Sapelo: A Privateers Diary

One of many non-pirated trip reports available on Semanchuk.com.

Text © 2003 Philip Semanchuk. Photos © Linda Block, John Semanchuk, and Philip Semanchuk.

 

"Sapelo is a beautiful place, but it sure is inconvenient."
- Jean Gardner -

 

The author making notes.

Sapelo! The name conjures up memories for us...surf, sand, sun, beating a bent trailer hitch with a wrench while cursing the dark...but I'm getting ahead of myself. I should start by saying that everyone on the trip except for me had been to Sapelo before. You might want to read Sapelo trip report #1 and Sapelo trip report #2 in addition to this one.

Sapelo also conjures up the name Blackbeard, specifically the Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge. Because our trip planning coincided with the usual monthlong festivities surrounding International Talk Like a Pirate Day, we made every effort to say pirate-y things like "shiver me timbers" and "yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!". But a pirate's vocabulary is pretty limited when you get down to it, and since none of us have parrots, peglegs or yardarms to discuss, we contented ourselves with saying "arrrr!" whenever possible.

Sapelo has survived attempts to civilize it over the years, and thanks to government land purchases, it is reverting to ferality. This makes the island a very laid-back place and if something doesn't work as expected you're likely to hear the phrase, "Well that's Sapelo!" Among the essentials we packed for our trip were a willingness to be flexible and a bit of resourcefulness, and we made good use of them during our stay, as you'll find out if you continue reading.

Sapelo is easy to get to by kayak, as long as one is one is willing to plan around tides. With well-timed tides as our prime motivator, we chose the five days between Wednesday October 1st and Monday the 6th to do the Sap-Sap-Sapelo.

Wednesday October 1 - Setting Out and Settling In

Steve, Liz and I spent Tuesday night at John's place in Charleston, SC and on Wednesday morning we set out with the usual stops for breakfast (bagels) and some last-minute items. Our typical precision execution got us to the Sapelo Island Visitor's Center in Meridian, Georgia within minutes of Dan and Linda who were joining us from their homes in the North Carolina mountains. At the government boat ramp where we planned to launch, we met with a park ranger who made it clear that we'd better change our plan. After he zoomed away in a motorboat, we considered the "so who's gonna know?" option, but thought the better of it and launched from the bank immediately next to the Visitor's Center. It wasn't overwhelmingly kayak-friendly but we did OK.

After spending so many hours on crowded interstates, it was a marvelous shock to be in the open looking at jade-colored marsh grass instead of dull, gray guardrails and being passed by ibis instead of tractor trailers. Such was our pent-up kayaking energy that we made it to the dock on Sapelo in just 90 minutes. The strong tide helped too, although we paddled against it for the last 200 yards up the Duplin River before disembarking at what is called "Marsh Landing" on our map. It is also the ferry dock.

Here we are enjoying the sunset.
Sunset and moonrise near the lighthouse.

We muscled our overpacked kayaks to parking lot level (the first time I've ever needed two people to help me lift my own boat!) while we chatted with Dan and Jean Gardner who met us at the dock. It was Dan and Jean's house that we rented while on the island -- no camping for us on this trip. No, the keyword for this trip was amenities, like hot showers, extra socks, wine and beer (hence the overloaded boats). One amenity that we didn't get immediately was the trailer which we were supposed to rent from our buddy Stanley. The trailer needed a little TLC from a welder but Stanley assured he could deliver it to us the next afternoon. With no way to transport our kayaks, we just left them by the dock and used the Gardner's battered pickup truck (which we also rented) to transport us and our stuff to our Hog Hammock digs.

We took advantage of the day's last light to drive down to the lighthouse end of the island. After scouting potential launch points beneath a glorious sunset we decided to head back. (For the record, the bridge over Dean Creek is not an attractive launch point.) First gear on the truck worked fine (when I could find it) but not so the headlights or the parking lights, unfortunately. But the flashers were OK, so we drove back to Hog Hammock by their slow yellow strobe and the smile of a quarter moon.

Thursday October 2 - One Little Map Changes Everything

There's probably interesting ghosts in this abandoned house.

On Thursday morning we launched from the ferry dock since that's where we'd left our kayaks, and the best trip from that starting point seemed to be up the Duplin River towards Lumber Landing. The incoming tide urged us quickly to our first stop, Little Sapelo Island. This island was at one time inhabited but has now been abandonded to its critters. We checked out the old homestead (in the picture at left) and a couple of old tabby constructions. It is an interesting little island, perhaps worthy of more exploration than we gave it. But the underbrush is a little too thick to move through freely and looks like a great place to surprise snakes. After a snack we climbed back into our boats and resumed our trip towards Lumber Landing.

Dan and Linda check out some tabby construction.
Dan and Linda check out some tabby construction on Little Sapelo.

At Lumber Landing there's a huge floating concrete dock and on this dock and the nearby piers we whiled away a busy afternoon of sleeping, eating, fishing, and napping. Steve, Liz and I walked some ways into the interior of the island to get some shade. The most stressful thing that happened all day was that John snagged his castnet on an oyster bed. In keeping with the theme of the day, the net was retrieved without incident. Linda won the fishing trophy when she snagged a trout.

We were also fortunate enough to meet University of Wisconsin student Erica, known to all on the island as Turtle Girl. (Guess what she studies.) She gave us a map printed by DNR (the Georgia Department of Natural Resources) which clearly stated that Raccoon Bluff and Cabretta Beach were open to kayakers. Previously we'd heard that they were off limits due to the annual bow hunt (for deer) that was going on while we were there. DNR doesn't want hunters wasting their arrows on kayakers (kayakers having proven tough and stringy, even when well cooked) and so the north end of the island is restricted to hunters and island residents during the hunt.

Once the tide changed and the Duplin River began to drain back into the sea, we hauled keel back to the ferry dock in forty minutes without even trying hard. Once back at Hog Hammock, we had daylight to burn so we piled into our alternate vehicle (the one with working headlights and the ignition key that would operate only if one jiggled it just right) and drove to Nanny Goat Beach to scout the put-in there (long long long long very long, even longer than this run-on sentence). The campground there was nice, but not worth $150/night in our estimation, especially considering that we were paying less to sleep indoors.

Stanley
Stanley

By the time we got back to the house, one of the Gardeners' nephews had replaced the pickup's headlights and Stanley had dropped off the freshly-welded trailer. We were in business! The trailer was capable of carrying all six of our kayaks so it was a pretty critical piece of equipment if we wanted to launch from anywhere other than the ferry dock. The truck's rusty trailer hitch wobbled and rattled as if it was ready to fall out, and the trailer tongue proved to have its own quirks as well. Nevertheless, with some mild abuse we were able to get the two to see eye to eye. By 9:30PM we'd driven to the ferry dock, called Mom and sung Happy Birthday to her (the ferry dock being the only place we could get decent mobile phone reception), loaded the kayaks and returned to Hog Hammock. There we passed a merry evening drinking grog and discussing the correct usage and spelling of the word stob.

Friday October 3 - Cabretta Inlet and Beach

On Friday, we launched early to catch a friendly tide. We launched from the bank where the bridge crosses Cabretta Creek. This was not a great launch spot as it was very muddy, supposedly illegal and annoyed the nearby alligator, but there's not a lot of alternatives if one wants to get to Cabretta Inlet. The tide carried us into a stiff wind and down the creek to the wider water of the inlet. One by one, the members of our group landed on the banks to fish from the shore until Liz and I were the only ones still in kayaks. She and I paddled to where the inlet met the sea and played in the churning surf. In the meantime, Steve was feeding some of his bait to a Tricolored Heron.

Linda, Dan, Steve and Liz launching into Cabretta Inlet
Linda, Dan, Steve and Liz launch from Blackbeard's into the Washing Machine.

Later that day we reassembled to walk up the seaward beach on Blackbeard's Island. The sea oats were fat with seed and the birds hunkered down behind the clumps of grass, trying to get a break from the stiff wind. We found some nice sand dollars on the beach which is every bit as good as pirate treasure in my book. (Well, almost.)

A little more fishing, a little more playing in the waves. Dan and I spent a while floating in the portion of Cabretta Inlet that he named the Washing Machine, where waves just big enough to be fun came from about every direction and bobbed us around like corks. There was some really good water in and around that inlet. The dolphins liked it too, apparently, as we saw a number of them.

Just before we left, we were joined by the dog that we'd named Mojo when he'd shown up the day before at our house. He was apparently an island dog, belonging to everyone and no one (the island residents are avowed Marxists). Mojo certainly enjoyed this status, as it meant everyone gave him some attention.

All hail the turkey gods!
Yes, that really is a concrete turkey on top of the fountain.

On the way back to the bridge we ran into some intrepid grad students researching Seaside Oxeye Daisy in a project that seemed to involve exposure to lots of mud and sun. Tough job, that. Ours was easier and we found ourselves once again at Hog Hammock with daylight to spare. Not ones to rest on our laurels (a pirate might say "afts" instead of "laurels"), Dan and Linda went for a walk while we took the truck to the University of Georgia Marine Institute and made sacrifices to the turkey gods. We asked for and received permission (from a live human, but perhaps also the turkey gods) to use the UGA dock on Lighthouse Creek for a trip to Wolf Island. We took a walk on the institute grounds as dusk fell. We spotted several deer and, to our delight, dozens upon dozens of Green Tree Frogs (Hyla Cinerea) in the palmettos in a roadside ditch, each one a brilliant, perfect green.

Saturday October 4 - Raccoon Bluff and Blackbeard Island (Arrrr!)

Our day got adventurous before we ever got to the water. We took truck and trailer to Raccoon Bluff and as we closed in on our destination, the road closed in on us. The trailer just barely squeezed through some narrow gaps in the pines, and the kayaks, especially the rudders, caught on various low-hanging branches. But by going slowly we arrived just fine, and launched from a slightly muddy bank into Blackbeard Creek.

My tripmates began fishing or birdwatching as soon as they hit the water. That didn't interest me, so I took advantage of the slack tide and paddled towards Cabretta Inlet and the ocean. I beached on the steep lefthand bank after about fifteen minutes of paddling and walked across the dunes to the ocean. The low tide revealed a gorgeous beach -- flat, wide, gently sloped and deserted. It seemed like the most peaceful place in the world.

When I rejoined the group we began to let the incoming tide push us towards the DNR dock in the wildlife refuge (marked on the map as Refuge Hqtrs. & Dock). Takeout options there are limited to a powerboat-friendly floating dock that's not really good for kayaks, or a bank of pluff mud. I recommend the mud as it turns into a nice sandy bank at high tide.

Hyla Cinerea, the Green Tree Frog

We lunched at the picnic tables and then took a walk through the forest where we spotted more Green Tree Frogs. The paths there are long enough that one could easily spend all day wandering around beneath primeval palmettos and live oaks. I, for one, gladly would have. But the beautiful beach that I'd seen earlier was calling us: it was warm enough for a swim and that's not something one gets to do often in October. It also seemed like a good way to wash off any chiggers or ticks we might have picked up. (That was wishful thinking, we found out later.) After swimming, and walking a bit more through the forest (which reminded us of Cumberland Island) we got back in our boats and rode the outgoing tide back to Raccoon Bluff from where the truck and trailer took us back to Hog Hammock. For dinner that night about half of us went to the island's (only?) restaurant, Lulus, where I found vegetarian options lacking. The rest of the crew reported that the lowcountry boil was authentic but not otherwise notable. Mojo, of course, was in attendance.

Sunday October 5 - Wolf Island, Maybe

On Sunday, we planned to take advantage of the UGA dock and paddle across Doboy Sound to Wolf Island (officially: the Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area). At dead low tide, the UGA floating dock rests in pluff mud and oyster shells, so we arrived at the dock as early as we could in advance of dead low. Dead low was at 10AM if I remember correctly, and we launched around 8:30 with no oyster shell trouble. The dock is a little too high to be comfortable for kayaks, but we made it work.

In formation on Lighthouse Creek
In formation on Lighthouse Creek.

Dan and Linda stayed behind as they were heading back to the mainland a day ahead of us. While we were out paddling, they used the truck to get their kayaks to ferry dock, returned the truck to UGA landing and then used a bicycle to ride back to the ferry dock. Unbeknownst to us, the bike would play another important role later in our day.

After saying our goodbyes to Dan and Linda, they headed back to life as scurvy landlubbers and we headed across Doboy Sound. The sound was tame; the weather was pleasant. And Wolf Island was, well, not obvious. We saw lots of marsh grass and mud and sand flats here and there but none of it looked much different than the rest. It was hard to tell what was Wolf Island and what was not. The topo map's curt designation of "Area subject to frequent change" didn't help much. Eventually by unanimous vote we declared ourselves to be where we wanted to be, and settled in for a long, lovely day of birdwatching, fishing and lazing around under a cloudless sky. We found we had mobile phone reception and I had fun calling my friends to tell them I was standing knee deep in water on an island off the coast of an island. John taught me how to use his castnet and which I operated under a catch-and-release program (a.k.a. fishing for vegetarians). Despite my ineptitude I had some success which amounted to a half dozen shrimp and a mullet. What can I say? I am easily amused. But I can think of much worse ways to spend time than standing in sparkling blue water, lazily throwing a net and not really caring if I catch anything, the sun hot on my shoulders and dolphins playing in the distance.

The Sapelo lighthouse is (barely) visible to the right of the boat that's being towed.

The rising tide eventually swallowed our entire sand flat so we bailed out and headed for another mini island where we looked at shells, and unfortunately, a lot of trash. We also scoped out Doboy Sound which was getting pretty rough due to the stiff wind that had picked up. Doubtless the incoming tide was also moving the waters of the sound pretty well. We got into full battle dress (spray skirts, life jackets, scimitars and leather breeches) and, with cries of "Arrrrr!" and "No quarter!" we flung ourselves into Doboy Sound and headed back towards Sapelo.

We encountered some big waves, but to be honest the crossing was a little anticlimactic. So as not to write a boring trip report I will instead claim that we'd taken cannon shots to the mizzen, had gone under three times and were headed for Davey Jones' Locker when we were all miraculously rescued by mermaids bearing sixpacks of Young's Luxury Double Chocolate Stout and singing the Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated. We landed on Sapelo's Lighthouse Beach to milk the last few hours of the day, or more correctly the last few hours of tide. We had to return to the UGA dock before the tide started going out again or Lighthouse Creek would be impassible to our people-powered boats. We did a little more fruitless fishing, birdwatching and lollygagging and then made our way back to the dock. We got a great view of the lighthouse from that angle. Sadly, my *^@$@! Canon digital camera had died on Little Sapelo and no one else managed to get a picture.

After dark but before dinner, we drove to the ferry dock to collect the bicycle that Dan and Linda had left there for us. On the way back to the house, we were cruising the Autobahn when Steve's hat flew off. I stopped so he could get it, and without warning the truck capriciously stalled and steadfastly refused to start. There we were, trapped in the dark, screech owls screeching and raccoons crooning...heedless of his own safety, John leapt on the too-small bike to fetch the car at Hog Hammock. As he pedaled into the dark, perhaps never to been seen again, I could only think of Johnathan Winters as cyclist/truck driver Lennie Pike in Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Once he returned, we scrounged a length of heavy chain from behind the seat of the pickup and somehow affixed it to both vehicles. The car, may its transmission forgive us, towed truck, trailer and kayaks the rest of the way back to Hog Hammock. I was steering the truck, and every time the chain twanged taut, I ducked my head below the dashboard, envisioning a snapped link whizzing straight through the windshield and right for my forehead.

Monday October 6 - A Last Meal for the Mosqutios

The next morning the truck started as if the previous night's stall had been just a bad dream so we piled in (optimists, aren't we?) and headed for the nature trail by Reynolds' Mansion at the south end of the island. The trail was nice but the mosquitoes were thick and as a result we jogged the first third of the trail. The latter part was a nice education in barrier island construction and dune succession. (You'll have to go to see what I'm talking about.) This little episode was the only difficulty we had with bugs during the entire trip and in that context it was a small price to pay.

Eventually the clock got 'round to where the tide was in our favor and so it was time for us to leave Sapelo. We were never able to get the key out of the ignition of our alternate vehicle but the truck and trailer gave us one last good ride to the ferry dock. From the dock we launched into the Duplin River and once in the sound the tide rushed us along at good speed. We stopped at the Old Sailors Burying Grounds (as marked on the topo map) to pay our respects and say "arrrr!" in a memorial sort of way. We made it back to the Sapelo Island Visitor Center in 93 minutes, including our graveyard stop. Since the ranger wasn't around, we disembarked at the government boat ramp where we'd been told not to before. Defying authority felt good, as it always does. But as is so often the case, it was a mixed blessing: we stepped out of our boats and sank ankle-deep into government mud.

Us and the wind on the tip of Blackbeard Island
John, Liz, myself, Steve and Dan on the south tip of Blackbeard's with Cabretta Inlet and Sapelo in the background.

 

Related links and info:

Mojo