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After unloading at the landing, I watched the immense turnip-shaped buoy in the channel. When it stopped trying to rip free and head inland, that was my cue that the tide was ebbing. The day’s plan was to ride the outgoing tide to Cumberland Island, comb the beaches near low tide, then ride the flood tide back to St. Marys. A stiff wind was expected to blow out to sea all day long, so the return was guaranteed to suck. But after driving 650 miles with my kayak on the roof of the car, I was willing to fight the wind.
But I wasn’t willing to fight the tide. The anonymous day-trip report from the Cumberland Island (FL side) warned of the strong tides on the St. Marys River, which at 6’ exceed any we see up north in the Chesapeake Bay. Days before, I had been at a physics conference a short distance to the south in Jacksonville, FL. Between talks on Gravity Probe B and how neutrinos really oscillate, I stared out the windows of the hotel and muttered obscenities as I watched the St. Johns River stream past at over 4 mph, then change direction and do it again. These southeast tides are really something.
I headed downriver in sunny weather marred only by a veil of smoke from distant wildfires. The 70 degree F water had only 8” visibility and was as salty as the ocean. St. Marys isn’t very big where it touches the waterfront, so after passing several docked large boats and ferries, I had already left the town behind and entered the marshes.
The river makes one long loop before straightening out and heading due east. Where other rivers might have sand bars edging the marshes, here there were bars of white oyster shells. The steep beaches in this area bring to mind the proverbial strapless evening gown: what holds them up? I suspect the shells provide a little carbonate backbone.
The ferry boat passed me on its way to the island, then a National Park Service boat carrying employees. To the north, a factory stuck smokestacks into the air. I don’t think all factories are necessarily evil or ugly, but this one looks like the Chernobyl “after” picture.
After passing the North River, I paddled past the marshy borders of Point Peter which lies at the end of a bench of higher ground. Spreading live oaks draped with Spanish moss give it a park-like appearance. I’ll never get over Spanish moss: it’s too photogenic to happen without elves to hang and trim it during the night.
Visibility increased to 5’ as I approached Cumberland Sound. Paddling close to the marshy shoreline, a football-sized snout surfaced in front of me, exhaled loudly, inhaled, and submerged in all of two seconds. When I had collected my wits, I watched the enormous gray manatee swim beneath my kayak. The upstroke of his large, paddle-shaped tail left 4’ diameter pads of disturbed water on the surface. According to the sign at the landing, manatees feed on the spartina grass which they can only reach near high tide. This manatee was an early season arrival; the water was still on the cool side.
I took a short break at an oyster bar near the mouth of Point Peter Creek. Tough, half-submerged saltwort grew along the shoreline; easier to photograph than a surprised manatee. This bar is a good location to get an overview of Cumberland Sound and compare your maps with ground truth. It’s a beautiful but rather complicated area, which you can reduce to two check-boxes: Cumberland Island lies due east, and (for the return trip) the nearby shoal marker lies at the mouth of the St. Marys River.
It’s a 2 mile open water crossing from the shoal marker to the back side of Cumberland Island. Between the changing tide, wind, power boat wakes, and big ocean swells slipping through the inlet, the waters were as confused as the thighs on a fat jogger. Although conditions were relatively harmless, it gave me the opportunity to mutter my open-water kayaking mantra: “If this is a good day, I don’t want to be here on a bad day. If this is a good day, …”
At the entrance to the shipping channel, part of the Intracoastal Waterway, I chickened out and waited 10 minutes for a trawler and a sailboat to pass. Once I entered the deeper water, the tide began slipping me toward the inlet. The slippage increased dramatically as I drew near the mouth of Bench Creek on the back side of Cumberland Island. After a little energetic paddling, I made landfall a hundred yards south of the mouth of the creek. It’s a pretty stretch, with a picturesque, shelly beach backed by palms and small live oaks. Offshore, three powerboats were fishing the outgoing tide.
Sound-side, the seashells were mostly estuary residents like oysters and clams, with a few worn marine shells and dead horseshoe crabs. The oyster spat seem to be prolific here, completely covering old knobbed whelk shells. A wet leg bone as thick as my wrist stuck out of the sand. Since manatees don’t have legs, this confused me until I found scattered piles of horse poop. It was an interesting place, and I’d love to explore Bench Creek some day, but for better shelling I would have to get closer to the Atlantic side.
In front of a beach backed by marsh, the falling tide had exposed oyster beds. If you can imagine planting the razor-sharp lids of a bunch of tin cans in loose clusters, that’s the right mental picture. They are usually easy to avoid because they occur in clumps, wherever they happen to find a hard substrate.
Working my way toward the inlet, a small hill of dark rocks flashed in the sunlight. The rocks were so full of mica, they had turned this section into a jewel box. And a strange and beautiful collection of rocks they were, made of large crystals of granite minerals like quartz, flashing mica, white feldspar, and shiny black hornblende. These rocks don’t occur naturally on the Atlantic coastal plain. Although I’d like to know how they got here, the island has so many historical piss marks on it (Spanish, British, plantation owners, Carnegies, etc.) that it might take a real history buff to track it down. Me, I’m just an opportunistic collector of rocks below the mean high tide line.
From the rock pile, I could see a herd of wild horses a quarter mile down the beach. When I reached them, the horses and single foal weren’t particularly shy and allowed me to take pictures from the surf. Winter in Georgia hadn’t been too hard on them. Not wanting to mess with large beasts that can kick me dead, I continued, passing another horse. This one was alone, skinny, and gray. After locating a spot with absolutely no grass, I dragged my kayak well above the descending water line and threw the anchor. The gray horse appeared to ignore me from 100 yards away; but with eyes on the sides of their heads, they don’t miss much.
It was time to go shelling. Gathering my backpack, plenty of water, and fully expecting to return to find my Prowler 13 turned into a urinal by a herd of misanthropic horses, I marched off along the beach toward the Atlantic Ocean.
It didn’t take long to find a treasure trove of shells. In the dry sand far above the high tide line, shells washed onto the island during powerful storms were being exposed by the wind. You can find perfect huge specimens of Giant Atlantic Cockles, Incongruous Arcs, various whelks, etc. Specimens in the wet sandy areas are less worn but much less common.
Even springtime is hot in Georgia. When I packed for the trip, I’d forgotten my swimming trunks. I wasn’t feeling eccentric enough to drop my Farmer Johns and walk down the deserted beach in my underwear. So, on one of many side trips to cool off in the water, I found a large, live lightning whelk (the left-handed ones). He partially shut the door on me, as if too full from lunch, and I put him back. Channeled whelk shells can also be found, but the knobbed whelk is by far the most common. In some places the wet sand is striped pink. At first I thought my eyes were dazzled by the sun, but it must be from all the powdered shells.
As I approached the jetty projecting into the Atlantic Ocean, I started finding delicate pen shells and large, pink barnacles. Low tide had arrived, and the sand flats extended for half a mile. Most critters had found safety, but a few were trapped in small pools of warming, deoxygenated water. If you’ve ever tried and failed to pick up a blue crab by the carapace near the rear legs, you know why I left that little cuss for the seagulls. But I picked up an enormous horseshoe crab and staggered with her to the shore; we have a toilet seat in our house that’s smaller. Decorated with a small sponge and an oyster spat, she looked old and seemed very upset that I didn’t leave her to die. Although they are one of the most harmless creatures in the world, the bristly underside of one of these twisting, pinching, spidery things is a real test of the power of intellect over arachnophobia.
Near the jetty, there were several other groups of people. Three people had hiked down from Sea Camp, an island resident had driven his pickup down the sand to do some surf fishing, and another three people were beach-combing on the long gravel bar inside of the jetty. We all had plenty of elbow room, and I only passed close enough to chat with the folks from Sea Camp.
The aerial photos I’d seen of the Cumberland Island Atlantic surf were generally intimidating, but it was quite calm. Hot and tired, I sat on the cool sand, had a snack, and finished most of my water. To the north was an enormous stretch of glaring white beach without any evidence of humans or their works. I felt proud that this was a National Seashore. Unlike large sections of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, access to the beach wasn’t effectively blocked by miles of second “homes” rented out to vacationers with the rest of us subsidizing the flood insurance. Then I hiked back.
The horses hadn’t bothered my kayak, perhaps because they’d seen the leg-bone I left sticking out of the tank well. But my kayak was now stranded over a hundred yards from the water. Though I’d finished most of my snacks and water, it was still heavy with shells and other souvenirs. I thought I was prepared for the drag down the shoreline, but I was wrong. At first, my leg sunk in to the calf on every 5th step. But by the time I got close to the water, both feet were sinking in that far, and dragging the boat only pushed me deeper. It was exhausting and I was close to tears of frustration. And to my embarrassment, a powerboat crowded with a large family was slowly creeping past the shoreline, apparently deeply concerned about my plight. When I finally reached shore with both boots, I turned to wave … only to find that they’d been watching a pair of dolphins the whole time.
Pissed that I had used up a deep reserve of energy I needed to fight the headwind, I collapsed and watched the dolphins languidly swimming into the Sound. If you ignore all the distant smokestacks which must be the Georgia State Tree, the Sound is really gorgeous. Historical Ft. Clinch is just across the inlet in Florida, the white sandy beaches of Little Tiger and Tiger Island beckoned, and there are marshes near the mouth of the St. Marys River. In the clear air, everything looked so close and I resolved to stop by Little Tiger Island on the way back.
But once I had cast the jinx, the wind changed. In only 10 minutes the smoke thickened until I couldn’t see my landmark across the Sound. The mouth of the St. Marys River had disappeared.
This was a bit of natural Georgia I could have happily missed. A combination of low humidity, drought, and winds had fed serious wildfires near Okefenokee NWR. People would lose their homes before it was over. After panicking for a few minutes, I started crossing the Sound on a compass heading west toward Tiger Island. This route offered the lame comfort of crossing the Sound from buoy to buoy, and the incoming tide would push me toward the mouth of the St. Marys River. It was worth a try anyway. Sunset wouldn’t wait.
The crossing was surreal. Despite the headwind, the seas were surprisingly moderate. The limited visibility was actually comforting, with none of that feeling of vulnerability of too much open water. Thankfully, there was no power boat traffic. Silent, dark grey dolphins surfaced in slow motion, rolled, and seemed to take forever to submerge their black tails. The smoke burned my throat and turned the mid-afternoon sun a pale red, a sun you could stare at for seconds without being dazzled, a sun that shone over Troy after it was sacked.
Paddling past Tiger Island, it appeared to consist of several hundred yards of sand flats fronting another low embankment of oyster shells and sand. Few to no trees. My notes say “ugly” but my impressions were probably colored by the wind, smoke, and the fear of getting bogged down again. On the map, the mouth of the Jolly River looked like a significant stretch of open water, but at this low tide it was only a short paddle from one sand flat to another.
It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into this morning, but I was annoyed the wind had increased to 15 mph, with even higher gusts. Once past Tiger Island and fully exposed, a little old lady with a bad hip could have outpaced me using her walker. My slow pace didn’t depress me since I knew the incoming tide was strengthening, and the headwind would probably decay as dusk approached. I even contemplated making landfall for an hour and finishing the rest of the Pringles. But that would entail too much risk of returning to St. Marys with an LED flashlight clenched between my teeth.
In the loop before the town of St. Marys, dolphins and anchored power boats were fishing. As I crossed the channel, two small orange and metal Coast Guard boats came around the corner at 50 mph, one behind the other. I paddled like hell, but the lead Coast Guard boat didn’t swing away from me, so I fatalistically stuck my paddle in the air and waved it until they finally changed course. I hope they were on official business, and that each boat was carrying a fresh kidney in an ice-chest or something.
Back at the landing I chatted with some fisherman who had returned minutes ahead of me. Real nice guys, even if I had trouble understanding them. One fellow told me he and his wife had caught a bunch of fish “where those boats went past us”. I said, “Do you mean those Coast Guard assholes?”. He stared at me two full seconds (Georgians are probably better bred than Virginians), then said, “Yep”. Another asked if I’d seen any animals. Misunderstanding, I told him about the manatee and the dolphins. He chortled, saying he’d seen a dead alligator upriver that was as long as my kayak. If the alligator had been alive, I would have assumed it was a fish-tale. But he had plenty of time to study a dead one.
As I drove north on I-95 looking for a hotel, I could see a long, low anvil of smoke from the fire. The cloud was raining ash.
The described trip was 13 miles of paddling and 3 miles of hiking in 8.5 hours. Although I barely scratched the surface of Cumberland Island on this one day trip, I think this is a destination of great regional and perhaps national interest for scenery, wildlife, and shelling. I’d love to explore more of the island some day, but it’s so damn BIG. For example, if you wanted to circumnavigate the island, leaving time for exploring and setting up campsites, waiting for the right tides and getting a little lost in the maze of channels on the Sound side, you should be prepared for a 50 mile trip lasting 3 or more days.
If you park your kayak, do so above the high tide line and tie it off. Avoid silty areas near the mouths of creeks. If you have a choice, drag it up a steep beach rather than a wide sand flat; a few feet of “quickish” sand are better than 100 yards of it.
There is another well-marked boat landing in St. Marys on the North River, right next to the devastated-looking factory. However, it has no services, and is a pretty isolated place to be leaving a car overnight. But if the landing in downtown St. Marys is too busy or there’s no parking left, this is your alternate.
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