Cumberland Island

by Joe Thomas

What a weekend.

It all started around 4:45 Friday morning, a time I hadn’t seen in a long time, at least not from that side of sleep. After staggering around my house and managing to get almost everything I needed together (I had set my sunglasses on top of my pack, but in my haze threw them on the floor, my logic being that I didn’t need them, it was the middle of the night), I left for my office to meet the group that I’d be driving down to Cumberland Island, the most extreme southeastern point in Georgia. A quick pit stop at Krispy Kreme provided me with the supplies I would need to maneuver a 15-passenger van through the early morning darkness.

The drive was long, but fairly pleasant. Most of the group slept for the first several hours, so I was left to listen to my own music and enjoy seeing the sun rise over north-central Georgia. We made our way swiftly through Hampton, Macon, Dublin, Statesboro, around Savannah and south along the coast. Lunch was at a strip mall off I-95 at the Golden Isles Parkway exit. We were confronted by a seemingly no-win choice: Subway, a dubious looking grocery store, or an even more dubious looking Chinese buffet. Most of the group chose either the Subway or Chinese place, but I and one of my co-leaders decided to take a chance on the grocery store having a deli of some sort. What we found was nothing short of road-trip gold: fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, fried okra, rolls, cake, and gallons of sweet tea. It was absolutely fantastic. I sat in the van and feasted, and as the other folks returned their jealousy was nearly tangible.

We arrived in St. Marys, Georgia right on schedule. As you drive into St. Marys, you can’t help but notice how many strip malls and shopping centers line the highway to the west of town. It’s pretty unpleasant. Once you get into St. Marys, however, the town is beautiful, like most Southern beach towns. We loaded two boats, a ferry and a barge with our gear and two vans, and our entire group, nearly 70 people in all. The ride over to the island was gorgeous, and I was reminded of how much I enjoy being on a boat. The weather was terrific.

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Our arrival was a whirlwind of dividing gear, moving people, and trying to answer questions, all while trying to take in the beauty of the island. After a quick orientation by some of the phenomenal park rangers, I gathered the camping group who would be my “roommates” for the weekend. As the light was fading, we quickly made camp, and then took a few minutes before dinner to take in the sunset over the intercoastal waterway. Those last few moments of waning sunlight were absolutely breathtaking.

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Saturday morning began with some stiff joints, a symptom of my still relative novice camping expertise and the slightly chilly temperatures. After a quick breakfast, I gathered my trail crew for the long drive to Terrapin Point, at the far north end of Cumberland. As a part of the MLK weekend, the Georgia Conservancy organized the trip to Cumberland Island as a service trip. Everyone participating served in some sort of volunteer function, whether clearing trail, picking up trash, or maintenance of the historical buildings. My group was working on the little-used Terrapin trail, a crescent-shaped trail on the northwest corner of the island. We split in two and started from both ends, intending to meet in the middle. The group worked hard, and the weather was pleasant through the morning and early afternoon. The trail’s curve takes it out along a cliff that overlooks the intercoastal waterway, and the views are spectacular.

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As we worked into the afternoon, it became more evident that completing the work was going to be more difficult than it first appeared. When we reached the point where the two groups should have met, there was no one there. We kept clearing the trail, until reaching a point where the trail simply disappeared. We searched and searched, but weren’t able to find any sign of it. As we were looking, we got a call from the other half of the group saying they had gotten lost and turned back. We decided to hike back out the way we had come, meet up with the rest, and reassess.

After meeting back up with our other half, it was time for the long drive back down the island. As we drove, we debriefed about the successes and failures of the project. As we talked, we came to realize that we were just a few feet from each other, separated by only a matter of minutes! We were tired and dirty, but our work was worthwhile and we accomplished a lot.

Dinner that night was a real treat. Our leader Bryan had stopped at Sapelo Island on the way down and purchased a bushel of oysters right off the boat. As he worked on a low-country boil, I started a fire in the outdoor fireplace, and started roasting dozens and dozens of oysters.

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Our Cumberland adventure was wonderful. I had been to the island in elementary school, but not since, and was reintroduced to its beauty and the valuable wilderness preservation that is their mission. I feel lucky to be from a state that has such incredible natural resources.

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