I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as we boarded the ferry that would carry us across the water to the secluded land mass known as Cumberland Island. Certainly, t he idea of backpacking a 10 mile long island off the coast of Georgia was intriguing, but furthermore the fact that I knew very little about the location was what really had my imagination stirring. 45 minutes of sailing through the frigid winds above the choppy waters and the destination was in plain sight, and I still didn’t know what I was looking at. Beautiful palms lined the beaches, hinting at deep forest and vegetation, shivering with wildlife.
Cumberland Island is cut off from all roads, so taking a boat is your only option. This is part of the allure. As I stepped off the boat, pack on my back, I had my first glimpse of my home for the next week. The first thing I saw was a wild horse walking by a palm tree, munching on the green grassy field beneath him. This was going to be fun.
The group totaled 5, a unique patch of people for sure. For the first time the men were outnumber by the women, and it made for a refreshing change of tempo. This wasn’t our first trip together, and the island would offer great time to bond and share stories and food.
Checking in at the ranger station, we discovered we were in for an extra, unexpected day. The ferry runs on a schedule, and the island is strictly regulated by how man people can get on and off the island. This is great, as it protects the wilderness experience, however, we had miss planned and happened to be a day short on food. Thankfully, we pack lots of snacks, and with a little creativity, we would hopefully be just fine.
We hit the trail with pep in our step. Weighted heavily with a weeks worth of food, and two days worth of water, I could feel my arches whispering harsh tones under my boots pretty early, but I didn’t mind.
We quickly found our way a few miles south on the lowest end of the island. Here lay some beautiful ruins of an old mansion left in rubble after an old fire brought it to the earth. Shortly after, the island would be preserved and no more development would be done, leaving the ruins in place. We took photos, had lunch, and proceeded to the eastern most side of the island. Here, we were greeted by huge sand dunes, easily two stories tall, and the cool gushing winds of the Atlantic as our eyes met the crashing waves of the ocean.
We hiked along the ocean using the sands as our boardwalk. This particular day greeted us with a constant blasting wind to our faces. The air was cold, despite the temperatures being in the 60’s. Mile after mile, we traversed the long island making our way to our first camping position, which was still about 6 miles away.
Along the way, we managed to find a beach hammerhead shark! Being the loving people we are, we carefully helped his man-eating self back into the ocean. Perhaps he’ll pass the word on to his friends that we’re not that bad after all, or at least not that tasty. Proper karma set, we proceeded to make our way along the long trail.
This is where things, for me at least, started to go wrong. Perhaps I had under anticipated the island. Perhaps I had over anticipated myself, but my heavy (around 30 pounds) pack had started to have a huge impact on my feet. Combine this with the sand, slowly lurching into my boots, and the wind pushing me back, and I was already developing blisters. About 4 miles across the tidal concreted sand, and I was in real pain. I began to slow down, but continued anyway. I was a bit stubborn I’ll admit, as I should have stopped to treat my feet early, but I didn’t.
I’m a little hazy on this point, but 8 or 9 miles in, and we finally made it to the dune cross that lead into the jungle, and a mile or so later we made it to our camp, “Yankee Paradise” as it was referred to on the map. The site was beautiful, but I was having trouble enjoying it. By now, I was in a lot of pain. My feet had never hurt like this, even on 30+mile treks. It must have been the sand, or perhaps my socks were finally wearing out.
I unlaced my boots, and peeled my socks off, and also peeled off some foot. I had worn completely through the skin on the bend of my foot, and the other foot already had two massive blisters. I’ll admit, I was a bit startled, but mostly kept it to myself. I patched up, set up camp, and proceeded to forget all about it as I cooked up dinner, knowing that I was on the sandy floor of a deep jungle on my own little island. I was content.
The night before was chilly, but refreshing. I slept like a champ, and was eager to experience more of the island. My feet, somehow, felt great. After breakfast we packed our day supplies, leaving camp intact, and headed into the woods with the intention to explore a mansion that still stood on the island on the western side. You could go there, fill up on drinkable water, and even take tours of the mansion.
We began to walk. Chipper was our attitudes, and our body’s were ready for another long day. My body had other plans. About a mile in, and my feet were burning. Apparently that long nights sleep hadn’t helped as much as I thought. 2 miles in we arrived at the mansion, and I had a limp. The pain was severe, easily besting yesterdays trial. I filled up with water, and was forced to make a hard decision. Did I walk through the pain, see the itinerary for the day, and possibly injure myself further, or should fall back from the group, head back to camp, and try to heal up for the next day.
I made a decision, I would head it alone a few miles back to camp. Tomorrows adventures held more interests for me, and I’d rather not be bleeding the entire trip. It turned out to the good decision. By the time I made it back to camp I was barely moving. Luckily my stubbornness didn’t get the best of me. I patched up my feet again. This time, I had to pull the sock out of my foot. It wasn’t pretty. I cleaned and bandaged it up with dressings and alcohol. The rest of my day was spent in a hammock with a good book to myself. The group proceeded north to explore a peninsula that overlooked the marshlands. I didn’t let it bother me that I was at camp alone. I took the time to listen to the unique wildlife chattering around me, plowed through a few chapters, and had a great nap in the warm sun.
The group was late, very late. I was starting to get worried when they hit the 5 hour mark. They finally arrived back at camp just before the sun fell behind the palms. The remainder of the night was enjoyed thoroughly. My spirits were high, and after a days worth of rest I was feeling confident that my feet could handle the next day. Night fell with a wonderful cool blanket that lulled me into on of the best backcountry sleeps I’d ever had. 10 hours later I would awaken, prepared for a better day.
Sun shafts cut through the Spanish moss laden trees, and tiptoed across the vestibule of my tent to nudge me out of slumber. The day began with a heaping treat of sweetened grits ( a local favorite). Just what I needed to fuel our next trek. We packed up camp and headed north, along the parallel trail. Along the way, we kept an eye out for the many armadillos that carelessly dug at the duff for food. My feet were doing much better, with only minor pain. My judgement proved to be sound. We finally arrived at the northern most camp of the island. A beautiful river front view marked my destiny for the night.
We set up camp, and watched the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The sun set behind the grassy marsh in the distant, casting it’s glow across the rippling waves crashing up the shore just in front of our tents. Dolphins danced across the waves underneath the flaming clouds, and sail boats slowly drifted by in the backdrop. I felt like I was looking into a panting. “No one will ever believe this” one companion stated, as a wild horse and pony walked into camp, seemingly to join us for the rare sight.
Things were certainly looking up.
Rain. Imagine that. I awoke to the pitter patter of rain drops and thunder rolling through my tent. “fair enough”, I thought to myself as I crawled into the rain to retrieve my morning nourishment. I cooked breakfast under the vestibule, carefully mind you, and enjoyed the presence of the cooling rain. I’ve always had a thing for the sound of rain on my tent, and I took this as the perfect opportunity to crawl back into my sleeping bag for some rest. Luckily, the rain stopped shortly after and we were able to head out on today’s adventure dry.
Today’s goal? Seashells. Cumberland Island allows you to bring home certain trinkets, seashells, sharks teeth, and sand dollars all included. We made our way east, across the sand dunes and back on the sandy beaches in the northern beach front. Here, it’s easily a 10 mile hike from the drop point of the island, so it’s mostly undisturbed. A perfect place for collecting, and collect we did.
The beach was littered with items. Horseshoe crabs, sand dollars, spiraling shells, and much more littered the beach. Thanks to careful planning, we had mesh bags just for the occasion, and filled them up. Our loot was bountiful and glorious, yet we hadn’t discovered that famous sharks tooth. Eventually, we ran out of beach and had to head back west along the boundary of the wilderness area. My feet began to act up again, and I was once again limping along. Trying to ignore it, I kept moving and focused on a few goals. Dinner, and camp.
We stopped on an old service road at the edge of another trail, signaling our last few miles back to camp. The area had obviously been victim to a fairly recent burn. Perhaps the reason for the campfire ban on the island. Unexpectedly, we found a sharks tooth in the gravel of the road. It seemed they had built the road up above the marshy surroundings using marine deposits. Lucky find for us, and to think, we had just about given up on that fabled sharks tooth.
It got a little bit chilly last night, probably dipping at or below 40. I didn’t mind, as I had a companion to keep me warm when the nights claws cut a little too deep. Part way through the night, staring through half unzipped vestibule I was greeted with a funny sight. A medium sized armadillo repeated poked his little head up, peering through the vestibule opening (unzipped from the top). Side to side, I would see his little head bob up, take a quick peak, and vanish. Somewhat like an inverted pendulum, he swung back and forth a few times before he decided I didn’t have any food. I couldn’t help but chuckle, as the little guy was adorable. Only later did I know he managed to snag a delicious granola bar right out of the backpack from Hippie Chick. She’ll hang those snacks next time I guess.
Mid night, I was slapped into consciousness by the sound of a rearing horse right by my tent, but I could have sworn it’s head was inside by the sound. I don’t know exactly what scared the guy, or why he was hanging by the tent, but I have a feeling it was our little armadillo friend, Dillard, as I call him. Later I considered he was probably trying to pick my food bag out of the nearby hanging tree.
Today, we would begin the trip back south, and further explore some more of the island. We made the decision to split up. Squirrel (my personal companion)and myself would continue south, while Hippie Chick and the others would backtrack just a tad, and take another swipe at the beach for some more shell foraging action.
We headed south as planned, exploring the forks along the parallel trail on the way. We managed to get slightly off course along the way, happily, as we found ourselves walking cautiously across a boardwalk made of two 2×4’s side by side, dangling suspiciously over seemingly alligator infested swamp. It was creepy to say the least, but that’s what made it fun. We slipped through quietly, hoping to catch a gimps of a large hungry reptile. We kept talking about how the area was perfect for an alligator. All one would have to do is wait along the board, in the water, and snap up delicious man snacks throughout the day. At one point, a massive (massive) bird flew out of the woods right beside the boardwalk and scared me quite thoroughly. I just knew I was eaten. We finally made it to the end of the walk, and realized we were heading the wrong way (go compass ), and had to do it all over again.
Finally, we made it to our final camp. Stafford beach was just off the westward coast, a simple hop to the beach. This camp just happened to be one of the more luxurious camp sites, with a water source and even a cold shower, a nice change of pace after a long multi-day trek. I took advantage of the frigid shower the best I could, spritzing myself while cowering in the corner, freezing my butt off. It was ever so refreshing to finally be completely clean. Baby wipes will only get you so far.
The other group finally managed to catch up with us, and we partied the night away (cookies and hot cocoa! We party hard…). The local wildlife, ever persistent possums decided to join us. We weren’t even in our tents and the critters, fat and obviously well fed, were invading. Tiny mice that hid in the tree that Hippie Chick was hammock camping in turned out to be the highlight of the evening, putting on quite the show of hide and seek. Adorable little guys running in circles within the hollowed out tree.
Day 6, final day
Day 6 didn’t go so well for most of us. We thought we would catch the 2:00 ferry, and maul the nearest burger joint. However, the sulfur water from a questionable well and sun burns caught up with some of the group and slowed progress to a crawl. A roll of toilet paper, some Pepto-Bismol tablets and a tube of sunblock later, we were back on the trail. We ended up missing the ferry by about a half hour, but luckily the final ferry was only a few hours away. We enjoyed the sun and beach for a few more hours, and departed like we owned the place.
Watching the island float away brought mixed feelings. On one hand, fresh food and sweet tea awaited our arrival back in civilization. A hot shower sounded amazing, and a real bed certainly was a tantalizing proposition. On the other hand, we just spent an entire week getting to know a new friend, and the gap was widening. Part of me felt like I was still back on that island, waiting for the rest of me to come back. Perhaps one day I will.