Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cumberland Island National Seashore - WIlderness Trek

On the way back up from our Key West backcountry paddle trip, we decided to stop by the Everglades before spontaneously deciding to pull an all night detour up to Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore, which has long been on my bucket list of places to backpack. To summarize in one paragraph why this 23,000 acre island is such a gem of a place would be both difficult and omissive. So I'll dedicate this blogpost not only to describing the highlights and details of our trip, but also the history, biodiversity, geology, and intrinsic value of this site.

As you pull into St. Mary, Georgia, you're greeted by beautifully restored 17th and 18th century buildings wrapped in cedar shingles. The atmosphere brought back memories from my time living on the north shore of Massachusetts, particularly memories in and around the Gloucester area. This old town is very well-kept with waves of character. The main strip ends at the entrance to the St. Mary's ferry, which is the only means of transportation to and from the island. Despite highly recommended reservations in advanced, we were able to squeeze onto the 45 passenger vessel with only one spot remaining. The island itself only allows a maximum of 300 people on the island at one time - a fraction of those are able to purchase an overnight permit. That's not very many people for an area larger than Manhattan! Although, the island rarely experiences that many visitors at one time.

The 45 minute ferry ride amounted to a picturesque glide across the glassy cumberland sound and the ferry was filled with men, woman, children and a slough of lightweight backpacking gear for those who craved a bit more adventure than a day's hike near the dock. The trip back produced goodbyes from a group of playful dolphins at our gunnels to a curious laughing gull that followed us back.

Our trip was divided into two long days. 

Day 1: we began on the parallel trail, which meanders through acres of healthy maritime forest, predominately made up of live oak and palmetto. This ecological community is sometimes referred to as a hammock. We eventually made our way to Stafford Beach, where we exited the forest and walked north, close to 8 miles of the longest barrier island beach (17.5mi) in Georgia. Eventually, we doglegged over via South Cut Trail to find the main road, which led us to the furthest primitive campsite on the island's wilderness - Brickhill Bluff. All in all, we hiked a total of 13.4mi over a span of 8 hours for the first day.

Day 2: We knew we had to catch the 2:45p ferry so we woke up early to get a head start. With sore hips and aching blisters, we decided to take the main road back, which would cut our second day down to 10.3 miles. Along the way, we passed one group of hikers from Pennsylvania who were haphazardly walking with their heads down. Come to find out, they were searching for sharks teeth. Soon after, we were doing the same thing, lining our pockets with the old dark fossils including those of macko, sand, and lemon sharks - some even of extinct species. The island is compiled of 50 miles of backcountry trails - we covered just under half of them in almost 28 hours (including sleep!).

This healthy maritime forest is mostly occupied by live oak and palmetto. The canopy sealed off just enough light to produce perfect, cool conditions to endure such a long trek. Despite what many sources say, Cumberland Island is not the largest barrier island in Georgia; however, it contains the largest tract of upland habitat and the longest beach of them all. If you factor in marshland, Ossabaw and St. Simon take the cake for overall size. Although this forest is steadily growing towards a climax forest via succession, it was once much healthier during pre-settlement. Most of the island was actually logged for ship building and shingle manufacturing, among other land uses. 

Soon after connecting with the beach via the Stafford Beach trail, we decided to take a lunch break for some hearty calories (mashed potatoes and tuna). We spent hours walking the shoreline combing the islands rich supply of seashells, littered about like colorful Christmas ornaments ready to be hung on Black Friday. On the east coast, the winter months always provide the best shelling opportunities so we were having a field day identifying the wide variety of species. Just as Alexa found a lined starfish, Kaitlyn pointed to a bald eagle feeding on a decaying skate as we tripped over an aboveground cemetery of horse shoe crabs and cannonball jellyfish. We found dozens of lettered olives, lightening and knobbed welks, a handful of mottled purse crabs and a wallet full of sand dollars to boot. 

When traveling long distances, especially on sand, it might be more beneficial to walk barefoot. At the end of the trip, Alexa paid the price for wearing her "five fingers" Vibram soled shoes, especially since sand kept getting trapped between the shoes and her feet. Kaitlyn did well with her running shoes until we had to cross dune areas. Ultimately, this was a tremendous trip and challenge that the crew handled very well. It's always much easier traveling with laid back people who are able to go with the flow. After all, surprises, setbacks and learning to deal with the unexpected is truly half of what we are out there for. I couldn't give more credit to this awesome crew for stepping up.

Another category that Cumperland Island is superior in is the high level of biodiversity. With an old Pleistocene (1.8mil - 10,000ya) geological regime throughout most of the island (especially the northern portion), the island's soil is very mature, allowing for a wide range of species. In contrast, harsher environments with poorer soils such as deserts and the boreal forest tend to support less biodiversity. One of the highlights on the trail was finding scores of corral root orchis. The live oak-palmetto hammock sporadically changed into slash pine forest as well as the occasional old growth red cedar.

At some points, we found ourselves with our heads down hundreds of feet apart from each other without realizing it until we made a cool discovery that we wanted to share, such as this decaying wild boar. Cumberland Island is really one of the most historic sites in America rich in archeology findings, to evidence of the war of 1812 to remnants of old slave buildings. Unfortunately with people came domesticated animals such as hogs and horses, which have seen become ferrel and continue to roam the island. Although they are quite the site to see and largely add to the character of this place, they take their toll on the fragile dune systems and native flora and fauna. For example, Cumberland Island is the largest breeding area for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, which holds as many as 200 nest sites; although, wild boar have additionally damaged this already threatened population. The National Park Service recognizes this and has created a management plan to reduce populations.

Cumberland Island is home to approximately 140 wild horses, which are best observed throughout the dunes. We spent hours looking for horses until we were surprised by this small population grazing on grasses - they were surprised to see us as well.

Alexa and Kaitlyn looking west as we found our first population of wild horses. Quite possibly, the abnormally large and non-vegitated dune that they are standing on could have been caused by a combination of human impact such as logging, and exotic animal species.


Finally, we were able to reach Brickhill Bluff in just over 8 hours after stepping foot off of the ferry. This spot always tends to have more gnats than the others but we decided to make the trek for the sunset, which we just barely caught, and for the challenge of hiking to the furthest campsite in the backcountry wilderness. We were rewarded with this beautiful view of St. Mary's river, Brickhill river, and the Cumberland sound. Excellent trip!