A wee walk

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

Month: December 2014

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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