Sunday, March 22, 2015

Back to Cumberland Island

The Riverview Hotel in St. Mary's.  We Armadillos always stay here before boarding the ferry for the island.
Our camp.  The raccoon cage is essential to keep the pesky critters from stealing your food.  We tried to spruce it up a bit, vacation style.
I spent last Sunday - Tuesday on Cumberland Island.  It was my first time back on the island in about 15 years.  Long-time readers know the island was the subject of an earlier post and you can find references to it many times throughout this blog. My daughter motivated my return, just as her mother had been my motivation back in 1988.  It would be my daughter's first trip to the island - how could I refuse?

She was out for spring break and had requested to go to Cumberland Island late last fall.  I agreed to go, Jennifer made reservations for the ferry ride over.  The original plan was that my daughter's boyfriend might go with us, but his school schedule did not allow it.  So we gave the extra ferry ticket to Clint, who I met the same day I met Jennifer in 1987, and with whom I have been to Cumberland Island several times.

The four of us made the long drive down via Waycross, stopping off I-75 for lunch at Tifton.  We drove south into and ever-increasing fog that hung around all morning.  Jennifer and I listened to some Neil on the way down while my daughter watched a movie.  After a while we commented on the degrees of fog we were persistently driving through.  Lite fog, heavy fog, mist, drizzle. We judged by the variable setting for intermittent windshield wipers and, of course, sheer visibility, which was at times quite limited.  Just as well. There is not much to see along I-75 in South Georgia anyway.

Clint drove separately.  There was absolutely no room for another single thing in our packed tight Cadillac SUV, containing all sorts of things for camping on the island along with three passengers. I could only see what was behind me through the side mirrors, the cargo space and one downed back seat was nothing but a monstrous mass of bags, camp gear, plastic tubs stuffed full, and a cooler with an extra 12-pack of Bud Light.  Sam Adams was already iced down with our food.

We arrived in St. Mary's mid-afternoon on Saturday and checked in to the Riverside Hotel, the traditional Cumberland Island Armadillo haven of rest.  Jennifer, Clint, and my daughter walked the nearby shops and I reacquainted myself with the hotel lobby, hallway, large upstairs porch, and, of course, the bar.  Jennifer, Clint, and I enjoyed a couple of fine cold draft beers while reminiscing about pastimes spent together with various friends in this bar.  It was a breezy sunny day outside, a band of rain having come through the night before our arrival.  This trip was perfect timing on the sunshine.

The next morning we boarded the ferry.  My daughter got a proper initiation in loading up the ferry with all our stuff. She received bountiful gnat bites to exposed places in her clothing and spots untreated with repellent.  I dislike insect repellents due to the residual sensation on the skin. I bundled up instead and received a couple of dozen bites on my hands. I got hot being so overdressed but it is my preferred method for getting stuff on and off the ferry. I get fewer bites.  Bug bites are just part of the island experience.

This was my first time to camp on Cumberland.  All my previous trips were backpacking ones. In recent years Jennifer and my Armadillo friends have become strict campers at Sea Camp, preferring the luxuries of coolers and equipment with all kinds of booze and food, and maybe day hikes and bike rides thrown in.  I admit this is a fine way to experience the island but it all seemed pretty decadent to me really.  I might backpack whenever I return to the island.  It is such a unique space I prefer to let the island speak for itself. And it did at Sea Camp, only I had to filter out a lot of material interference I brought on my self.

We loaded down the only available baggage carts and it still took two trips to walk everything into our Sea Camp assignment.  It is about a quarter mile walk to Sea Camp from the Ranger Station.  I made the hike twice coming back and three times going before we had everything in camp. Meanwhile, people were scurrying around the Ranger Station.  Some were going to hike down to Dungeness, some rented bikes and were destined for all sorts of places on the island, some took off for a backcountry backpacking experience, the rest were like us, settling in at Sea Camp or visiting the beach. One group of backpackers reminded me of my travels here in the early 1990's.  Young guys and girls donned their gear and posed in front of a timed camera on a tripod.  I've done that before.  

Jennifer, who has been there 15 times or more, says that time stands still on Cumberland Island.  The trips are all connected in the same thread of time. Or perhaps all time spent on the island is connected in the vast timeless experience of it. Either way, I agree with her. Those young people getting the photo taken before their big backpacking trip on the island are in the same mental tone as I was 25 years ago.  Those years are meaningless when you are on the island.  Those years only exist off island, on the mainland.

It was mostly overcast that Sunday, our first afternoon on the island.  We set up camp at a casual pace, taking special care to stow anything the raccoons might want in the cage provided in the camp.  The raccoons at Sea Camp are numerous and assertive, as Clint and Jennifer knew from previous 'Dillo visits over the past five years.  But as soon as things were put away we spent a lot of time down on the beach, the incredible bountiful secluded beach of the island; about 10-11 miles of pristine white sand, as good as any public beach in Florida, remarkably wide at low tide, with more feral horses and shore birds than people.  Only 300 guests are allowed on the island each day, 60 for Sea Camp, 60 for backcountry, a few for the Greyfield Inn, and the rest are day-only visitors. That is an amazing amount of island and beach for an elite number of people, maybe 150 in all, not counting the Ranger staff and volunteer workers.

Our camp site itself was perhaps the finest at Sea Camp. Jennifer and Clint have collectively camped in several other Sea Camp spots over the past five years and they both think this one is the best.  I can't complain.  It was closest to the dunes and the beach, it had ample space for privacy, and it had a small path behind it that could only be entered from the camp itself leading to a viewing space on top of the large dune slowly rolling into the live oak forest.  That private dune afforded truly extraordinary vistas and we had plenty of clear dry weather to behold the glory of it.

The way out to the beach from Sea Camp is along a well constructed wooden boardwalk with railings to rest against and to keep visitors off the dunes. Walking is prohibited there, which is another reason our private dune space was so luxurious. But the views from the walkway are wonderful. You get a real sense of the pristine natural dune ecosystem, as complete as anywhere on the Atlantic coastline.  At one point a great wave of dune reaches up through the floor of the walkway and melds with it.  For a few feet you are walking on the sandy dune with no wood under you; quickly again though the boardwalk resumes and takes you all the way through the scrubby dune area.
We enjoyed gorgeous weather and fantastic seaside views. Here Clint and Jennifer check things out from our camp's luxurious "private dune." The blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean are just beyond the inter-coastal dune area.
The view from our dune.  You can make out the wooden walkway peeking through the shrubby growth.  The dunes peak near the beach.  At low tide you can easily observe the waves break and the few people on walking the shoreline from our dune perch.
Clint and me on the dune.  It felt so amazingly open, relaxing, and inspiring.
The beach is sandy, pristine, and virtually private.  This view is looking north at miles and miles of wonderful wide beach.
Terns and sandpipers.
A seagull.
Deer are plentiful on the island.
We saw and heard wild turkeys every day at Sea Camp.  On our last morning there we were awakened by some constant, loud gobbling in the palmetto bushes near our tents.
Jennifer took this beautiful shot of clouds over the ocean at sunset.
I first walked out at low tide.  My daughter had gone ahead a half hour earlier as I helped situate our camp.  Then I opened the cooler, popped a beer, and walked from our campsite all along the walkway and out to where my daughter was lying on the beach, about a quarter mile away.  Then I walked past her down to the very edge of the tide and looked back upon the vast open beach.  The beach has a common transition of heavy white sand to more compact sand to the smoothness of the occasional surf.

I looked south and saw a paper mill in Florida near Fernandina Beach, only a few miles away.  To the north it was all beach with a few dots of people and horses and lots of shore bird action.  We were so privileged; to be here with my wife and daughter and one of my best friends and have it all so practically private.  It was easy to mute all other people from my awareness.  It was easy to just see this natural space, listen to the ocean break, and feel the salty wind in your face as if there were no one else around.

My daughter stayed on the beach all afternoon, reading a novel, staring into space and texting - you can get cellular coverage out on the beach, not in camp.  She remained plugged in and zoned out at the same time.  She and Jennifer collected seashells later that afternoon.  I stayed out for awhile but Clint and I decided to hang around camp, enjoy the bird calls and the live oak canopy.  I drank more beer.  It did not take me long to get in to the mindset of the island. Later, we had a hearty campfire, cooked hot dogs and roasted marshmallows and watched for raccoons.  The coons were active every night.  One stole half a can of Sprite.  Another got some aluminum foil with food residue on it.

Generally speaking we kept everything they would seriously want in the cage.  We didn't have too big of a problem.  Some neighbors had their garbage ripped up and partially stolen one night, but otherwise it was just a bunch of rustling in the thick palmettos under the live oaks after dark. Sometimes the rustling was not raccoons.  One evening it was a couple of armadillos.  There were opossums prowling around as well. We spotted deer near camp and had horses stroll through. We were in the wild. There are a few alligators and still some boar on the island.  They tend to stay on the northern end, however.

One afternoon a male and female Cardinal flitted about our picnic tables, and pecked the ground of our camp.  The male tried to chase off a squirrel, but a couple of the little creatures avoided the birds and came around to campfire. One stole the remains of an apple core and scooted up a tree before the other could checkout the site. Discovering that there was nothing else to be had the second squirrel proceeded to climb the tree and make threatening noises and gestures towards the first squirrel, whose mouth was biting as fast as it could as it expertly twirled the apple round and round.  My daughter watched all this from her hammock while I sat motionless in my beach chair. We giggled. The second squirrel never got any of that apple. 

A low point was when I stuck my hand in coon shit. I was moving around by the flickering fire light to get a plastic sheet and a stool where I had changed out of my running shoes into my beach shoes.  I used the plastic as a "clean" space for my feet to air out and be inspected. I simply leaned down to pick up the corner of the plastic and lifted it to shake off the bits of leaves and sand that had gathered on it while laying there.  I immediately felt something wet on my right index finger.  I dropped the plastic and moved over to my flashlight.  Sure enough, it was wet green coon poop.  I had to break out an antiseptic wipe for that situation.  Everyone in the camp roared with laughter, including myself. Another Cumberland Island first, Keith is the first 'Dillo to stick his hand in raccoon shit.

On Monday morning Jennifer, my daughter, and I rented bicycles.  Clint wanted to hang around the camp and the beach. So off we went on a family adventure.  We rode up to Stafford Beach, about three and a half miles away, to show my daughter where her mother and I spent our honeymoon. It has changed a lot since then.  Some pines are now missing and there is a lot of undergrowth to give the backpacking camp sites more privacy.  The biggest addition is a bathhouse which did not exist at all 15 years ago.  We checked out a private house nearby that is supposedly abandoned.  There was no one around but the place looked to be in good repair to us.

Stafford Beach took us about half way to our ultimate destination.  North of Stafford House the island turns into a wilderness area.  No campfires are allowed.  There are three camping spots in the northern half of the island.  Two of those have access only to sulfur water.  One has fresh water for treating or filtering.  The island has one long main road running along the higher ground at the middle of it. Frequently, you can see a mile or so in either direction because the road is so straight and relatively flat.  Almost four miles from Stafford Beach we came upon Plum Orchard.

Plum Orchard is a bizarre sight in the middle of the jungle-like wilderness areas of the central island.  It is situated away form the ocean, on the river side of the island.  It is a 24,000 square foot party house from about 1898 to 1918, complete with a heated indoor swimming pool, a refrigeration unit that produced boundless amounts of ice, indoor tennis squash court, numerous bedrooms, parlor rooms, social rooms, music rooms, and dining rooms.  The house required many servants who worked for pennies on the hour, the height of the Gilded Age. Servant areas of Plum Orchard were separated from guest and private areas by color of door handle.  If a handle was black it was an entrance into a servant space. A complex of outer houses was constructed along with Plum Orchard.  There were hunting lodges and picnic pavilions scattered all about the coastal jungle as the neoclassical mansion accommodated a steady stream of wealthy visitors.

My daughter and I biking up the island and into Stafford Beach.
Twin Italian Cypress welcome you to Plum Orchard.  As you can see, the weather was just perfect.
The formal dining room at Plum Orchard.  Quite a contrast to Sea Camp.
Two of many Tiffany lamps custom made for Plum Orchard.  The antique collection seen during the tour of the mansion was more than impressive.
The entrance to the mansion.
Another view of the entrance, my daughter just above the steps. Her first time on the island allowed me to reconnect to my earliest impressions of the space.
After biking seven miles up on sandy roads, we rested under an enormous live oak that predated the mansion’s existence, drinking water and snacking for a moment.  A feisty, elderly lady sat in a rocking chair at the entry way of the mansion. She asked if we'd like a tour. We were delighted. We had hoped for a tour, it had been decades since I had been inside Plum Orchard.  It was closed for renovations I last came to the island. My daughter was very interested in the huge old house and how the wealthy lived a century ago.  We took the tour with a couple of backpacking college girls on their spring break from school in North Carolina.  The ornate mansion was a striking contrast to Sea Camp.  We had come a long way both in terms of geography and economic class.  We were walking inside the shell of what was once busy with the super elite at leisure.

The bike ride back to Sea Camp was uneventful and took about an hour.  My daughter ran off to the beach but Jennifer and I took our time. It was a remarkably clear day with low humidity.  I walked up to our private dune after a late lunch and was amazed by the vivid colors in the ocean, the pristine nature of the large dune area, and of course the special enjoyment of seemingly having all that space to ourselves.  I was certainly connected to it.  Feeling the sea breeze and hearing the ocean so clearly even from our private dune proclaimed the vast space and distance which we were part; a motherly openness that seemed to dissipate all angst and concern.  

Cumberland Island is like a gigantic karmic sponge. It soaks up all your tensions and lets your mind run clear through the forests and marshes and beaches and history.  There is more of the island than any trouble you try to possess.  The island takes, you let go, and that way you can feel the wonder of the island calming, clarifying, and inspiring you.  It makes you almost weightless while basking in its lightness.

My daughter set her Fitbit to wake her early on Tuesday.  She and I watched the sunrise alone, at first on the private dune and then at the water's edge.  We took photos of each other. Sometimes she gave me her phone to take a pic, an extended selfie to post on the various social media outlets. Look at me losers, I have all of this to myself.  

The sun was magical as always.  I posed as she took a shot of me from essentially the same angle as a previous photo of me that I have had since around 1990.  This island runs deep with me and I wanted to connect the two moments in time. Jennifer is right.  All the island experiences are in singular time. That is both a poetic and yet accurate way to relate to the island.

After breakfast we all spent time on the beach under clear blue skies.  It was warmer that day but not yet hot in the morning.  We came in for lunch. Clint and I decided to hike down to Dungeness while Jennifer and my daughter would spend the entire day at the beach.  It felt good to hike. We took the main road down, an almost perfectly straight view to the grounds near the island's mansion ruins. The beachy road veers back to the left before coming to the main building, so you can't see any of Dungeness from Sea Camp though the road is as straight as an arrow for about one mile through thick live oak and palmetto forest.
More common to the island is the live oak canopy with palmetto undergrowth.  This provides a lot of shade and habitat for all kinds of bird action.
The ruins of Dungeness located on the southern part of the island, about 8 miles away from Plum Orchard.
Dungeness itself had not changed much.  The dorm buildings for the rangers on the island were as I remembered them. But the carport shed with the Studebaker and other old cars was gone.  It is all cleaned up there now.  Clint wanted to walk out to the edge of the marsh and check out that environment.  It was open and very windy so bugs were no problem at all. They can't fly in such wind. After a brief rest there we headed back.  A feral colt was walking on the road back toward the ruins.  It stood there defiantly, stuck its mouth toward us and showed us its teeth in a (for Clint and me) humorous display of aggression.  The horse looked stupid.  But we kept our distance, allowing it and it's mares to pass, giving them the road.

We stopped in the Ice House Museum at the Dungeness Dock and became tourists to the history of the island.  Then we took the River Trail back to the Ranger Station and over to our place in Sea Camp again.  It was almost three miles hiking round trip. Pretty easy and rewarded with cold drinking fountains near Dungeness.  Restrooms and clean cold water are a nice treat while camping. Clint later reminded me that this was the first time he and I visited Dungeness without other ‘Dillos joining us. The rest of that evening, our last on the island, would be at camp and the beach.
A large marsh estuary lies further south from Dungeness. The island is remarkable for its varied habitats.
My daughter took this pic of me taking a photo of the crescent moon from our private dune just before sunrise.
I took a photo of her in the same spot.
Then she and I left the dune and caught the sunrise on the beach.
Jennifer and she seem to have the beach to themselves.
The family portrait on the beach.
Four 'Dillos prepare to return to the mainland after a wonderful island experience. Taken at the Ranger Station while waiting on the ferry.
My evenings on the island were always short, as the sky got completely dark through the trees.  I was usually the first one to turn in.  I slept well, untroubled.  The next day we arose early, packed up our camp and carried down it down in the rickety carts provided by the Ranger Station dock for the 10AM ferry.  There was a constant breeze that morning so gnats wee not a big issue while unloading.  I got a couple more bites.  We had a big lunch at a local restaurant before driving back home.

Later that day we experienced the horror of Atlanta rush hour traffic, which was quite a contrast to our private dune on the island the day before.  We passed Turner Field at 5:05 and got to Barrett Parkway an hour later.  We didn't zip right along, obviously, but we made it through in a reasonable time.  Our SUV came to a full stop only twice in that distance. We were minus Clint when we had dinner before driving home; it was a fast food affair as none of us looked suitable for fine dining after camping on the island.  It felt good to do the family thing in a Cumberland Island style.  Having my daughter go with Jennifer and me added a fun perspective.  I observed her joyful (with accents of whininess) novice experience of the island.  It felt good to be with her and feel the island with her. I knew what she felt. Her mother is right, it is always the same place in time when you go to Cumberland Island, you are just dipping in and out of it throughout this thing called Life.

This is me at sunrise circa 1990. Jennifer took this one at Stafford Beach.
My daughter took a similar pose some 25 years later. The island is timeless and each visit seems like a continuation of the last no matter how long you have been away from its special natural beauty.


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Andrea Wilkins said...

It seems that you had quite the camping trip there. And it was a clever idea to have a raccoon cage for the food; those things could get very pesky, and you wouldn’t want to have your supplies stolen or sullied. I guess that’s why that raccoon took his revenge on you. Haha! Anyway, thanks for sharing your camping adventures. Here’s to more camping trips in the near future. Cheers!

Andrea Wilkins @ Getaway Outdoors

author said...

Isn’t Cumberland the best? Did you know that the Candler family owns a tract of land that backs up to the welcome center that you visited – right by the docks? They want to develop their land with 10 homes. Please help us fight this developement – Camden County is listening to the communities appeal on February 7th. We’d love to have you share the news and help the fight:

Thank you!