Cumberland Island is a National Seashore that lies just off of the coast of Georgia and just north of the Florida border. It is notable for its history, flora, fauna, location and large quantity of publicly owned and accessible land. Oh yeh, one of the Kennedy clan got married there a year or two ago. Weddings of the rich and famous attract press coverage in a way that armadillos never will. Despite what you might be led to think by the picture on the Park Service's Web page, the island looks very little like the surface of the moon. It is a beautiful place; the top picture on this Web page shows the view from the Brickhill Bluffs campsite on the first evening we stayed there.
We (Steve, Liz, John, Darleena and myself) planned our trip to last from Friday, January 29th to Tuesday, February 2nd. This coincided with the blue moon on January 31st and, more importantly, would also honor the anniversary of our kayaking trip in the big bend area of Florida last that was abruptly terminated by the sudden death of our father on Feb 2nd, 1998. (Steve, John and I are brothers; Liz is married to Steve.)
Steve, Liz and I awoke at 5:30 AM Friday morning in a Motel 6 in Brunswick, GA to the sound of an eight cylinder, no-muffler pickup truck warming up outside of our room. This went on for precisely 27 minutes, leaving us 3 refreshing minutes of sleep before our wakeup call. After breakfast we met John and Darleena in the parking lot of Crooked River State Park. We were a merry (if sleepy) crew until we got to the boat ramp where biting gnats descended upon our exposed flesh like thirsty little fiends. At the boat ramp we met Jeff, Andrea and Kirk who were also paddling to the Brickhill Bluffs campsite on CI that day. Jeff gave us some helpful tips on navigating to the island, which were to stay to the left when the river forks and head east after that. In addition, he advised us to forsake Mumford Creek for the Brickhill River. Mumford Creek apparently offers many opportunites for getting lost. We finished packing in a gnat-induced frenzy and hit the water a little behind the other kayakers. Steve and Liz were paddling their Prijon Seayaks, John his Perception Sealion, Darleena an Aquaterra Chinook loaner and I had my Wilderness Systems Sealution II.
We had an easy 90 minute paddle down a glassy Crooked River, through Cumberland Sound and into the Brickhill River to Plum Orchard on CI. The temperature was probably well over 70F and pretty soon we were all sweating. At Plum Orchard we tied off to the floating dock and got out to stretch our legs. Plum Orchard is a mansion built by Andrew Carnegie in the late 1800s for his son and daughter-in-law. It is still a magnificent place but the same humid air and strong sun that provide CI's lush undergrowth are tough on paint and wood, and the mansion is showing its age. If you're interested in seeing the inside, you should know that the building is locked and tours are infrequent. Check with the Park Service for details. We were able to peer inside a dirty window and make out a huge moose head (stuffed) and a neat looking old door.
We indulged ourselves at Plum Orchard somewhat longer than we intended to and by the time we got back in the Brickhill River and finished our trip to the Brickhill Bluffs campsite, the tide was beginning to turn in the river. As a result the final portion of the paddle felt a bit like work. But we saw wood storks, herons, ibis and egrets on the way and we arrived at our campsite invigorated and ready to see what else CI had to offer. We had been out of our boats in for just a few minutes when a horse came wandering to the edge of our campsite. He sampled the Spanish moss and eyed us in an I'm-not-really-looking-at-you sort of way. Suddenly, he kicked his back feet in the air, gave a snort and trotted off in a huff because two armadillos came out of nowhere and ran under his feet. The armadillos took center stage and whuffled their way around our campsite a little before making their way off into the forest. We all thought this travelling roadshow was great but the gnats were pretty thick so we got busy setting up our tents and were only distracted once by an otter popping his head up just offshore. We took a short hike to escape the gnats and when we returned at dusk the bug activity subsided as the cool air moved in. We celebrated our first evening on CI with a 1997 bottle of Steve and Liz's homemade potato wine. Later that night by the light of the (almost) full moon, John, Darleena and I took a walk south down the Main Road to the bridge by South Cut Road and saw a heron's silhoutte flying against gray and yellow moonlit clouds.
We woke on Saturday enthusiastic about exploring more of the island. The gnats were back, but not in the vicious swarms we'd seen before as the weather was a little cooler. We decided to take a hike up the Main Road to Bunkley Trail, north along Bunkley to North Cut Road and then east to the beach. Bunkley Trail turned out to be an intimate little affair that consisted of a single-file path through vegetation that stretched well overhead on either side. We saw lots of birds and plants that we couldn't identify but liked the look of anyway.
When we got to the beach we found that the wind was blowing too hard to make a beach walk enjoyable, so instead we took a break in a small porch on stilts overlooking the beach and watched black vultures circle in the air currents. (Our thanks to whoever owns the porch.) We headed south on the Roller Coaster Trail which parallels the beach and took us past Lake Whitney. We loved this section of the trail with its dense stands of palmettos, tremendous live oaks, white sand dunes, alligator wallows, armadillos (which we never got tired of) and miscellaneous animal tracks. The South Cut Trail which we took back to the Brickhill Bluffs side of the island was almost a disappointment by comparison but very pretty in its own way.
Back at camp we had a snack and decided to use the remaining daylight to do some kayaking. We paddled north along the edge of the island to a creek. We did not get far into the creek before fading light forced us to turn around. We paddled back to camp in the gentle light of sunset amidst an otter or two and some dolphins having dinner. Back at camp, the gnats nibbled on us. I have a personal aversion to bug spray, but those who chose to wear it tell me it slowed the gnats down but didn't stop them. The only effective gnat protection I found was to keep moving. That night I ate dinner on my feet, wandering in circles around the campsite.
The gnats were annoying, but as we were having such a good time we didn't mind them too much. But it was Saturday night that the fun of this trip began to erode. It seemed so slight that we didn't notice at first. While we were sleeping it began to rain, which didn't surprise us too much as the last weather forecast we'd seen predicted a 70% chance of rain for Sunday. It was no surprise either that it was still raining gently when we woke up, but it was not so bad that we couldn't make breakfast and sit and watch the tide rise. And rise it did. It rose over the tree roots where we had wedged a life jacket as a cushioned seat, it rose past the stick that John jabbed in the ground as he predicted the tide would rise no further, it rose enough to float John and Darleena's kayaks and was about to float their tent before they rescued it. This bought back memories of our Bull's Island trip where we dug our firepit below the high tide line. You might accuse us of being slow learners, and we could not argue forcefully to the contrary.
Using rope and bungee cords, we stretched a tarp over our cooking area so that we could cook and eat out of the rain and so the gnats would know where to find us. They did, and we did not tarry over breakfast. High tide made for an easy launch despite the light rain. (The foreground tree roots that you see in the photo below are totally covered at high tide. The tent on the far right is the one that the tide almost floated.)
Our original plan for the day was to paddle north up the Brickhill River into Cumberland Sound and north through the sound to the lighthouse on the northern tip of Little Cumberland Island. Jeff, Andrea and Kirk had tried the same trip the day before and had been driven back by high winds coming from the east, the same high winds that we encountered on the beach during our hike. We thought that we might have the same problem on our trip, so we changed our plan to the same alternative that they took -- a much shorter paddle to the Cumberland Wharf Ruins and then a hike inland to the First African Baptist Church.
Since the forecast had called for rain we had come prepared, or so we thought. As we paddled, the rain grew harder and the wind picked up. One by one, we realized that our gear was not making the grade. Steve's Goretex jacket was advanced in years and its water resistance succumbed to the pelting rain. I was wearing a $7 Army/Navy surplus rain jacket which did a great job of keeping the rain out because it was simple, non-breathable plastic. Unfortunately it didn't have a hood (you have to take what you get when you shop at the Army/Navy) and I took my rain hat off because of the strong winds. Needless to say, the rain ran off my head and neck and soaked my shirt. Darleena's orange poncho billowed out and made her slight frame look like a pumpkin sitting on top of her boat. (I really wish I had gotten a pumpkin picture!) That, combined with the fact that her Chinook handled like a bathtub in the waves that the wind was kicking up, made the final leg of the paddle hard on her. We were all glad to get to shore. The Cumberland Wharf Ruins, by the way, are at this stage in their life a lot more "ruin" than "wharf", more a spot on the map than anything else.
Once ashore we changed into what dry clothes we had. Only Darleena was genuinely cold, the rest of us were just wet and uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the steady rain, perhaps it was our soggy spirits, but the trails we walked on in this part of the island weren't as interesting as the ones we'd hiked on the day before. We did get to see some enormous live oaks and cedars, and a damp armadillo. And at one point, John got ahead of the rest of us and surprised one of the feral pigs that live on the island. But all the squishy walking was made worthwhile by our encounter with Bob and Carol at the historic First African Baptist Church. Carol is a biologist who has lived on the island for 25 years, and Bob is her husband who has recently retired and joined her on the island. They were engaging and cheerful and patient with all of the questions we'd come up with since our arrival. We met their Norwegian draft horses and Carol's friendly and totally cool Abyssinian cats. We wished we could have stayed for Happy Hour, but we the favorable tide was calling and we needed to get back to our boats. If you see Bob and Carol, tell them we said hello.
Steve's entry from the log sums up our return trip to the campsite pretty well. "We circled back to the wharf and got our damp derierres into our kayaks once more. The wind shifted, the rain intensified and we were paddling in Misery Bay once again." When we got back to Brickhill Bluffs, the gnats were there to greet us. To add insult to injury, the wind had driven rain into my tent and that some of the dry clothes I was looking forward to changing into were now either damp or soaked. Steve and Liz had experienced a similar problem the night before. Fortunately we'd been wise enough to pack plenty of wool and Polartec clothes. It was not very cold, but cold is a relative thing when you and your clothes are wet. Since fires are not allowed on the island, we had no way to dry out. With the rain still falling and no break in sight, dry socks became treasures. And nothing can compare to the thrill of squatting over a hole in the middle of a palmetto thicket trying to keep your toilet paper out of the rain. There's noise in the bushes and it is hard to tell if it is just rain hitting the leaves or a foraging armadillo.
We cooked that night beneath the tarp. Afterwards we moved our cooking gear and food out of the way and pulled the ends of Steve and Liz's sturdy Prijons beneath the tarp to convert our kitchen into a living room. We sat there knee to knee huddled under the tarp while the rain watered the Spanish Moss and resurrection ferns that cover the live oaks in their epiphytic millions. Due to an incident during breakfast, Darleena's stove was low on fuel as was Steve and Liz's. We were all short on dry clothing, and the rain showed no signs of abating. Realizing we were in dire straits, we broke out our emergency supplies. Unfortuntately the deck of cards had somehow gotten wet (any surprise?) but that last bottle of potato wine was as delicious as we expected it to be. Later that night, a fleet of shrimpers meandered into the river where we'd paddled just hours before and watching them took our minds off of the damp. I eventually crawled into my tent to sleep, grateful to be out of the gnats and rain. I had found that the only way I could prevent the gnats from biting me was to cover every inch of exposed skin, so while outside the tent I left my rain jacket on and had taken to keeping my hands tucked under my arms and wearing my wool knit cap (Army Navy, $5.95) stretched down over my ears and face to below my chin. I could sort of see through the stretched weave of the knit, and there wasn't that much to see anyway at night. Once in the tent I pulled off my hat, crawled into my clammy sleeping bag and laid my head down on the soggy towel that I used as a pillow and fell into a squishy sleep.
Now, we are not wimps by nature but the rude weather awakening we'd received made us reconsider our plans and we decided that with both spirits and clothing both drenched and all the wine bottles empty, we would head back a day early. But plans were complicated. The tide in Brickhill River is too strong to paddle against, and we needed four hours to make the return paddle from our Brickhill Bluffs campsite to Crooked River State Park. That meant our trip had to begin four hours in advance of high tide. On Tuesday, our planned departure date, the morning tide peaked around 11AM which meant that we were going to have to be on the water by 7AM in order to catch the tide. We were now planning to leave on Monday when high tide would come even earlier. There was no way we were going to be able to get up early enough to break camp, pack the kayaks in the dark, in the rain, in the gnats and get on the water in time without getting trapped in the Crooked River when the tide changed. So we developed an alternative plan...
On Monday morning, I didn't ask how anyone slept but I noticed we all got up early. Due to the 101% humidity, condensation built up in my tent during the night and ran down the inside walls. I had spent the night waking up periodically to peer by flashlight at the moat that was forming inside my tent as I slept on Thermarest Island. We launched at about 8 AM after saying our fond farewells to the gnats and slid into the Brickhill River in a light drizzle. By 10:30 we reached Plum Orchard where we tied off once again to the floating dock. The dock at Crooked River State Park was only 90 minutes away, but with the tide now against us we might as well have been trying to paddle to Tierra del Fuego. Fortunately for us, Plum Orchard has a wonderful large porch on one end, and that is where we sat for the next six hours while we waited for the tide to change in our favor. We made ourselves at home, so at home in fact that we took the liberty of stringing a clothesline up which somewhat alarmed and annoyed the park ranger who wandered by some hours later. The wait itself was uneventful except for the important highlight of Steve spotting a small alligator in the nearby pond, almost invisible beneath a thick mat of duckweed.
Needless to say we were anxious to get moving as the afternoon wore on. It was not alligator bites that were on our minds but gnat bites (I had taken to wearing my knit cap again). In addition, dry clothes were calling to us from our cars at Crooked River State Park. We decided that a little paddling against the tide wouldn't hurt us any more than sitting bored and wet on the porch watching the rain showers. Once the decision was made we packed clothesline and all in record time and were soon on the water with an occasional dolphin to accompany us. The tide was stiff but not overwhelming and as we paddled we inspected the current passing by each buoy to see if the tide had yet turned in our favor. What we had marked as the high tide time came and went and the tide was still going out. (We never figured out the mismatch between our tide charts and what we observed, even accounting for all the differences we could think of.) But it had finally stopped raining, and for that we were grateful. After two hours of paddling we were still on the river with sunset only 30 minutes away and the Crooked River boat ramp nowhere in sight. After a brief debate over the map, we rounded the edge of a marsh and things suddenly started to look familiar. As we paddled our destination was crowned by a tremendous sunset done in rich purples and reds sifted through broken clouds. We reached the boat ramp at dusk and gnats were there to greet us.
On Tuesday morning we learned that while we were gone Liz's mother Marcia was unexpectedly diagnosed with and hospitalized for AML, or acute myelogenous leukemia. She is currently undergoing treatment and we hope you will keep Marcia and her family in your thoughts. (Postscript -- Marcia passed away on August 1st, 1999.)
Things that this trip made me appreciate anew: