The Manasquan River rises from the western creeks of Monmouth County and spills out toward the Atlantic as it widens and deepens. It’s not a long river, but for kayakers, the Manasquan’s 26 miles—and the adjacent reservoir named for it—show off several different versions of New Jersey. At the eastern end, grand houses line the banks and fishing boats parade out to sea; to the west, bald eagles soar over calm, open water. In between, kayakers can meander through marshes and woodlands.
For those entering the eastern end of the river, boat traffic thins out after Labor Day, making it easier to paddle from Fisherman’s Cove across to Gull Island and Lake Louise in Point Pleasant. (Avoid the inlet itself and the tricky waters near the railroad bridge.) On the reservoir, stay near the shore to soak in the fall palette of the bordering trees.
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But for most kayakers, the best stretch is more toward the middle of the river, at the Manasquan River Wildlife Management Area. The Manasquan is a border river—often cited as one of the mythical, much-debated boundaries between North and South Jersey—and a launch spot off Ramshorn Drive in Wall Township is a border within the river itself.
It’s where the river starts to change character, from inland Jersey to coastal Jersey, from back road to main thoroughfare. You need to bring your own kayak to launch here. Unload at the clearing by the launch site, but don’t park there; drive back up the short, bumpy hill and leave your vehicle in the ample parking area instead. If you don’t have your own kayak, you can rent one a couple of miles downriver at Lightning Jack’s Marina in Brick and put in there. (Rentals are also available at Paddle Out in Manasquan and at the Manasquan Reservoir in Howell.)
On a bright and warm fall morning reminiscent of summer, two friends and I nosed our kayaks out onto the almost still water at the Wall Township launch. Here, kayakers must make a choice. Paddle to the right, upriver to the west, and trees will envelop you as the channel narrows through woodlands. Paddle to the left, downriver to the east, and marshes open up as the water broadens toward the ocean.
We turned right to start, into a shady stretch similar to the tea-colored rivers farther south in the Pine Barrens. The first leaves were just starting to turn as we glided around some fallen trees and under a low bridge into the deepening woods toward Allaire State Park. When the stream narrowed and the obstacles multiplied, we turned and paddled east, past the launch spot and into the marshes. A rope swing hung idle from a tree above the south bank like a memory of summer. Egrets waded. A great blue heron lumbered into flight.
One more bend through the reeds, and the river opened abruptly into its final run toward the sea, just over five miles away. (This is where you would start if you launched at Lightning Jack’s.) Boat traffic is always sparse at this end of the river; on this fall day, we shared the river only with a handful of other kayakers and an occasional Jet Ski.
We stayed close to the north bank, aided by the tide and the breeze as we headed toward our goal: the midriver island off Brielle officially known as Nienstedt Island, but which everyone calls Treasure Island. The Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson stopped on the now-popular island during a local stay in 1888 and gave it the name of his classic novel. In high summer, a flotilla is often anchored around the island, and pleasure boaters disembark to picnic and stroll. We landed and walked the sandy beach that encircles the island’s wooded center. (Watch out for poison ivy if you venture off the sand.) Arriving in the fall, we had the island all to ourselves, much as Stevenson might have.
The tide and the breeze were against us as we turned to paddle the four miles back to the launch spot. When we reached our goal, the river had receded far enough from the banks that landing was a trudge through mud. It was a small price to pay for the day we had. That trip turned out to be our last of the season, and patches of dried mud clung to my kayak all winter like a promise of more journeys ahead.