Published: May 26th 2012January 27th 2009
It was one of my favorite places in the world - A land of primordial maritime forests filled with palms and twisted live oaks, their gnarled boughs draped in thick curtains of Spanish moss; a mysterious island surrounded by tranquil salt marshes and the raging Atlantic, and seemingly forgotten in time; a pristine home to wild horses, bobcats, turkeys, deer, feral pigs, and armadillos, with swamps filled with alligators and snakes; a beachcombers’ dream with miles and miles of empty, shell-strewn beaches, where the treasures of the deep abounded; paradise!
A week-long backpacking trip on Cumberland Island was the most anticipated camping trip of the year for my scout troop and every spring through my teen years we all loaded into our old green bus and headed south to the southern-most barrier island on the Georgia coast. Some of my finest memories are set on Cumberland Island – The camaraderie of youth, the endless hikes rewarded with unequaled views of the ocean, wading through gator-filled swamps on countless misguided adventures, getting lost and hitch-hiking with one of the few locals that call the island home, discovering a live napalm bomb with arming instructions on the beach… It was
a place where the wilderness was wild and humans were a rare sight.
With all of its beauty and pristine beaches, I always found it surprising that such a place could exist in the land of high-rise, beach hotels and roped off seas, but it was there. Its history stretched back thousands of years. The island had been home to Native Americans, Spanish forces, British forces, colonial settlers, plantations, slaves, and some of the super-rich, nation-builders from the gilded-age, yet the island survived all of that. The Cumberland Island I knew was sparsely populated with just a few private homes, a handful of stunning mansions and the burned-out ruins of the once grand castle-like mansion of Thomas Carnegie and family, Dungeness. A little-used, single-lane, sandy road stretched the length of the island with just a few dusty side roads leading off of it. All visitors to the island walked on the roads, beaches, or the expansive network of trails – There were few cars to be had.
Despite the fact that I thought of Cumberland Island as one of my favorite places on Earth, I hadn’t been back there for more than fifteen years.
Our Island home! (in our dreams)
My last memory on the island was of a failed camping trip in the middle of summer when my brother and I decided to relive the joy of our scouting days and spend a week at our favorite camp site, Yankee Paradise, seven miles from the ferry dock. In stark contrast to the Boy Scout camping trips of our youth, we hurriedly packed and forgot some essentials, such as insect repellant – We had forgotten the Boy Scout motto of, ‘Be Prepared’! By the time we reached our campsite and set up the tent we were covered from head to toe by hundreds of ticks, the mosquitoes were swarming around us and we were in misery. We decided that there was no way we were going to survive a week on the island without protection from the bugs, so we packed up and, in another failure of preparedness, decided to walk back to the dock along the ocean, without packing extra water. We spent a few hours in the surf picking off all of the tiny ticks, which was nice, and then we started walking. The beach was as beautiful as we remembered it, but we had never walked along
Pelican in the Fog
The ferry ride to Cumberland was full of amazing things to see.
the beach with our backpacks and the going was more difficult than we expected. We ran out of water about the time the sun went down and the only other thing we had, warm, pre-packaged milk, made us retch. We continued walking for several more hours under a brilliant blanket of stars. Finally, when dehydration was sapping all of our energy and hopelessness was moving in, we found the black and white pole that marked the dune crossing for Sea Camp and our ordeal was over. We drank our fill of water and we washed off all of the sand and then we ate a feast from our week’s worth of food while we waited for morning and our ferry ride out. Just before we boarded the ferry the ranger gave us the helpful advise of, “Never come to Cumberland without bug spray!”
Fast-forward fifteen years. I had returned to Georgia after years away living in California and traveling the world. My girlfriend, Maria, and I were sitting around talking about our favorite places one night– She had done a good bit of traveling, too, so our lists spanned the globe. Cumberland Island came up near the
top of my list and, since it was just a few hours away, we talked a lot about it. That discussion led to reservations for a long weekend of camping at Sea Camp, the partially developed camping area on Cumberland. A few weeks later, we showed up at the dock in Saint Marys, a cute little town on the coast of Georgia, with our heavy backpacks and a few extra bags and coolers – Sea Camp was essentially car camping, so weight wasn’t an issue and we had some luxuries with us. I had two different bottles of bug spray with me and we purchased a few more in the visitors’ center – I wasn’t taking any chances! We went through the safety briefing and then we boarded the Cumberland Lady and set off on our forty-five minute voyage to paradise.
It was a cool, foggy morning and the mist was thick and mysterious. We looked for dolphins and manatees in the tannin-rich water as we watched the seabirds glide in and out of the gloom – It was a beautiful morning. The deep orange of the salt marsh grass lined both banks of the meandering Saint
A White Horse in the Marsh
This was our island welcoming comity.
Marys River and added a beautiful burst of muted color to the grey morning. We passed the old broken down pier that jutted out from a clump of thick forest, through the marsh, to the river – I always loved that ruined pier and I was happy to see that it was still there. The low, dark profile of an island appeared in front of us and got steadily larger as we got closer. Eventually the oaks and palms took shape and the salt marsh filled in the gaps. A group of horses, including a bright white one, were grazing on the bank nearest us. One of them looked our way with a welcoming glance and then went back to eating. We stopped at the Dungeness dock to let off the day-trippers and then we moved on to Sea Camp dock. We donned our backpacks and grabbed our bags and then we walked down the steep gangplank, up the ramp and then turned down the long dock toward shore. My excitement built with each step reaching a crescendo when I reached the end of the dock and stepped onto the sandy shore of Cumberland Island once more.
The Cumberland Coast
This is what the island's river bank looks like.
It was January, so there weren’t a lot of people on the island (or bugs as it turned out). The ranger quickly gathered all of the campers together and ushered us into the little room in the lovely visitor center and gave us the long safety orientation about the potential dangers involved with staying on an island without any connection to the mainland. When the orientation was done the ranger assigned our campsites and set us free to explore the island. The Sea Camp dock and visitor center was located on the river side of the island at the island’s narrowest spot. The Sea Camp campsites were built beneath the live oaks on the Atlantic side of the island, about one mile away along a narrow sandy road. We rented two rusty blue bicycles from one of the ferry’s deck hands and then we loaded our gear into one of the carts that the park service provided for the Sea Camp campers and then we started walking. I pulled the cart and Maria took the bikes. Walking beneath the thick canopy of the live oaks and Spanish moss took me back to my scouting days and the excitement that I
always felt at the start of our hikes, though it was even better having been away for so long. When we came to the north-south road we both gasped. Maria had never seen the stunning vista of the one lane, sandy road running straight as an arrow through the tunnel of trees and she was impressed – I had simply forgotten how beautiful it was. After about fifteen minutes of walking we reached the bathroom building of Sea Camp and followed the signs to our campsite. Our little piece of paradise was cut out of the thick ground cover of palmettos beneath a spectacular canopy of twisted live oaks. The dunes were all that separated us from the ocean and we could hear the crashing waves and the sea breeze – It was an amazing campsite.
We took the cart back to the dock and then quickly busied ourselves with setting up camp. The tent I had was the same mildew-scented dome tent that I had used in scouts. It was also the same tent that I had on the failed camping trip with my brother and it hadn’t been used in the fifteen years since. Things
This is an amazing campsite on Cumberland.
started off wrong when I broke one of the aged and cracking poles, but a bit of duct tape and some caution fixed the problem and the tent was back in operation. We finished up at camp, packed up a lunch and got on the bikes and started riding. Bikes had never been an option when I was in scouts, but we quickly found that they were the best way to get around the island. We pedaled back out to the main road and turned north. The tunnel of trees was unbroken ahead of us. The landscape was flat and sandy with the giant oaks and the Spanish moss, with a few palms mixed in, making up the canopy while the ground cover was predominately thick, green palmetto palms stretching in an impenetrable mass into the shadows. The pedaling was difficult, being that the road was made of deep, loose sand alternating with hard, washboard surfaces, but we kept up a good pace. Eventually the canopy broke open into a large field, which was used as a landing strip for one of the few people that still owned land on the island. There was a massive tree there whose giant
branches formed a picturesque arch across the road and we stopped and admired it for a while. A short time later we came across our first armadillo, which necessitated a second stop. The tiny armadillos are common on the island and can be quite comical to watch – That one was busy rooting through the sandy soil looking for food. At the far end of the field we came to one of my favorite houses on the island. It was still privately owned, but it was older in construction and was surrounded by a giant concrete and stone wall. That house was always an important waypoint for us during our long hikes with Scouts, being that it was more than half way to our camp.
We pedaled back into the forest and continued north. Eventually we came to a fork in the road and a sign that read ‘Plum Orchard’. We took the fork and pedaled for a while longer before we reached another large clearing that was filled with neglected landscaping of a once grand style. We pedaled along a road of tall slender trees, like the ones you see in pictures of Tuscany, and then
This is one of the places we stopped on our 28 mile round trip bike ride to the north end of the island on a trip a few weeks after the first.
the grand old house came into full view. Plum Orchard, named after an old orchard that had once grown on the site, was built in 1898 as a wedding present for Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s son George. In 1906 it was expanded to its present size of 21,724 square feet – It had apparently been described as a simple house by George’s mother at the time of construction! Plum Orchard and most of the land on Cumberland was given to the park service in 1972 in an effort by the descendants of the Carnegie family to protect the island wilderness from the developers that were laying waste to the other islands on the Georgia coast. Their efforts succeeded in saving Cumberland Island as one of the only publicly accessible examples of the Georgia barrier island ecosystem.
We walked around the giant, white house, built in a Greek Revival style, and took in the stunning architecture. We heard the horn from the ferry as it pulled up to the Plum Orchard dock and we made our way over to the side porch closest to the boat. We had picked our weekend well – It was the one Saturday
These guys were all over the island and were always fun to watch.
of the month that the park service opened the interior of the house to the public and it was time for the tour. The group slowly made their way up to the house, led by one of the rangers we had met earlier in the day. They came up on the porch and the ranger gave us a quick talk on the history of the house and how we should conduct ourselves inside and then they unlocked the door and escorted us in.
I was really excited, because I had never been able to see the inside of the house in my scouting years, despite having visited several times. The first room we entered was a beautiful wood-paneled room with a large fireplace and a piano and a desk, some of the few furnishings that remain in the house, as well as two beautiful Tiffany chandeliers. We slowly walked through the whole house as the ranger pointed out the different features and told us stories from its history. We saw faded, but beautiful, hand-painted wallpaper, as well as places where it had been painstakingly restored. We marveled at the house’s main entry hall with its grand staircase
and beautiful woodwork. We had fun with the crystal-ball doorknobs on the upper floor and we explored the dark basement area where the house’s mechanical systems slowly deteriorated from lack of use. The tour ended at the opposite end of the house where the large indoor swimming pool was located. The ranger explained how the park service constantly struggled with maintaining the house on their limited budget and pointed out several of the current restoration projects happening there. For their part, I think they are doing wonderfully with their limited means. However, I found the atmosphere in the house sad and forlorn, as if it longed to be lived in. I have never liked museum houses. I prefer to see them lived in, even if it means having some sort of commercial hotel presence. I think the park service will eventually have to make the hard decision of converting Plum Orchard into some sort of hotel that could finance its own upkeep, or to let the island reclaim it, which would be an unimaginable tragedy! I hope they don’t wait until it is too late.
Maria and I watched as the tour group headed back to the
boat and disappeared and then we walked over to one of the amazing porch swings and sat down to enjoy lunch. As we ate we imagined that Plum Orchard was our home and we were having a leisurely lunch on a quiet Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t too hard to picture – To this day we still refer to Plum Orchard as our island home! After a long siesta we said farewell to the old mansion and started pedaling back towards camp. On the way back we got a close encounter with a pair of horses that were slowly ambling down the long road beneath the oaks. They paid us no attention, but eventually they found greener pastures off the side of the road and left us to continue our ride. As we got closer to camp we stopped and started collecting firewood. We devised a way to use the picnic blanket we had with us as a hammock and we walked the bikes the rest of the way to camp loaded down with wood.
I used the remaining sunlight to build a stack of wood in the fire ring and then, before I set it ablaze, we
A Marauding Raccoon
Ok, this one is actually acting as it should.
headed down the long boardwalk to the beach for our first Cumberland Island sunset together. The ocean was raging and the waves were crashing, but the sandpipers, pelicans and gulls didn’t seem to mind. We walked along the deserted beach for about an hour breathing in the salty air and listening to the wild surf. It was an amazing place to be. There was a thick blanket of stars overhead by the time we got back to the boardwalk. Our stomachs were growling, so we walked back to camp, pausing for one last look at the ocean just before we entered the forest again.
In all of my trips to Cumberland Island I had never had a fire. They were not allowed in the backcountry, due to the fire risk, and we never stayed at Sea Camp as scouts. It was exciting as I lit my match and watched the fire come to life. I wish I could say that it had been a one match fire, like I had been trained to do in scouts, but it wasn’t. I had been lazy building the first pile of wood and five matches in, without so much as
a flicker of flame, I decided to start over and do it right. Ten minutes later a beautiful teepee of wood rose out of the fire ring ready to light and one match was all it took – My Boy Scout skills were a bit rusty, but they were still there! With the fire burning, I turned my attention to helping Maria get the dinner prepared. We were doing hobo dinners, another tradition from my scouting days. We chopped up carrots, green beans, onions, potatoes and mushrooms. Then we added in some whole garlic cloves, a few cherry tomatoes, a slab of salmon and some spices and wrapped the whole thing in aluminum foil and tossed them right on the coals. Half an hour later our sizzling packets of deliciousness emerged from the fire. We sat down at the table and tore open the foil with a burst of heavenly-scented steam and then we enjoyed our gourmet meal by the fire under the trees of Cumberland’s vast forest – It was a wonderful end to a grand day!
After dinner, we cleaned up our mess, put out the fire and raccoon-proofed our camp. We crawled into our
This was one of the Tiffany chandeliers at Plum Orchard.
tent and slowly drifted off to sleep to the tune of the distant ocean and to the pitter-patter of the marauding raccoons as they ransacked camp after camp in search of their nightly plunder. Our camp was unscathed in the attacks. Having had many encounters with the raccoons in my previous trips - including waking to find a big one sitting on my chest trying to reach the food bag that I had unwittingly decided to sleep under – we were well prepared, but the crashing of pots and pans and the shouts from other camps told me that others hadn’t been so lucky! Eventually the forest quieted and the sounds of the sea and of the wind blowing through leaves were all there were.
We awoke with the sun early the next morning. The birds were greeting the day with their beautiful songs and the squirrels were playing chase in the giant oaks. We walked out to the beach to greet the day and we spent a while walking in the surf, marveling at having the entire beach to ourselves. Eventually we returned to camp made a wonderful breakfast of vegetarian sausage and eggs and sat
In the Lounge
I actually don't know what they would have called this room, but it was one of Plum Orchard's best.
and ate while we sipped tea and planned out our day. We heard a blast from the ferry’s horn and we knew it was time to go. We quickly packed a lunch and filled our water bottles and then we set off on the bikes. We rode back to the dock where we met the deckhand from the ferry that had rented us the bikes and we turned them in to him, opting to spend the day on foot.
We set off on the ‘River Trail’, which joined the Sea Camp dock with the Dungeness dock. The path meandered its way beneath the live oaks and Spanish moss on the river coast of the island. At times the massive oaks dominated the scenery with their primeval curtains of moss and tangles of vines. At other times it was the tranquil river with its boat traffic and salt marsh vistas that stole the show. The trail opened up on the dockside portion of the Dungeness historic site. There were several restored buildings, some serving as museums and others as housing for the rangers that live and work on the island. It was at that dock that the visitors
to Cumberland Island would arrive, including the Carnegies and their well-to-do guests, as well as all of the supplies that kept the massive residences running. It was amazing to think of all of the people that had walked there before us and had taken the same journey we were about to take, though in more style, to the gates of Dungeness itself. We turned down the long tree-lined drive that led away from the dock and we started walking. Along the way we paused at several places to admire the scenery, or watch an armadillo root through the sandy soil. Eventually we went around a turn in the sandy road, near where the dock road crossed over the main, north-south road, and found the massive stone and ornamental-iron gate to the Dungeness Estate. In the distance, beyond the gate rose the imposing ruins of the once grand Queen Anne style mansion of the Carnegie family.
The name Dungeness first appeared on the island in 1736 when James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia, built a hunting lodge there. In 1803 the Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene acquired 11,000 acres of the island and built a
Hand Painted Wall Paper
Inside Plum Orchard. This section had been restored.
tabby house on the Dungeness site. In the 1880’s the Gilded Age arrived on Cumberland Island, when Thomas Carnegie, the younger brother and business associate of Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, purchased part of the island and started construction of the now ruined mansion. Thomas’ wife Lucy finished the house after Thomas’ death in 1886 and continued living there for many years until her death in 1916. While she was there she built Plum Orchard, Greyfield Manor, the Stafford house and the Grange for her children and, in the case of the Grange, for the children’s tutor, William Page. By the time of Lucy’s death the Carnegie family owned most of the island and in her will she decreed that no land could be sold as long as any of her children still lived. The Carnegie family moved out of Dungeness in 1925 due to the expense of keeping the old house running. As late as 1958 the 59-room mansion with its turrets and hundred foot high tower was still standing and in good condition, but in 1959 it was destroyed by fire. In my scouting days I was always told that lightning had been the culprit, but arson from
a disgruntled deer poacher was more likely the cause. Either way it was a sad day when Dungeness was destroyed.
The park service took over on the island in 1972 and they have done an excellent job of stabilizing the ruins of Dungeness. The tower is completely gone, but several walls of brick and stone and some chimneys and other features of the house remain and are shored up with modern concrete and steel supports. We spent an hour walking around the amazing ruins. The forlorn feeling of faded glory was even stronger at Dungeness than at Plum Orchard. The ruins told a story of the industrial revolution and the building of our nation, yet all of the grandeur and the beauty that the Gilded Age had to offer was gone, replaced by haunted stones from another age. We saw the tabby house built by Greene and used as a schoolhouse by the Carnegies and then we walked out past the monumental fountain and down the stairs to the lovely salt marsh. We then walked back up through the ruins to an area where the remains of the hunting lodge and other buildings are slowly being reclaimed
by the island. We also found a row of rusting, broken down cars from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. They spoke of the well-to-do life that had once been enjoyed there. We continued on our quest to get to the beach, passing the beautiful Grange, which was still privately owned and in superb condition. We followed a boardwalk through the lovely salt marsh and then walked along a trail in the dunes. A second boardwalk took us the rest of the way to the beach and we looked out across the raging Atlantic again.
We spent the next few hours walking along the beach, and sitting enjoying the wild ocean. We listened to the gulls as they squawked pleas for a bit of our lunch and we watched the soaring pelicans skim the waves in search of theirs. The sandpipers tweeted as they ran back and forth avoiding the oncoming surf as they searched for treasures in the sand and ghost crabs darted this way and that in search of a safe place to hide. It was hard to believe that we were on the coast of Georgia, snuggly in the middle of the land of high-rise
Plum Orchard's Pool
The whole thing is the deep end!
hotels and beach resorts. How that seventeen-mile stretch of beach and dunes survived was a miracle, but, thanks to the efforts of one of the Industrial Revolution’s leading families, it had. I remember sitting on the beach in my scouting days staring out across the waves to the distant horizon. I would always wonder what was out there on those distant shores. Fifteen years later the same view was even more amazing. I had seen many of those distant shores and I knew of the amazing things that they all offered. From those exotic shores I always looked back across the ocean toward the same seventeen-mile stretch of sand I was sitting on and the mysterious maritime forests and salt marshes beyond the dunes and knew it was one of my favorite places in the world.
As we packed up our picnic and headed back toward camp, a freak wave crashed on the shore and the surf washed over the place we had been sitting high and dry seconds before – Had we not chosen that exact moment to stand up our cameras would have been ruined! We reached the dune crossing for Sea Camp and we
headed back down the boardwalk to camp to relax for a while. We got things ready for dinner and I prepared the fire, learning from the previous evening’s mistakes. When all was well and we were well rested, we set off for the beach again. We decided to walk north away from the busy Dungeness – Sea Camp stretch of beach. We were searching for seashells and other treasures and we found them everywhere we looked. Starfish, jellyfish, shark-eye snail shells, knobby whelk, sargassum, sand dollars – It was a beachcomber’s delight. After an hour of slow walking we turned around and headed back to camp. The sun was setting as we walked back down the boardwalk. Back in camp, I started the fire (with one match) and then we cooked dinner. As we waited for our meal several raccoons stopped by to see what smelled so good and, much to their dismay, we sent them all away empty handed. We ate dinner, cleaned up our mess and put the fire out and then we raccoon-proofed camp and went to bed. The evening went about the same as the night before up to the last step – We were so
tired that we quickly fell asleep and slept right through all of the nightly mayhem that the hungry raccoons unleashed on Sea Camp!
The next morning we watched the sunrise on the beach again and took in a final dose of salty, sea air and then we went back to camp. Maria cooked breakfast while I walked to the dock, retrieved a cart and headed back to camp. After breakfast we quickly packed up and then we loaded everything in the cart and said farewell to our camp, in scouting tradition, leaving it better than we had found it. We quickly pulled the cart back down the road to the dock, arriving just in time to watch the ferry tie up to the dock. Our time on Cumberland Island was over, but we both knew we would be back again soon to spend more time in one of our favorite places.
There are more photos below