Gorgeous day—and way too foggy to paddle. There was simply no horizon, no separation of sea and sky. Even if we’d stayed close to shore, we would have needed compasses to find our way. The buffleheads, gulls, swans, crows, cardinals, Canadian geese, mallards, and nuthatches we saw on our walk didn’t seem to mind.
If you aren’t a member of the American Canoe Association, stop reading and join now. Because among many paddler perqs, one of the absolute best is trolling the site on a slow day at work and fantasizing about the various expeditions you’ll find advertised there. And if Geneva Kayak is up to some fun,well, just call ’em right up and go! That’s how we found ourselves on this 6-day, 5-night circumav of Cumberland Island, GA, led by Geneva owner and all-round paddler extaordinaire, Ryan Rushton. Cumberland Island is a national treasure. The outermost and largest of Georgia’s “wild” barrier islands, Cumberland was established as national seashore in 1972 and is protected and managed by the National Park Service. Visitation is limited to 300 people per day; there are two docks, one developed campground, four primitive campgrounds, over 50 miles of sandy, unpaved backcountry trails, and a lot of plants and critters—all different, depending where on the island you go. (Circumnavigating, you get to encounter them all.) Western salt marsh. Mid-island maritime forest. 18 miles of pristine, undeveloped beach on the east. All three natural communities exist here, as well as some grand historic ruins. There’s a lot to explore on this island that is larger than Manhattan (and, we might add, much more beautiful).
Day 1 and 2: The nice folks from Geneva Kayak met us at Jacksonville, FL airport. Except for kayaks, we brought our own gear (note: airport security guards get pretty excited over those twist-on/rocket-y looking kayak lights!). We stayed overnight at Spencer House B&B in St Marys (#1 and 2 on map above) after dinner and navigation refreshers, including the Rule of Twelfths (to predict how high a tide will be in a given area at any time of day) and Rule of Thirds (rates of flow over 6-hour period)—need-to-know stuff if you’re going to try and squeak through salt marshes, tiny creeks and short-cuts around jetties. We packed the boats (and largely unpacked them after realizing we’d brought way too much stuff), then launched with the ebb in the morning from Crooked River State Park (#5 on your map). Click on first photo below to begin full-size slideshow.
Crooked River State Park launch. As no supplies are available on Cumberland Island, we packed everything in our hatches.
Whether you get there by kayak or ferry, the rich salt marsh on Cumberland’s west side is the first natural community you encounter
Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. Dolphins swam beside us…were there nuclear submarines below?
We launched with the ebbing tide. Destination: Brickhill Bluff wilderness campsite. Jean wins the Crayola Award right from the start.
Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins swim in the tidal rivers. The most productive land acres on Earth, salt marshes teem with life and act as nurseries for many species of fish, shellfish, and birds.
Our first stop: the grounds of Plum Orchard estate. Love the Spanish moss! It’s neither Spanish nor moss, but a flowering plant of the pineapple family. Not a parasite, it attaches itself to live oaks (and lots of other things) for support, getting nutrients from rainfall, detritus and airborne dust.
Ryan in front of Plum Orchard, the 1898 Georgian Revival mansion built by Thomas Carnegie (brother and partner of steel magnate Andrew) for son George and his wife Margaret Thaw. Their contribution helped win Congressional approval for Cumberland Island National Seashore
We arrived at our first campsite, Brickhill Bluff. No facilities here except for a well (you must treat the water). Also, no bellhops! We unloaded and carried supplies and kayaks up the sandy banks (tides, you know).
Our “hotel.” With fantastic water views, by the way.
After setting up camp, we hiked to an area on the northern end called The Settlement, home to freed slaves after the Civil War. Met two of the island’s many feral horses along the way.
Exterior of the First African Baptist Church, est. 1893 and rebuilt in 1937. Look familiar? This is where John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette, successfully eluding the paparazzi. (No, they did NOT pitch a tent in our little camp! More likely the swank, 1900-era Greyfield Inn, the island’s only real lodging). celebritybrideguide.com/carolyn-bessette-john-f-kennedy-jr-wedding
The simple one-room church has 11 handmade pews and three windows on each side. Today it is maintained by the National Park Service.
Azaleas blooming in mid-March
Back at Brickhill, we ponder our next meal. Campfires aren’t permitted in the backcountry; cue the portable stove.
A sunset across the western marsh of Cumberland Island is an unforgettable sight.