It is difficult to make absolute judgments regarding the rivers in the Pine Barrens, but the Oswego River is a prime contender for the prettiest. Except for the final push when one must plow across Harrisville Pond, it is striking from one end to the other. The beginning passes through a cedar bog that is larger than bogs on the other rivers, the middle is graced by the open panorama of Martha Pond, and toward the end, before Harrisville, there is a short stretch of mixed woods similar to that on the lower Wading River. It is not, however, a good river for beginning canoeists because most of it is shallow and requires careful steering to avoid running aground and having to haul the canoe over beds of sand and gravel. Martha Pond is very shallow and can be strenuous to paddle in a head wind.
Despite its difficulties for beginners, the river is very popular. Canoe liveries use it extensively when the water is adequate. Harrisville Pond and Oswego Lake are active for picnicking and swimming. Experienced canoeists may want to use the river on weekends only when livery operators say the water is low.
Appropriately, the Oswego was called the Wading River in the days when the present Wading River was called Speedwell Creek. Even today some road maps identify the Oswego as the east branch of the Wading River. Where the present name came from is in dispute. Some authorities believe Oswego is an Indian word derived from the phrase on ti ahan toque, meaning "where the valley widens" or "flowing out." Others contend the Oswego was named after the Swago Saw Mill, which was built at Martha around 1741 before the construction of the ironworks. Nearby was the Old Swago Swamp, hence the contraction Oswego. Swago seems to have been a provincial English word that was corrupted from "swag," meaning "low, swampy ground."
During the days when industry flourished in the Pine Barrens, the Oswego boasted two busy towns-Martha, the site of a large iron furnace, and Harrisville, where paper was made from salt grass harvested from the lower Mullica River.
Camping is not permitted along the Oswego River, so only day trips are possible. One may paddle from Oswego Lake to Harrisville or continue on to Bodines Field or Beaver Branch after portaging over the Harrisville dam. In addition, one could extend the run beyond Beaver Branch to Chip's Folly Campground. The campground has given permission in the past for noncampers to take out and is likely to do so in the future, but do ask.
At one time a sign to Oswego Lake was posted at the turnoff from Route 563, but it is gone at the present time. Heading north from Micks' Canoe Rental, the turnoff is the first road to the right, between mile markers 31 and 32.
Two points of access to the river at Oswego Lake are possible. One is at the picnic area in Penn State Forest, on the north side of the lake. The other is on a stream feeding into the lake from the east; it is reached by continuing past the entrance to the picnic area for 1 mile, indicated by foundations of old houses. Two roads to the right leading to the river are on either side of the foundations. The first requires a sharp right turn to avoid a huge bump in the road. The second, however, requires a vehicle slung high in order to clear a bad bump. Be sure to go that 1 mile and look for the foundations before turning right, because there are other roads also off to the right. Parking is excellent at Harrisville Road. Anyone leaving a car at Beaver Branch should park well clear of the passageway to the river in order to avoid the risk of damage from canoe trailers; this take-out is heavily used by liveries for both the Wading and Oswego Rivers.
Bodines Field Camp
Godfrey Bridge Camp
Wading Pines Resort
(More remote but within reasonable distance)
Bass River State Forest
Bel Haven Lake
Buttonwood Hill Camp
Lebanon State Forest
Canoe rental agencies
Bel Haven Lake
Forks Landing Marina
Micks' Canoe Rental
Mullica River Boat Basin
Pine Barrens Canoe Rental
Wading Pines Resort
There are no overnight accommodations for noncampers in the vicinity of the Oswego River. Micks' Canoe Rental has a gas station. There is a general store and gas station in Chatsworth and on Route 542, 6/10 of a mile west of Route 563. There is a hospital in Hammonton.
In the spring when I ran the river, the water was 29 inches below the dam at Oswego Lake, and in the fall it was 33 inches. At the fall level it was quite shallow. As on the Wading River, upstream cranberry bogs divert much of the water during dry periods in the autumn, so a rainstorm following a drought may not raise the river level significantly.
There is a gauge station below the dam at Harrisville. I did not take a reading there on my fall trip, but in the spring the reading was 3.12 feet on the upstream side of the spillway and 2.10 feet on the downstream side. When the Braleys ran the Oswego, water was high, about 22 inches below the dam at Oswego Lake. Readings at the gauge station at Harrisville Pond were 3.00 feet on the downstream side and 3.20 feet upstream.
River details from Oswego Lake to Beaver Branch
From the picnic area at Penn State Forest, the ride across the lake and portage over the dam requires about fifteen minutes. Beginning at the feeder stream takes about an hour longer. The feeder stream is about 1 canoe length wide, with many hairpin turns and much debris. Gradually, however, the river widens and slows down, eventually passing through a marshy grassland. After several minutes through this area, an old hunter's shack on pilings can be seen and marks the entrance to Oswego Lake. Wind on the lake may make passage to the picnic area difficult. It is easier to stay close to the left shore and work one's way directly to the dam.
Below the dam is a broad, swampy pond. Then the river narrows to 1 or 2 canoe lengths, depending on the water level, and there are gentle turns between firm banks of medium height. Trees, mostly white cedars, pines, and some maples, crowd the shore. Interspersed are numerous bushes including cranberries. The riverbed of coarse sand or gravel is usually shallow, occasionally to the extreme, and on sunny days glows a rich shade of burnt orange. Sand bars narrow the channel considerably and are sometimes just below the surface of the water, causing many ripples. One should watch carefully for the darker water and the narrower, more regular bands of ripples that indicate more depth. Long, green underwater grasses flow and spread downstream with the current. Rushes grow in the river and along the muddy shore.
The banks gradually become lower, the pines thin out, and the cedars become very dense and extremely tall-first on one bank, then the other, eventually dominating both shores and forming a high, narrow evergreen corridor. Few bushes survive along the banks except for occasional sweet pepperbush or inkberry. This is a cedar bog and very quiet. Sometimes one hears the trees creaking in the wind. The sky and dark silhouettes of the trees are reflected in the quiet water, and the ripples set up scintillations of light and shadow.
The river broadens to 3 or more canoe lengths in still ponds, where lily pads spot the surface. The current is mainly very weak. There is little or no debris, the chief hazard being sand bars. The cedars thin out occasionally, and then the sky is more open; sometimes maple trees hang over the river. The channel makes a few sharp turns. One to one and a half hours from the put-in, a sandy beach appears on the right next to a canal returning water from a cranberry bog. The beach leads to an open, flat field of pines, scrub oaks, and various low bushes. This is a good spot to stretch one's legs.
A brief passage of sharp turns follows, and the current increases temporarily. The cedars alternate in patches with deciduous trees and pines, resembling the growth on the lower Wading River. Soon the river turns sharply left at the spot where another canal on the right, bounded by piles of sand, diverts water to another cranberry bog. At times of low water, the passage beyond this point is shallow until the spot where the diverted water is returned to the river. In a few minutes a broad, graded gravel beach with a white cinder-block house appears on the right; it is posted with no trespassing signs. Soon the canal from the second bog rejoins the river from the right. The river becomes deeper, with occasional sharp turns. Tall stands of cedars appear on either side, and a few minutes later the river broadens and enters Martha Pond.
The pond is an open area dotted with cedar- and bush-covered islands of assorted sizes. Pines and cedars crowd the shore. Because it is extremely shallow, one must pick one's way through underwater grasses. Following the right shore seems as good a route as any; it occasionally goes around an island that blocks the view, but otherwise the scenery is quite open. After the second island a canal that was once used to withdraw water from the pond can be seen on the left. The pond narrows and broadens several times as one canoes past more islands, and then it becomes very wide, and the islands turn into grass-covered sand bars. On the outside bend of a sharp right turn, there is a cleared area that leads up a sand "staircase" to Calico Ridge. It was formerly a state camp but now may be used as a rest stop in the event of a strong head wind. The water is still very shallow, and it contains many tree stumps as well as sand bars. The pond soon bears left, with the deepest water near the right shore. Muskrats and sandpipers can sometimes be seen, and numerous pitcher plants grow along the left shore. In a few minutes the pond ends as the river makes an abrupt right turn. Then the river turns left immediately to face an excellent sandy beach. After another turn the river flows under the old bridge at Martha Furnace. The bridge was once accessible from the Route 563 Spur, but the connecting road has disappeared, or at least is no longer visible from the highway.
A community of about 400 people once thrived on the fortunes of the ironworks at Martha Furnace. The pond provided power to operate machinery. Today not much remains, except for buried ruins of the furnace, as one can see by taking a pleasant walk along the sand road that leads to the town site. And there is other recreation: The river here is very deep, so during the summer people enjoy a dip in the best swimming hole in these parts.
Just past the bridge several islets are lined across the river. The channel then narrows to 1 canoe length between firm banks of medium height covered with pine and cedar. For about ten minutes the river runs perfectly straight through columns of trees. This is such a contrast to the numerous turns everywhere else that one suspects it is part of a canal that was intended to carry wares between Martha Furnace and Harrisville.
The banks become lower, the trees thin out, and the river gradually widens. Soon there is a sand bank 20 feet high on the left, followed in a few minutes by another high, sandy bank and beach. Immediately after on the left, the shore bulges with mountain laurel blossoms in the spring. In another few minutes, one reaches the top of Harrisville Pond; there is a good stopping place on the left bank for viewing the lake or taking a final rest. Paddling across takes twenty or thirty minutes.
For years Harrisville Lake was held back by a wooden dam. Because it was breaking down, one could have a fine ride on the water spilling over it. But in 1974 it was replaced by a dam of concrete and a second, smaller spillway on the right. The broad take-out area is located between the dam and the spillway but is closer to the spillway.
The journey may be continued, either to Bodines Field for camping or to Beaver Branch, by portaging over the main dam on the left. The gauge station situated a few yards past the highway bridge should be lined over because there is rarely enough water to run it. ("Lining" a boat means to walk along the riverbank and gently guide the boat down the river by grasping the ropes [or lines] attached to the bow and to the stern. Keep it close to the bank in order to maintain control. If the canoe has no ropes or if they are too short, haul it out of the water and carry it around the obstruction.) The river is then wide and shallow, but gradually it narrows to 2 canoe lengths. About five minutes after the gauge station, the river turns left around a cleared picnic area. Straight ahead is a narrow channel that is a cutoff to the Wading River. By remaining on the main channel of the Oswego, one reaches the Wading only a few minutes later. Ten to fifteen minutes later, Bodines Field Camp can be seen on the left and is marked by a sign in the water. The take-out spot for canoeists not camping there lies fifteen to twenty minutes farther downstream, also on the left. It is marked by two pine trees, each with large splashes of orange paint. A sign, beaver branch, is stenciled on the larger tree in black paint. Farther back from the river is the smaller official state park sign.
Excerpted from Paddling the Jersey Pine Barrens by Robert Parnes with permission from Falcon Publishing.