March 31, 2013
Happy Easter! Our long travel day on Saturday from Camachee Cove to anchor off Cumberland Island paid off. We awoke to sun and blue skies and made eggs benedict with asparagus and tangy hollandaise for a special Easter breakfast. I was especially looking forward to our day of exploring Cumberland Island since our friends Ken and Deanna had ranked it their top destination on the whole of the ICW.
Cumberland Island National Seashore is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, 18 miles long. It is a national park sheltering 40 square miles acres of pristine maritime forest, wild beaches, freshwater lakes and salt-water marshes. It has a history as rich and varied as its wildlife habitats. Occupied first by hunter-gatherer Timucuan Indians 4000 years ago, the island is now more of a testament to the impermanence of material possessions, as mansions and outbuildings of wealthy Georgian plantation owners and families (including the Carnegie family) from 1793 to 1945 are now ruins for exploring or park-owned buildings. Wild horses are now the permanent residents of the island – when their caretaker died she stipulated in her will that her horses be allowed to roam free.
Ferries from St. Mary’s bring visitors – hikers, bikers and campers. Several well-kept campgrounds deep in the woods in the middle of the island were well off our beaten track so we did not see them. However, a ferry had disgorged a load of campers just before we tied up our dinghy to Sea Camp Dock and entered the pretty log house which is now the ranger station. The ranger was busy briefing all the campers and issuing their permits, but took a little time to tell us that our dinghy was fine where it was, so we grabbed a map and set out to hike the River Trail to the Ice House.
The only church on the island is the First African Baptist Church, a tiny chapel on the north end of the island (17 miles hike away), now a memorial to the freed slaves who built it as a place of worship, and to provide some comfort from their abject poverty post civil war. We didn’t get there on this trip. However, instead of a chapel we had a cathedral for our Easter Day observations. The huge bowing branches of live oaks provided the vaulted ceiling, and spanish moss (neither Spanish nor moss incidentally), the draperies and tapestries. Sunlight filtered through as if through stained glass. Warblers, buntings and other birds subbed in for choir and organ. Palm-filled undergrowth provided the décor, strewn logs the pews, flowering wild honeysuckle the incense, palm branches littered the ground. We saw no-one else on the trail. The spiritual experience was profound.
We are in awe of the maritime hammock – the impressive, huge evergreen Live Oaks draped with epiphytes and green ivy, habitat to warblers, wrens, woodpeckers and buntings. Also called sailors’ wood, as the naturally bowed branches were prized by boat builders. Their branching, knobbly trunk and branches dripping with epiphytes exude personality. I am sure they were the inspiration for Tolkien’s ents including Treebeard. As we walked we kept thinking what a wonderful set the forest would make for a Tolkien movie.
Even Steve forgot his skipper career and retreated into his original forester self, swiveling his head in wonder and taking photos of trees! The magic of the place was broken only by my laughter when Steve warmed up enough to sit down on a bench and remove his longjohns….I had no idea that he was wearing that many layers….in Georgia…in April.
After a mile or so we arrived at some white wood-sided outbuildings of the Carnegie estate – one house converted into a Parks office and the Ice House, converted into a museum of the island. We were delighted to see large-wheeled PVC framed wheelchairs for use of visitors with disabilities to ensure that they have full access to the trails, carriage roads and beaches of the islands. The park is remarkably accessible.
The little ice house museum was interesting, and having studied up on the former residents of the island, and the fires which brought two successive Dungeness mansions to ruins, we struck off down the old tree-lined carriage road to explore, first the old duck pond, and then the ruins of Dungeness.
It was not hard, amongst the ivy covered ruins and wrought iron gates to conjour up the grandeur of its glory days Walking across the wide lawn overlooking the marsh, you could almost ear champagne glasses tinkling, Southern belles giggling, and panama-hatted men chatting and smoking, while livery-clad servants brought our food and drink. We walked passed the ruined recreation building which had once housed a casino, pool and courts, and past the neat-looking former estate manager’s home towards the carriage house and servants quarters. When this place was a plantation it once housed over 400 slaves. You could almost smell the wood-smoke and hear the chickens squawking, men and women shouting, children playing and someone singing.
We followed a boardwalk across dunes, passing a feral horse grazing, down to the long smooth sandy ocean beach. Although we had not seen too many other campers or hikers, just a couple of people on bicycles thus far, there were a number of other day visitors along the beach, picnicking and sunbathing. I was hoping to see a ghost crab, horseshoe or fiddler crab, all of which are relatively common here, but all we saw were a few sting ray corpses and a dead seagull littering the shore. We went back and this time took the fork that led to the salt marsh boardwalk, where we saw a bunch of wild horses including a foal. Steve was in a happy place, singing over and over the only refrain he remembered (to his own variation cover of the Stones tune)….”wild, wild horses, couldn’t drag me away..ay..ay”……
We walked back through the little cemetery with vaults and gravestones commemorating the rich white people who had governed this place, and then a couple of miles hike along the Nightingale Trail and the “main road” back to Sea Camp ranger station and dock, where our dinghy sat waiting in the brown current.
Our biggest excitement on the way back was seeing an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly and then an armadillo – our first ever sighting of one in the wild. By this time my camera battery had run our but Steve managed to snap a picture – enough to verify what we saw! Altogether we walked about 5 miles and covered only a small fraction of the island. I was jealous of the week-long campers who had plenty of time to explore other parts of this pristine parkland. As I have said (too many times) before, I will come back here some day.
We returned to the boat and I cooked an Easter ham, with sweet potatoes, green beans and asparagus. It seemed a bit much for just the two of us, but what is a special occasion without special food?
Other boats had left us alone in the anchorage but the current played tricks and swiveled our boat over the anchor chain, causing the chain to pass over our transducer, and our shallow water alarm to alert us to less than 7 feet of depth even though we were in 15 feet of water. We miss the clear, warm, transparent water of the Bahamas so much. The water here is choppy and looks like coke with a touch of milk. Opaque. Not appealing. Thank goodness we trust our anchor because I for one am not jumping in to check it.
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