By Clyde Davis
The pine barrens begin in the central part of New Jersey and stretch to the ocean in an easterly direction, to Cape May in the south, and touch the Delaware River in the East. It’s a vast area of rural terrain and downright wilderness, and is heavily grown over with cedar stands, pine and sand hills, and honeycombed with lakes and swamps, both fresh and saltwater.
There are, within this ecosystem, miles of untouched areas where one could easily get lost, or avoid detection.
It was to such a lake and swamp that T.J. and I went exploring one summer solstice, in search of adventure. This was during our year of ghost hunting and following up on weird stories. The rumors were that because it was summer solstice, people were going to be gathering on this island to do certain ceremonies that go with the seasonal event. My buddy and I were just nosing around hunting for ghost stories.
We cut out the lights on the CJ-5 and drifted down to the shoreline, because the Jeep had a huge noisy engine and we weren’t entirely sure where, if at all, we would run into something. This northern end of the lake was more swamp than deep water, but it was several miles away from the island which was our destination and that suited us well. The canoe we were using had a very shallow draft and we knew that we could paddle down the east side of the island and remain in the shadows, hopefully unseen.
We smelled the gathering before we saw it, as the night was dark even in the bright places, and the island lay around a bend in the lake. We smelled the gathering before we heard it, because the crickets and the bullfrogs were adding their song to the humid evening. What we smelled was the unmistakable scent of not one, but many fires of cedar and pine, and as we rounded the bend to the island, we saw that it was well lit.
Given the sounds of the chanting and music, we didn’t need to worry about the slight slap of our paddles, but as we drifted past the gathered fire-lit figures, we nonetheless made sure we muffled them. The way that the glow from the fires spread, it made us unsure of our own invisibility; this we hadn’t counted on. There were not just a few people gathered on the island; it was closer to a hundred. I would also rather not say whether we drifted past any water craft that we recognized.
It was not a Boy Scout campout, and the chanting and words we overheard were not the strains of “Kumbayah.” Remember, we were snooping about some rumors and it was summer solstice. If this were a piece of fiction, I would have us get off on the island and investigate further; I might even have us get caught. But it isn’t, and we didn’t. We simply drifted the canoe to the south end of the island, turned it about and paddled back up to the northern point where we had put into the water.
We loaded the canoe back onto the vehicle and headed back to town. We had seen enough and heard enough to tell us something, and there was no need to delve further. We were not, after all, quite that brave.
Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and an instructor at Eastern New Mexico University.