Story by Tom Pagliaroli

Yeah, yeah. Spring officially arrives in 11 days, but thanks to the walloping blizzard that enveloped the upper part of the state earlier in the week, an opportunity to enjoy the Garden State in its nature-in-the-raw beauty can be had by taking a road trip north and signing in for some winter camping.

Sure, a few inches of the white stuff briefly blanketed the likes of Wharton and Bass River state forests, but most of it has already melted. No, to experience the breathtaking geographic diversity of what New Jersey has to offer, hit one of the state parks or forests in the mountainous northern tier counties of Sussex, Warren or Passaic.

Our faves for the winter camping experience are Stokes (973-948-3820) and Jenny Jump (459-4366) state forests in Sussex and Warren counties respectively. Here, one can opt for pitching a tent (if your young and/or crazy) or enjoy the relative comfort of a closed lean-to or the semi-creature comforts of a shelter. While both properties offer tent camping, Stokes has closed lean-tos and Jenny Jump the shelters.

The closed lean-to is outfitted with a pot-bellied stove…and that’s it. Outside of each are a fire pit, grill, and picnic table. The shelters at Jenny Jump boast two separate rooms each with bunk beds, and an inside table and pot-bellied stove. Outside of each are a fire ring, grill, and picnic table.

Enclosed and heated flush toilet facilities are close to all camping areas. Believe me, this is a welcomed amenity this time of year.

Firewood is available for sale at both, and believe me, you will need plenty of it as the March darkness in the Skyland Region is well beyond brisk. Hence, warm sleeping bags or comforters, and comfortable pillows will make for deep sleep nights.

One of the best parts of winter camping in the snow is the sudden visibility of all sorts of wildlife, especially when on the move. Deer are active save during periods of heavy winds, and no, don’t be surprised if you see a black bear nosing around for grub under the snow. Sure, they went into hiding during the blizzard, but the internal clock is telling them spring is just about here and it’s time to get to the serious business of chowing to replenish the fat reserves that melted during the quasi-hibernation period. Sows with newborn cubs will most likely still be in dens, but not for much longer. Songbirds are incredibly active, and a hike passing one of the lakes and ponds is sure to reveal flocks of ringneck ducks (easily identified by the white ring on their bills…go figure) and mallards that are resting before continuing their northward mating ground migration.

If you have them, a set of snowshoes will get you into the way backwoods when the snow is deep, with cross-country skis a blessing when traversing the more packed down trails.

Don’t forget about the fishing. The Big Flatbrook and Little Flatbrook, and Lake Ocquittunk in Stokes are still full of trout, as is the Pequest River a few minute drive from Jenny Jump.

NJMFC Meeting: The March 15 public meeting of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council at the Stafford Municipal Building, 260 East Bay Avenue in Manahawkin, will not be about the flounder (fluke) and sea bass seasons/bag limits. That meeting has been pushed back with a tentative date of April 5. Thursday's meeting will concern itself with porgies and tog (blackfish). It’s looking like this: a year-round season for porgies with the same 9-inch/50 fish limit; tog will be cut back, with the one fish “season” not starting until August, and the November 16-December 31 season seeing a drop from six fish to five, with the same 15-inch minimum length. Call the Bureau of Marine Fisheries (609-748-2020) for additional information.