I’ve lived in Georgia for nearing half my life now. Some of those years were just outside Savannah, so at one time I lived within a more reasonable travel distance, but still, somehow I’ve missed getting out to Cumberland Island. At least part of that has been because of the planning involved. There is a limit to how many people can visit, 300 daily, and you must make reservations in advance to take the ferry out, or come by private boat. I was passing by once and stopped to see if there was stand-by room for a day trip with no luck. A television program on the Georgia islands was aired just before a recent trip to Florida and it reminded me that I wanted to see Cumberland Island at just the perfect time. I thought that the program made one of the other islands seem a lot less developed than it actually was and I hoped that Cumberland Island was closer to its reputation. The reputation is sometimes elitist and sometimes rustic. These are not mutually exclusive features in my mind, but they are interpreted as such by many. Russ was going to Florida as well and he was on-board, so we had a plan.
For this trip we had a 4:00 AM wake up. We were driving from Atlanta to avoid an extra night in a hotel and still make the first ferry allowing a reasonable amount of time on the island. The ferry ride was a very pleasant trip.It had been far too long since I had been out on the water in a boat. Paddling in a canoe or a kayak is not what I mean when I say that. Not so long ago, I had taken a ferry ride on a hydrofoil. The sacrifice for speed not worth the trade-off. It was noisy and the closest thing to a view was a GPS style map screen showing our progression. The lack made me feel closed in. We were strapped in seats, much more securely than an airplane. Not the leisurely walk on the bow that I had imagined. By contrast, the Cumberland Island Ferry is exactly what I want in a ferry. There are seats inside and out as well as up top, available on a first come basis. School was back in session, so the crowds were a small fraction of the limit and free movement around the boat was easy. The seats on top opened up as soon the sun won out in the balance between exposure and view. A slow boat with a gentle breeze and the mood for the weekend was set.
The first thing that anyone tells you about Cumberland Island is to bring the insect repellent. It is important advice that makes the difference between a pleasant trip and hell, but unfortunately, that often repeated advice, in part, fueled my delay in visiting. Being the mosquito magnet that I am, the only thing I hate worse than insect repellent is being bit because I didn’t use it. Even the hardiest resisters use it here and I think many people may avoid a place that comes with the mosquito warning as the number one comment about the visit, but the island is well worth the effort because after having been, now what I want to know is when I can go again.
Cumberland Island felt something like home, even though I’d never been there. I remember the beaches of my childhood and some part of me holds every beach up to those in comparison. These were mostly Florida pan handle beaches near Pensacola and the Redneck Riveria of south Alabama. Before hurricane Frederick hit in 1979 the barrier islands in this area, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, had a lot of private homes rather than high rises. It was a casual barefoot kind of a place, pretty much free from expensive brands, chlorinated pools and places where sand could be forgotten. After the hurricane wiped the beach clean, big developers moved in and changed the nature of the space. So while Cumberland Island was a new experience with some different flora and fauna, it took me home and I was grateful that in the 1950s the island had been graced with few owners, little development and the foresight to protect this beautiful resource for us to enjoy today.
Cumberland Island is the most untouched and protected of the Georgia Sea Islands. It is “the one with the one with the (feral) horses”.There is some mainland industry visible from the island, ruins from the Plantation Dungeness, a headstone marker for “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the small First African Baptist Church where John F. Kennedy Jr. was married and a few other things, but when walking on the windward side of the island (Atlantic Side) there is little to remind you of civilization.
There are many large animals like deer and alligators as well as invasive species. Here the invasive species are watched carefully and include animals such as feral horses, boar and armadillo as well as the plants that more often come to mind when one thinks of invasive species. Animals on the island are accustomed to being protected most of the time and not as shy as others you may have encountered. Ironically, the lack of fear can make it easier to scare them accidentally if you don’t respect their distance. Many animals protect us from an unpleasant encounter by being afraid and running or hiding before we ever see them. Remember that because an animal allows you to come closer is not necessarily a sign that you should. I did not see alligators or boar, but there was an impertinent armadillo that stayed in our camp-site shuffling and and rooting. It sounded like he was also making a snorting sound, but with all the rustling of the leaf litter I really couldn’t tell. I understand that an armadillo’s fight or flight reflex sends it flying 3-4 feet in the air, so even least intimidating of the wild animals could be a little unpleasant if you frighten it. Oh, and the raccoons…use the elevated lock boxes for your food as instructed by your ranger, really. We had our small trash bag high on the pole with little actual food and they still ripped it apart. I understand from the ranger briefing that a video of one raccoon on the shoulders of another reaching was taken with a cell phone.We stayed at the main camp ground nearest the second dock. As we were picking our camp sites, the ranger told me he had lived in the Atlanta area recently. As Park Ranger (interpretive, not enforcement) is high on my list of dream jobs, I told him I’d make the same trade so fast his head would spin. The main camp ground is covered in a beautiful Live Oak canopy with a palmetto under-story and it has cold showers. I wasn’t alone in mine. There were frogs and a lizard. The other camp grounds are primitive. Shell collecting is allowed and a little bit better pickin’s simply because there are fewer people looking than on most other beaches. As we left the camp ground we passed 3 deer in the path. While we were on the boat waiting to leave there were a pair of butterflies dancing above the water together and horses in the distance. It was a nice farewell and it will not take me very long to find my way back.
I had a sample of Natrapel lotion that worked very well for the mosquitoes. I also used some spray that contained DEET when my sample ran out. I believe that the Natrapel worked best, but had a difficult time finding it again.
Editors Update: I recently attended an educational presentation at the Georgia Conservancy where Charles Seabrook presented his book Strong Women and Wild Horses and director William Van Der Kloot presented his film Cumberland: Island in Time. Both give excellent background on he history and unique flavor of the island.