Cumberland Island, a Georgia wilderness

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Me and the lady bike, way off the beaten track on Cumberland Island

Some natural places are so unique and so distinctive, they are easily identified, especially by those that love them. The maritime forests and salt marshes of the southern Atlantic coast of the USA (the lower right hand edge in case you are struggling to visualise) are just such places.

Add to that mix wild horses, ruined mansions, a history involving some of Americas wealthiest families and access only by boat and it makes for a pretty special experience.

..fortunately we had the foresight to clean off the chain the previous day as it was encrusted in shaggy river weed and fattened into a stinky, crab infested rope 3 times its normal size!

Whilst in the comfortable, practical city of St. Augustine, Florida we ticked a significant number of boat jobs off of our big list, ate a generous amount of cake, pizza and shrimp and decided on a plan to move north up the long and varied US coast, one short trip at a time.

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Red channel marker on the Georgia ICW

The first hop in mid June would take us over the border from Florida to Georgia, a state line which runs down the middle of the St Marys river inlet. On the Florida side is the Fort Clinch State Park, on the Georgia side is the Cumberland Island National Seashore and somewhere in the middle is a massive submarine base.

As we had been looking at a fort for the past 5 weeks in St. Augustine, turning right into Cumberland Sound, Georgia was an easy choice!

We pulled up the anchor – fortunately we had the foresight to clean off the chain the previous day as it was encrusted in shaggy river weed and fattened into a stinky, crab infested rope 3 times its normal size!

We finally motored out of St. Augustine at 6 am on a still June morning, looking forward to new sights and fresh anchorages. We headed out to the clearer water 3 miles offshore, where less of the small fishing boats would be buzzing about and found ourselves once again in a dreamscape of rolling, liquid silver seas and blue skies.

Anything that pops its head up or breaks the surface is easily spotted in such tranquility and we kept a lookout for rippling shoals of tuna catching the light with their fins, curious sea turtle heads and maybe a manatee nose…who knows…

A pleasant sail with no dramas made a nice change! After traveling inshore a few miles to Cumberland Island we put our anchor down close to the visitors ferry dock.

Our spot in the river

We had just experienced our first foray along the Intracoastal Waterway, the 3,000 mile network of linked waterways, rivers, lakes and canals that runs from Boston to Texas. Key skills are telling red from green numbered bouys, left from right (port and starboard) and counting them up or down. We did OK…

Boat is the only way on here or off, for campers residents and park rangers
Will we see wild horses we wondered? Oh yeah, there’s one right there on the beach before we are even on the island!

The next morning we took a walk ashore, tying up our dinghy as the ferry arrived with day visitors and the campers – hardy types prepared to battle mosquitoes, raccoons, heat and ready to bring every scrap of food with them too as there are no shops, only water taps.

There are also no paved roads on the island – roughly 14 miles long and 3 miles wide and we wandered in the peaceful shady forests of spiky Palmetto, huge live oaks dripping with hanging moss, wild passion flowers and other vines, sand dunes and sandy meadows full of flowers, spectacular long beaches and long vistas of greenish-yellow salt marsh.

There is also the ruined mansion of Dungeness, built by the wealthy Carnegie family and ruined by fire.

A venerable and ancient live oak

Most of the sandy lanes seemed suitable for cycling and we looked forward to freewheeling and exploring further with our bikes the next day.

My bicycle with coral coloured and flower patterned frame, two tone wheels and white wicker basket doesn’t exactly project “experienced off road cyclist” vibes. More “popping to the shops for a bunch of flowers and a baguette” vibes actually.

Our ride the next day would probably have been about half as long had we not been invited to visit one of the residents, an offer that proved hard to resist despite the heat and the extra work of trying to cycle in soft sand!

Much of the island is designated wilderness and the park managers and locals alike are pretty keen to make sure that no hikers or campers expire while on the island through lack of water, getting lost or the intense summer heat.

More wild horses
Even more wild horses in the grounds of Dungeness – also turkeys, deer and osprey.

As we cycled up the island we had several trucks pause to stop and check that we knew where we were and that we had enough water. My bicycle with coral coloured and flower patterned frame, two tone wheels and white wicker basket doesn’t exactly project “experienced off road cyclist” vibes. More “popping to the shops for a bunch of flowers and a baguette” vibes actually.

Oh how appearances can be deceptive!

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Stunning palmetto and live oak forests. Hard cycling though!

One such enquiry from a resident with two small children and a dog in the bed of the truck sparked a conversation and an invitation to call at his house for a rest, a chat and to fill up our water bottles if we got that far up the island. He also promised a gift. Assuming that this was perhaps a rare opportunity to visit a Carnegie millionaire at home or at least someone who knew lots about this fascinating place, we were spurred on over soft sandy tracks for miles and miles…

When we arrived at said homestead, he wasn’t home! S*#t!

Fortunately his caretaker was and she filled our bottles and invited us to wait, look at the stunning views across the salt marsh and cool off in the shade.

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Wild horses grazing on the salt marsh. The view from the porch.

In a short while the truck returned and we met the owner, his wife, and several visiting cousins and assorted dogs. We enjoyed some lively company on their porch, watching a small herd of wild horses in the distance grazing on the sandy marshes.

Not a Coca-Cola heir or a Carnegie as it turns out, but a Georgia lawyer who fell in love with this special place while helping set up the land preservation and in return has a home here. Our gift is a beautiful signed picture book which he wrote about the island, its residents, history, stories and his own quite spiritual relationship with this place.

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A gift from the author

I have always felt there must be some resemblance between these water-bound, primeval forests and parts of Africa, although I have never been there myself.

I was amazed to read later in said book an account of when a group of African Pygmy had actually visited. While on tour in the USA as part of a show featuring their tribal dances, they were visiting a dance studio on the mainland owned by Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1990’s.

They were persuaded to take the boat trip to Cumberland Island by a resident, where the palmetto forests were seen to have an immediate effect on the group. There is apparently a videotape of them joyously running among the palmettos, hugging them and waving fronds like flags, clearly reminded of home. What I would give to see that video!

The cycle back was even worse frankly and if someone had come past in a truck we would have asked to throw the bikes in the back and ride with them. We made it back hot and tired and finished the day with an exhausted dip in the tea-brown waters of the river. After checking the map we realised we had done about 15 miles!

a bit of food rationing was starting kick in at this point – grapes, lettuce, milk, toms’ – not salt beef and ships biscuits exactly but still rationing !

We finished our last evening at Cumberland Island watching a manatee (or seacow) roll awkwardly on the nearby muddy sandbank. So we phoned Clay, a delightful and knowledgeable chap at the Georgia Wildlife Service, so that he could decide if the beast was in trouble. He thought not – it had probably got beached and was too lazy to struggle off when the high tide later would float it off soon with no effort required! Phew.

Leaving Georgia on the ICW

Having had no shops for a few days meant that a bit of food rationing was starting kick in at this point  – grapes, lettuce, milk, toms’ – not salt beef and ships biscuits exactly, but still rationing! We headed back out to the North Atlantic the next morning feeling peaceful and rested and ready for a little civilisation in Edisto Island, South Carolina which was a 23 hour overnight sail up the coast.

Last time we were there 3 years ago, we had arrived by plane and had a wonderful holiday. Anticipation of arriving in such a happy place by yacht this time around was running high.

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Sandy lanes and palmetto forests. Sadly no Pygmies though.

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