The Is­land that Time For­got


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Only a short cruise from main­land Ge­or­gia, Cum­ber­land Is­land is full of mys­te­ri­ous Gilded Age ru­ins and wild horses.

Ev­ery for­est holds a se­cret. Some se­crets are mun­dane, or only im­por­tant to a few peo­ple: a tree tat­tooed with a heart-shaped equa­tion, a de­faced rock scrawled with graf­fiti. Other se­crets are ex­pan­sive, crack­ling with im­me­di­ate en­ergy—like a for­est trail newly dis­cov­ered on an early morn­ing run, fog lift­ing from its floor. Ev­ery for­est holds a se­cret. Cum­ber­land Is­land’s live oak trees seem to whis­per such truths to me as I catch my­self deep in thought, star­ing up into the web-like canopy of dense, twisted, Span­ish moss-cov­ered limbs that reach for the over­cast sky as the path winds its way to the beach.

How did we get here? It’s easy to for­get that we had come by way of Capt. Bill Pike’s lov­ingly re­stored Cape Dory 28 Fly­bridge and not tele­ported here af­ter pil­ing into a mag­i­cal wardrobe. Cum­ber­land Is­land, the long­est and south­ern­most of Ge­or­gia’s Golden Isles—also the wed­ding site of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1996—is only a short boat trip from the main­land, but it might as well be a fairy­tale land. Herds of horses run wild across marsh­land. Crum­bling ru­ins strain against the test of time. Sea tur­tles nest along 18 miles of shore­line and ar­madil­los for­age for food be­side dirt roads.

What hu­man­ity has built here, na­ture is do­ing its best to re­claim. There is hardly any man­made struc­ture: no bridges or paved roads, stores or beach­front prop­erty. Much of the is­land now be­longs to the Cum­ber­land Is­land Na­tional Seashore, pub­licly rec­og­nized land ad­min­is­tered by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice (NPS). Vis­i­tors can only ac­cess the is­land by boat, and the vast ma­jor­ity are de­posited by ferry twice a day from St. Marys, Ge­or­gia. But here’s the catch: Only about 300 peo­ple can visit each day, due to the max­i­mum ca­pac­ity of the ferry. This makes Cum­ber­land Is­land the ideal es­cape for boaters look­ing to take in na­ture in its purest form.

Re­dis­cov­er­ing na­ture is one thing, though; sur­viv­ing na­ture is a dif­fer­ent story. We—my­self, Bill, Ed­i­tor-in-Chief Dan Hard­ing and Digital Di­rec­tor John Turner—had as­sumed we would spend the night at one of the des­ig­nated camp­sites, a long two-mile hike in­land. But the weather (thank­fully) had other ideas. Dock­ing Bill’s Cape Dory 28, the fa­mous

Betty Jane II, at the Sea Camp Dock—an open-faced struc­ture at the nar­row­est part of the is­land, to the south—we tie up be­side the ferry. (There are three dif­fer­ent docks avail­able for pub­lic ac­cess on a first come, first served ba­sis, but re­cent hur­ri­canes have made some of them in­ac­ces­si­ble. My ad­vice? Check with the NPS be­fore cruis­ing here.)

“I think, in gen­eral, pri­vate boat­ing is a great way to see the is­land,” says Ni­cholas Roll, a Cum­ber­land Is­land park ranger and guide, whom I spoke with af­ter our cruise. Roll has been work­ing for the NPS for 11 years and at Cum­ber­land Is­land for three years. He knows the is­land in­side and out. “The most stress­ful part for most vis­i­tors is mak­ing sure they get to the ferry on time.” While we don’t have to worry about the ferry leav­ing us be­hind, a thun­der­clap rum­bles in the dis­tance.

Our plans suf­fi­ciently change. In­stead of camp­ing, we take a day to tour the is­land’s well-trod­den 6-mile south­ern loop, see­ing the var­ied ecosys­tems along the way: forests, beaches, marsh-

land. We re­trace the foot­prints of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, mis­sion­ar­ies, slaves and wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ists—or what amounts to over 4,000 years of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion with the is­land, now pre­served as park­land. In that time, the is­land has gained many names: Ta­cat­acuru, San Pe­dro, the De­bat­able Land, the High­land, Cum­ber­land. Worlds within worlds, fall­ing back­wards into his­tory.

Step­ping onto the beach at low tide, we are one of only a few groups of vis­i­tors stum­bling across what feels like a pri­mor­dial world. The beach, wide and long, has re­turned to a state that is, for the most part, en­tirely un­blem­ished by the de­tri­tus of civ­i­liza­tion. The only thing alien that has washed up on the is­land is … us. Even our foot­prints look for­eign here. As I turn to look back at the way we’ve come, I watch as they are hastily re­claimed by a rav­en­ous tide.

It’s there, on the beach, that three of the is­land’s Houy­hnhn­m­like denizens re­gard us with mild cu­rios­ity. A sire and dam graze lan­guidly on the dunes as, close by, their filly lies undis­turbed in the sand. We scram­ble for our cam­eras. While let­ters place horses on the is­land as far back as 1597 (brought here by the Span­ish), it’s only dur­ing World War II, when the is­land was prac­ti­cally de­serted, that they were left to roam free. Be­fore us are the de­scen­dants of gen­er­a­tions of horses that have never been vac­ci­nated or sad­dled. The NPS tracks what is now a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring pop­u­la­tion, which hov­ers around 150 each year.

Most vis­i­tors—us in­cluded—find the sight of horses graz­ing on sand dunes to be in­con­gru­ous. In putting to­gether Wild Horses of

Cum­ber­land Is­land, Anouk Mas­son Krantz vis­ited the is­land mul­ti­ple times over the course of 10 years, of­ten­times lug­ging her cam­era equip­ment for miles. Her ef­forts were re­warded, as she was able to cap­ture the daily lives of one of the most cel­e­brated, if mis­un­der­stood, an­i­mals on the is­land. One of her pho­tos, “Placid, 2011” de­picts a scene that is play­ing out be­fore our eyes: Three dream­like, hooved crea­tures stand like sen­tinels in the sand.

As Krantz tells it: “It was a mo­ment where I was on the beach, it was low tide. I was walk­ing north, and I stopped to have some wa­ter or some­thing like that, and sud­denly I could feel a pres­ence be­hind me. I turned around and they were just right there look­ing at me. And I was like, ‘OK, there’s no one else here—it’s just us.” Such mag­i­cal mo­ments seem to be a part of the is­land’s mag­netic pull. (Though one can­not help but won­der how dif­fi­cult a life it is for large grass­land an­i­mals that are ill-suited to a coastal ecosys­tem.)

Mak­ing our way back in­land, we come across the is­land’s most im­pres­sive fea­ture: the Dun­geness ru­ins. We see them just as the sun pokes its way through the clouds and il­lu­mi­nates the fallen glory of a Gilded Age man­sion. Built in 1884, the es­tate was owned by Thomas Carnegie, the younger brother of steel mag­nate An­drew Carnegie. Thomas and his wife, Lucy Cole­man, built the man­sion af­ter pur­chas­ing over 90 per­cent of the is­land. Ev­ery­thing—from the façade and cathe­dral glass to the wood­work, ce­ment and mar­ble floors—was con­structed in an­other lo­ca­tion and shipped here. All told, it took a year to trans­port ev­ery­thing down and build the en­tire prop­erty. In its hey­day, Dun­geness spanned 35,000 square feet and had 59 rooms. There, the Carne­gies had all sorts of recre­ation at their fin­ger­tips, in­clud­ing swim­ming pools, ten­nis and squash courts and acres to hunt all man­ner of game. And they hosted par­ties that would ri­val those held by Jay Gatsby.

To­day, wind whis­tles through the open foyer and what was the din­ing room. Though the es­tate looks like it’s been ripped apart by Tomahawk mis­siles, leg­end has it that a hunter had a dis­pute with one of the Dun­geness game keep­ers. Shortly af­ter the quar­rel took place, the Cum­ber­land Is­land mail­boat was shot up with bul­lets and lit on fire; it par­tially sank by the jetty. A short while later the man­sion bursts into flames. Co­in­ci­dence?

“Like so many things with this is­land, Dun­geness has such a big his­tory,” says Roll. “A lot of sto­ries are word of mouth, but there may not be a lot of his­tory to back them up.” (Since a mail­boat was at­tacked, the FBI came down to in­ves­ti­gate and, ac­cord­ing to Roll, no one was ever charged with either crime.)

Leav­ing the mys­ter­ies of the is­land in our wake, we watch as herds of horses gal­lop around the ru­ins. It’s easy to for­get where we are—and how close we are to, say, Fer­nan­d­ina Beach and civ­i­liza­tion. Over the course of the day, I’ve been hear­ing about how this place—this Edenic is­land en­cased in am­ber—has been an es­cape, for the pho­tog­ra­pher, for the wealthy ty­coons and now for us. It’s a se­cret worth shar­ing.

Horses graz­ing on sand dunes? It’s part of Cum­ber­land Is­land’s charm.

The is­land can ac­com­mo­date fer­ries and recre­ational boats, in­clud­ing our Cape Dory 28 Fly­bridge (above). The crew heads to­ward ad­ven­ture in the live oak for­est (op­po­site).

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