Cumberland Island National Seashore

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A Mare and her colt taking a stroll on a warm breezy day 

With our summer job position secured at West Hill Dam in Uxbridge, Ma, we are merrily along our way taking a slow mosey up to New England and seeing some sights along the way. Arnie has mapped out a route that will allow us to take in some beautiful natural places and also leave enough time for Chance Encounters. We hope you enjoy traveling along with us through this blog.

The first night was spent in Woodbine. Georgia at Walkabout Camp. This is a small family owned facility that the Kilner family is re-habing, so there are a few glitches here and there to be worked out, but generally is a decent stopping off point. I am really hoping that Cracker, our African Grey traveling companion, does not pick up the squeals from the family’s two pot belly pigs who are penned not too far from our site. In the afternoon, the campgrounds large flock of chickens are let loose to roam free. Yesterday, we were treated to them swarming our campsite, clucking and scratching holes in the sand to take messy dust baths just outside the door. They are hungry and bold and they made me laugh when I tried to video them and they saw themselves in the iPad screen. Eggs from the flock are $3.50 a dozen.

We were up early the first morning, got the dogs fed, walked and squared away for the day and then set off to take the ferry over to Cumberland Island National Seashore. Driving through St. Marys, Ga to get there is a treat. It is a quaint, tidy fishing town that caters to the tourists who come to explore this National Park. The houses are beautifully kept and we enjoyed seeing the little white church. It is a quiet little escape for the tourists who come to see the island.

Examples of some beautiful St. Mary’s architecture

The tourists are an eclectic mix of day trippers, hikers and die-hard granola heads who are headed over to the 36,800 acres of wild barrier island that is protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Many who come to visit this island today are the children of the sixties generation of hippie nature lovers (like us) who supported this act. They come to enjoy the results of the advocacy of their parents and bring their own children to learn from this place. We had a delightful Chance Encounter with a family who was just finishing up their spring break and headed back to Mass themselves. They had been primitive camping all week and were sporting Red Sox hats and shirts from home. The little boy who was eight was still excited by the fact that one of the herds of feral horses that populate the island had visited them the last evening, milling about, whinnying and stomping just outside the campsite. This is a memory he will have the rest of his life!

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All aboard the Cumberland Lady for the 45 minute ride over to the island. When you arrive, visitors are welcome to explore on their own, but one of the most intimate ways available to visitors to learn about the island is to tag along with a Ranger on a walking tour. There were only five of us who chose this option, so we had a wonderful tour with a very knowledgeable young man whose career as a Ranger with the National Park Service has taken him and his wife all over the country. He will be at Cumberland for the next year and had really done his homework. He’s a history buff, so he was full of details on the role of this strategic island during the Civil War. He’s also a natural storyteller, so his descriptions of the history of Carnegie family ownership and occupation was as good as any episode of Downton Abbey!

The ferry approaches from St Mary’s and as you near the island, you pass by the tidal creeks that weave through the marsh. The tide was in when we arrived and out when we left. When the tide is in, it looks like the biblical River of Grass, swaying with the current and making it difficult to tell grass from water. With the tide out, marshes look like broad, tall-grass plains with an array of birds wading and feeding at the creek banks. Fiddler crabs scurry across the mud flats and eat the decaying vegetation. This habitat will support raccoons and other uplands animals who, later in the day, will come down to feed on the crabs and shellfish.

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By their very nature, barrier islands are always moving and being changed by the shifting tides, seas and water. They form dynamic lines of sand just off the coastline, running parallel protection for the mainland when storm surge threatens. It is humbling to remember that we left footprints in the sand today, but Mother nature will erase any trace of our being there and reconfigure the beach tomorrow.

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Arriving at the dock, we could see that the marshes give way to the beach habitat. I love to watch the Sandpipers flit back and forth, dancing with the rhythm of the advancing and retreating waves. Visitors are allowed to swim, but the temperature today was a deterrent. It was not the ankle aching frigid water that we loved in Maine as children, but it was nippy enough to not be too tempting to us. Besides, the conditions were ideal for exploring; some cloud cover along with a soft ocean breeze that kissed a day in the high seventies. Perfectly ideal to set off on a hike to explore a new place. Despite the fact that both our backs were talking to us about loading the camper the day before, we still managed the 3.5 miles with Ranger Nick.

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As the marshes and the beach gave way to higher and drier ground that is washed only at very high tide, we could see the salt tolerant communities give way to plants and animals that are more freshwater loving. This gradation soon melts into trees and the forest begins. Live oaks thrive on Cumberland and a live oak forest’s most striking feature is its solitude. Even the air seems to whisper as it moves over the arching branches. We like to stand very still and look up into the dense canopy of leaves and vines that mute everything. The breeze this day has set the Spanish moss swaying in constant motion. Painted buntings, summer tanagers, cardinals and pileated woodpeckers splash color and a rustling in the underbrush suggests quiet life there too. The island is home to both Timber and Eastern diamondback rattlers as well as cottonmouths, so we did exercise caution where we stepped.

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Live oaks line an old carriage path leading to the summer residences of the Carnegie family.

Flocks of native Eastern Wild Turkey live wild in the park and the males look huge when they puff up. They can weigh up to 30 pounds! They are a sight to behold, strutting under the live oak canopy, enjoying the shade and foraging for seeds and nuts. Further inland there are freshwater ponds that support the herds of deer and horses. We are still far south enough that alligators are native to the island also.

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Of course, such a beautiful place cannot escape the notice of humankind and there has been a notable human imprint. It’s location as well as its attraction has led humans to live on Cumberland Island for thousands of years. Piles of shells (middens) are clues to the early inhabitants, the Timucuan people who are traceless today. Ranger Nick explained that early Spanish activity on Cumberland included expeditions and early missions. As Cumberland became territory of the British, they built defensive positions that are now lost to time. Ranger Nick told tales of the island being the site of the home of revolutionary war hero Nathanael Greene in 1783 who built their estate home named Dungeness.

But by far, the most famous inhabitants were the Carnegie family. Thomas Carnegie, with his wife Lucy, began building on the foundations of Dungeness in 1884. Their mansion’s ruins remain today and are an eerie site. We felt the ruins of the huge mansion looked like a movie set.

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The ruins of the main house

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Feral horses on the pld polo field

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The mansion as it would have appeared in its heyday

The Carnegie family members have donated much of the remaining estate to the National Park Foundation in 1971 to become part of the 1972 creation of the Cumberland Island National Seashore. When it was a thriving summer estate for the family, it employed 200 workers and had servants barracks, kitchen and laundry, a milking parlor that could accommodate 40 head of dairy cattle at a time, stables for thoroughbreds, polo ponies and working horses, an ice house with ice imported from Maine, etc. It was true Victorian excess. And because the Victorians believed that untamed nature was unhealthy, extensive flower and vegetable gardens, manicured lawns, polo fields and tree-lined sand streets brought order to nature’s chaos. Much of the original landscaping remains in testament to the history even though many of the buildings exist only in photos today. Even the Carnegie’s could not sustain such expense over multiple generations. Some far distant relatives who have inherited pieces of the land still remain a residents and there are 10 holdings still in trust that will go to the National Park Service eventually.

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The Ice House which housed ice imported from Maine for the families everyday and entertainment needs.

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The Caretaker’s cottage and office which is made entirely of “tabby”, durable shell and limestone.

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This original safe still sits in the Caretaker’s building on a reinforced concrete pad.

Of special note are the family groups of feral horses. We were surprised to learn that nothing is done to manage them. There is no round-up, no routine vet care and no culling of the herds of any sort. It is left to nature to manage their numbers which stay right around 150 individuals. They are descendants of a few Spanish horses abandoned on the island, mixed with the thoroughbreds and Tennessee Walkers belonging to the Carnegie’s. At one time there were a few American mustangs brought in also, so the current population is a hearty mix of mutts. We were lucky enough to be able to see some of them grazing and lounging around the old polo field by the mansion with their new foals. It is possible, but not advisable to approach them. The Ranger explained that a young woman was airlifted off the island the week before after one of the stallions kicked her. A woman in our group crept away and approached the herd for photos right after hearing this story! Everything on Cumberland is “At your own risk” and I guess she took that literally.

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A family group of feral horses grazing in the near distance on the old polo field in front of the mansion’s ruins.

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Some horses enjoying a dip

Back to the camper after a long day of sun and history, we were greeted by two little dogs who were ready to go out and have their supper. They are such good little travelers and just seem to sleep the whole time we are gone. Cracker was glad to see us too. We will be up early tomorrow to sort out chaos in the camper leftover from loading in a hurry. And then we are planning to go out for two nights on the town to the Woodbine Opry, the real reason for this stop in Woodbine on the journey.

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