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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!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Key West Backcountry Expedition - Round 2

These days, I've been working much longer hours at work, especially with my side job as a Field Biology instructor. With two sections of class and a full-time job, I've decided to boost the level of outdoor travel and exploration to help balance things out a bit. What I've quickly learned is that traveling on the weekends is mucho expensive so I've become increasingly interested in getting the best bang for my buck on each trip. Of course, you pick up little tricks along the way to save money, time, and resources. But ultimately, preparation is keystone. Anymore, my trips have become more adventurous, lightweight and strategic as I trim down my pack-weight. Blaise Pascal said it best: "I'm sorry I wrote you a long letter. I didn't have time to write you a short one." Preparation takes time but will allow you to travel further and more comfortably.

With a summer trip to Venezuela in my sights, I thought for sure that I had my big yearly vacation locked in until the news came out about the recent protests and political turmoil there. Around that time, a complete stranger from Minnesota contacted me about a blog post of mine that he found online detailing the Key West backcountry kayak/backpacking trip I took last spring. And after I received more calls from other inquiring strangers, I realized how unique and memorable the trip really was, which enticed me to dream bigger. So, I decided to hold off from traveling out of the country for one more year to add on to the route I paddled last year. Accompanied by two of my favorite people to adventure with, Kaitlyn Liptka and Alexa Gaant - strong paddlers to say the least - we were lucky enough to see much more than the keys on this trip.

Above is a snapshot comparing this year's trip to last year's. The white route is the 2013 trip. This year, we traveled 28 miles in three days. Like last year, we camped on Sugarloaf Key prior to meeting our outfitter, Bill Keoff at Big Pine Key Kayak Adventures. From there, we set out from blimp road on Cudjoe Key to Tarpon Belly Key (yellow line) for our first night under the stars.

Tarpon Belly Key is a favorite local get-away island since it is fairly close to the mainland. It gets it's name from being one of the first commercial shrimping operations in the united states. In fact, the island still has the remnants of two canals that were left after the business fell through. Unlike last year, we had company probably because of the unlikely low-80's weather for the month of March. That night, I met a young Cuban immigrant on the small island who had camped there for the last week with his grandmother. They collected sea sponges for a living. He kept me cognizant as I fished with some of the trials and errors that he had learned of while living on the water. 

Early that morning, we were surprisingly excited to wake up to gnats. Gnats are a quick indicator to a groggy camper that there is probably little to no wind, which was excellent news to us as we were setting out to paddle 12 miles that day (green line). 

As we left Tarpon Belly key, we decided to head northwest to Sawyer Key, which is a protected Wildlife Management Area. We didn't stay long but we did manage to see frigate birds, white ibis and ruddy turnstones (pictured above). We then headed west to take a break on Marvin's Keys to take a nap on the sandbars. Marvin's Keys always has local traffic as well since the islands are surrounded by pristine sandbars. But they tend to leave before dark. We decided to keep trucking' west to a new-to-me spot - Snipe Key.

Along the way, I caught a couple of jacks. We stopped along the way to throw topwater plugs at a school of big barracuda. Although a few took swipes at my lure, I came up empty handed. By the second day, the piece of fabric draped over my legs was completely necessary to prevent my legs from peeling.

We finally reached Snipe Key around 4pm to set up camp. Almost immediately, we picked up on a bad scent that led us to a decaying pilot whale (pictured above). Later, we found out from locals that there had been a bad algae bloom off the coast that caused over a dozen pilot whales to wash up on shore. The spot we chose was actually part of Snipe Point, which is the northern most part of the key. I stayed up for a few hours to sip some wine, read a book and tend the fire as the girls dozed off. 

On the third day, we traveled southeast from Snipe Point to the Sugarloaf Kamp of America (KOA) where we first began our excursion. We experienced a westerly wind, which helped us a little bit. But there were decent white caps the whole way back. At one point, it was important to paddle hard as the current was pulling us one way and the waves, another. The outfitter picked up our kayaks that night and we set out the following morning to Key West to scope out some of the shops.