Excellent Article from 1986 on why NJ’s Rancocas Creek is an exemplary outdoor classroom. We who are engaged as volunteers on gaining National Water Trail designation for the Rancocas Creek are part of that specific Conservation Continuum.
Outdoor Classroom The Many Faces Of The Winding Rancocas CreekBy Susan Levine, Inquirer Staff WriterPosted: November 12, 1986Below Pemberton, it is a channel of smoked-glass waters, with sloping banks and carpets of lacy ferns, Lilliputian lichens, and brown, dry grasses.In Mount Holly, it is a narrow, muddy ditch, shallow waters clogged by dead trees, sometimes littered and often overlooked by the men and women making their way to the county courthouse.But by Delanco and Riverside, with three branches having converged into one, it is a wide tidal waterway, much more river than creek, clouded the color of coffee with cream and accelerating so very slowly to its meeting with the Delaware.These are the many faces of the Rancocas Creek.As the Rancocas winds its way through Burlington County, from headwaters deep within South Jersey’s Pine Barrens, it carries with it a history rich in culture, economics and nature.Once a major player in the life of the communities along its course, today the creek is relegated to a subordinate role. No longer does it carry excursion boats to Philadelphia from Mount Holly, or logs to sawmills near its mouth. No boat builders ply their trade in these waters, although less than 50 years ago, tugs for the U. S. and Dutch governments were constructed there.For the most part the Rancocas Creek is unobtrusive. Save for the Pirates Inn Restaurant in Mount Laurel, there is little commercial development along the shores that takes advantage of its subtle beauty. The several, somewhat dowdy, marinas along its downstream banks seem to detract from that beauty, not enhance it.Much of the time, in fact, the creek almost seems hidden. Drivers on Route 616 rumble over the creek, unknowingly, as they traverse the low, green bridge that is Hanover Street in Pemberton Borough. No markers identify it for truckers on Interstate 295 or the turnpike in Westampton, or for others crossing the slight swell that is the new Route 130 bridge connecting Delran and Edgewater Park.Yet the creek has been harnessed by man and, in many cases, it has been changed and contaminated as well.”The human hand has been there to alter the stream,” said Gary Patterson of the West Jersey Sierra Club.Numerous industrial and municipal sewer plants sit along its course, discharging millions of gallons of treated and sometimes not-so-treated effluent. Just this week, a section of the stream near Mount Holly was polluted by a leak of more than 500 gallons of home heating oil that spilled from a storage tank.One of the few federal flood-control projects in New Jersey also is on the Rancocas. Built in the early 1940s in response to three years of record flooding in Mount Holly, it enlarged and relocated portions of the creek, created a bypass channel to divert water through the center of town, and included construction of two bridges.The flooding in Mount Holly has been greatly abated. Still, the Rancocas can exert its force. “It’s such a huge watershed,” said Rick Walnut, who in the 1970s organized the Rancocas Creek Watershed Association.The creek’s north branch reaches as far as Ocean County; the south and southwest branches, which join in Lumberton, encompass a sweeping area from Evesham to Southampton. Into these flow dozens of tributaries, with names such as Cedar Run, Budds Run, Barton Run, Friendship Creek. They help the Rancocas drain hundreds of miles of land.”There are so many little streams that you don’t think of being part of the watershed area,” Walnut said.Because of that, the upstream development in areas such as Eastampton and Pemberton and, more recently, in Medford and Evesham, has created havoc. Homeowners eager to be close to the water have crowded near the Rancocas’ banks, destroying – and often, with their septic tanks, polluting – valuable low-lying ground. During sudden, heavy storms, rain has no place to run, and flooding, Patterson said, “is a commonly accepted and recognized fact.”But in upstream areas, on a fall day when reflections of high gray clouds glide across the creek’s dark, reflective surface, the angry flooding that can follow a storm seems an imagined danger.The Rancocas flows almost imperceptibly here, and that, plus its easy access, makes it a fascinating outdoor classroom for the study of flora and fauna.”It has a foot in both the inner coastal plain and the outer coastal plain,” naturalist Ted Gordon explained as he quietly navigated a canoe along the creek’s north branch on a recent Saturday outing. “You get down right behind the (Burlington County) college, and you’re right at the demarcation line for where the intercoastal plain begins. There are richer soils and different vegetation.”By day, Gordon is a teacher of German at Northern Burlington Regional High School. By night, weekend and summer, he is a naturalist, a frequent lecturer at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and a man who melds knowledge with poetic description. And, he is a superb tour guide.”The beech tree,” said Gordon, motioning toward one. “That’s a non-Pine Barrens tree. You get it next to the American holly fairly frequently here. That’s also a typical non-Pine Barrens tree. When you get into beech wood, you generally get into a richer forest.”The same could be said of the sweet gum, he noted, calling attention to its five-point dark red leaf. As for the Virginia pine, which Gordon also identified, it rings the Pine Barrens along its western border.”No matter where I go,” he commented, “I always seem to wend my way back here.”Gordon is fascinated by the history of the region, much of which relates to the Rancocas. Along the north branch, for example, there once were two ironworks – the Mary Ann and Hanover furnaces. In the late 1800s, efforts were made to canalize the creek to Lumberton and create a port there; as it was, the Atsion iron furnace used part of the south branch to transport its product.”That was always the problem, how to get the product out,” he said.Of course, mills also located along the Rancocas, as they did most streams in the Pine Barrens. There was marl mining, too, and Gordon pointed out the subtle green mixture of clay, sand and limestone that forms a stratum of the Rancocas’ exposed banks.”Now one of the great industries, if you want to call it that, was pleasure homes,” he continued. “Take Browns Mills. It was quite a resort community at the turn of the century. I think most of our pollution problem early on the stream was from people trying to get around the water at Hanover Lake.”The Rancocas was an extremely popular waterway then. “This stream was heavily canoed in the early 1900s,” Gordon said. “That’s why Hacks (Canoe Rental in Mount Holly) did such a tremendous business. I bet you couldn’t rent a canoe on a busy weekend.”Unfortunately, those heavy concentrations of homes and people damaged the Rancocas over time. The isles of grasses once dotting the creek were eroded by such heavy traffic.”They were like little gardens,” Gordon said. “We had a much more attractive stream then, and that’s changing.”Although sections of the creek today appear to have been untraveled for years – “This doesn’t look like it’s been canoed for a while,” Gordon offered, surveying a tree blocking the width of the stream south of Pemberton Borough – other parts are littered with bottles and trash.The rusting body of a junked car shows itself, belly up, at one spot; discarded water heaters and gasoline tanks emerge frequently.At least some residents, banded together as the Rancocas Creek Association, are trying to clean up the situation. In the last year, they have taken dozens of fallen trees out of the creek and had several abandoned houses along the bank condemned. Now they are seeking money to have the creek dredged.”The trees in this area are simply magnificent. The sunsets here are just magnificent,” said Bea Rosenthal, the association’s president. Rosenthal first came here as a vacationer nearly 50 years ago, when summer residents paddled into Mount Holly for groceries and sponsored concerts along the creek. In 1983, she began living in her Eastampton cottage year-round.”It’s just a most unusual area,” she said.But downstream the creek shows a totally different face. It is low and wide, marshy, tidal. It is a river, with sometimes strong currents. No longer so navigable by canoe, it is ruled by motorboats, which often use its stretches by Route 130 for unofficial drag races. And that creates other problems.About five weeks ago, for example, a man flipped his boat while speeding at about 35 m.p.h. on the creek – more than three times as fast as he should have been traveling, according to state marine police.He was lucky, however. Doctors originally thought his neck was broken. It was not, and his other injuries were not serious. Still, until his boat was recovered two-and-a-half hours later, the craft remained sunk in the creek, a dangerous obstacle to other boaters.Besides the hazard of speeding and reckless boating, there is also the damage that large wakes do to other boats and piers along the banks.”We get calls and we try to send a boat there as fast as we can,” said Sgt. Al Dempster of the state Marine Police, “but no one is stationed there.”On certain late spring and summer weekends when staffing allows it, Dempster places a patrol there full time. It pays. From May 31 to June 1, for example, his officers issued 23 summonses for speeding, skiing and other boating violations.If a bill sponsored by state Sen. Catherine Costa (D., Burlington) passes the New Jersey legislature, the Marine Police will establish, for the first time since 1981, a permanent station in the county. A likely location would be near the mouth of the Rancocas.”I’ve had many complaints,” Costa said.The Rancocas’ opening onto the Delaware is framed by high sandy cliffs and protected by an expansive sand bar that has grounded many a boater.”You see people pushing their boats off of it,” said Ted Fink of Beverly, who with his wife, Sandy, patrols the area as a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.Here, a heron flies, solitary against the sky. Tall grasses and weeds blow near the banks, creating a study in browns.Sighed Sandy Fink, “You can almost picture the Indians coming up it in their canoes.”