Cumberland Island Backcountry Experience (Nov 2010)

Cumberland Island continues to be one of my favorite places in the whole United States. I feel so happy to get to live in a state that contains some of the best mountains and perhaps the most beautiful seashore.

So, though only one family joined us on our November Cumberland Island trip, I was very excited to get the opportunity to spend some time on the island.

Mina and her son Jesse came with me to Cumberland to learn to backpack, explore a new ecosystem, and celebrate Jesse’s seventh birthday. We all met up in Kingsland, Georgia, had a good night’s sleep at the Comfort Inn, and then drove to the dock to meet the ferry on Friday morning. It’s so unusual to get to travel to an island that is only accessible by ferry! It may only take 45 minutes to reach the island, but to me it always feels a world away.

Sure Foot Adventures tries to build a “threshold” experience into all of our trips. Usually, this is accomplished by backpacking to our campsite. The short walk from our vehicles helps us separate from our regular lives and find a new home in the woods. This symbolic gesture allows us to “re-make” ourselves if we wish. We can gain perspective and inner peace. The Cumberland Island Ferry also provides a threshold: a forty-five minute period in which we are transported to our new lives on this magical island.

Every time I step off the ferry, I am blown away by the beauty of the live oaks, spanish moss, and saw palmettos. This time, a wild horse even greeted our boat at the Dungeness Dock!

Not knowing what to expect from a seven-year-old with a backpack on, I braced myself for a long 3.5 mile hike. I’ve done this hike with a 70-year-old, so I know it’s possible. But I’ve also spent 5 grueling hours completing the same walk with an over-tired and grumpy 12-year-old. Every person is different and adding the weight of a backpack to one’s back dramatically changes how one’s body behaves.

But Jesse was a superstar hiker. We took lots of breaks, stopping for snacks, tree climbing, and short rests, but Jesse kept moving his legs and in no time, we arrived at Stafford Beach, our campsite for the weekend. The only mishap of the day happened to Mina.

Walking under a low-hanging branch, she misjudged its height and bumped her head. Ouch! As a tall man, I know exactly how that feels. But, then Jesse said, “Mom, I think you’re bleeding.” Mina removed her hat and blood dripped down her face! (Oh, I wish I had photos, but I sprung into Wilderness First Responder mode and never snapped a bloody shot.) Luckily, it was only a small cut – head wounds tend to bleed a great deal – and I made short work of cleaning it up and mopping the blood off Mina’s face. Thankful that such a scary moment was based on such a minor injury, we walked on, proud that none of us had panicked. Here’s the branch that was the culprit:

Though I start this blog post with an injury story, this trip was really defined by natural beauty, exploration, observation, and storytelling. With perfectly blue skies the whole time we were on the island, a naturally curious young man, and two very adventurous and athletic adults, you couldn’t have a better recipe for a relaxing and fun backpacking trip.

We explored the beach at several times of day – the evening, mid-day and at sunrise. Jesse and Mina found many beautiful shells, but we were thwarted in our search for a whole sand dollar. We found jellyfish, starfish, crabs, welks, and horseshoe crab shells. We scavenged for sharks teeth and found over 20 of them. And Jesse counted every animal he saw.

I’m not the one with the tally notebook, but I think we saw at least 35 armadillos, 25 wild horses, 6 turkeys, 2 alligators, and various other birds. I’ll have to get the official totals from Jesse and post them here later.

Apart from his wildlife counting, Jesse also worked on his science fair project on the island. Once he had the concept of “hypothesis” down, the three of us brainstormed on possible Cumberland Island hypotheses. Finally, Jesse settled on this one: “Armadillos respond in the same way whether a human calls to them in a nice voice, a mean voice, or with a harmonica.” However, after conducting this experiment with over ten different armadillos, he found that armadillos on Cumberland Island mostly ignore humans but are sometimes startled by harmonica music.

Most of these experiments were done during our Saturday day hike. Our group decided to stay camped at Stafford for a second night (as opposed to backpacking to a new campsite) and explore the island on foot without packs. So, we set off that morning for Plum Orchard, a restored mansion from when the Carnegies and Candlers owned Cumberland. It’s almost five miles from Stafford to Plum Orchard, but we made it to the mansion just in time for a late lunch. And after lounging on the mansion’s grassy lawns dotted with enormous live oaks, we turned towards home. I’d love to say that Jesse accomplished this 9.5 mile day hike without a hitch, but we were all dead tired by the time we reached camp, and our emotions had worn thin. But we did it! I have never gotten to explore so much of Cumberland in three days as I did with this family.

That night, we celebrated Jesse’s seventh birthday with cheesecake and birthday candles. Here’s a video of our birthday song. As the fire burned low and turned into coals, we told stories (“The Mole and the Swallow,” “What’s the Name of that Tree,” “Master of All Masters,” and two new stories that Jesse taught me) and then went to bed, grateful for the food in our bellies, the beauty surrounding us, and friends and family.

By the last day of our trip, Jesse was a pro at hiking and backpacking. On our return hike to the ferry dock, his pack gave him no troubles, but after a weekend that included 15+ miles of hiking, all of our bodies were worn out. Usually, Cumberland Island is a place where I just soak in the beauty of my surroundings and don’t push myself physically. But every group is different and I had a great time walking, talking, and exploring with Mina and Jesse!

As we boarded the ferry, sharks teeth in our pockets, our hearts were sad to leave the island and the close-knit community we had built during the weekend. I had a wonderful time with Jesse & Mina and hope that they continue to celebrate Jesse’s birthdays with mother-son adventures.