Many are drawn to the Pine Barrens by its colorful folklore, by places with odd names such as Ong's Hat and Mount Misery, by ghost towns like Martha and Colliers.
They study ecosystems, geology, birds, and rare flora across 1.1 million acres of South Jersey forests cut by meandering white-sand trails and tea-colored rivers.
G. Russell Juelg and more than 20 followers didn't come last week for science.
They came to dark Wharton State Forest for the Jersey Devil, a fearsome beast whose legend dates back more than two centuries.
In the light of a roaring campfire, they listened to tales of the Devil - of scary encounters, blood-curdling shrieks, ferocious howls, and greenish-yellow eyes that glow in the inky night.
Then they gathered their courage and set off to hunt the monster, usually described as having wings and a horse face, though the chances of seeing it were highly unlikely.
"A lot of sightings can be explained as some kind of encounter with one of the natural creatures," said Juelg, director of outreach for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an environmental watchdog group. "When somebody hears something, they're probably hearing the wild animals of the area.
"But some of the sightings aren't so easy to explain. No one explanation can account for the whole phenomenon."
Juelg's hunt Thursday night - with five adults and 20 students from Harrington Middle School in Mount Laurel - was one of at least three he will conduct this fall. Those set for Nov. 13 and Dec. 4 are booked.
Standing in a moonlit Batona campsite, with the fire crackling and a banjo playing, Bobby Sunderland of Mount Laurel wasn't sure what to expect.
"I like a little mystery," said Sunderland, 41, a Coast Guard chief warrant officer, whose son was attending. "I like to say, 'Yeah, there's a possibility' " of something being out there.
His 14-year-old, Burke, was skeptical. He wanted more than stories; he wanted proof. "I think there is a chance there's an animal and that people are just exaggerating," he said.
'We need mystery'
John Dighton is a skeptic, too. The Rutgers University biology professor and director of the Pinelands Field Research Station doesn't believe there's anything to the myth.
"People have stories, and they pass them around over campfires and beer," he said. "What the truth is, nobody knows, and that's part of the appeal. It's the appeal of folklore in general."
Visitors get frightened and "see things they didn't really see," Dighton said.
"I don't know what it is out there, and I don't want to know," he said. "That spoils the whole idea of it."
The Jersey Devil is much like the Loch Ness Monster, added the English native.
"It may be there, it may not be," he said. "We need mystery in life. . . . But I think it's people's imagination running away with them."
Tell that to those who say they have seen the Jersey Devil.
In 1997, Juelg said, he led a group of Devil hunters who saw a pair of greenish-yellow eyes watching them in the woods.
"We decided to walk along the path to see if the eyes would follow us," he said. "They didn't, so we kept going. Nobody was interested in actually approaching it."
One night the next year, Juelg was taking firewood to a secluded campsite in Wharton State Forest when he came upon four frightened high school students. Their four-wheel-drive truck had gotten stuck, he said.
"They had to walk out and got lost. That's when they heard a large, ferocious creature making bizarre howls.
"They built a fire in the middle of the road, hoping to keep whatever it was away."
Juelg gave a ride to the youths, who needed help to rescue their truck. "I imagine they didn't go back until the next day, though," he said.
Juelg had his own encounter in 2003. He was startled awake at his Shamong home by "superhuman" shrieks and howls that returned the next night.
He went out on his deck with a flashlight, he said, but the sounds were from "deep in the interior of the woods."
Cougars are known to shriek, but biologists believe they've been hunted out in the area. "What I heard was louder than any creature I've ever heard," Juelg said.
Over the years, livestock, chickens, ducks, geese, and piglets reportedly have been attacked, he added.
"I don't know what it is out there," he said, chuckling. "Maybe it's a cousin of the chupacabra," another legendary creature said to attack livestock.
With an occasional breeze whispering through the pines and sparks rising from the fire at the Batona campsite, skeptics still outnumbered believers.
"People imagine a monster when it's just an animal," said Jack Circus, 13, an eighth grader from Mount Laurel.
"I'm sorry, but I don't believe it - yet," said Ashley Schroff, 14, also of Mount Laurel.
Teacher Maureen Barrett counted the students before they headed out. "Twenty! The Jersey Devil didn't get anybody yet," she said.
"Turn off your cell phones," Juelg said. "I don't want to hear any ringtones. If you hear something really strange in the distance, it could be the Jersey Devil."
No other place like it
If the strange creature does exist, the isolated, eerily quiet Pinelands would be a perfect home. It would add another layer of character to a unique culture that began in settlements hundreds of years ago, when people farmed the land and labored at ironworks.
Visitors today venture to the 19th-century hamlet of Friendship, former site of a cranberry bog, and the 18th-century ironmaking town of Martha, both swallowed up by the Pinelands. All that's left are stone foundations and cellars where houses stood.
"People who live in the Pinelands like living in the country," Juelg said. "They have conservative values and are straight-talking."
Many "Pineys" trace their families three, four, or five generations. "They like a variety of music, but a lot like country, folk, and bluegrass," he said. Piney music is usually played on fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, banjo, guitar, and dulcimer.
"The people here are typically independent, self-sufficient," Juelg said. "Very few live entirely off the land. Some work for a blueberry or cranberry grower; others are self-employed, cutting or selling firewood."
In a place so far off the beaten track, the legend of the Jersey Devil easily took root. Its beginning can be traced to American Indians. The Lenni Lenape called the region Popuessing, or "place of the dragon." Sightings have been reported in towns including Bordentown, Woodbury, Burlington, Gloucester, Collingswood, and Haddonfield.
On Thursday, Juelg and his followers marched deep into the Pinelands.
"See if you see a pair of glowing greenish-yellow eyes," Juelg coached them. "You may hear wings beating in the distance."
No one caught a glimpse of eyes, but a few heard the brush rustling and saw shapes moving through the woods. "There's no other place in the world," Juelg said, "like the Pine Barrens."
If You Go
For information about the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and future events, call 609-859-8860 or go to www.pinelandsalliance.org