Outside the Wharton State Forest, the Toms River is probably the most popular river in the Pine Barrens. One reason is the proximity to the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area and the intensive development around the town of Toms River. Another is the length of the navigable part of the river, which is the second longest such run in the Pinelands. A third reason is its variety, from a narrow stream strewn with debris to a wide, clear flow into a tidal basin. One can paddle into the center of the town of Toms River. On the negative side, the Toms has more poison ivy than any other river in the Pine Barrens.
Always an interesting river and a challenge for canoeists at any level of skill, the Toms has become even more so in recent years because the upper section is no longer well maintained. In this portion the headwaters of the Toms flow through a deciduous forest in tight, sharply twisted bends with moderate to heavy patches of debris. The middle section, beginning at Whitesville, also contains debris but is more manageable, and the river passes beautiful stands of holly. The lower part is straighter and more piney.
During the American Revolution, the town of Toms River was a center for privateering, and a salt warehouse was located there. A windmill once stood in the middle of the river, near the town. Aside from that, the river itself does not seem to have been prominent in our history. Of three possible sources for its name, the most favored is that it was named after a Thomas Luker who settled among the Indians on the river around 1700. Formerly, it was called Goose Creek.
Of all the rivers in the Pine Barrens, the Toms has been most affected by development. It was once possible to enjoy a continuous two- to three-day run from Cassville to the town of Toms River. Access was good at both ends, and local people kept the river clear above Whitesville, where the accumulation of debris renders the river difficult to negotiate.
However, it is now much more difficult to put in at Cassville, where there are two accesses: at Thompson Bridge Road and at Route 528. At both places, guardrails at the bridge make parking impossible nearby. It is possible to park on Route 528 temporarily at the intersection with Dominion Drive, on the upstream side, river left. After unloading, canoeists may then leave vehicles at Jackson Forest Recreation Area, which is 2¼10 of a mile east of the river, south side of the road.
The most convenient upper access is at Don Connor Boulevard. Don Connor Boulevard was once known as Coventry Road and is still Coventry Road to some people who have lived in the area for a long time. Canoeists should know both road names in case they need directions.
The access at Bowman Road is also good. One advantage of the run from Bowman Road to Whitesville is the short shuttle, about 3 miles. People with only one car can walk from one end to the other in about an hour, but the river meanders so much that a rather full day is required to paddle it, particularly in its present condition. From Bowman Road to Whitesville may take as long as the trip from Whitesville to town.
Owing to the accumulation of debris that exists now, most people would not want to paddle the Toms River above Whitesville. In partial compensation, Winding River Park runs along the left bank of the river from a point north of Route 527 for several miles to Route 37. In the park, the river has been left alone and has become wilder and more attractive. The park does include a bike path and several picnic and rest spots. From Whitesville down, the best river accesses are at Whitesville, Route 571, Winding River Park, and the town. Access at Route 70 is dangerous due to heavy traffic and should be used only for emergency. Access at Route 527 is prohibited. The run from Whitesville to Toms River is best done in two days, but it can be done in one with an early start.
Cedar Creek Campground
Surf and Stream Camp Site
Riverwood Park is open to Dover Township nonresidents if a permit is obtained in advance and in person. There are three sites. The one at the end of Edgemere Avenue is the closest for camping, and the other two are better for expedition from the boat.
Additionally, there are unposted areas along the river where it may be possible to stop for the night. I do not know whether camping is permitted at any of these spots, but it may be condoned if campers leave the sites unlittered and undisturbed. No one should start an open fire, anywhere, without a permit.
Canoe rental agencies
Art's Canoe Rentals (Cedar Creek Campground)
New Jersey Transit provides service from New York City to Lakewood and to Toms River, and from Philadelphia to Lakewood. By advance arrangement Pineland Canoes will pick up canoeists at either Lakewood or Toms River and transport them to the river.
Toms River has a shopping center on Route 37 just east of the Garden State Parkway. Routes 9 and 70 have several facilities. There is a hospital in Toms River and a larger one in Lakewood.
For my runs, the water at Bowman Road was 57 inches below the bridge in the spring and 64 inches in the fall. On both trips the level of the river was about average. There is a gauge at the river access at Whitesville, on the upstream center piling of the bridge. A water level of 4 feet on this gauge corresponds to medium low; at this reading, the Braleys found the water was about 44 inches below the bridge at Don Connor Boulevard and 80 inches at Bowman Road. Even at this level, however, liftovers downstream are rare, and paddling downstream from Whitesville is usually reasonable. Above Whitesville, the Toms can be paddled at this level, but less water could compound the debris problem.
River details from Route 528 to Toms River
Throughout most of the upper section, the width of the Toms is usually 1 canoe length but sometimes slightly wider, and its meanderings are sharp, with frequent hairpin turns. The banks are of low to medium height and are covered thickly with grasses and deciduous bushes that often hang over the water and obstruct passage. The trees, also deciduous, are large and thinly spaced but gradually become crowded and more slender. Brier hangs from the trees in great sheets or dangles from bushes, which can cause entanglement for a canoe. Holly appears occasionally on the banks and, when the leaves are gone, contrasts with the bareness of the surroundings. Moderate to heavy amounts of debris are encountered, much of it requiring liftovers. The river continues for some time in the same vein: debris to work through or around, with liftovers; moderate to thickly packed trees; dense bushes and brier along the banks; and frequent sharp turns.
A short time later the river passes through the right-of-way of a high-voltage power line where the dense growth has been cleared and replaced by grasses. The stream twists wildly for several minutes in the open field before drawing alongside a dry, sandy bank that is good for a rest stop. Then the river turns into the woods and passes under the bridge at Don Connor Boulevard.
Debris gradually becomes heavier again. Bushes and brier hang over the water, but the trees are more thinly spaced than before, giving a more open appearance to the river. Turns continue to be very sharp and frequent. Eventually, a cleared area on the left offers a possible rest stop, which is soon followed by a low-voltage power line.
Turns become less frequent. A tributary enters on the left, and the adjacent grassy spot makes a good rest stop. The river passage is clearer, and there are few overhanging bushes. Occasionally one sees a thin stand of cedars and pines, or a holly tree. Soon the turns become sharp and frequent again, but only for a few minutes. Houses appear on the left, and then the river passes under a sand road that is part of a tree farm operated by the state Forestry Department. A short walk up a path on the left leads to seed-tree orchards of several species. Trout are also stocked here; according to some local fly fishermen, Trout Unlimited (an organization of sport fishermen) may try to establish a permanent trout habitat. Downstream from the road there are several sharp turns that may be clogged with debris. A short time later, one passes under the Bowman Road bridge.
After five to ten minutes of frequent meanders, a low cleared spot appears on the left; a wide trail there leads to a large field of pines. The river's turns soon become gentle and infrequent. An occasional tree lies in the water. This is the first area in which poison ivy is obvious; it grows on the trees and debris projecting over the river. Sometimes, while squeezing under a log, one must contort oneself more than usual in order to avoid the poison ivy that dangles there.
The type of foliage begins to change-hummocks of grasses become more common and trees more scattered. The scenery takes on an open aspect. The banks become more swampy and the river winds, sometimes in sharp hairpin turns, through grassy fields with some low bushes and occasional, isolated trees. Some of the very tall trees are dead, and vines hang from their branches. Poison ivy is common near the water. Brier is also common, sometimes in dead, matted patches. Looking to the side through the grass, one can often see another part of the river flowing in the opposite direction.
Soon the Toms passes back into woods. The foliage closes in, with overhanging bushes and brier, and becomes very dense. Debris occurs frequently. After a time a canal appears straight ahead. The river, however, turns sharply left in the first of many hairpin turns. The banks are swampy. The water spreads out, passing through bushes and sometimes forming more than one channel. Usually it is best to stay where the water flow is heaviest unless there is an obvious shortcut through the bushes. Somewhere in the midst of this swamp a high-voltage power line crosses overhead.
The river continues to wind through swampy bushes. Care must be taken to follow the channel. Poison ivy makes spectacular displays by sending its stems up from dead stumps in the water. One such stand resembles a curled finger or figure 9. Debris and liftovers are frequent. The swamp continues in this way for some time. Eventually it becomes better defined, and soon the Doves Mill Branch enters on the left. The turns are still sharp and frequent, with the customary debris. But soon the banks become firmer and the bushes thinner. A few minutes later one arrives at the bridge at Whitesville.
Below Whitesville, several trees (some of them large) lean precipitously over the water; the soil has eroded from around their roots. Other trees stand in the river on small clumps of soil that their roots hold in place. Mosses, lichens, and poison ivy grow on the trees. Within ten minutes one comes to a stopping place on the left where a sandy trail leads to an open field. Then the river passes under a railroad trestle and to a pumping station on the right. Patches of pines appear occasionally along the higher banks; sheep laurel appears often on the slopes. On the right a flat pine area cleared of underbrush offers a good stopping place.
For the first time, many holly trees can be seen. The meanders of the river are inconsistent. Debris is considerably less severe, although an occasional liftover may be necessary in low water. After some time, one comes to a spot where both banks are cleared; perhaps there used to be a bridge here. On the right there is a house set well back from the bank, but a low ramp on the left makes a good stopping place. About five minutes later, one passes under Route 70.
The river borders a mobile-home development for a few minutes and then turns and parallels a quarry on the right, which is mostly hidden behind bushes on high ground. The river widens to 11¼2 or 2 canoe lengths, with gentle and infrequent turns. Holly is still common. A pump station appears on the right; rigging from the station leads to the quarry. In ten or fifteen minutes there is a campsite on the left, the first of three in Riverwood Park. (The other two appear within the next ten or fifteen minutes.) The low-lying shore of the park is covered with trees, and stone benches line a footpath along the water near the far end. The river turns frequently through here. After the park there is an extensive and obtrusive housing development on the right. A few minutes beyond it, the river passes under Route 571.
The river continues turning frequently for several minutes, and there is considerable debris in the water. The Ridgeway Branch then enters from the right, widening the stream to 2 canoe lengths; at this point, there are few turns and little debris. Albocondo Campgrounds can soon be seen on the left, although a hairpin meander must be negotiated before arriving there. A short time later, the posted property of the Toms River Plant of the Ciba-Geigy Corporation appears on the right. The banks become medium to high, sandy and covered with scattered pines and low bushes. The growth is rather dry looking in comparison with the lush bushes upstream. Some cranberries can be seen. A power station soon appears on the right, and in a few minutes the river meanders back and forth next to a wire fence. At one time this was an unpleasant section, when odors from the chemical plant hovered over the water for a fifteen- to twenty-minute stretch. The plant has often been accused of committing pollution violations and spilling waste into the river; perhaps the publicity has had an effect, because lately the aroma has not been noticeable.
The river widens further to about 3 canoe lengths. Several minutes later the canoe passes under Route 527. In another few minutes an open, sandy area appears on the left. This is the canoe access area for Winding River Park. It is marked on the left bank with two fluorescent green stripes on a tree. The banks gradually become lower and are occasionally swampy. The trees and bushes take on a more deciduous appearance. In about twenty minutes, a bridge crosses the river. The bridge is for the bike path through the park, which parallels the river on the right for the next 2 miles or so. Several good stopping points are available along this stretch. The river turns constantly. After some time it makes a hairpin turn around a very good, sandy beach where a rope hangs high over the outside of the bend. Pilings crossing the river here are all that remain of a wooden bridge. Pine trees disappear, and in a short time the river runs under Route 37.
At this point the Toms River becomes tidal. It turns left toward the cleared
and marshy right-of-way of a high-voltage power line. Then it turns away from it
and meanders tightly back and forth. After crossing under Route 527 for the
second time, the river turns left and meanders across the right-of-way three
times. Passing under a low-voltage power line, it turns right through thin woods
near buildings that are the outskirts of the town of Toms River. It passes under
a railroad trestle and a gas pipeline and leaves the woods, losing its identity
in a broad marsh. One should then turn left and paddle under the Garden State
Parkway, keeping close to the bushes on the left. There is a channel here; it
swings left before a bush-covered island and then right around a lumberyard.
Then it crosses under the railroad trestle again; on the other side is the
public boat ramp at the back of the commuter parking lot behind the Toms River
post office. At high tide, a canoe may not be able to pass under this trestle,
in which case the canoe may be taken out here and carried to the parking lot.
This report was excerpted from the book Paddling the Jersey Pine Barrens by Robert Parnes with permission from Falcon Publishing.