The Georgia Barrier Islands
As I get closer to ‘crossing my wake’ – Looper talk for getting back to where I started from – at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, I’m getting asked more and more about what my favorite part of the trip has been. It’s not an easy question for me.
I’ve come to appreciate and embrace the diversity of the trip. To single out any one section would diminish my enjoyment of the whole. The Great Loop has been a wonderful opportunity to explore America: its history tucked away in interesting places and its people, past and present, who make it what it is. Doing it by boat adds a unique access and perspective.
The Barrier Islands of Georgia and into South Carolina exemplify this. Other Loopers might shun their relative isolation, bugs and big tides making for tricky anchorages. But they have their own beauty and history, much like the Four Corners area in the Southwest where I’ve camped, rafted and explored extensively. Just like the Canyonlands in Utah, they offer an endless variety of routes, limited only by how adventurous you want to be.
The area consists mostly of slow moving rivers winding through the marshland between the mainland and barrier islands. Georgia’s inward bend from the continental shelf and Gulf Stream protects it somewhat from the Atlantic’s worst but also gives space for the tides to build up to a 6 to 9 foot range. That creates ideal condition for the marshland, which in turn further protects the mainland. Interesting how nature works when at its best.
There are a bunch of islands, big and small, but 8 or 9 main ones between Cumberland and Daufuskis Islands, depending on how you want to count. Some are wholly or partly protected as Wildlife Refuges, National Seashores or State Parks. There’s a mix of Native, Spanish, English and American names for the islands, inlets, sounds, rivers and creeks that make you smile: Jekyll, Little Mud, St. Catherine’s, Blackbeard, Crooked, Ogeechee, Old Teakettle, Altahama.
I explored only three: Cumberland, St Simons and Daufuskis. I wish I had taken more time for the others, though exploring some of them would mostly be bird and gator watching.
The best thing about Cumberland Island is it’s preservation of how these islands used to be. It is a National Seashore accessible only by ferry or private boat. It offers semi-primitive (restrooms, cold showers, fire rings), primitive camping and for me, long bike rides on dirt roads and short hikes out to the ocean. There’s a 17 mile beach facing the Atlantic that includes 6 miles within a nearly 10,000 acre Wilderness Area, additional protection from most things human.
Nature is in charge here. Actually, nature is in charge everywhere but works on a timetable that few humans comprehend.
It is incredibly different to sink your toes into the very fine sand of this beach pounded by eons of ocean waves compared to the coarse sand and broken shells pumped from the ocean floor to augment the typical ocean resort beach. In the island’s interior, rain-fed freshwater ponds are home to alligators. Unfortunately, or fortunately perhaps, I did not hear the ‘booming courtship rites of bull alligators’ described in the brochure. I did came across some (semi) wild turkeys and deer. It reminded me that Benjamin Franklin advocated the Wild Turkey as America’s National Bird. The great man couldn’t be right on everything.
There’s a herd of wild horses; the rangers at the dock warned that the stallions were frisky because some of the mares were in heat. Indeed, one of the stallions tried to mount a mare several times but was rejected, causing an eruption of giggles from numerous pre-teens visiting with their parents.
The beach provides an ideal nesting area for the loggerhead turtles, watched over by the park rangers and a group of local volunteers. There was a well done presentation on sea turtles by one of the volunteers prior to the ferry returning to the mainland. Among many things, he talked about how they can save a nest laid below the tide line by relocating it higher on the beach if they find it within 36 hours. But at question time, he seemed flummoxed by a concern of one visitor that they might be adversely affecting the loggerhead’s gene pool by saving nests laid by turtles too lazy to get above high tide. You could read his expression: “This is what I get for all the time and effort I put into this?”
The day visitor to Cumberland is mostly interested in the Dungeness Ruins, a hulking burned out shell of a mansion built during the gilded age by the lesser known of the Carnegie brothers, Thomas, or more accurately, by his kick ass widow Lucy. Subsequent generations didn’t have the business acumen of either Thomas or Lucy and have deeded their parts of the island piecemeal to the Park Service to dodge property taxes, a process that will be complete when the current generation dies off. The ruins are jaw dropping impressive, even more so if you poke around the well preserved support facilities that made such a social mecca possible at the turn of the 20th century.
Dungeness was built on the foundation of an earlier mansion built by another kick ass widow, Catharine Greene, wife of Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. Nathanael received a piece of Cumberland for his war services as many veterans of that war did. He harvested many of the awesome Live Oaks on the island which were in high demand as ship frames but died before he could really develop the island.
The Live Oak is an absolutely stunning tree, highly valued in early American history for their strength, water resistance and almost natural shape for ribs of sailing vessels, especially warships. Many, including Nathanial Greene, made fortunes harvesting them. The USS Constitution, nicknamed “Old Ironsides” as cannon balls fired from the British frigate Guerriere bounced off her sides during an early War of 1812 engagement, was constructed of live oak. The equally famous Civil War engagement between the Monitor and Merrimac that jump started metal ship construction probably saved the live oaks from extinction, though the famous Clipper Ships, coveted for their speed, kept sailing for a few more decades.
I enjoyed St. Simons Island for an entirely different reason: its decisive role in colonial and even pre-colonial history. It’s also where I holed up for a couple days to get my taxes done, a less noteworthy reason. After he got Savannah up and running, Georgia founder James Oglethorpe built the fortified town of Fort Frederica on St. Simons in 1736 to guard against Spanish attack from St. Augustine. This coastline between present day Florida and South Carolina had long been contested by the English and Spanish. Franciscan monks had established missions throughout these islands by the 1580s. Both Oglethorpe and King George II viewed the establishment of Georgia as a buffer to the Spanish, as well as a new Utopia for thousands to escape the notorious English debtors jails.
Oglethorpe was both a statesman and soldier. He was industrious, fearless and competent, a rare combination of leadership in any time period. He cultivated strong ties with the local Native American leadership, welcomed immigrants of diverse religious views and banned both slavery and rum. Inevitably for a man ahead of his time, his vision for Georgia did not survive when he retired to an elder statesman role in England after a decade in Georgia.
Fort Frederica was both a fort and a neatly laid out town behind its protection. Oglethorpe preferred living here instead of Savannah, justified on July 7, 1742 when he repulsed a 2,000 man strong Spanish invasion from St. Augustine with about 900 men in a back and forth fight ending at the Battle of Bloody Marsh. As the visitor center puts it, it would be easy to “dismiss this insignificant episode, in a minor war, with the ridiculous name of The War of Jenkins Ear” – so named for an unfortunate English Captain Robert Jenkins who had his ear cut off by a Spanish boarding party looking for contraband.
But it was here at Fort Frederica that James Oglethorpe ended any Spanish ambition to reclaim Georgia and South Carolina, a preposterous idea viewed from our time, but very real in 1742. Ironically, the British and Spanish traded Florida back and forth before until the United States bought the “14th colony” from Spain in 1819.
I stopped at the south end of Daufuski Island in South Carolina mainly because it had a free dock and supposedly a lively restaurant nearby. It’s not accessible by car so I knew it would be ‘rustic’. But the restaurant was shuttered and there were only a few houses with rickety piers in the little cove. But Lucy Bell’s Café and Coffee signs nailed to a huge live oak intrigued me. Little did I know what this island would come to mean to me. But I should have taken my bike.
School Grounds Coffee was an almost two mile walk. It shared a building with an artist group using traditionally produced indigo dye in wool creations. A tour group came through shepherded by self-confident black female tour guide obviously well known by the female barista. After they left, the barista finally noticed me and apologized saying she thought I was part of the group. I said no, I wasn’t smart enough to travel by golf cart.
To no surprise, it turned out that she was the owner too, sharing the building with the artists to save expenses. Frankly, it seemed the coffee house was more a hobby than anything, but the vanilla latte was just fine. I asked about the history of the building that was somewhat described in pictures and newspaper articles around the room.
It turned out that this was the two room schoolhouse that Pat Conroy taught in for a year in 1969-70, an experience that led him to write The Water is Wide. I was intrigued and bought the book on the spot.
I’ve written elsewhere that I’m no fan of lazy teachers, pompous administrators and how American history is taught. But this guy lived the nightmare. After several years teaching in a ‘white’ high school, he decided to challenge himself to teach in a multi-grade all black two room school on a barrier island isolated in both place and time. He found himself teaching all but illiterate middle school kids who were more in awe of the other (black) teacher’s cane than education.
He had to redefine success. He spent most of his time trying to break through a stupefying reluctance to learn inbred by years of teachers not expecting anything of them. He took them on two field trips, the first time most of them had ever been off the island. First to his hometown of Beaufort to trick and treat and then he fundraised enough to take them to Washington, DC. He was fired at the beginning of his second year for his ‘unconventional’ teaching methods, including his refusal to allow corporal punishment. His credo to “Grab kids and set them on fire” did not sit well then, and unfortunately, often not now either.
It turns out that the black tour guide was Sallie Ann Robinson, one of Conroy’s students that year on Daufuskie. After he was fired, Conroy and his wife took her into their home in Beaufort so she could attend a real high school. She went on to become a chef and advocate of Gullah food and culture, making numerous appearances on TV cooking shows and interview shows.
I continue to be dumbfounded at how seemingly unrelated pieces come together for me on my trip around the Loop. I had never heard of Pat Conroy. But pulling into a free dock introduced me to a teacher who was practicing my concept of education while I was still in high school. Crossing Ms. Robinson’s path and researching how she and Pat Conroy remained tight friends until his death in 2016 provide a richness to his book and even greater admiration for a teacher willing to think outside the box and to put his students above all.
FredericaOglethorpe laid out Frederica in 1736 as both a military outpost and town.
It reached a population of about 500 in the 1740s
but after Bloody Marsh it lost its purpose and was mostly a ghost town by the 1760s.
Canon and L.T.This canon would have in a Battery since lost to the Frederica River.
St. Simons Island, GA
April 7, 2019