Last week, Ms. McGinnis (a middle-school teacher at Kingfisher Academy) and I took a group of twelve 9-13 year olds on a 4-day, 3-night camping trip on Cumberland Island National Seashore on the coast of Georgia. For those of you not familiar with Cumberland, it is my favorite place in the United States. From the jungle of live oak trees, saw palmettos, and Spanish moss to the wild horses to the pristine beaches, Cumberland is an exquisite place to be outdoors.
I’m always excited to introduce new people to the island, and this group of students from Kingfisher Academy were in for a treat! February is one of the best times to visit Cumberland because the gnats and mosquitos are not out yet and it is still sometimes warm enough to soak in the sun at the beach. On this trip, we experienced the best day possible: 75 degree temperatures, full sun, no bugs, and an island virtually to ourselves because the ferry doesn’t run on Tuesdays.
Though rain was predicted on Monday and Wednesday, nature smiled on us and only produced a slight drizzle both days. Enough to get us damp, but not soaked to the bone.
Despite this good fortune, this was still a most difficult trip. Not only were these students relatively young (four days out is a long time for 9-10 year olds), but this was the longest camping trip most of them had been on, the first camping trip for some, and the first time away from parents overnight for one or two. As a result, our group had to learn a camp routine and develop comfort sleeping and living in the woods. We were not without a good deal of complaining, but I saw a lot of growth in the kids.
Some kids refused to wear “dirty” clothes, insisting on changing into “clean” ones (sometimes twice a day), but on our last evening when the temperature was dropped into the mid-30s, all the kids quickly put on multiple layers when I asked them to – no matter if they had any “clean” clothes left.
One girl slept really poorly the first night, laying awake listening to the sounds of the forest. The next night, feeling more comfortable, she slept like a rock.
We developed lots of routines: dish washing and tooth brushing after meals, where to put trash, where to keep our food safe from raccoons, always zipping up the tent when you leave it, etc.
At the end of the trip when Ms. McGinnis asked the students what they were most proud of, and it was a joy to hear their answers: completing a 7.5 mile hike, having a quiet moment watching the bright moon at night, and my favorite, just coming on this trip!
Though we stayed in Sea Camp all three nights, we were not at all sedentary. I’m not sure if you can be with kids this age. The first day, we set up camp and then spent the rest of the day combing the beach for sea life and running. This group ran around more than any other group I’ve been with. No wonder we were all in bed by 9pm each night!
On Tuesday, in the glorious 75-degree weather that I previously described, we took a 5-mile day hike to Dungeness, a ruined Carnegie mansion from the early 1900s. We visited Raccoon Keys and searched (mostly fruitlessly) for sharks teeth. We saw 9 wild horses. We visited the salt marshes on the southern end of the island, and took a long walk back to camp along the beach.
We even got to go swimming…well, sort of. My rule was that no one goes in the water unless I do, and it was so beautiful on Tuesday that I decided it would be okay. We splashed in the waves, got thoroughly wet, and then had to rinse the salt water off our bodies in ice cold showers! But it was worth it!
The next day we cleaned up camp and tightened the guy-lines on our tents in case of rain and then took a 7.5 mile day hike to Stafford Beach and back. This was not easy for the kids. 7.5 miles is the longest hike I’ve taken them on this year and it started drizzling when were a mile from camp. Prepared, we put on our rain gear and continued. Though blisters, sore ankles, knees and legs hobbled us, we did it! And at least one student learned it’s better to not wear short socks with high-top basketball shoes.
Though the rain soaked some of our firewood, the kids (and me and Ms. McGinnis) were diligent and stashed enough wood under the tarp for a fire on our last morning. The students built a pyre the previous night and covered it with my pack cover. So on Thursday morning, I awoke before everyone and used their pyre to light the fire. We toasted our bagels, drank tea and cocoa, then packed up camp to leave.
We were all very ready to go home, but leaving Cumberland is still bittersweet for me – especially since the clouds cleared and blue skies and sun streamed down through the Spanish moss as we backpacked to the ferry on Thursday morning. Despite the chilly wind, I couldn’t help but sit on the upper deck of the ferry to wish the island adieu. Most of the kids fell asleep on benches in the heated cabin of the ferry.
I can’t wait for my next journey to Cumberland Island in the fall. Be on the lookout for our announcement (in May) of our next Cumberland Island trip open to the general public.