How a trip through the Pinelands can lower high blood pressure

I wonder if there are doctors who, in addition to pills, prescribe “a day in the wilderness once a week, preferably South Jersey.”

|

Share:


Reposted with Permission from The Burlington County Times                    

Originally Published: Wednesday, November 4, 2015         

I’m not sure if the Batsto River will save your life or improve your health, but it might. At least it has for me. I think.

A few weeks ago, a doctor told me I have chronic high blood pressure. Well, more like stratospheric blood pressure. The doc was puzzled because I am not overweight, quit smoking years ago, exercise regularly, and eat (mostly) healthy food.

He wanted to put me on pills, but not being pill-averse, I asked for a two-week reprieve.

“Let me see if I can bring those numbers down naturally,” I said.

I cut out salt, began drinking gallons of water. To my deep regret, I eliminated my ritual Saturday afternoon roast beef and cheese on a hard roll, washed down with a couple of cold lagers, while watching college ball at my favorite local saloon.

The blood pressure numbers didn’t budge. Some days, they spiked even higher. My worried wife began making me piles of boiled vegetables for dinner.

Navigating the Batsto John Volpa, a guide with Pinelands Adventures in Shamong, shows kayakers the 6-mile route they will take south on the Batsto River on Saturday Oct. 31, 2015.
Navigating the Batsto
John Volpa, a guide with Pinelands Adventures in Shamong, shows kayakers the 6-mile route they will take south on the Batsto River on Saturday Oct. 31, 2015.

“It’s healthy,” she said.

Dessert was a cup of nuts and berries.

“What am I? A squirrel?” I said.

Food isn’t the only source of high blood pressure. Stress is big, too. Now in my 50s, I continue to work at a young man’s pace, producing 700 words, four times a week, 200 times a year for three daily newspapers. In the digital world in which journalists dwell, tight deadlines grow even tighter, since deadline is always now.

Toss in the continual upkeep of a suburban house, two cars and a 20-year marriage, while at the same time paying off a mortgage, caring for an aging parent and raising three teenagers, and, well, stress brews.

But my oldest kid, Danny, was the reason I found myself on the Batsto River last Saturday. He is 16 and loves the outdoors.

When his Boy Scout troop had to reschedule a camping trip set for Halloween weekend, he was disappointed. I told him we’d go kayaking, one of his favorite things.

I scheduled an Oct. 31 trip through Pinelands Adventures in Shamong. That morning before we left, I took my blood pressure. Sky high.

We left Bucks County for Atsion Lake before sunrise, an hour drive. Daylight rose as we headed south on Route 206. Mist and fog hung over frosted farmland. As the light grew, fog divided to columnlike formations. It was ghostly and beautiful and mesmerizing.

Sunrise breaks over Atsion Lake in Shamong on Saturday Oct. 31, 2015.
Sunrise breaks over Atsion Lake in Shamong on Saturday Oct. 31, 2015.

Arriving, mist was over Atsion Lake. It burned off in the strengthening sun, and red maple reflected on cobalt water. It was like a scene rendered in oils. I stopped the car for pictures.

Our excursion on the Batsto was Pinelands Adventures’ last paddling trip of the season. There were five of us. Our guide was John Volpa, a retired schoolteacher who spent the last 20 years of his 37-year career teaching sixth-grade environmental science.

“A beautiful day for paddling,” he said.

After a bouncy, 20-minute ride deep into the Pines on the sugar sand of Quaker Bridge Road, we launched the kayaks into the river and headed out for our 6-mile, daylong journey. Phones were silenced. Volpa planned five stops, each one to educate us on an aspect of the Pinelands ecosystem and history.

There are more ghost towns in the Pine Barrens than in the American West.

Fire is as natural and healthful an ingredient to the Pinelands as rainfall.

More than a century ago, clear-cutting to supply fuel for ironmaking furnaces left the Pinelands a clear-cut industrial wasteland.

No, he has never seen the Jersey Devil.

Along banks, oak, scrub oak and sweet pepperbush glowed yellow. Beneath the tree canopy, black huckleberry blushed red.

About an hour into navigating that winding, twisting river, the feeling hit me. It was unexpected. A great calm. I think runners call it “runner’s high.” It remained with me for the day.

On the Batsto River A pristine autumn afternoon on the Batsto River in Burlington County on Saturday Oct. 31, 2015.
On the Batsto River
A pristine autumn afternoon on the Batsto River in Burlington County on Saturday Oct. 31, 2015.

We were back home after 6 p.m. I was tired but felt good. I took my blood pressure. Though still above normal, it was far lower than it had been that morning. It remains the lowest number recorded in two weeks of tracking.

Still, the doc prescribed medication. But I wonder if there are doctors who, in addition to pills, prescribe “a day in the wilderness once a week, preferably South Jersey.”

Can’t hurt.