Pine Trees Go up in Flames

Since Camp Dark Waters is on the edge of the Pine Barrens, there are lots of diverse tree species on the land. There are currently,  28 species of trees in Camp Dark Waters, which is about 15 acres of land. Some species on the lands of Camp Dark Waters include Sweet Gum,  Sycamore, Black Gum, Tulip Poplar, Red Maple, Hollies, and various types of Oak Trees. Over the decades’ fires have been a big part of the developing Pine trees in the Pine Barrens. Pine trees survive best if a fire occurs every few years. Fires have allowed Pine trees to spread their seeds to regrow and survive through these lands. Natural fires and deliberately set fires have both occurred in Pine forests.

In the 1800s, the burning of the Pinewood benefited the charcoal industry. By setting fires to these trees, was to kill them and make the wood worthless to any other purpose than charcoal. Thus, these trees could be purchased cheaply. Also, young shoots would spring up after a bear fire, large luscious berries. These berries could be gathered and collected for sale. Often deliberate human origin fire occurred because of lands used for agriculture the rules and the proper boundaries of the land. Most of these disputes involved lawyers. Another reason for setting fires was angry landowners, but also fires were set to provide work for jobless individuals. Fires happened so often, that individuals looked at them as inevitable.

Since the Pine Barrens hadn’t had frequent forest fires, some Pine trees are dying off and Oak trees are being planted in replace of the Pine trees. The change from Pines to Oak trees has caused many changes to species including foliage insects, birds, small mammals, and mosses. In Richard T. T. Forman chapter called “The Pine Barrens of New Jersey: An Ecological Mosaic, he mentions the impact of fires for the stability of the Pinelands. Forman states, “Succession in the uplands leads to oak-history forests, but wildfires at perhaps a four-decade interval produce oak-pine forests and more frequent wildfires produce forests of pitch pine and shrub oak” (574). This explains the condition of camp dark waters. Oak trees such as  White oak, Spanish oak, and Black oaks have started to grow intertwined within the growth of Pine trees at Camp Dark Waters. Other trees that make up the diversity of Camp Dark Waters is the Sweet Gum trees, where the seeds are in a ball with spikes covering the entire sphere. Sycamores prefer to grow near water on the banks of rivers and creeks. Not related to the sweet gum trees Black Gum trees produce berries that birds like to eat as well as deer. Black gum trees prefer to also grow near water and in late summer early fall their leaves turn a vibrant bright red to their leaves. Another species of tree is the Tulip poplar which grows really fast, really straight and very tall (in the same family as the magnolia tree). These trees usually take over when an older bigger tree comes down and grows in its place. They also like to grow in bright open spaces where sunlight can reach them. Holly trees are evergreen trees and also known as understory trees. These trees tend not to be very tall and can grow and tolerate lots of shade. These trees grow slowly. The last species of tree I’m going to talk about are Ash trees, which are fast-growing trees and resemble maple seeds. Ash have wings on their seeds just like Maple seeds and blown around and taken away by the wind.

Southwest branch of Rancocas Creek in bloom at Campb Dark Waters (Photo Credit: John Braxton Spring 2019

Green is the Warmest Color

Green is the warmest color that reflects off the irises of my eyes as I stare out over the Rancocas Creek running through the soft Pinelands of Camp Dark Waters. As I scan my eyes across the creek, they run vertically down the green shrubs and stop perpendicular to the mossy seafoam green covered ground. Green is the color of the earth, it provides and protects us from elements we cannot see. I spot a green endemic Pine Barrens tree frog sunbathing on a dried up stone on the opposite bank than me. The size of the frog is small enough to fit in my hand, as I image touching its leathery slimy skin. Slowly, I lean back to start up at the daily sunlight raining down on my black hair. As I touch my hair to put it up in a bun, I quickly pull away my hand because the blackness of my hair had absorbed some much heat. Staring up at the baby blue sky, my vision goes blurry for a second, trying to adjust to the extreme light exposure. I notice the edges of green canopies of the trees lining the bank of the creek, creepy into my peripheral vision. Closing my eyes, attentively listening to the chirping of birds echo in my eardrum, I begin to hum a song in my head. The song is “Blackbird” by The Beatles.

Rancocas Creek at Camp Dark Waters (Photo Credit: Elanna Spring 2019

I think I drifted off into unconsciousness because the last thing I remember is humming Blackbird in my head. When I wake, I am greeted by the full bushy green canopies blowing in the wind towering above my head. I do not remember how long I have been asleep for, but my body feels at peace. My muscles feel like jello, vibrating inside my skin as I start to sit up. I get a head rush as I blink a few times to reorient myself on the bank of the creek. A run my hands and bare feet through the curly green moss. I’m unaware of the time because it feels like I was frozen in time dreaming until I woke up. Standing up, recognizing that my bones are weak and wobbly, I walk to the main area. The block hanging on the dining hall says 5:00. Dinner is going to be soon and then s’ mores. After dinner, I watch the sunset over the creek. The orange, yellow and red mix like watercolors in the reflection of the water. All the colors blur the line between the individual colors and they become one.

Green Canopy trees (Photo Credit: Google)

The blackness of the night surrounds me and my silhouette gets swallowed along with the watercolors. The moonlight overtakes the night sky as a few stars twinkle through the pitch dark blackness. I know that it’s time to go join everyone at the bonfire. I walk along in the darkness as though it’s my companion. The silence of the crickets keeps me motivated to put one foot in front of the other. I hear laughing and chatter as I get closer to the bonfire. I observe everyone’s smiling glowing faces from yellow light of the fire when I approach. I go to sit next to my friends. I grab a stick leaning against a rotting log. As I puncture the marshmallow with the stick and hold it over the fire. I noticed green veiny fungus rapping around the stick and is growing and thriving off the stick. I stare at the green fungus as though it’s the warmest color in the forest. The fire crackles in the background as the green mixes in with the fiery yellow watercolors create in my irises.              

Cooking Marshmallows over the fire (Photo: Google)

The Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer

I don’t want to lose Camp Dark Waters and the Pine Barrens altogether, but it looks that way! Because Camp Dark Waters is on the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The Pine Barrens soil is a sandy, poor soil that allows sturdy plants like the pitch pines, cedar, and the blackjack oak to grow. Underneath the soil lies a huge acquirer called the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer. It ranges over 3,000 square miles and has 17 trillion gallons of water. Unlike some aquifers, the Kirkwood-Cohansey is not surrounded by rock but is caught between layers of sand and gravel. The sands soak up the rainwater are the cause of the many streams, creeks, rivers and the wetlands in the Pine Barrens.

A Map of the boundaries of Kirkwood Cohansey Aquifer System (Photo Credit: Yale Environment 360)

The Pinelands Ecoregion once ran from Delaware to Cape Cod Massachusetts. As developments grew, the water and lands were compromised. The New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve was created in 1978 to allow development around the edges of the Pine Barrens to protect this last standing part of Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens lands.

The Garden State Canoeing (1992 Seneca Press) describes part of how the Pine Barrens became protected: “The Mullica River drains the heart of the Pine Barrens, about 100,000 acres of which now lie protected as the Wharton State Forest. Back in the 1870’s Joseph Wharton bought up all those supposedly worthless acres, recognizing the value of the underlying aquifer as a future water supply for Philadelphia. But a parochial NJ legislature passed a law quashing this potentially lucrative plan. While Wharton ultimately managed to find agricultural value in the land, his heirs saw fit to sell the tract to the state.” The region was not so safe in other states. By the 1950s the aquifer, which used to supply Long Island’s drinking water, was full of nitrates, detergents and agricultural products. In 1993, New York finally passed legislation to protect the remaining core 55,000 acres of what had once been a quarter million acres in the massive ecosystem.

Canadian Geese in the Lake Cotoxen at Camp Dark Waters (Photo Credit by Elanna Spring 2019)

Currently, the Pine Barrens are threatened. Climate change has impacted the precipitation patterns; the governor is planning to run the gas lines through the Pine Barrens; the ecological integrity of the groundwater is at risk due to the runoff from agriculture and septic systems. There is also an increased demand for drinking water as the population has increased. The Department of Environment Protection (DEP) says that the state has sufficient drinking water for the future. However, Pinelands Commissions Director, Larry Liggett feels that the DEP has over allocated it and that the end result will be devastation for the Pine Barrens. If the water is used at this rate, it will create a situation where the lower water level in the wetlands will kill off plant, tree, animal and insect life. This use of water and the lower level in the watershed has led to the infiltration of saltwater into freshwater. The Pinelands Commission has sent proposals and new rules to the governor’s office for review, but so far there has been no movement and no new plan for the future. The Pine Barrens is the largest and relatively undeveloped “wilderness” that is located in the Washington-to-Boston megalopolis. I hope we don’t lose the amazing resources and the intricate ecology that is the New Jersey Pine Barrens. It would be devastating for the ecosystem of the East Coast. Until next time, when I will talk about the uniqueness of the Pine Barrens as well as the important use of “Cotoxen Cabin” in the research of the Pine Barrens by the architect who designed the cabin.

Being Present

On Spring break, I got the great opportunity to visit Camp Dark Waters for the first time in eight years. I haven’t been back on the Pine Barrens’ soil since I was a camper at the age of fourteen. It was just as I remembered it, with small changes to the cabins because of the previous flooding that affected the camp. It was like going back home to a place I knew so well, but yet I felt so distant from the land. Everything looked active because I was so focused on attentive details. Right then and there at Camp Dark Waters, I felt so aware of my surrounds. I was being very intentional about how I interacted with this space and how being present affected my perspective. I’ve never felt so alive as I have when I am out in the wild woods of the Pine Barrens.

I should say though, that this visit was during winter, so that affected the appearance of the camp from its usual full blossom in the summer that I am used to. The temperature was 27 degrees Fahrenheit. I was bundled up with 3 layers with a hat and warm gloves to try to keep in as much body heat as possible. Parts of the creek were frozen over, most plants had not sprouted up out of the ground, and almost all the trees had naked branches because of the fallen leaves. Witnessing Camp Dark Waters in the winter, was insightful, indulging and divine because I was able to break down the components of the landscape with such a different clarity. The only vibrant colors on the land were the soft stunning green-yellow moss hardened to the frozen earth and the green needle pins of holly leaves that were clinging onto their branches.

Holly leaves (Photo Credit: by Elanna Spring 2019)
Moss by Lake Cotoxen at Camp Dark Waters (Photo Credit: By Elanna Spring 2019)

As my boots made a crunching sound on the iced earth beneath my feet, I gazed up at the trees in amazement, just as a child looks at candy. Trees swayed in the brisk winter’s air, with occasionally making a creaking sound because two trees were rubbing their trunks together to makes humming music to the ears. Along with the harmony of the scattered creaking, was the faint Canadian geese callings in the distance. It was surprising to see four Canadian geese this far North because they normally go south of the winter, but it seems their weather patterns have changed because of global warming. The creek was outstanding because sections had a thin layer of ice carefully balanced until something disturbed it. It looked like some areas of the creek had ice frozen over, but the water level decreased, but the ice still remained in the position it previously froze at creating layers of fine glass. As I continued my journey, I came across some reminiscence of past and present animal existence. This included bones of maybe a squirrel or some small rodent, footprints of deer in the mud and a half decomposed carcass of a deer. In the carcass, you could see the deers hip bones, the strong muscles, and ligament of the deer’s power. The strange part was, the legs down to the hooves and the backbone of the deer was completely covered with fur. These parts of the deer had not yet decomposed into the rich earth. I had never seen anything like it before. Next time, I will come back to the underground Aquifer in the Pine Barrens, which is an essential source of water in New Jersey.

Some type of small rodent bones (Photo Credit: by Elanna Spring 2019
A half decomposed deer carcass at Camp Dark Waters (Photo Credit: by Elanna Spring 2019)

Evolution or Erasing of Time

firstl, the factor that contributes to this decline in species at Camp Dark Waters is caused by ecological succession. According to George Spencer Morris, who was the architect of the “Catoxen Cabin” that Stone collected his specimens in on the campsite of Camp Dark Waters. Morris describes the location of the Catoxen Cabin” as being “a grove of taller pine crowning a little knoll which rose somewhat steeply from the bottoms bordering the stream. At the foot of the knoll bubbled a clear strong spring.” Today, the knoll is still standing, but there are no pine trees on the knoll, but instead in their place are oak and beeches. Oak and beeches seedlings thrive in the shade as oppose to pines seedlings because there are no fires to remove competition or cause the pine cones to open. Fast after older trees die causing an opening in the canopy is filled with excited tulip poplars. One of Stone’s findings was the gray birches and John Braxton who was the son of the director at the time, remembers when these trees were common at camp in the 1950s and ’60s. Unfortunately, there are no gray birches at camp, but the lands still have a great collection of species. One more substantial shift in the succession is the alteration of the canopy and subcanopy trees. As a result, it changes the layers of herb and shrubs that grow, which could be another reason the number of species has reduced. But at Camp Dark Waters, the spring is still blooming strong with various species that are beautiful in full blossom.

Gray Birches Trees, which no longer grows on Camp Dark Waters’ land (Photo Credit: Google)

Secondly, the factor that plays a role in this change is species composition as a result of human inhabitants bordering the edge of Camp Dark Waters. Witmer Stone documents old fields just to the east, which were old cornfields and then later became a housing development bordering the Camp land. In the days when Stone was collecting specimens, the vicinity of land was larger because these fields were part of his research which is gone now. As a result of these absent fields, a decrease in species have vanished in this area. There has been a number of killdeers, meadowlarks, and indigo birds that are gone who used to inhabit these fields, along with plants that protected and fed them. These species probably will never call Camp Dark Waters their home anymore because it’s not suitable for them to live in these new conditions.

Thirdly, the last factor is the best and worst reason for a decrease in species at Camp Dark Waters is the heavy use by the campers and counselors on the 15 acres of land. “Camp Catoxen” was transformed into “Camp Dark Waters” in 1927. In the summer, the camp is flooded with young people participating in all kinds of activities. This wide outdoors camp has been a great second home for city residents, who have experienced hiking and bonfires. But these activities have not supported the diversity of the flora of the camp. It’s been studied that the trees in the most heavily populated areas of the camp were not able to reseed and the mature trees are slowly dying. The result of, “early-succession species such as Juniperus virginiana are now rare” (82) according to Braxton and Ferren. Some native trees are now being planted to try to replace the mature trees that were lost. The trees that are out of the way of human paths are growing new seedlings and healthy. Though the tree species is the same the number as in 1992, instead the amount of mature trees has remarkably diminished. Until next time, when I share my experience of returning back home to Camp Dark Waters after being absent for eight years. It will be good to be home!

Eastern Red Ceder Juniperus virginiana are rare to grow at Camp Dark Waters (Photo Credit: Google)

The Vascular Plants of Camp Dark Waters

Continuing with Witmer Stone’s findings of different specimens of plants between 1899 to 1910 on Camp Dark Waters’ land, John Braxton and Wayne R. Ferren Jr. studied and compared the plants found in 2015 on the same lands to Witmer Stones discoveries in the past. Stone found 327 herbarium specimens of plants during is time collecting and studying on Camp Dark Waters’ land. To start off Braxton and Ferren, examined 72 herbarium specimens that Stone collected in Medford. It appeared that 70 of these species are currently growing at Camp Dark Waters. When Stone collected specimens, he started to label the locations where he found these planets, so 69 out of the 72 specimens were labeled designating either “Flora of Catocksin” or “Vicinity of Catoxen Cabin”. The “Medford” label was found with three of the specimen which indicated that they were collected from a different location very near to “Medford.” But, when carefully inspecting again, it turned out that two of the specimen had the label “Medford.” These two specimen were matching because their labels were either “Catocksin” or “Catoxen”, which meant that 99% of the 72 specimens are growing in Medford currently and near or at Camp Dark Waters.

One sample of a specimen that Witmer Stone collected in Medford, New Jersey (photo in The Vascular Plants of Camp Dark Waters, Medford, New Jersey, 1912 to 2015)

Compared to Stone’s 327 specimens of plants he collected, there are only 141 identified vascular planets found at Camp Dark Waters in 2015. There has been a real decrease in plant life since 1910, which can be studied more closely to understand this decline. It was wondered if the specimen that Stone found labeled “Medford”, were found in another location, not at Camp Dark Waters. By randomly selecting 61 herbarium specimen collected by Stone that is not currently growing at Camp Dark Waters, Braxton and Ferren analyzed these species. Out of the 61, 58 of these specimen or 95 % were collected from the location of “Catocksin” or “Catoxen”. The rest of the three specimens were labeled “Medford”, and since we know some of Stones labels of “Medford” were matching specimens collect at “Camp Catoxen”. It’s likely that all the specimens labeled “Medford” were gathered in the vicinity of Camp Catoxen. It’s probable that the 261 specimen that Stone found in Medford long ago was in the vicinity of what currently is Camp Dark Waters.

Another Specimen that Witmer Stone collected in Medford, New Jersey (Photo in The Vascular Plants of Camp Dark Waters, Medford, New Jersey, 1912 to 2015)

Now, I know you’re wondering, “Why are there only 141 specimens currently in the vicinity of Camp Dark Waters instead of 261 when Stone studied the land in 1911? Well, there are multiple factors that contribute to this change which includes: ecological succession, the shift in human inhabitants bordering in the camp affects species composition and lastly the heavy use of the land by campers. All of these elements have affected the changes in natural life throughout the years because nothing stays constant. I will dive deeper into the details of each element in the next blog. But for right not, everything in nature is constantly adjusting and adapting to new conditions, but this is the beauty of the natural world. Everything has to keep moving forward, so all species can thrive and survive on this earth.  

Fun addition:

In the appendix one of the article The Vascular Plants of Camp Dark Waters, Medford, New Jersey, 1912 to 2015 by John Braxton and Wayne R. Ferren Jr. list all the species that are grown at Camp Dark Waters. This image is only the first page of the list, but there are four more continuous pages of listed species.   

Photo credit: The Vascular Plants of Camp Dark Waters, Medford, New Jersey, 1912 to 2015

Muddy Water in the Pine Barrens

Camp Dark Water logo- Google Image

Swimming through the muddy sticky liquid in the creek at Camp Dark Waters was a common occurrence every day. Since the camp is part of the Pine Barrens, there are numerous streams and small rivers that are winding through the woods to various destinations which include estuaries and ultimately ending in the ocean. The water supply for these streams come from an aquifer that is underground which lays close to the Pine Barren surface. These aquifer branches off into four major watersheds, the Mullica River is the largest because it contains the rivers and streams of represents the area’s waterways: “the Wading and its tributary the Oswego, the Batsto and the Mullica itself” ( Each stream is unique and has special characteristics to set them apart, for instance, the landscape in which it flows can be flat coastal plains.

Besides these streams and rivers, the water is known for the dark brown water, hence the name Camp Dark Waters. The water is often described as tea-stained and looks like a bronzer color when your skin is emerged in the creek. The creek that twists down the edge of the camp is called the Southwest branch of the Rancocas Creek or as known as the Haines Creek and the part just above the dam downstream from camp is often called Lake Catoxen. It starts in the Pine Barrens and eventually empties into the Delaware River. The name Catoxen seems to come from a band of Native Americans that lived nearby on the land. The cedar color water comes from brew organic compounds, which is called humates and is the result of decomposing plant matter. In the Pine Barrens where this naturally occurring plant compound is called tannins, while the Atlantic White Cedar also contributes to the dark waters. Normally, these natural compounds would be broken down by organisms, but there is comparatively little life in these streams because of another major element: high levels of acidity. The level of ph is ranging from a 5.5 to 3.6 on the ph scale. Most of the species are unable to exist in these waters because the level of the ph is too high, so the organisms can’t tolerate the acidity scale. There are only a few amphibians that can live in these rivers and streams such as the rare species of the endemic Pine Barrens tree frog. These tree frogs are registered on New Jersey’s endangered and threatened species Field Guide.

A endemic Pine Barrens tree frog by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey

A longtime family friend John Braxton and his colleague Wayne R. Ferren Jr. wrote a published article in the Philadelphia Botanical Club called The Vascular Plants of Camper Dark Waters, Medford, New Jersey, 1912 to 2015 about the discovery and history of plant species in the past and present on the land that is Camp Dark Waters. Many years before the camp was established on the land, the property was owned by Witmer Stone in which he had high standards at the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia starting from 1893 to 1938. Himself and four of his colleagues, used these lands to based their operation to study Southern New Jersey botany and ornithology. Camp Dark Water was a site for the first book that Stone would publish about the numbers of plants species that grow on this land. As a result, they built a cabin to do their research in, which was called “Catocksin Camp”. The current cabin that we call Arapahoe at Camp Dark Waters was used by Stone in the 1900s to collect and study plant species of the Pine Barrens and Southern New Jersey.

Photo of Arapahoe cabin at Camp Dark Waters taken by John Braxton 2015

Stone was precise when listing species of plants and he would record the localities where he found the plants but also grouped the localities into four categories called “Middle District”, “Pine Barren”, “Coastal Strip”, and “Cape May.” According to Braxton and Ferren, “Medford was in Stone’s ‘Middle District’, and he documented approximately 327 species of vascular plants that had been found in Medford, New Jersey by various collectors at some time up to 1911. Of these 327 species, Stone himself collected specimens representing approximately 261 species in Medford” (78). Stone made a good dent in discovering and collecting lots of species that are documented in the herbarium history of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Next time, I will get into the specific species of plants and herbarium specimens that Witmer Stone ultimately finds.   

We’re From Camp Dark Waters

We’re from Dark Waters our camp is a good one, we fight the mosquito that are 7 feet tall. The horseflies may eat us, but they’ll never beat us cause we’re from Dark Waters and we are on the ball! Sing, Sing Sing… umgawa, umgawa, umgawa, umgawa umgawa, umgawa, umgawa, wow wow!

From the first memory of nature, I remember every summer when I was 10 till 14 years old, I would attend a Quaker camp in Medford New Jersey called Camp Dark Waters. I was fully immersed in nature for three weeks without any complaints. The camp was embedded within the pine barren woods with a beautiful creek bordering the end of the property. Dark brown water possessed the creek as a result of the sap dripping down from the Pine trees on the acre. Since the camp has the creek running through it, there has been some flooding problems destroying the dining hall as well as some of the girl cabins. There has been lots of rebuilding and renovating to ensure that the camp is more stable. Grands of sand cover the ground in the common area with holly leaves intermixed into the compound. Stepping on a holly leave was always painful, prying it out with your bare hands and continuing on your adventure. Nobody ever wore shoes around camp, which built up strong calluses on the bottoms of your feet. The cabins were separated by gender and some cabins had rivals against one another. As a young girl, my connection to nature was inevitable from the beginning. Every activity that I could possibly imagine was finally possible.

As a young girl, I was ecstatic to have the privilege and opportunity to be entwined with the natural world. The activities were limitless and free to explore my inner personal relationship with nature. The camp started with a big bone fire to introduce the camp counselors and to meet new campers. Every day was filled with extraordinary activities and events which included archery, canoeing, making friendship bracelets, swimming, capture the flag, frisbee, rope course, etc…, I cannot possibly name all the options, but there were a range of activities that campers could participate in. I can remember watching people practice canoeing in order to move up onto the next level. For every level, campers had to past a test to continue to the next canoeing level. The levels start with Bowman then Sterman and finally ended with Master. Us campers also had some responsibilities regarding the wider campus chores such as cleaning the dishes/dining hall, cleaning the bathrooms and cleaning the pool. One of my favorite memories was making chocolate chip cookies in the dining hall late at night with my cabin mates and remember hearing the cicadas and crickets chirping as they harmonized with our talking and chatter. During a rainstorm, the soothing sound of the pitter-patter water droplets showering down on the tin roof. Camp Dark Waters was my second home, and there is no place I would rather be right now than in the comfort of the natural world. 

First Post- Elanna

I took the long road that was taken leading down to Oxford England on a quest for divinity. There was no turning back knowing the adventure had already begun. The sweet smell of blossoms permeated in the air as I put one foot in front of the other. This place was foreign to me, but the way the flowers bordered the pathway reminded me of my childhood. Long stretches of landscape, made me feel weightless, immersed in the natural world. The sharp beams of sunshine stroked the dandruff particles on the tips of my hair. Now, I knew I was basked in divinity.