channel grow cranberries, irises, and water lilies. The turns become more gentle as the river meanders through the marsh. This is an outstanding area, especially in late March and early April when the leatherleaf bushes are in bloom. Twenty to thirty minutes after the bridge, the spong ends as the river forms again. On the right there is a stopping place that gives a good view of the marsh.
The river is now 3/4 to 1 canoe length wide, the banks are firm and crowded with bushes and trees, and the turns are mostly gentle. After a half hour or so, the banks slowly lower and the river gradually loses form as it approaches Goshen Pond. Grasses and bushes grow in the water, and cedar trees did once, but they are dead now; there are pines off to the left on high ground. The pond itself is small, pretty, and lined with pines; bushes and trees cluster in the middle. Goshen Pond Camp is located on the left and is accessible by an ordinary automobile via sandy roads. There are beaver dams in and downstream from Goshen Pond.
The river leaves the pond at the far end of the camp and is difficult to spot because bushes block the way. A short, covelike shoreline with two sandy banks indicates the camp's end; the stream passes into the woods just to the right. But its water flows between trees, and there is no channel. Although in high water one can force through by bearing left, it is much easier to take out and portage over the left shore, which is a spit separating Goshen Pond and a pool. From the pool a narrow passage of water leads to a point where the river forms a channel again.
Trees line the banks for a short distance beyond the point where the river closes in again, but as the stream passes under a narrow wooden bridge, they disappear and are replaced by a very dense growth of bushes. The channel soon spreads out, and the near banks are laden with bushes and grasses. After one passes around an island, Atsion Lake comes into view with Route 206 in the distance. There is an island in a cove on the left, and then one can see small, sandy ramps, which lead to the individual campsites of Atsion Family Campground. The first ramp, between campsites, is open to anyone camping at the lake. Those not camping must paddle to the far end of the lake to a public access on the right, associated with the Atsion Recreation Area beach. On a windless day about twenty minutes of lake canoeing separate this access from Route 206. At the far side of the lake, the canoe must be portaged around the dam and over the highway.
The customary access to the river below the dam is off Route 206 on the right side of the river. In low water, however, paddlers may encounter excessive debris requiring liftovers. An alternate access avoids the debris and shortens the trip by about an hour. To reach it, turn onto the Quaker Bridge Road, a sand road beginning at the ranger station on the left side of the river. After crossing the railroad tracks at 1¼2 mile, continue for another 4/10 of a mile, where a large tree with a large red circle and three white stripes is on the right. Turn right, to the river bank.
Below Atsion the river is 1 to 1 1/2 canoe lengths wide, and turns are gradual. The banks are firm and covered thickly with deciduous trees and bushes that tend to overhang the water. In a few minutes the river passes under a railroad trestle. (If the alternate access is selected, you will not pass under the railroad trestle.) Several minutes beyond the trestle, large logs are encountered occasionally; most can be steered around or squeezed under, but one or two may require liftovers, depending on the level of the water. Turns are sharp and frequent. On the banks, cedars are mixed with maples, and an occasional pine is seen in the distance.
From thirty to forty-five minutes out of Atsion, the first of innumerable sandy banks appears on the left, and the turns gradually become more gentle. In another ten to fifteen minutes, the trees thin out, although the bushes are still dense, and the terrain becomes much more open. Two low, flat fields where lichens, moss, and a few pines grow are located on the right within ten minutes of each other. In many places the river backs up into grassy ponds. Soon the bushes are replaced by hummocks of tall grasses. In a few minutes the river spreads out into a broad, grassy marsh where the water passes among countless hummocks. There is an excellent place to stop on the right. The ill-defined channel wanders slowly from one side to the other through the open field of water and grasses, lilies and irises. Small maples are scattered here and there, and one usually can see pines growing on higher banks in the distance. Eventually, there is a high, sandy bank on the right, and a few minutes later the banks converge at the end of the marsh. The bank on the left, cleared of bushes, slopes gently up to the site of the old Mullica Camp, a popular place to start canoeing to Pleasant Mills. Camping is no longer permitted here. Be careful of the beaver dam, if it is still there. At low water it could be responsible for a drop of 3 to 4 feet, and boats laden with camping gear might take in water when running it. If necessary, canoes can be carried over on the left.
Bushes and trees crowd the banks again, and branches sometimes overhang the river. There is occasional debris. Ten minutes downstream from the old campground, the frequent turns are the most severe below Atsion. They continue for another fifteen to twenty minutes. Clumps of grasses appear now and then, and the banks become swampy, alternating with an occasional high, sandy bank topped by pines. Nearby there is a beaver dam, and one can occasionally see felled trees whose bark and trunks have been gnawed through. Grasses grow everywhere, mixed with bushes and scattered maples.
After passing several exposed banks, the river begins to spread out into another marsh. It is similar to the previous one but has more maple trees, and the water is quieter, apparently drifting aimlessly. The lazy water, moving broadly through the grasses before a background of pines, is enchanting, as all marshes are; but one should keep one's eyes on the channel, or at least the riverbank, to avoid getting stuck in a shallow area or paddling off in the wrong direction. After meandering slowly one way and then the other, the river tends to flow along a high bank on the left. Soon a tributary bubbles in from the right, and the Mullica River Camp follows shortly thereafter on the left, on a well-marked, cleared bank.
Below the campground the river is 1 1/2 to 2 canoe lengths wide with a narrow spit of trees separating it from a broad, grassy pond. Ten to fifteen minutes from the camp, there is a low, sandy bank on the right that leads to a field of sheep laurel and blueberries interspersed among pine trees. Cedars, cranberries, and pitcher plants line the damp banks.
Soon one comes to a small wooden storage tank next to a platform bearing a water gauge. On the left is the entrance to a small, shallow pond, which may be drained during times of low water. Its bottom is caked with the hard, rusty brown limonite that was the source of iron for the bog-iron industry in the Pine Barrens. Easily accessible to the furnaces at Batsto by both river and sand road, this pond was undoubtedly mined for iron during the nineteenth century.
A half hour of canoeing separates this pond from Constable Bridge. In this section the river gradually widens to more than 2 canoe lengths. The broad marshes are gone, cedars are infrequent, and pines appear scattered along the shore among grasses and low bushes. At several places the banks are high, and exposed sandy beaches lead down to the water. Within sight of the bridge, a low but steep portion of the right bank shows a patch of limonite.
The run from Constable Bridge to Pleasant Mills takes thirty to forty-five minutes; one can judge accordingly how to allot the remainder of one's time. The river continues to flow broadly and openly with long, winding turns. Bushes and grasses grow along the edge. The banks are high behind several outstanding sand-rimmed coves, and growing upon the banks is a pine forest. Just past the final beach on the right, there are high, sandy banks on both sides where a bridge once spanned the river, and bridge ruins can be seen on the left. From here to Pleasant Mills takes ten to twenty minutes as the channel narrows to 1 to 2 canoe lengths, and mixed cedars and deciduous trees become dense and overhang the river.
The take-out is located on the left about 25 yards downstream of the highway bridge at Pleasant Mills (just west of Batsto Village) and is marked by yellow rings painted on two trees. People renting canoes from the Forks Landing Marina may continue beyond this point and take out instead at the dock in Sweetwater. Past Pleasant Mills the river broadens into tidal water; the additional paddling to Sweetwater takes forty-five minutes.
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