Hiking the Batona Trail: A Director’s Cut

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Photo by Matthew Wright

Four years ago my good friend Matt Wright and I set out to hike The Batona Trail in the Pinelands. We were on assignment for New Jersey Monthly—me as writer, he as photographer—and incredibly excited for the opportunity. And while I was really pleased with the way the story turned out in the magazine, I was a little bummed that so many nuanced anecdotes and asides had to be left on the cutting room floor for the sake of magazine page count. Writing this essay was a labor of love filled with all of those writerly tidbits and flourishes us writers are always so sad to see cut (despite the obvious necessity), and it’s always been my intention to present the unedited manuscript to readers of Twenty Pounds of Headline.  And so, lo these many years later, I bring you my Batona: The Director’s Cut!

A Walk In The Pines: Four Days on the Batona Trail
By Nick DiUlio

It was about two hours before sunset on our first day in the Pine Barrens when it occurred to me that Matt and I had made a terrible mistake. I didn’t want to say anything to him just yet, so instead I quietly hiked a few paces back on the sandy trail and engaged in a bit of silent, dread contemplation. With more than five miles still to go before we reached camp, we were soaking wet, bedraggled, and exhausted. The situation was not looking good.

 

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After about five minutes of listening to the increasingly dragging swish amble of my hiking boots against the South Jersey soil, it became undeniably clear that yes, our ambition had indeed trumped our common sense. The mid-October night was fast falling upon the Pines and I honestly didn’t know how the hell we would make it to camp before dark.

Neither of us saw the moment coming. We’d been planning this thru-hike of the Batona Trail for weeks—years really, if you count the myriad times we’d made hypothetical promises to one another that we’d eventually make the trek—and throughout early September the two of us were tireless in our preparations.

Matt, a far more experienced backpacker, was to be not only my traveling partner but photo essayist as well. When I called to tell him we’d gotten the assignment from New Jersey Monthly, he immediately scheduled a trip to REI, where he’d help me gather the gear I noticeably lacked. Waterproof hiking boots, for instance. A decent three-season sleeping bag to replace the one I’d been using since my elementary school sleepover days. A headlamp, multi-tool, and, oh yeah, a backpack.

We also spent the weeks leading up to our hike pouring over state park maps of the Batona and strategizing how we’d like to tackle its 50-plus miles of Pine Barren wilderness. Rather quickly—and without any trace of skepticism—we decided we could do it in three days.

It would all begin early on the Friday morning of October 14. Shortly after 8 a.m. Matt’s girlfriend would drop us off at Ong’s Hat, an apparition of a Pine Barrens ghost town off Route 72 in the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest that serves as the trail’s northernmost entry point. From there Matt and I would hike the Batona’s 49.5 miles over the course of three glorious days, carrying everything we needed on our backs, nourishing our friendship with the waters of adventure, spying some of New Jersey’s most diverse flora and fauna, and arriving at all sorts of profound realizations while surrounded by positively Thoreauian solitude.

I imagined us winding our way down through the massive 122,463-acre Wharton State Forest like a modern day Lewis & Clark, whistling past the historic village of Batsto, and generally digging some of the most secluded and undisturbed environs in the Garden State before eventually finding ourselves at the trail’s end inside Bass River State Forest (less than two miles northwest of Exit 52 on the Garden State Parkway, if you can believe it). We’d complete our journey just in time to be picked up in my girlfriend’s Subaru and head home to a piping hot Sunday dinner back in Medford.

Being young and fit and adventurous, Matt and I figured three days was more than enough time to complete the journey. After all, the Batona is a mercifully flat trail that most hikers under the age of 75 would surely describe as “easy.” And 17 miles a day didn’t really seem like that big a deal.

We were wrong. So very wrong.

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In the weeks before setting off on our sojourn, I found it remarkable how few of the people I talked to had ever heard of the Batona Trail. Growing up a mere fifteen minute drive from Ong’s Hat, the Batona was as recognizable to me as the Jersey Shore; a staple of many elementary and middle school field trips as well as short backpacking adventures during the few desultory weeks I spent away at Camp Ockanickon each summer. It’s rich diversity of wildlife, unchallenging terrain, and multiple access points makes it ideal for these types of adolescent educational excursions. A Pine Barrens Greatest Hits, if you will.

Still, unless I was talking to someone who graduated from Shawnee High School or worked for the State Parks Service, the response I typically got from Jerseyans and non-Jerseyans alike when mentioning my impending hike was some variation on, “Sounds cool. What’s the Batona?”

Well, since you asked…

The Batona Trail is the longest hiking trail in South Jersey, and the fifth longest in the state. Since Matt and I set out in October, the Batona has undergone a few re-routing changes that have increased its length by about 2.5 miles, bringing the total mileage somewhere in the neighborhood of 53 (although a new official tally has yet to be made).

Surprisingly, a precise and detailed history of the trail is somewhat difficult to come by. The literature you find on state maps and websites provides a vague, broad genesis story that lets hikers know the trail was started in 1961 by the oddly acronymic Back To Nature Hiking Club of Philadelphia. BAck TO NAture—get it?

More specifically, the trail was the conception of Dale Knapschafer, a Batona Hiking Club member who first conceived of it in late 1960. Originally, the idea was to construct a continuous 20-mile footpath through the Wharton and Lebanon (now Brendan T. Byrne) state forests. And it’s not too difficult to understand why this might be an appealing notion. At the time, New Jersey contained about 1,000 people per square mile (we’re up to about 1,200 today), and smack dab in the middle of that population frenzy was the Pine Barrens, an impossibly vast and improbably secluded wilderness just begging for exploration.

“In the central area of the Pine Barrens—the forest land that is still so undeveloped that it can be called wilderness—there are only fifteen people per square mile,” wrote John McPhee in his celebrated 1968 book The Pine Barrens. “This area, which includes about six hundred and fifty thousand acres, is nearly as large as Yosemite National Park. It is almost identical in size with Grand Canyon National Park, and it is much larger than Sequoia National Park, or, for that matter, most of the National Parks in the United States.”

Almost a decade after McPhee’s book was published, the entirety of the Pine Barrens was officially protected by Congress in 1978 and called the Pinelands National Preserve, encompassing about 1.1 million acres covering 22 percent of New Jersey’s land area. According to state literature, it’s the largest remaining body of open space on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard between Richmond and Boston. Sounds like the perfect place for a trail, no?

The notion excited Batona club president Morris Bardock, who took it upon himself to spearhead the effort. On January 20, 1961, Bardock wrote a letter to State Commissioner Salvatore A. Bontempo of the Department of Conservation and Economic Development, explaining the plan and asking for his endorsement.

“The Back to Nature Hiking Club of Philadelphia desires to make hiking a popular past time for more people,” Bardock’s letter began. “One contribution our club can make towards this goal is the laying out and maintenance of a hiking trail in an area accessible to a large number of people. We are considering a trail connecting the Wharton Tract and Lebanon State Forest since these areas have many visitors. Also, South Jersey has few if any developed trails: therefore, our project, we feel, would serve a function for the Forestry Service with no cost to the State.”

Bardock went on to write, “The Back to Nature Hiking Club is thirty-two years old and the most active in Philadelphia. The trail work will be done by competent out-of-doors people who have been hiking for years. We are conservation minded and can assure you that no damage would be done to any trees or vegetation.”

Bontempo liked the idea immediately and the Batona Club was given official permission by the state to begin blazing the trail just a few months after receiving Bardock’s letter. Then, during February, March, April, and May, Bardock and fellow Batona Club member Walt Korzniak made exploratory trips out to the Pine Barrens almost every weekend to layout the trail’s eventual route. Finally, on September 16, 1961, with the help of several volunteers, the trail’s first 30 miles were completed, connecting the Historic Village of Batsto—a former hub of bog iron mining and glassmaking—with Carpenter Spring in Lebanon State Forrest to the north.

A 2.5-mile extension to Ong’s Hat was added in 1978, with another 9-mile addition coming later that year, linking Batsto with Evan’s Bridge at the edge of Wharton. Finally, another nine miles was tacked on at the southern end in 1987, bringing the trail into Bass River State Forrest, where it remained untouched until this past spring’s reroutes.

At 72, Paul Piechoski can still recall what it was like working on the trail’s formation during that summer of 1961.

“It was all about a love of hiking,” says Piechoski, who remains a Batona club member but admittedly doesn’t get out to the club’s namesake trail much these days. “They knew it was a unique area, as far as the flora and fauna are concerned. And it was a labor of love, putting a trail in and having people enjoy it. I know it sounds corny but it’s true. You do something like this to hand down to future generations.”

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When Matt and I arrived at Ong’s Hat at 8:37 a.m. on October 14, we were both afire with the trail’s history and future promises. The weather was sunny and breezy, just a bit humid, and what few morning clouds rolled in rolled out just as unceremoniously. Matt’s girlfriend took a snapshot of us leaning coolly against a large wooden map of the trail, and then we picked up our respective 30-pound packs, said our goodbyes, and set out on the Batona.

What’s most exciting about starting this trail is that you immediately feel the embrace of its original intent—namely, to get you back to nature. The gentle hum of Route 72 fades with every step you take on the sandy soil, plunging you inexorably deeper into one of New Jersey’s most enduring natural treasures.

Sure, the Batona may lack the supreme vistas of more elevated trails like those around the Delaware Water Gap, the inherent dangers of monster thru-hikes like the Pacific Crest, or the international reputation of behemoths like the AT, but it’s the Batona’s simplicity as much as its seclusion that charms the heart.

Not everyone feels this way. On more than a few message boards I read before taking off, some were so bold as to call the trail boring. One disgruntled hiker, on a website called Backpackinglight.com, wrote, “If you like hiking flat sand trails and don’t mind tics, or mosquitoes, then go for it….For me, it was too much of the same scenery everywhere you looked. I think next time I’m going to put the mountain bike out there and just go fast.”

Not only does this betray the entire spirit and intention of the trail’s creation (and by the way, mountain bikes aren’t allowed on the Batona) but it’s also incredibly disingenuous. The Pine Barrens, despite the forest’s misleading nomenclature, is anything but desolate. It’s positively teaming with diverse life, and most of it can be seen right from the Batona Trail for those who are patient enough to look.

For instance, 23 kinds of orchid grow in the Pines Barrens, along with an assortment of any horticulturalist’s dream lineup, including the bog asphodel (which you can’t find anywhere else north of the Carolinas), the Pine Barren gentian, swamp azaleas, prickly pears, cassandras, wild magnolias, and the curly-grass fern, which was discovered in the pines and grows almost nowhere else on the planet.
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In his chapter devoted entirely to Pine Barrens ecology, McPhee quotes former University of Pennsylvania botany professor Edgar T. Wherry, who was responding to the possibility back in the late 60s of a large jetport being built in the Pine Barrens. “‘To have all this destroyed by a jetport, or by anything else,’” says Wherry, “‘would be an ecological disaster.’”

In addition to its grand diversity of plant life, the Batona also affords hikers several chances to spot wildlife that range from white tailed deer to timber rattle snakes and even the occasional coyote. Later in our hike Matt and I stumbled upon a hunter deep in the woods who said he had been out there since five o’clock that morning.

“Saw about 15 coyotes in a pack down the road before sunrise,” he said. “Got within about 40 yards of ‘em. If you keep an eye out for their scat you’ll think it’s from a dog at first. But when you look closely you’ll see deer fur in it. They’re out there.”

There are also many smaller creatures as well.

“You should really go during the spring time when the Pine Barrens tree frogs are calling,” says Russel Juelg, Pine Barrens educator and land steward with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which manages a short stretch of the Batona between Brendan T. Byrne and Wharton State forests. “There are all kinds of different frogs out there, and if you get acquainted with them you can hear them call while you’re hiking, especially in the morning or evening.”

Juelg points out that hikers will also hear and see other critters, including turtles, otters, beaver, hawks, owls and myriad songbirds, including whippoorwills that whoop and whip all night long. All told, the Pine Barrens is home to more than 80 different kinds of songbird as well as native species like yellow-billed cuckoos, hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, brown thrashers, turkey vultures, screech owls, and yes, even bald eagles.

And then there’s the black bear, which has been encroaching ever southward throughout New Jersey over the past decade and is known to show up in the pines every now and then. Chances aren’t great that you’ll run into one, but it’s fun—and important for safety reasons—to be on the lookout nonetheless.

“To tell you the truth, I kind of like rattlesnakes and bears,” says Juelg. “They remind us there still is wilderness around us. We tend to think of civilization as a safe zone, and that’s a total fallacy.”

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Throughout our first several hours on the trail, Matt and I talked endlessly about the wildlife we were hoping to encounter. And while we didn’t come across any particularly exotic animals, we were startled by the varieties of mushroom we had stumbled upon by lunchtime, at least four different species, including a perplexingly beautiful lavender button topped with a spot of bright yellow.

Above all, Matt and I were simply delighted to be out in the undeterred and, at times, seemingly infinite expanse of nature. It takes a little while to get there—the first three or four miles of the trail often intersect with paved roads and sometimes runs just a few hundred yards behind private backyards—but by the time you’ve plodded eight miles to Pakim Pond (a great lunch destination with gazebos, very well-kept bathrooms, and potable water) you’ll feel like you’ve truly stepped into another world entirely. And the longer you hike the more you will find it nearly impossible to accept that the rumbling bustle of the Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway border your newfound wilderness like some steamy, seething Goliath serpents to the south and east.

“It’s just awesome out there,” says Rosemarie Mason, a member of the Outdoor Club of South Jersey, which has recently taken over much of the trail’s maintenance from the aging Batona Hiking Club. Mason, 58, works at The Borgata casino in Atlantic City and has thru-hiked the trail three times. “There’s such a simple beauty to it. Amazing little streams and wildflowers and it’s all so unlike anything most people come in contact with day-to-day. It’s an incredible place.”

Indeed it is. Even when it rains.

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Here’s a bit of advice I caution you not to ignore: If you plan on taking a backpacking adventure, even if it’s just overnight, buy a pair of hiking pants. Good lord, save yourself a world of suffering and buy a pair of hiking pants. Almost every other piece of clothing is negotiable—with perhaps the exception of well-made boots—but the pants…no sir. They’re critical.

Having wracked up an REI bill well north of $500 before leaving on our trip, my buyer’s remorse gene was working its way out of a massive hangover. So when Matt suggested I invest another $60 and get myself a pair of nylon hiking pants that conveniently convert into shorts with a quick unzip, I laughed as though he were asking me to buy a gold-plated water bottle. Seriously? Pants are pants, right? My cotton cargo shorts from American Eagle will do just fine, thank you very much.

Then it rained, and I would have gladly spent twice as much for even one leg of those gloriously light, water-wicking nylon covers if it meant I could once again hike in peace.

It was shortly after leaving Pakim Pond that the skies opened up. At first the rain fell with light, mystical ambition. It was even quite beautiful in a way, weighing down whatever deciduous foliage the newly descended autumn wind and cold had yet to claim. In some of the more thickly wooded areas, the Pine Barrens in the rain took on a strange, sinister, electric gloom, an ancient melancholy that gives one pause to consider, “Oh right. Now I see why the Jersey Devil was born in these parts.”

Rain on the trail also allows you to reflect on one of the Pine Barrens other magnificent traits: it’s incomprehensible water retention. Back at Pakim I came upon a plaque affixed to an old wooden bridge that crosses the pond’s feeding tributary. It contained some remarkable facts:

“Half the rain water falling on the 1,250-square-mile Pine Barrens region seeps through the porous sand soil into the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer. This 17-trillion-gallon aquifer supplies most of southern New Jersey’s potable water. South Jersey residents consume an estimated 200 million gallons every day for drinking, washing the car, irrigating the lawn and garden, and many other uses. Surface runoff and seepage from this aquifer are also primary sources for all of Southern New Jersey’s rivers.”

And so, while getting soaked by the rains, I was doing my best to accept that this was all part of the grand universal plan, and that my growing discomfort paled in comparison to the ecological importance of what was taking place all around me. Still, it eventually became a major bummer.

Next to jeans, a pair of cotton shorts is the most tragically inhospitable article of clothing one can wear while hiking in the rain. They get heavy. Real heavy. And they chafe, rubbing indiscriminately against every contact of skin and reminding you with each step that you made a terrible, terrible choice.

Still, we trudged on in the rain, which fell intermittently for the next three hours. At one point during a particularly aggressive deluge Matt and I came upon a seemingly abandoned conversion van in the middle of the woods. I walked up to with the thought that perhaps it might provide shelter. But when I got closer I saw that other vehicles in a similar state of disrepair surrounded the van. Rusted pickup trucks. Camp trailers on cinder blocks. Other vans with the windows cracked or blown out entirely. And their placement didn’t look random or unintentional. It looked planned, sinister, like some little makeshift village designed by the backcountry folk who still roam the Pine Barrens. They’re called Pineys, and it’s usually a good idea to keep your distance.

So Matt and I retreated and got back on the trail, suddenly more eager than ever to get to camp before dark.

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If the Batona has one significant drawback, it’s the sparse number of campsites available to thru-hikers. Between Ong’s Hat and Bass River, there are five places to stop and spend the night, and only one of those—Batona Camp—is actually on the trail itself. The rest require you to leave the trail and hike sometimes as much as two miles before arriving at a place to pitch a tent.

Technically it’s illegal to camp anywhere except official sites, but if you wanted to you could set up somewhere in the backcountry (and more than a few people do) without drawing too much attention to yourself.

As darkness began to fall—and with our destination of Batona Camp still more than five miles away—Matt and I discussed this option many times. But we needed potable water (which all camps except Lower Forge provide) and the peace of mind that comes with arriving at a formal destination. Besides, we had set a goal for ourselves. We were supposed to hike 18.7 miles that day, and by golly we weren’t going to give up, no matter how exhausted and wet and miserable we had become.

Things were getting ugly and shutting down. Fast. In addition to the chaffy prison of my khaki shorts, my feet ached and sloshed with water inside my brand new boots, my 30-pound pack might as well have weighed 1,000, and my legs, which had never in their 30-year history, traversed 14 miles in a single day, were all but screaming for surrender.

A glorious moment of respite and awe came about two miles later when we arrived at Apple Pie Hill. Boasting a whopping elevation of 205 feet above sea level, Apple Pie is the highest point in the Pine Barrens. As one character in McPhee’s book describes it, “Apple Pie Hill is a thunderstriking high hill. You don’t realize how high until you get up here. It’s the long slope of a hill that makes a high one…”

Accenting the hill’s unlikely elevation like a one-year birthday candle is a tall, metal fire tower, and climbing its steps affords hikers an impressive sight. The view—undoubtedly the best in the Pine Barrens—is uninterrupted and majestic, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that on a clear night or day one can just make out Philadelphia to the west and Atlantic City to the east. Old timers will even tell you that in the days before so much ubiquitous light pollution, one could even see the glow of New York City’s skyline from the fire tower’s perch.

When Matt and I arrived there was a small tour group finishing its visit, and as they climbed down the tower’s steps I overheard the guide relaying an interesting anecdote. He said that the fire lookout who used to sit in the tower would perch himself on a stool, with each of the four legs resting in a shot glass.

“That way, in case there’s a freak strike of lightening,” the guide said, “he’d be insulated against the shock.”

When the tour group left, Matt and I climbed the tower—scribed now by countless years and layers of vibrant, colorful graffiti—and surveyed the vast expanse of wilderness that surrounded us, getting a good look for the first time at the prehistoric sweep and solitude of the pines. Burdened by a slight fear of heights, I could only remain up top for a few minutes before vertigo began setting in, but Matt stayed for several more minutes, snapping photos in all directions and hooting with excitement into the earth’s perfect yawn of time and distance and ancient perfection.

Meanwhile, I changed out of my soaking shorts, socks, t-shirt and boots into a fresh set of clothes. Unfortunately these included my only backup pare of pants—blue jeans. And the only thing worse than hiking through a wet forest in cotton cargo shorts is hiking through a wet forest in blue jeans.

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So it was that life took one final dip into the humbling absurdity of our situation, and as Matt and I set up camp at Batona that night—arriving as we did about 45 minutes after sunset—we both agreed that it had been many, many years since we had ever felt this sore and exhausted. At one point I turned to Matt inside our tent and said, “If my body had a battery icon like a cell phone, it would be reading about three percent.”

In the darkness Matt boiled water for our instant meals while I took notes on the day’s activities, which, save the last six or seven rain-soaked miles, was an incredibly enjoyable experience. That being said, as we huddled together and ate our beef stroganoff like two famished Dickensian orphans, we mutually shuddered at the thought of doing another 16 miles tomorrow—and then 18 miles the day after that. No sir. Not gonna happen. Unless you are in phenomenal hiking condition, the Batona is a four-day backpacking adventure for sure.

And that’s what it eventually became for us, as Matt and I agreed we would not be able to complete the journey in the timeframe we originally intended. Instead, we took the next day—a gloriously cool and clear specimen of autumn in the wild—and hiked about 10 miles south to Mullica Camp. We spent the afternoon there in leisurely fashion, setting up our tent on the edge of the mighty Mullica River, gathering surrounding wood for a fire, and awarding ourselves to some well-earned relaxation.

At nightfall we sat around the fire and shared stories and laughed about our previous day’s missteps, suddenly realizing the foolishness of what another friend would later call, “Taking the car you drive to the grocery store and suddenly trying to race it in the Indy 500.”

The sky was also spectacular. Camping in one of the deepest parts of Wharton State Forrest means seeing stars that most New Jersey residents are only treated to in cinema. And this too is what hiking the Batona is all about. You find yourself getting in touch with wonders that often escape you in the day to day living of life. Sure, there are times when I’ll step outside and think, Wow, the moon is really bright tonight. But we’re all indoors for such a large majority of our lives that we fail to see the gradual shift of the moon or how its light changes throughout the night and adds new and interesting dimensions to the world around you. This is why you hike the Batona.

For the rest of our trip Matt and I continued to spontaneously philosophize about the purpose of doing a hike like this. Sure, there are moments when walking through the Pines may strike some as repetitive, desolate, perhaps even a bit lonely. But that, as Matt pointed out on our fourth and final day of hiking, is sort of the point.

“I think one of the reasons some people may be turned off to this type of backpacking,” he said, “is because it’s not destination oriented. It’s not like we’re going to arrive at some enormous vista or the Grand Canyon or a grove of redwoods at the end of this trail. We’re just out for the sake of being out here, aren’t we?”

Exactly, I said. Exactly.

 

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One response to “Hiking the Batona Trail: A Director’s Cut

  1. I remember this.

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