It’s sweltering hot on a recent Wednesday afternoon. The heat coming off the Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing makes the air look blurry; not a cloud in the sky provides relief from the sun.
Staff members at Palace Restaurant & Outfitters run in and out of the restaurant to take breaks from the heat between helping people get fitted for river tubing, kayaking and canoeing. The restaurant’s outdoor patio overlooks the Great Egg Harbor River.
Our corner of South Jersey is famous for its ocean beaches, but for some, a day canoeing down one of the local rivers offers just as much fun as a day at the beach.
“The river is friendly for canoeing and everyone has a good time,” said Mike Cokenakes, Palace owner. “Families come out, high school and college reunion groups. We get all different people coming out here to go on the river.”
While the Great Egg Harbor River stretches a 126 miles from Camden to the Atlantic Ocean in Atlantic County, renters at Palace can canoe distances of two, four or eight miles from Folsom into Mays Landing.
Nikki Kuhar, of Upper Township, her boyfriend and his family came out to Palace Wednesday in shorts, bathing suits, hats and with coolers of food and drink. She grabbed an army green life vest from a rack, put it on and snapped the buckles in place.
“We came last year and had a lot of fun doing the four-mile trip,” she said. “You don’t really have to paddle too much because of the current, and it’s pretty shady on the river. People always think of the beach, but this is something different to do.”
Cokenakes has run a canoeing service since opening Palace in 1984. Because canoes ride higher in the water, they can be a little more wobbly than a kayak or a tube, he said. Sometimes people build up to canoeing after doing the first two.
People can canoe individually or in pairs, and sometimes a boat will hold a third person or a child. Matthew Pastore, lead boat handler, drove the group out to the eight-mile marker on the river, unloaded the canoes from a trailer and helped get the pairs of paddlers into the water.
“One of the big selling points is that, especially on the way to Atlantic City, this is something different that a lot of families don’t really get to experience in an area where the beach is real common,” he said, “but I think it’s nice to have something like this that’s a little more leisurely.”
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The route along the river runs through wooded areas and flows smoothly in a single direction. Cokenakes said people don’t have to worry about getting lost, because the river doesn’t split along this route.
If people have never canoed before, Pastore said he recommends starting with the two-mile trip, which can last about an hour and a half depending on the speed of the current and the paddlers.
Once people get more comfortable with canoeing, they may chose to take a longer route. The eight-mile trip can be three to four hours or more, Cokenakes said.
For safety, Cokenakes has staff on standby and near several entrances along the river to help people if they struggle with things like tipping over or losing canoes. There are even places along the route where people can stop and swim should the heat of the day get the best of them.
“The biggest thing is just to take your time and enjoy it,” Pastore said. “I just tell people to go out and make it as leisurely of a thing as possible. Just enjoy your day while you’re out here.”