Drift­ing dunes, ex­pan­sive marshes and mi­grat­ing birds — all the birds! — set an idyl­lic back­drop for a me­an­der along Ge­or­gia’s coast via the In­tra­coastal Water­way.

Cruising World - - Contents - By Tom Zy­dler

Southbound sailors will find wilder­ness and wildlife in abun­dance in Ge­or­gia’s bar­rier is­lands along the In­tra­coastal Water­way.

IT­WAS as if cruis­ing dreams came true. We would swing the boat be­hind an is­land into a smooth creek. The forest be­tween the ocean and the anchorage muted the sound of the break­ers to a dis­tant sigh­ing. In the morn­ing, a short row brought the dinghy ashore. It took a walk around the end of the is­land to reach the At­lantic shore, foam­ing wave­lets on one side and dunes on the other stretch­ing for maybe 10 miles with only bird foot­prints on the sand. Add sea tur­tle tracks dur­ing nest­ing sea­sons.

It might sound like a dream, but at least 10 ma­jor bar­rier is­lands fit this de­scrip­tion — most of them un­in­hab­ited and pro­tected from de­vel­op­ment as state or na­tional wilder­ness ar­eas — on the At­lantic coast of Ge­or­gia. Af­ter spend­ing the win­ter months in Brunswick Land­ing Ma­rina, the most cruiser-friendly of the area, we took off south­ward and sailed al­most all the way to the Florida bor­der. My wife, Nancy, and I then turned north to en­joy a slow cruise be­fore our May de­par­ture to the high lat­i­tudes of Canada and Green­land.

About half­way to Cum­ber­land Is­land, our VHF screamed with tor­nado warn­ings. Be­hind us, the arch of the Sid­ney Lanier Bridge over the Brunswick River stood sil­ver against the black-blue sky. Our Ma­son 44, Frances B, plowed through the mud-choked chan­nel along the west shore of Jekyll Is­land. We hoped the al­most-high tide would keep our 7-foot-deep keel off the bot­tom. April rains had turned the live oaks, cedars and pal­met­tos on Mil­lion­aires’ Row — the is­land’s his­toric dis­trict — bright green. Nine­teenth- and 20th-cen­tury fi­nan­cial heavy hit­ters of Amer­ica — in­clud­ing the Ma­cys, As­tors, Goodyears and Van­der­bilts — cre­ated what was once a very ex­clu­sive club on the is­land’s west shore. Grand steam yachts ar­rived in the win­ters, among them Pulitzer’s Lib­erty and J.P. Mor­gan’s Cor­sair. But the good times ended with World War II. In the 1950s, the state of Ge­or­gia bought the is­land and brought in con­victs to build a cause­way from the main­land, and there is now a small ma­rina next to the bridge. The dis­tur­bance of the nat­u­ral wa­ter flow from the bridge has silted Jekyll

Creek into a mud bath, only about 3 feet deep at low tide in some places. The Jekyll Club and some of the hu­mon­gous “cot­tages” of the wealthy re­main. Birds love the place: We saw av­o­cets swing their up­turned beaks through mud, and greater scaups — seago­ing ducks — came in flocks when the At­lantic boiled up in a gale. We took the deep­wa­ter trench off Jekyll’s south­ern point and came within spit­ting dis­tance of a thick flock of black skim­mers, pow­er­ful fly­ers that stand on lu­di­crously short legs; they, with a few pairs of oys­ter­catch­ers and many terns, tol­er­ated our gawk­ing so close.

St. An­drew Sound, far­ther out and open wide to the ocean, lay smooth de­spite a fresh south breeze. Thick clouds to the south­west planted some doubt as to whether we’d make it to a safe anchorage in the Brick­hill River on Cum­ber­land Is­land be­fore the weather hit. But our luck held. We dropped an­chor in all-around pro­tec­tion with solid forests from north to south on the eastern shore and marshes cut­ting off any pos­si­ble chop from the west. The night turned out to be calm, and in­sects whirred around the an­chor light. We hung it low, where it would be more vis­i­ble to river traf­fic than the usual light high on the mast­head.

At dawn the sky opened with pour­ing rain, and ex­plo­sions of light­ning chased me be­low to put our com­put­ers in the oven, a makeshift Fara­day cage to pro­tect them from the high cur­rents of a pos­si­ble light­ning strike. A wedge of blue, clear as a baby’s eyes, promised a change soon.

When the sun came out, the marshes and forests shone. On the shore across the river, a flock of white pel­i­cans set­tled. Th­ese birds spend cold months in Ge­or­gia and Florida, and were al­most dou­ble the size of the brown pel­i­cans we were used to see­ing. Af­ter pow­er­ing a few miles south on the Brick­hill River, we an­chored Frances

B close to tall roost­ing trees. In the evening, egrets fluffed their white wings like me­dieval ladies wav­ing hand­ker­chiefs to their knights. Long-nosed wood storks set­tled down for the night on stick legs, while closer to the wa­ter, night herons pre­pared for feed­ing. Be­tween the oaks ashore, the white walls of Plum Or­chard Man­sion blinked.

I have to ad­mit, the wealthy of the Gilded Age had a tal­ent for find­ing the best is­land re­treats. Ninety per­cent of Cum­ber­land Is­land, the long­est of Ge­or­gia’s bar­rier is­lands, at 20 miles, was once owned by Thomas M. Carnegie’s fam­ily. One of the fam­ily’s three large man­sions, Grey­field, is now a posh ho­tel. To­day, most of the is­land is en­com­passed by the Cum­ber­land Is­land Na­tional Seashore, a sta­tus de­clared by Pres­i­dent Nixon in 1972 that pre­vents fur­ther de­vel­op­ment.

Cum­ber­land Is­land’s dunes, some 40 feet high, are ham­mered by strong on­shore winds and drift con­tin­u­ously in­land. Caught in this dy­namic en­vi­ron­ment, the na­tive live oaks form en­chant­ing forests. Their twist­ing limbs snake low for 40 or more feet, longer than the heights of the par­ent trees; among them we felt sur­rounded by an­i­mate crea­tures. We fol­lowed trails through a net­work of spi­dery oak branches, shaded by their leafy canopy. On the ocean side, we stepped upon the widest beach we had seen yet. At the wave wash, a fam­ily of feral horses stood — male, fe­male and an awk­ward colt on stiff stick legs — prob­a­bly en­joy­ing the cool, in­sect-free air as much as we were on that early morn­ing.

When the time came to leave our ex­plo­ration of Cum­ber­land Is­land and start north­ward, we yanked the dinghy on board with a spin­naker hal­yard and sailed off­shore, re-en­ter­ing the In­tra­coastal Water­way at St. Si­mons Sound. More than 13,000 peo­ple live on St. Si­mons Is­land. How­ever, even when search­ing for re­mote wilder­ness, you’d be wrong to dis­miss vis­it­ing here. Sure, while sail­ing up the Fred­er­ica River along the western shore of the is­land we saw sev­eral tree-framed man­sions. To the west, though, miles of marshes and creeks breathed with the tides, wild and in­tact. About half­way up the river,

Frances B slid, un­con­tested, by the guns of Fort Fred­er­ica, Gen­eral Oglethorpe’s 1742 bas­tion of English pres­ence against the Span­ish. A Span­ish ar­mada of 36 ships landed a few thou­sand men against small num­bers of the English and In­dian al­lies. Af­ter the English pre­vailed, a tiny town grew around the fort, which is toy-size by to­day’s stan­dards.

The Hamp­ton River cuts east along the north shore of St. Si­mons Is­land. Marshes spread out like ma­rine prairies along the river’s north banks, home to birds, ot­ters, minks and dol­phins. Swing­ing be­tween bea­cons we passed a ma­rina, some hous­ing and a densely wooded un­in­hab­ited point of the is­land. We plunged into Pine Creek, an oxbow off the Hamp­ton River, and saw three glossy ibis winging over­head. Snowy and red­dish egrets punc­tured the mud banks for food, and an ex­tended fam­ily of

mer­gansers pad­dled away. A wood stork, black headed with an enor­mous wing­span, hov­ered over a deeper pool on the al­most-flooded up­land. Ex­plor­ing Pine Is­land, a type of islet lo­cally known as a “ham­mock,” we pushed and dragged our­selves through a thick growth of fan-shaped, sharp-ended scrub pal­met­tos, twisted oaks and pines. The edges of crum­bling oys­ter shells stuck out from humps of dry soil — an­cient mid­dens left by foraging Guale tribes. The din of cack­ling marsh hens, or clap­per rails, re­sounded in the spartina marshes as the sun went down. This wild place that had for­got­ten the hand of man made us happy.

Swing­ing north from the Hamp­ton River, Frances B be­gan fur­row­ing through swirls of thick brown mud from the un­dammed Al­tamaha River, once a water­way for rafts of tim­ber logged in the flooded forests and river banks. The muddy waters con­tin­ued into Doboy Sound, whose tides race by the south end of Sapelo Is­land, which is pop­u­lated by some 40 de­scen­dants of Gul­lah-geechee plan­ta­tion slaves. There is also a ma­rine wet­lands re­search sta­tion and to­bacco mag­nate R.J. Reynolds’ old man­sion-turned-guest­house. Thou­sands of mi­grat­ing birds stop in the tall grasses near Sapelo Light­house. Hunters are al­lowed to come on pre­scribed dates to shoot deer and feral hogs. Their some­times overea­ger rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes them, and the per­ma­nent res­i­dents in Hog Ham­mock spray-paint “COW” on their an­i­mals. Dur­ing the 19th-cen­tury tim­ber boom, dozens of ships an­chored in Doboy Sound wait­ing for a place in Darien, a small town up­river. In those days, Darien could load 20 wind­jam­mers a day to carry Ge­or­gia’s long leaf pine and cedar world­wide. Now Darien slum­bers, its fleet of shrimp trawlers small by com­par­i­son.

We turned Frances B east in Sapelo Sound and, on the ris­ing tide, slipped over the bar into Black­beard Creek, which sep­a­rates Black­beard Is­land from Sapelo Is­land. An­chored in a deeper pool, the boat was vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble with thick forest to the east and west, and more high trees on Sapelo Is­land. We had found the per­fect hide­away for a pi­rate. Three cen­turies ago, be­fore colo­nial log­gers cut the old forests and the mud be­gan bleeding to­ward the sea, this creek would have been deep enough for large ships. With the ex­cep­tion of the per­sist­ing name, there is no firm

ev­i­dence that the badass Black­beard, also known as Ed­ward Thatch or Teach, set up a base here. The name Black­beard Is­land first ap­peared on a sur­vey map in 1760, four decades af­ter Thatch’s sev­ered head swung from the bowsprit of a Bri­tish navy ship. In 1940, the is­land be­came a fed­eral wildlife refuge. Our re­con­nais­sance dinghy ride ended at a float­ing dock cov­ered with ot­ter drop­pings, tan­gi­ble proof of the thriv­ing wildlife. The trails ashore lead into the shad­ows of a dense forest, the branches cur­tained with witches’ tresses of Span­ish moss. The moss, an epi­phyte com­mon in the Amer­i­can South, is sen­si­tive to pol­lu­tion and at­tested to the clean air. Now and then a deer scam­pered away, its white tail flag­ging among trees. We tracked an ar­madillo nos­ing through lay­ers of leaves when we heard noisy rustling off the side of the trail. A si­lent owl with feath­ers the color of the leafy back­drop fol­lowed our pas­sage with its round, yel­low eyes. The trail spilled onto the beach in a tan­gle of fallen oaks and pal­met­tos. Clus­ters of small oys­ters cov­ered the roots at the wa­ter’s edge. Not a trace re­mained of the quar­an­tine wharf where ships bound to Sa­van­nah for rice or to Darien for tim­ber once had to stop — the sta­tion was closed in 1909 when the yel­low-fever vac­ci­na­tion proved ef­fec­tive. On our visit, only bird tracks and scat­tered seashells etched the 5 sandy miles of the At­lantic beach.

St. Cather­ines Is­land, the next one to the north, is un­usual. Its owner, a foun­da­tion that breeds en­dan­gered an­i­mals, in­clud­ing ring-tailed lemurs, has put the is­land off-lim­its to ca­sual pri­vate vis­i­tors (per Ge­or­gia law, the beaches to the high-tide line are still free for roam­ing). The St. Cather­ines Is­land Foun­da­tion’s re­search sta­tion stands on the grounds of what was once a Guale In­dian vil­lage, later a Span­ish monks’ mis­sion and fi­nally the plan­ta­tion of Mary Mus­grove, a leg­endary fig­ure in Ge­or­gia’s early his­tory. White Ge­or­gian plan­ta­tion own­ers lost the is­land to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War. One of them, Tu­nis Camp­bell, took over as a leader and even formed an army of 250 men. Af­ter all this and even af­ter a hur­ri­cane washed over the is­land com­pletely in 1893, St. Cather­ines looks pri­mor­dially wild to­day.

We an­chored Frances B in Wal­burg Creek along the west shore, and spring low tides bared a fan­tas­tic stretch of sand banks in St. Cather­ines Sound. We splashed through an­kle-deep wa­ter and spent a cou­ple of hours study­ing the shells of whelks, cock­les and angel wings. We chased painted olives — mol­lusks — as they es­caped head­first un­der the wet sand. It felt thrilling to stand in the sea a mile away from the shore of dead trees, branches and roots un­der­mined by tides, con­torted and twisted as if in agony.

The shoals of St. Cather­ines (and other is­lands) bring in bizarre horse­shoe crabs to mate. About the size of a wash bowl, equipped with nine “eyes,” they have been around for half a bil­lion years, pre­dat­ing di­nosaurs. Their blood is tinged blue by a high cop­per con­tent and con­tains mo­bile cells that de­stroy pathogens. Spe­cial­ized labs are known to gather horse­shoes, suck their blood and then re­turn the an­i­mals to the sea; the mor­tal­ity hov­ers be­tween 15 and 30 per­cent. Back on St. Cather­ines beach, the wash of spent waves of­ten rolled the horse­shoes upside down. In or­der to flip them­selves back up, their long tails lashed the sand to find pur­chase; their 10 legs pad­dled the air pa­thet­i­cally. We couldn’t bear their trauma and so spent hours re­turn­ing the an­cients to their home.

IN THE ICW, our 7-foot draft forced us to time our pas­sages. The tidal ranges in Ge­or­gia vary be­tween 6 and 11 feet, so we had to deal with shal­lows on the ris­ing tides and an­chor be­fore the tide ran too low. We used the dinghy to ex­plore the

vein­work of tight streams, of­ten send­ing aloft flocks of mi­gra­tory shore­birds that gath­ered on sand and oys­ter bars. We fol­lowed Cane Patch Creek on the west side of Oss­abaw Is­land past treed islets named Queen Bess and Queen Mary. We weren’t sure of the name­sakes, but thought Mary could have been the afore­men­tioned Mary Mus­grove, so-called Queen of the Creek na­tion and a tribal diplo­mat when, in 1733, Oglethorpe founded Sa­van­nah and Ge­or­gia. Buck­head Creek just around the cor­ner led us to a shore where vines had taken a tight grip on old slave houses built of “tabby,” the mix­ture of oys­ter shells and lime com­mon in Colo­nial times. Nearby, some wooden struc­tures marked an ex­tinct 1970s hip­pie com­mune. The mid­day sun­shine brought out an al­li­ga­tor, the sole war­den of the place.

The Bradley River on the north­east coast of Oss­abaw Is­land, where we an­chored Frances B next, un­der­cuts a shore of high sand bluffs and then flows south into the marshes. The high dunes of Bradley Point lead to a blaz­ing-white At­lantic beach roughly 8 miles long. Nest­ing tur­tles — log­ger­heads, leatherbacks, greens and lately even a few olive ri­d­leys — love it. Their nests are threat­ened by scav­engers, such as rac­coons and feral pigs, which are de­scended from farm an­i­mals im­ported by var­i­ous pre­vi­ous own­ers of the is­land. Now that the is­land is a Her­itage Pre­serve un­der the Ge­or­gia De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, the feral pigs are culled an­nu­ally, and the nests have bet­ter chances of sur­vival. Also, vol­un­teers guard the nests be­tween May and Septem­ber.

A fore­cast for strong northerly winds en­cour­aged our de­par­ture be­fore the swell could be­gin to break over the shoals scat­tered in Oss­abaw Sound. The jagged line of high pines on Was­saw Is­land stood well-de­fined 4 miles away to the north, but a patch­work of shal­low banks stood in the way. We nav­i­gated 10 cau­tious miles on a calm sea and ris­ing tide to reach the well-pro­tected Was­saw Creek. At its mouth we slowed down to watch four dol­phins, the creek so thickly muddy that only the wakes of their dor­sal fins let us fol­low their course. We passed so close that, when their heads ap­peared to breathe, we could see their eyes track­ing us. The feed­ing was good — shoals of fish whipped the sur­face in a frenzy. At some point, a school of mul­let shot out of the wa­ter onto a mud bank and the dol­phins slid up in pur­suit, then wig­gled back into the creek.

We used a float­ing dock by the war­den sta­tion of Was­saw Is­land Na­tional Wilder­ness Refuge as a base for treks ashore. Was­saw Is­land is re­ally a se­ries of par­al­lel dunes cov­ered with pines and live oaks that some­how eke nour­ish­ment from the sandy soil. At the back of the At­lantic beach, though, the Span­ish bay­o­net (yucca) grows unusu­ally tall, the size of small trees. The sea oats grow thick and happy on this shore, free from pre­da­tion by the wild horses, wild don­keys and deer found on some other is­lands.

In May, the weather be­gan warm­ing up un­com­fort­ably, at least to us who now thought of cool­ing off far north in the ice­berg al­leys off Labrador and Green­land. We sud­denly re­al­ized that af­ter leav­ing Ge­or­gia’s wild bar­rier is­lands, we wouldn’t ex­pe­ri­ence real wilder­ness again un­til a land­fall in Labrador — over 2,000 miles away.

On the shoals in St. Cather­ines Sound, the au­thor was on a mis­sion to save all the horse­shoe crabs stranded by the fall­ing tide (right). Nancy in­dulged in some tree hug­ging in the dune forest of live oaks on Cum­ber­land Is­land (be­low). Black skim­mers...

Frances B rests at an­chor as the sun sets over Pine Creek, an oxbow of the Hamil­ton River at St. Si­mons Is­land.

A fam­ily of feral horses, lo­cally known as “marsh tack­ies,” en­joys a gen­tle morn­ing breeze on a Cum­ber­land Is­land beach (top). A pod of dol­phins led us into Was­saw Creek (right). Sandy beaches and dunes stretch for miles on the At­lantic shores of...

The Carne­gies’ Plum Or­chard man­sion on Cum­ber­land Is­land re­cently re­ceived a face-lift and is open to vis­i­tors (top left). Big tidal ranges in Ge­or­gia can turn go­ing ashore into a scram­ble (top right). An ac­tive fleet of shrimp trawlers home-ports in...

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