A wee walk

A blog about a hike across Scotland (and possibly other things)

Category: Georgia

The next day the conditions outside were even better. We paddled along St. Catherines Island. As with the islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, stretches of the beach were covered with the standing and toppled carcasses of trees–oaks, pines, cedars–that had once been on high ground. The water was calm except for the swell that lifted and dropped us as we paddled along.

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Crossing Sapelo Sound to the north end of Blackbeard Island we saw a lot of butterflies. They were orange and black, but not monarchs or viceroys.   Some had suffered too-close encounters with the water. I picked up one and was surprised to see it was still alive.

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I gave a lift to two butterflies. One rode 10 miles until we got to land, where I put him on a bush. The other resumed his journey once his wings dried.

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This particular day was supposed to be only 16 miles but turned out to be 20.36 miles. We arrived at Raccoon Bluff on Sapelo Island pretty spent. (The cloud of no-see-ums greeting us didn’t help). We spent the night in a campground at Hog Hammock, the only surviving community of five created by freed slaves after the Civil War.

Don had arranged for us to have a Low Country dinner prepared by the cook of the village’s one restaurant, which was normally closed that time of year.  The dinner consisted of gumbo, macaroni & cheese, red rice, fried chicken, two kinds of biscuits (beaten and “cat head”), two kinds of ice tea (plain and sweet), and lemon cake.  It was great.  We didn’t finish anything.  We took some of the leftovers for the road.

The next morning we had an audience with Cornelia Walker Bailey, the resident interpreter of Hog Hammock’s history, in her house next to the community store.  She is the author of a book on the island’s folk life, called “God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia.”

The black residents of the coastal islands are know as the Gullah people, although on Sapelo the preferred term is Geechee.  They’ve interested ethnographers for a century because they’re thought to have had a greater continuity with African folkways and language than most Southern black communities.  The sentence structure of the local dialect (before it was diluted by modern exposure) was considered similar to that of some West African languages.  The tradition of incorporating a prized possession into a person’s grave marker is similar to that of some West African groups.  One thing Ms. Bailey said during the hour-long session suggested this thread is not yet broken.

She’d visited Sierra Leone and bought a book of local folk tales at King Jimmy’s Market in Freetown.  The stories included some she’d heard as a child.  “I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, Mama told me that story, and she couldn’t read or write’, ” she said.  “So how come that story printed in a book in Africa is the same story that Mama told us as we were growing up?  It’s amazing, almost word for word, the story hasn’t changed much at all.”

In recent decades, as younger generations moved off the island and subsistence farming and fishing became less viable, the black people of Sapelo sold most of their waterfront property to white weekenders, some of whom have built large houses on stilts.  Four of the black communities, including Raccoon Bluff where we landed, no longer have any black residents at all (although the church at Raccoon Bluff still exists).  The golden age of Sapelo’s black communities, Ms. Bailey said, was about 15 years after the Civil War.  Black ownership of land was common and the villages were big enough to support schools, midwives, tradesmen.

“It was a happier time, it was a more fulfilled time.  People were not worried about losing their land.  They had just got it and acquired it.  They were comfortable with that.  ‘I’m a landowner.  After being a slave for so many years, I own this piece of ground’. ”

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We left the next morning from Duplin River at the southern end of Sapelo, crossed Doboy Sounds–it’s plural for some reason–into a creek that went through an area of marsh claimed by numerous islands (Wolf, Queens, Rockdedundy).  Once again, we had to keep underway without rest in order to catch the tide.  At this point we were also without the chase boat.  Turney McKnight, whose kind services allowed the trip to be almost luxurious instead of painfully spartan, had headed for home.

We spent the final night on an island made of dredge spoil–a ridge of coarse sand with a decade’s worth of vegetation–on the Intracoastal Waterway just across the Altamaha River.  There was so little firewood that a three-person party went out in the falling light to get some from a neighboring island.

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We had a dinner of pasta with sauce made from materials still left in the cooler–a “chef’s challenge.”  The season had turned.  It was autumn and cold.

The next day was short, cool, overcast, and windy until we turned into the protection of Wilson Creek.  Our destination was Hampton River Marina on Little St. Simons Island.   We got off the Sea Islands just where they became filled with millionaires and golf courses.

Some of the group caught a shuttle to the airport.  The rest of us–six–once more loaded the trailer and the van, climbed in and headed north.  About six hours up the road we stopped and booked three double-occupancy rooms for $49 apiece–a bargain rate that Bob Baugh negotiated with desk clerk when he learned the man had once lived in Maryland.  Before the night was over we’d all gotten new rooms because of problems with the ones we’d been assigned.  Still, a bargain.

Soon enough we were back in Annapolis.  Ed Dryden backed the huge rig into Don’s downhill driveway with the precision of a man doing embroidery.  We were almost done.

 

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After two nights at Bradley Point one option was to stay a third night if the conditions were too trying to head off.  Such a strategy would have made the following days longer and removed all future flexibility in the schedule.  The group decided to move on, with the understanding that if the going was too rough we would turn around and come back to the campsite.

We paddled westward for several miles in the inlet between Wassaw and Ossabaw islands.  Both wind and current were in our faces, which made for a tiring and choppy, but not especially tricky, morning.  Eventually we got to the entrance of the north-south creek through Ossabaw Island, and entered it.

On an incoming tide, water flows into such creeks from both the southern and the northern ends.  As a consequence, there’s a place somewhere near the middle of the island where the two fronts of rising water meet–“the dividing.”  On this day, Don kept us going until we got to the dividing so we could take full advantage of the tidal assist.
We were quite tired when we got to that estimated place and finally took a break.  There was no high ground, only a Juncus marsh in ankle-deep in water.

Some people found ingenious ways to rest.

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Our desire on the trip was to live at least partly off the fat of the land–which is to say off our, or somebody else’s. fishing.   Don and Eric Schwaab fished often and caught nothing, and the few other anglers we saw were similarly unlucky.  We saw some shrimp boats far off, but  failed to get their attention.  However, we did run into a crabber farther down this creek.  We bought $35 worth of blue crabs, all of which, he told us, were bound for Maryland,  where the demand  was higher and the supply smaller than here.

Without going ashore (but with help),  Don managed to empty his back storage hold for the crabs.  After landing at the camping spot, at the southern end of Ossabaw on Jacobs Creek, we off-loaded  them.

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We swam in the creek, as did a dolphin, its dorsal fin appearing periodically as it herded fish into the bank.  (You can see it in the distance on the left).

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The next day the conditions were finally right to go outside.  We crossed yet another inlet, this time in perfectly calm water, and started down St. Catherines Island.  It was thrilling to be in the ocean.

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We came ashore at a mid-island creek–McQueen Inlet–through breaking swells, an exciting ride.  The initial choice of a campsite was abandoned because we thought it might have bugs when the wind fell off in the evening.  Instead, we crossed the inlet to a dogleg of beach, where there was a perfect place.

A buoy had washed ashore, evidence of how rough the weather could get.

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I went swimming.

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Bob cut trivets–mementoes of the trip–out of a piece of cedar that was so red it appeared to bleed on the sand.

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We had plenty of room.

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Don had along with him in a watertight Pelican case a library of books on the region’s natural and human history.  It contained a copy of the secret journal that Frances Anne Kemble, an English actress, kept from her sojourn on plantations on Butler and St. Simons islands in the winter of 1838-39.

Known as “Fanny,”  Kemble in 1834  married a Philadelphian named Pierce Mease Butler, who inherited three plantations in South Carolina and Georgia early in their marriage.  Kemble was an abolitionist and hoped to convince her husband to free his slaves on a visit they made to the holdings.  She was appalled by the working conditions, punishment, housing and sexual exploitation she saw, recording her findings in a journal that wasn’t published until 1863, long after she and Butler divorced.

Butler didn’t free his slaves.  But threatened with bankruptcy, he sold about 450 of them in 1859.  The event was so large that The New York Tribune covered it.  Its correspondent wrote:  “The buyers were generally of a rough breed, slangy, profane and bearish, being for the most part from the back river and swamp plantations, where the elegancies of polite life are not, perhaps, developed to their fullest extent. In fact, the humanities are sadly neglected by the petty tyrants of the rice-fields . . . comprehending only revolvers and kindred delicacies.”

I read three excerpts from the journal–her writing is clear, detailed and unflowery for its time–as we tried to imagine what had gone on almost beneath our feet and fire.

 

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Georgia coastal islands, part 1

Who doesn’t like islands?  They’re pocket-sized continents with topographical features to explore even if they’re only a dune of sand with grass on the top.  They let us know the essential truth about life on our planet that wherever you are, you’re surrounded by water.  On islands you get the message in hours, and sometimes in minutes.

When Don Baugh, who’s introduced me to so many islands around Chesapeake Bay, invited me to explore islands on the Georgia coast, it didn’t take long to say yes.

He’d done the trip a couple of times before.  It would be repeated in the quasi-sybaritic style he’s perfected:  serious paddling under changing conditions; camping in places with no civilization nearby; served by a motorized chase boat carrying water, food and alcohol.  A formula hard to beat.

A dozen people were on the group.  A few flew down from Maryland, one drove from New York, but most traveled from Annapolis in a church van pulling a three-tier kayak trailer with seven boats tied on.  We left at  8.15 a.m. on a Friday and arrived at Tybee Island, Georgia, 12 hours later.

We spent the night at a motel and the next morning unloaded the boats and all the gear at the beach where we would start.  While one group of people shuttled vehicles to out take-out point, Little St. Simons Island, about 90 miles down the coast, the rest killed time walking around town and lying on the beach in the slanty fall sun.

This was going to be the inaugural trip for the Greenland-style paddle I’d made with lots of help from Don’s brother, Bob.

We took off in mid-afternoon, which given that it was early November meant there were only a couple of hours of daylight left.  The wind was behind us as we crossed the mouth of Tybee Creek and then went into it, aided by the tide.  It was a fast paddle with the excitement of a following sea.  We camped at a public island with a clearing, a fire ring, and a path into the high ground with cleared spots for tents off it, like brussel sprouts on a stalk.  This was mine.

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Don gave a synopsis of the trip in front of the fire.  The trip required planning of symphonic complexity and precision.

Weather, and particularly wind, would be the most important variable, with tide close behind.  The water rises and falls at least eight feet each tide cycle in this retgion, driving huge volumes of water through the channels between islands.  The inlets are the most hazardous stretches; they offer long fetches for waves. and wind and tidal current can clash in unpredictable ways.  Last but not least, the state of the paddlers–individual and aggregate–changed like the weather and mustn’t be overlooked.

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We were told the next morning would be difficult.  The forecast was correct.  It rained during the night, and was overcast and cool as we paddled off the island into a headwind that reduced our progress by a couple of miles an hour.  We did better when we turned south and headed down Bull River, the main channel through the island.  There, we got a wind assist as we made our way toward the southern end.

Things changed, however, when we got to Wassaw Sound, the wide stretch of water between Tybee and Wassaw islands. There the wind blew onto our bow quarter, creating waves that one wanted to head into for stability but that eventually had to be taken obliquely to make the heading.  It was tough.

Wind at your back in such conditions sends the boat down into the trough of waves, where the bow buries momentarily.  To the paddler the view is like outtakes from a B movie about submarines, filmed in a special effects tank. Unfortunately I have no picture to support this  description.  That’s because in paddling there’s something analogous to the “observer effect” in physics, which says that when you measure something you alter the state of the thing measured.  When you stop paddling to take a picture of how you’re doing, how you’re doing can change in a hurry.  As a consequence, pictures tend to be taken in calm conditions.  At least mine are.

After a long stretch with no breaks, we made landfall on an oyster-shell bar on the southern side of Wassaw Sound that marked the entrance to a creek int o Wassaw Island.  We had waves on the starboard beam in this final stretch, and  then had to change our heading and paddle against a tidal current so that we wouldn’t be swept into the ocean.  Don told me once that he worries when people come ashore quiet; it often means they’re spent, physically or emotionally.  Some of us came in quiet to this oyster-shell bar.

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We weren’t nearly done, however.  We paddled the length of the island to the inlet between it and the next one to the south, Ossabaw.  We stopped at a place called Pine Island and waited for the tide to change so we could cross in slack water.  There was a beautiful stretch of beach, but it was too cool to swim and we were too tired anyway.

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As we ate lunch on the edge of the high ground somebody noticed two wild pigs making their way through the marsh behind us.  They were feral pigs, the descendants of escaped barnyard animals, but no longer barnyard approachable (except after they’d gone by).

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Somebody got the idea of starting a fire to stay warm and entertained while we waited for time and tide.  It was a brilliant suggestion.

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We crossed more easily than expected and arrived at  a place called Bradley Point, which was just inside the mouth of a creek at the edge of a live-oak forest.  We stayed there two nights, as the next day’s conditions were unfavorable and Don had built an extra day into the itinerary for just such an eventuality.

On our free following day half of us explored the island on foot–the ocean was a few miles down a path through the woods–and the rest paddled up the creek we were camping on.  I was in the latter group and left later than it, passing several of the paddlers far up it where they’d turned around.  I proceeded on a while; they said they were going ashore and would wait for me.

I reached the tip of a peninsula of high ground and went ashore.  As I was stretching my legs in a clearing, a piglet appeared out of the underbrush.  Then another and another; I counted seven in all.  They were tan, brindled, and black-and-white.  They were more juveniles than piglets, but far from full-grown.  It took them a long time to detect me.

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I paddled back down the creek and stopped where Don, Mike Tannen and Walter Brown had stopped.  I told them about the piglets.  Lacking an entree for dinner, we hatched the idea of herding them to the end of the peninsula and dispatching one.  We spread out like beaters on a quail hunt and walked toward the end of the land.  After a while Mike and Walter saw several of the piglets behind us.  This was undoubtedly the best outcome.

Returning to the boats, we came across a dry wallowing hole.

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We paddled back to camp and after lunch headed down the trail toward the beach.  The path went through a forest with swamp on either side.  The trees were gnarled, shadow-throwing, and covered with spanish moss.

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It was difficult to imagine how things looked 175 years earlier.  The Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia were prime ground for raising rice, cotton and indigo.  They had plantations with the hundreds of slaves on them and some of the cruelest conditions of servitude recorded in America.  Some islands bear evidence of this notorious history.  They have dikes and outlets from long-gone rice fields; a few even have slave cabins that have been preserved.  But there was no such evidence here.  Or at least none that we could see.

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We finally got to the beach.  One of the options for the next day was “going outside”–paddling in the ocean. What we saw wouldn’t support that decision.  The conditions weren’t extreme, but there were endless ranks of swells we’d have to take abeam, with some breaking on invisible offshore bars.

But the beach was beautiful.

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Back at the camp, we traded stories with our compatriots.  Bob did his Richard Avedon imitation, with Diane Stoecker posing.

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We gathered for the sunset.

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We had two kinds of oysters–roasted and raw.  After dinner, somebody read poetry.  We watched the fire.  We counted ourselves among the lucky.

 

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