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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Ken Camp
A View from the Meadows

"The best time to go duck hunting is early in the morning," said Ken Camp. "You’re out there in the morning, when the sun’s coming up. It's the break of day. There's no noise."

Camp, who has spent many of his years on the Maurice River duck hunting and rail birding, doesn't pretend to be a poet. The impressions of an old "country boy," are plain and simple." It is a pretty thing out there," Camp said.

In his lifetime of experiences, Camp became familiar with the moods and views of the Maurice River. His knowledge of the names attributed to places on the river is associated with the names of the meadows that stretched along side of it. He pinpointed "Legion Meadow" as an example. It was also called "Legion Farm". "We hunted the meadows and we named the reaches to correspond to the meadows behind them," Camp said.

Kenneth Camp was born in Port Elizabeth in 1931. His parents, Heis and Marie Camp raised five children on the farm where they lived and worked. Almost every Camp who settled in Port Elizabeth and Leesburg was a farmer. Ken and his son Richard continue to work the land and the well-visited farm stand that sits just before the Delsea Drive bends south towards Camp's Corner.

The farm stand has been operating for nearly 45 years. Camp said, "My dad started this produce stand." Heis Camp also packed up his produce into a truck and headed to Millville, where he sold his vegetables to local markets. Today, locals and tourists stop at the stand for farm fresh corn, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelon and seasonal produce.

Camp graduated from Millville High School, married his wife Ruth, and raised three children right there on the land farmed by his own father. "We moved here when we first got married," Camp said. When his father bought another farm down on the bend, Ruth and Ken moved onto the original farmstead and built their home. Ruth passed away almost 10 years ago. Ken still lives in the house that they built in the early 1950's.

Heis Camp's second farm was eventually sold, but Ken has retained ownership of the original 150-acre tract. "We only farm about 35-50 acres. The rest is woodland and meadow," he said.

In addition to farming, Heis Camp was one of the men in the region who arranged rail bird outings. Folks say that these birds got their name because of the way the birds would line up along rural fences along the meadows. The wide stands of wild rice attracted Sora, Virginia and other rails.

In the meadows of the Maurice River, the migratory path brings the birds to the area in early September. Depending on the weather, the season could last into early November. "We try to hunt from September 15th until October 15th," Camp said. The birds leave with the first frost. "But we're losing so much of the meadow now." Camp explained that the salt line comes further up-river each season. "When I first started, we'd head out from Mauricetown at the causeway. Now we start up by the Buckshutem Church. We've lost half of the hunting area in the past 10-15 years." That's why the season isn't so long. "We quit when the meadows have been gone over once or twice." Camp said that he couldn't justify charging a hunter to go out when there was nothing left to hunt. "When I first started, you could get 25 rails every day. Eight to ten is a good average now," he said.

Hunting these birds required patience - and the skill of a good pusher. Rail birding along the meadows of the Maurice River brought many a wealthy sportsman -  and some noted politicians to the area. Camp got his first experience in his father's enterprise when he was just 14. "My father said that he needed an extra pusher because an extra guy was coming along. That is how I got to go along." Camp said that he managed to do the job that day. "It was alright. We were, what do you say,  'country boys'? We fell right into it." But the job isn't an easy one.

Camp explained the role of the pusher: A pusher gets on the back of the boat. He uses a 14- or 16- foot pole that has a cleated end. The cleat keeps the pole from sinking into the mud. The pusher propels the boat through the marshes with that pole. "A lot of these younger guys will go out once in a while," Camp said. "They find out that it's a lot of work. You have to keep going. You have to keep pushing. All the time."

When the hunter, who is positioned near the front of the boat, spots a rail, he'll flush it out, yelling “Mark!” The pusher "marks" the falling bird. That's when a skilled pusher is very valuable. "When a birds goes down, we mark it," Camp said, demonstrating with a practiced eye. He explained that the pusher takes note of the reeds where the bird has fallen. A broken reed, a slanted reed, two crossing over each other. "You don’t take your eye off that spot until you get there," he said, explaining that you can't even turn to see where another shot has come from. "If you do, nine times out of ten you won’t find it. You have to concentrate on it and keep your eye on it until you get there."

When his father set up the outings, his clients were wealthy, including heads of state, governors, a former president of the New York Stock Exchange, and even a president of the United States. "That was on the Mauricetown side," Camp recalled. "We didn’t take him. That was years ago."  Apparently that was avid sportsman Teddy Roosevelt, who made a couple of stops in Cumberland County - to campaign and to hunt rail bird.

And apparently more people have money for these kinds of experiences today. Camp said that he doesn't need to advertise his service. People hear about the good rail birding along the Maurice River. "We could go every two hours or so - for 60 days. That's how many people want to go out," Camp said, indicating that wasn't a real possibility. "You get one tide a day and you only get so many days in a season."

Along the meadows, the river is only about 3-4 feet deep. Because the boat gets pushed through the meadows, the water levels at high tide make it possible to maneuver through the swampy flats. "We would go out about an hour before high tide and an hour on top of the tide," Camp said.  "You're out there about 2 hours."  Of course, if there's been a Nor'Easter, teased Camp, there would be plenty of water. "The more water you have, the easier it is to get around. That's the name of the game."

But it was no game in his father's day. Raising a family during those years was tough for his parents. "If it hadn’t been for deer meat, muskrat and potatoes, well… we wouldn’t have survived on the farm with Dad," Camp said. Working at jobs away from the farm helped put money in the pockets of the younger Camps. "We used to trap muskrat," Camp said, adding that it's been years since he did that. "We used to do it as kids…for spending money. Every one around here trapped for spending money." He would stretch the hides and sell them. The hides were used to make coats and gloves, and maybe hats, Camp surmised. Camp has an albino muskrat hide in his wildlife collection. "It's the only one I have ever seen. I've heard that others run across one every once in a while."

After he was married, Camp looked for other ways to supplement the income from the farm. "I was a fire warden for 25 years," he said. He patrolled Section 2,Tuckahoe to Dennisville. At first it was a part time position, so he kept the farm going. But it began to take more of his time. Looking back over the years, Camp supposed that he had been actually working two full-time jobs.

But with his gentle smile, he just said, "Life was great." He said that he had a good time while he was growing up, too. The river played a big part in his life. "We couldn’t wait to get out there for rail birding and duck hunting." The fall was "Off Season" for the farmers. While Camp did fish occasionally, he wasn't a fisherman. "You don’t have time to fish when you are farming in the summer," he said.

He laughed thinking about the winters along the Maurice River. "We used to go ice skating all the time when it got cold enough," Camp said. "One time I walked half way across the river." He dug back into his memories. "I remember being a little scared. I had an ax. I would walk about four or five steps and cut a hole to see how deep it was. And I'd go on a little further and do the same thing. I know that I was about half way across the river when I got to thinking that the tide would be running. I decided that that ice wouldn't be as thick out there. I turned around and came back," he said with a chuckle. Lots of good memories, he said.

Camp's sister Ester still lives in her house just beyond the farm stand. His brother lives in Dorchester. Today Camp's son Richard does most of the heavy work on the family farm.

The elder Camp now takes the opportunity to indulge in a few of his hobbies. Just like his own father, Camp likes to hunt. "My dad always hunted. He always had fox dogs," Camp said, adding that fox furs were in good demand. Camp spends his time rabbit hunting. And with the same detail he gives about rail bird hunting, Camp started describing the kind of dogs he hunts with, his favorite places to hunt, and how he shares his catch with his neighbors.