Monday, February 4, 2013

Cumberland Island

Calm Ocean
On this brisk October morning my buddy and I set out for Cumberland Island, an island off the coast of Brunswick, Georgia. The southern tip of Cumberland Island is on the Georgia/Florida state line.  We took a canoe to the island and made a decision to make an ocean side launch instead of a sound side launch.  Generally speaking an ocean side launch is guaranteed to be rough business, however the ocean was so placid we decided to give it a shot. It was worth the risk after all, because it was going to cut off about a mile and a half of our trip across the sound.

The plan was a three-day trip and an attempt to explore as much of the 10-mile long island as possible.

Dolphins Playing a Few Feet Off Shore
Our journey began at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning as we got into the water and it was about a 3-mile paddle to the Northern tip of Cumberland Island across St. Andrews Sound. During that time we skirted a few fishing boats that was kind of neat to see.  What was really nice was we had numerous close encounters with dolphins, also fun. All in all, it was about a 12-mile paddle from our launch point to our camp on the Island.

Holy Crap, A Wild Horse
One thing we were really excited about was hearing that there were wild horses inhabiting Cumberland Island.  It was our sincere hope to at least see a few of these wild horses and if we were lucky, to get an up-close encounter. Before we even reached our camp site, we saw this guy grazing close to the shore line.

Just a Few of the Thousands of Crabs at the Beach
Upon our arrival at the camp site, we were greeted by thousands and thousands of baby crabs who were scurrying to escape us. It was really interesting to see before we landed on the beach to see the ground literally swirling there were so many of these things. They quickly dispersed before we were able to get a good photograph of the sheer number covering the ground.

After all of the little creatures scurried away we set up camp on this picturesque island that is protected by the National Park Service. Our camp was on the sound side of the island and therefore, very little, actually no, waves or surf. Just a calm, serene, brackish river snaking around some abundant marshes.  Of immediate note when we landed and set up camp was the inordinate amount of horse dung which was everywhere. A bit of an annoyance, but a good sign that we could probably expect to see some more wild horses on our journey.

A Very Odd Pine Tree Formation
After setting up our camp we took inventory of the surrounding area and noticed the sprawling, monolithic oaks with Spanish moss.  Trees of this size and age would be a coveted spectacle on the mainland, but on the island there were hundreds of them in your field of view. Of particular note was this curious pine tree that used to rest on top of a sandy beach that eroded away after the tree had reached adulthood. What was left behind was a very curiously formed tree and network of roots to support it.

There was a possibility of rain so we erected our tent with a tarp below it to keep the base of the tent dry. This would end up being a mistake, but we'll get to that.  Since we paddled a canoe it allowed us to pack some luxuries like a few tailgate chairs, a cooler filled with some better-than-usual-camping fare and a portable stove for cooking our food. We were in the "Wilderness Area" of Cumberland Island, absolutely no fires were permitted here by the National Park Service.

Wild Horses
We were greeted by the island's local inhabitants, these little, biting spawns of Satan that the locals called Noseeums.  If you have never encountered these guys, consider yourself fortunate. They are basically these swarming little gnats that are very difficult to see, but it feels like they are carrying razor blades and are executing non-stop, fly-by kamikaze slicings of your skin.  They bite. Hard.

Our first encounter with wild horses was shortly after we decided to do a 7-mile hike that started at around 3 p.m. that afternoon.  We were on our trail for only about 30 minutes when we discovered these two grazing in a pluff mud bed during low tide. They were not particularly alarmed by our presence but they certainly took notice of us. The moment we took one step closer to them in order to get some better photographs they took off through the woods. I would not say they were skittish but they certainly were not going to be inviting us over for tea.

African-American Church, est. 1893
On the island was this tiny, African-American church that was built in 1893. The entire building had enough seating for about 30 people. We found out that John F. Kennedy, Jr. was married inside this church.

Wild Horses Outside the Church
Outside the church we found two wild horses grazing.

After we left the church we got into some real wilderness. We traveled a mile or so down this trail that was so narrow, both of your shoulders were brushing foliage on either side as you were walking. Imagine our surprise when we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with three horses.  Both parties kind of awkwardly stood, starring at one another kind of silently communicating, "um, we need to get by you."  I certainly was not interested in trying to force my way past these guys. Even though they were a bit smaller than domesticated farm horses, I had no doubt they were powerful and would hurt us if provoked.  After a few moments the horses decided to turn around and head into the bush.

Wild Horses In the Bush
As we walked by they kind of kept a wary eye on us.
Sunset at Camp

After toiling around in some fairly dense trails, we arrived back at our camp in time to catch this sunset and enjoy some Asian noodles and lemon chicken (like I said, better-than-usual camping fare).  It was at this time my buddy and I decided to play one of our favorite games, Dominion. It was also at this time we discovered that we left it in the car. After paddling a canoe through 12 miles of ocean and then hiking 7 miles we were pretty spent, so we turned in for the night getting ready for our big hike day.

Day 2

The sunrise splashed on the distant marsh made the vibrant green look like a golden field of wheat. During the night we heard dolphins splashing in the water a few feet away from us and we also heard horses galloping and neighing.  After some hearty oatmeal, we geared up and headed out for our hike on the southern end of the island.
We encountered some more wild horses including these two. Most of the horses were brown, with brown manes, but this one caught our eye because he was a very deep brown, nearly black.

A Twisted Fortress of Massive Oaks Lines Our Trail
We hit a trail that cut through the interior of the island, so as to be away from both the surf side of the island and the sound side. As you can see, the massive oaks covered with Spanish moss were plentiful, and stood everywhere along the trail like stalwart sentinels guarding something sacred.

Robert Stafford - 1790 - 1877

About 13 or so miles into our hike for the day, we were already pretty tired and had the good fortune to meet an adventurous chap whose goal was to do 50 hikes in 50 states.  He had saved up a bunch of money and was living out of his car, going from state to state experiencing different adventures. You can check out his blog on Cumberland Island here.

We walked with Kent and chatted him up about numerous subjects, mostly hearing about his various adventures.  After parting ways, we came upon a graveyard on the island. The headstone on the right was for a guy born 3 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified and died 12 years after the U.S. Civil War ended.

A Mother Horse and Her Foal

The last photograph we were able to get was this photograph of a mother and her foal, not more than a few weeks old. This was our last photograph because then the rain came.

At first the rain was no big deal. It was falling softly on us and was a welcome relief to some surprisingly, stifling heat in early October. After all, we still had an additional 6 miles to walk before we were back to camp, and my foot was cramping so badly that I had to stop and actually considered trying to contact a park ranger to help give us a ride back to our camp. Alas, we pressed on.

The rain gradually got harder until it was no longer a welcome relief, but an annoyance.  We got soaked and then dry again by the time we got back to camp.  When we arrived at camp, we quite literally fell into our chairs and sat for several minutes. We hiked 21 miles in one day. That was an amazing feat in and of itself, but it came right after hiking 7 miles the day before.  After checking the damage from the rain it turned out that the tarp we had on the ground to prevent our tent from getting soaked, actually collected rainwater and kept it pooled up underneath our tent. Our tent and sleeping bags were soaked.

We decided we were too tired to care at the moment and began preparing our victory chili. Victory chili is our go-to meal for a victorious hike. It consists of black beans, ground beef, corn, jalapenos, fiery hot chili sauce, sour cream, cheese, and crackers. After putting in a very difficult day of hiking, victory chili tastes like a 7-course meal at a 5-star restaurant.

Shortly after sunset, the noseeums came out again in full force.  We were absolutely wiped out, so we crawled into the tent and chatted until about 9:00 p.m. then fell hard asleep.  We were awakened at about 1 a.m. because it was raining so hard it started leaking into the tent. That was pleasant.  It rained insanely hard for several hours.  We did check the forecast which said there was a "20% chance of scattered showers late Saturday night." Evidently, "scattered showers" on Cumberland means "typhoon" to everyone else.

Day 3

Around 6 a.m. the following morning it was still raining pretty hard. We gathered up as much as we could in our soaking, wet tent and sat silently inside the tent, wet, pissed off, and just waiting for the rain to abate long enough to gather the remainder of our stuff and head back to the mainland.

The rain finally stopped around 6:45 a.m. and we hopped in our canoe around 7 a.m. saying good-bye to this wondrous island.

On our paddle back, we made a decision to make a straight line to our destination instead of hugging the bank of the island for 10 miles then shooting a 2 mile gap back to our launch point.  By making a straight line, we were taking a risk by being out in open water for with no land around for miles, but we were making a straight line so it was going to cut about 3 miles off of our trip.

Additionally, we were riding the tide out to sea so we were getting a very nice "pull" from the tide and were making excellent time on the water.  Once we got out into open water, away from the protection of the island we learned that it was windy, really windy. So much so, in fact, that we started getting pretty nervous because we were experiencing some violent waves with pretty fierce intensity.  We got a bit further into the sound and the waves were a little more intense, but far less frequent which made for a much more comfortable ride.

About 3 miles from shore we noticed some extremely tall waves (higher than 6-feet cresting) out in the middle of the ocean. The worst part was, there was no way we were going to avoid them. A strip of intense waves was ripping right across our path and was in between us and our destination We both silently kept paddling.  We got into the middle of the waves and things got really dicey for about 3 or 4 minutes. One wave broke right after it passed underneath the canoe and we were only 3-feet or so away from getting tipped over 3 miles out to sea, with no land or boats anywhere in sight.

The surf picked up and got very choppy and rough. This was a complete departure from our smooth and peaceful ride into the island, it seemed like a completely different swatch of water the second time around.  As it became apparent that we were drawing closer to the destination, our anxiety began to wane. As we steered the canoe towards shore, we were only in foot-deep water and a wave decided to roll us right over onto the beach. How appropriate.  All we could do was laugh. How ironic that we survived six-foot waves 3 miles out to sea only to get tossed by a 1-foot break right onto the sandy beach.

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