The Pine Barrens- in the 60’s
I grew up in the woods of the Pine Barrens in South Jersey, on a tiny little lake that was a cranberry bog in its earlier life. As a kid I spent a lot of time outside and my dad taught us four kids how to shoot rifles, fish, and how to paddle and sail our small boats. We would walk the perimeter of our 180 acres every year to post it against hunters we didn’t know. There were swamps, briar thickets and little hillocks we thought were Indian Mounds. We ate a lot of wild game in the form of venison and pheasant and ducks.
Dad was in charge of maintaining the two lakes known as Mimosa for some years. There were numerous lakes nearby that were all strung together, separated only by swamps or manmade earthen dams with narrow roads over them. Each spring the water in the lakes would be let down starting with the lowest ones in the chain and working upstream in succession. This allowed folks to clean up the edges of their swimming areas, bringing in clean sand and building docks and bulkheads along the shore. There were probably about thirty houses around our two lakes and all the kids would get together to muck walk when the muddy bottoms were exposed. This involved traipsing around the lake bottoms barefoot and in old clothes, sometimes sinking up to mid thigh in thick, smelly muck in search of anything interesting. One year, one of the bigger kids from the upper lake, stepped on a buried snapping turtle and it bit his big almost toe clean off. We had a heck of a time getting him back up to a house without him bleeding to death. After that we wore old sneakers for protection when we went mucking.
We justified this fairly disgusting activity by rescuing various fish and turtles that had gotten stranded in the high spots when the water level dropped. We would take them home and hold them in an assortment of aquariums and buckets until the water was back up again. We found lots of turtles- Snappers, Stinkpots, Kings, and Paints, and also newts. The fish were mostly Sunny’s, Pickerel and little catfish. There was always the possibility we might find something dropped from an overturned canoe to or maybe things people had thrown in for some reason, like bicycles. There were a few places where we could dig out this pure white clay that was good for making pots, and many ashtrays were made for Mother’s Day from it. Everybody’s parents seemed to smoke back in the sixties.
South Jersey is made almost entirely of sand and it is kind of hard to grow much of a lawn without major soil amendments. Dad had the best lawn around because he used child labor to bring lots of rich “Mimosa Muck” up to his lawn by the bucket full before he seeded. It only smelled bad until the grass greened up. We were supposed to help with the grass and leaf raking and trimming of the pathway too. Our stepping stones were made of recycled broken up concrete from a highway demolition and were at least six inches thick, all different shapes and very heavy. Once they got set in place they did not move. The grass would grow over top of them though and make them look smaller and smaller as the season progressed. I remember almost enjoying crawling around, cutting the grass back from them using the hand shears. Dad was into “building things in” and we irrigated the lawn using lake water that ran through pipes buried in the ground with those “chit, chit, chit, chit, ch-o-o-o-sh” Rainbird sprinkler heads that work around in parts of a circle and then go back and start over. I love that sound still. It was great fun to run through as a kid on a hot day. And a real pain if it caught you by surprise.
The dams on these converted cranberry bogs were simple in design. They consisted of a culvert under the earthen dam with a three sided concrete box at the upper end set down in the lake bottom. The fourth side of the box was made of 2×6 inch boards set into slots and stacked as high as the level of the lake dictated. Each time a board was removed, the water level would drop 6 inches. Of course that meant that the next lake down took on that much extra water so there was a certain amount of planning that had to go into it each year. The lakes were small, the longest, Centennial Lake, being only one mile, but all strung out together they went on for miles. All the lakes had associations and they would coordinate the spring let downs and fill ups so nobody’s water got too low or too high. One of the benefits to getting the timing right on the let downs was that it would kill off a lot of the lake weed which could get to be a major problem some years. In really wet springs it was hard to get the lakes down and in really dry years it might take awhile to refill them. There were a lot of lawns too close to the waters’ edge and people were not careful enough with fertilizer applications so they tended to feed the weeds as much as the lawns. We later discovered that septic systems might have been feeding the weeds as well. There were no motor boats allowed on any of the lakes unless they were battery operated to prevent oil and gas pollution and excessive noise. Most folks had a canoe or a rowboat and there were quite a few sailboats as well. These Sunfish or Sailfish were only about 10-12 feet long and looked like glorified surfboards with sails stuck on them. We had two Sailfish (made from a kit) and you had to lay down to sail them. My Dachshund, Gretchen, was about the right height and loved to stand in the bow with her ears flapping in the wind. The sailboats were a lot of fun and tipping them was part of it. We were not allowed to sail alone until we were big enough to tip it over in the wind and then quick jump up on the center board to get it righted before the sail filled with water. We got good at that pretty quick though. I remember we had a Sunfish for a short time though and my older sister tipped it and nearly drowned under the sail trying to get it upright the first time she took it out. My Dad decided to get rid of that one.
We had these great dumps nearby that we could scrounge all kinds of good stuff out of back then. Trash pick up was just starting to be a normal thing and they didn’t take construction debris or old furniture and rugs so everybody dumped it in these sort of OK’d spots. All us kids would dig through the piles of trash and get the makings for great tree forts. One time we found an entire wooden canoe with all the ribs intact but no skin on it and we made a good long project out of repairing it with fiberglass cloth and many coats of bright red resin. It made a great canoe and we got a lot of use out of it over the years. Every year it would get a little heavier though, as we patched the fiberglass with yet another layer. My brother found a wooden Kayak frame in the same dump a few years later and redid it the same way but he was never keen on letting any of us girls use it. We also had a big old waterlogged wooden rowboat which weighed a ton and got only heavier the longer it sat in the water. We were supposed to drag it out each time we used it but it was so heavy that we rarely bothered. I guess we all got pretty good exercise dealing with our boats. We used them to fish from, to visit friends down the lake, or to just get away from home. In the early spring they were good for chasing down the baby ducks and their mothers so we could pen them up and keep them safe until they were big enough to not be eaten by the turtles. We had huge King turtles and Snapping turtles that would lay in wait for the ducklings. You’d be watching the Mama duck paddle by with her line of babies behind her and all of a sudden the one at the end of the line would get pulled under and disappear. The turtle never even showed his head. In the afternoons sometimes six or eight Kings would spread out on a dead snag sticking out in the water to rest and my Dad would get out his gun and blow them away. So we would round up as many ducks as we could every spring and keep them penned up down in the creek behind our house. We built chicken wire pens that each had some dry land and some water and a little shed with a nest box and we fed them a couple times each day. They were mostly wild Mallard ducks but there were some tame white ones in there as well. In the fall the wild ones would leave and head south for the winter but they always came back and some of them we knew well enough to name them. They would come waddling up the hill in the evenings and eat corn out of our hands. The white ones were always too fat to fly very far and they stayed over the winter, paddling furiously in shifts to keep a hole opened in the ice. That way the dogs and hungry wild critters could not reach them. Once, one of them stood too long on one foot while he was sleeping on the ice and his foot froze off. We ended up eating him. We actually ate a good many ducks each year and some of the neighbors complained about our keeping so many ducks but we didn’t really keep them, they left whenever they wanted to. Sometimes they would travel from lake to lake for awhile and we would not see them for a few days at a time. There were usually about 30 or so together.
My Dad had a favorite Mallard he called Loner who would come when he was called and tended to keep to himself. The other ducks picked on him sometimes. He was late arriving back home one Spring and when he finally did show he came walking up the path with his head all bloodied and in really bad shape. Dad cried as he went to get his gun and put the poor duck out of his misery, it was obvious he would not survive. We buried him. You can’t really eat your friends.
-Wendy lee Maddox