Anyone who has canoed elsewhere in the Pine Barrens and then tries Rancocas Creek will find it an anomaly. Its differences are profound: Except for initial downed wood and several large logs that may necessitate liftovers just below Browns Mills, the Rancocas contains no troubling debris, except perhaps above New Lisbon. Its trees and bushes are typical of northern New Jersey woods, and its banks are usually firm, not sandy. It is a wide, continually meandering river graced by high banks where towering trees grow. It is easy, pretty, and a good stream for beginners. Most of Rancocas Creek lies outside the Pine Barrens, but since a portion is inside, and Mount Misery Brook flows into the creek, I have included the Rancocas for the sake of continuity.
The creek is apparently named after an Indian tribe-which one is not clear. The Remkokes lived along the Delaware River, as did the Ancocus Indians. Mount Holly, on the banks of the Rancocas, is one of the oldest cities in the state, having been settled by Quakers in the late 1600s.
Possible routes The river has three tributaries: the North, South, and Southwest branches. Only the North Branch has a navigable section within the Pine Barrens; it is the tributary described here. In normal times the best run is from Browns Mills to Mount Holly. (Upstream from Browns Mills the canoeing is mostly over lakes, and below Mount Holly the river soon becomes tidal.) The entire trip can be made on a very long day, but dividing it into two or more one-day runs is much more compatible with the spirit of the river. The access at Browns Mills is on Route 530 below the bridge and behind Domino’s Pizza. Between Browns Mills and New Lisbon, the river is still congested with debris from reconstruction of the dam at Browns Mills, so a saw and clippers may be helpful.
There are some open areas where one might try to camp primitively, but I do not know whether it is permitted. Certainly a fire permit would be required for open fires.
Campground Lebanon State Forest
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Canoe rental agency Clark’s Canoe Rental
Public transportation From New York City one can take the Atlantic City Coachways bus to Mount Holly. From Philadelphia one can take the New Jersey Transit bus to Mount Holly.
Other amenities Mount Holly is the largest city in the area, but Pemberton and Browns Mills are of a respectable size and have markets and gas stations. Route 206 has diners, gas stations, and motels. There are hospitals in Mount Holly, Toms River, and Lakewood.
Water level There is a water-level gauge mounted on the downstream side of the bridge in Pemberton. Originally, I scouted the river in two sections in the fall, and the readings were 1.70 feet and 1.65 feet. The best access to the river was downstream of the bridge on the same side as the gauge. Now, however, the best access is upstream, and the gauge may not be easy to find. Another gauge is on the bridge at Browns Mills. The Braleys found that gauge read about 6.00 feet when the gauge at Pemberton read 1.89 feet. Most likely this concern about water is academic on the Rancocas. It is likely to be shallow at only one place-New Lisbon-and the river should be navigable throughout the year.
River details from Browns Mills to Mount Holly: After a large pool of water below the dam at Browns Mills, the river narrows to 1 canoe length. Immediately, a sequence of three heavy logs lies across the river; the canoe may have to be lifted over them. The banks are low, muddy, and covered with a dense blanket of bushes and trees that in this section opens only at numerous houses. For the first half-hour or so, there is a moderate amount of debris, and several liftovers are possible. The turns are usually gentle, although some are hairpin. The banks gradually become higher and firmer; the bushes become less dense as short grasses and mosses grow among the trees. The debris soon diminishes as the river widens from 1 to 1 1/2 canoe lengths, although liftovers are still likely. There are no more houses now. The channel begins to make large meanders, with long, straight stretches interrupted by sharp turns. The woods are mostly deciduous. After a short while, the bushes become dense again, and along with small trees they hang over the river.
The beginnings of a housing development appears on the right, and then the river immediately widens to 2 canoe lengths. The trees draw back, and the banks become lower; the water often overflows and forms ponds alongside. Several houses appear in one small area. Gradually growing more swampy, the river begins to lose its form. Marsh grasses, water lilies, and, in the fall, purple asters stand out. The turns become frequent, and one must take care not to lose the channel by paddling the wrong way into a pond.
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The view soon enlarges considerably as the river enters the lake bed behind the former dam at New Lisbon. There is nothing to do here but to follow the creek to the dam site. The concrete abutments still remain, and they concentrate the water flow into a spillway that can be run under most conditions.
The river is now 1 1/2 canoe lengths wide, with very little debris. The trees and bushes are dense; some trees arch over the river. On the right bank there is a large farm, and on the left bank are some houses. In a few minutes the Greenwood Branch of the Rancocas flows in from the left, and Rancocas Creek widens to 2 canoe lengths. Past a concrete abutment, there are houses for quite a while. The river widens to 3 canoe lengths and moves gently along through a corridor of tall overhanging trees and bushes. In a short time a broad, spacious field appears on the left, but it is littered and unattractive. Just downstream the river passes under Route 530, a galvanized bridge that replaced the old wooden bridge whose pilings are still evident in the water. Access to and from the river is barred. The open field on the left continues for ten minutes in a somewhat cleaner condition, with access from the river at two places.
The banks are firm, and several massive oak trees appear. In a few minutes there is a good stopping place on the left. An occasional house can be seen. The river widens further. Gradually, the trees become more slender and less overhanging, and the banks become somewhat marshy. At Pemberton a power line crosses overhead. A few minutes later the river enlarges to a small pond and passes under Route 687. The best access is on the left, at a community park upstream from the bridge. It has a parking area and a broad lawn.
For anyone beginning at Pemberton, an access to the river for put-in exists below the left dam. It is about 200 feet down a dirt road on river left.
The river is now slightly narrower and continues to meander gently. The banks are firm and often extend 12 feet above the water. Large, handsome trees-beeches, oaks, ironwoods, catalpas-give the impression of northern New Jersey. A tributary enters on the right and, a few minutes later, the Rancocas passes under a railroad trestle.
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For a brief period, the right bank is high and steep, with numerous large beech trees whose roots are exposed by soil erosion. For the next fifteen minutes, the banks are covered with a wild growth of slender trees and dense bushes and a tangle of vines and brambles. A lucky paddler may spot a patch of wild grapevines on the left bank, with fruit a cut above the pinched, sour grapes one usually finds in fields upstate. After another section of stately trees, a broad, sloping bank covered with leaves and large trees appears on the right. One could stop anywhere and enjoy a quiet rest. Soon a railroad track passes close by on the left and, a few minutes later, there is a road bridge. A channel leaves the left side of the river here and rejoins it farther downstream; but the channel may be too shallow for canoeing-it was when I tried it. Soon the Rancocas passes under a second bridge at Birmingham Road. It is identified by a sign, SYBRON chemicals inc., on the left.
The riverbanks here are low but still firm, with short grasses and moss growing among young, slender trees. In a few minutes one passes the spot on the left where the channel returns to the river. Just past it is the chemical factory, which may give off an unpleasant smell. Past that a wooden bridge crosses the river. Several minutes later another pretty stand of beech trees extends along the right bank for some distance, following which the river meanders around a peninsula and passes a long string (about ten minutes’ worth) of densely packed houses. Then there are scattered houses and trees on both banks for fifteen minutes, until the river crosses under Route 206.
West of Route 206, the river becomes very wide and open, with low banks. In a few minutes it passes under a high-voltage power line. A farm appears on the right. On the left is a good stopping place that is accessible at three spots and, just downstream, the river goes under Smithville Road. Soon the river diverges: the current flows straight ahead to a dam and a power station, and a channel goes left to Smithville Lake, which is a backup reservoir for the station. Beyond the channel is a dam, around which canoes must be carried. To do so, take out above the dam on the left. Walk 50 feet, cross the bridge, and turn left. Go past the dam and put in on the right side of the river. A map at the take-out directs paddlers. Parking is ample here. A local historical note: During the late 1800s, the world’s only bicycle railway ran between Smithville and Mount Holly. Mounted on a fence, its grooved metal track was equipped with fence-straddling high-wheel bicycles that accommodated one to four passengers. Hezekiah B. Smith, the founder of Smithville and owner of a machine plant there, constructed the railway so workers could commute from Mount Holly to the plant by bicycle. The railway operated for several years but was abandoned after Smith’s death.
The river now has a width of 2 canoe lengths and follows a slowly meandering course. Trees arch gracefully over the water. After a short time a very long island appears; the main channel flows to the right. A number of houses can be seen along the shore. Gradually, the banks become lower and very bushy, and scrub growth is more common than trees, which are themselves more scraggly than before. In some places marsh grasses grow in the water. Soon there is a narrow spit of bushes on the left separating the main channel from a large bay in which water birds may sometimes be seen.
In a few minutes the river widens to more than 3 canoe lengths and diverges around several small islands. The banks are very swampy. Houses appear frequently, signifying the outskirts of the city of Mount Holly. In the distance, beyond the city, the top of the mountain itself is visible. It is an almost surrealistic sight to a person accustomed to the lowlands of the Pine Barrens. Shortly, the river passes under a footbridge. The river then turns left and goes over a dam. Paddlers should take out above the dam on the left, at a public launch in Iron Works Park.
This report was excerpted from the book Paddling the Jersey Pine Barrens by Robert Parnes with permission from Falcon Publishing.