Sunday, December 9, 2018

Cumberland Island National Seashore: Stafford Mansion & Early Departure

Cumberland Island National Seashore – 2/18/18 – 10.2 Miles

Good morning!

A second night of Jim’s deflating sleeping pad was made worse by tired bodies and itchy bug bites.  The last straw came when I tried to get out of the tent to pee and fell sideways, bending both my left knee and a tent pole beyond their limits.  We spent the rest of the night bivvy style, with the tent walls 3 inches from our faces. [Note: sent the poles to Big Agnes, they repaired them, sent them back, charged me $3.)

Bugs wake up early, too. 

We all agreed that while Cumberland Island is awesome, we’d had enough adversity for this outing. Instead of staying our third night at Stafford Beach Camp, we decided to hike back to the ranger station and try to get on the 4:30 p.m. ferry back to St. Mary’s.  Would there be room on the ferry?  We would beg for mercy.  If they couldn’t take us, we’d stealth camp somewhere at Sea Camp Beach (we’d seen empty campsites, maybe some folks didn’t show up) and catch our scheduled ferry for Monday morning.

What we missed by cutting a day short: exploring the north end of the island, the Settlement area created by former African-American slaves, the First African Baptist Church that they established, and perhaps getting a look at Carol Ruckdeschel’s house.  [Note:  When I return to Cumberland Island, I’ll book one of the all-day Land and Legacy tours to visit the north end.]

So…we’ve learned that flat miles are not necessarily fast and the ferry dock is 10 miles away. We didn’t have to run but our chances of getting on the ferry were best if we were early, so we walked along the main road.  As always, there’s lots to see if you just look (no alligators, though).
We walked by another Carnegie estate, Stafford Mansion, built in 1901 by Lucy Carnegie for her son William, on a plantation owned in the 19th century by Robert Stafford. Old Man Stafford’s estate grew cotton through the labor of nearly 150 slaves.  (The buildings he established are long gone.)  The Carnegie mansion is still privately owned by a family descendant, but you can rent it on VRBO for $400 per night, outdoor shower and toilet included…

Directly across the road is a wide open, flat-as-a-pancake field that the Carnegies made into a golf course and is now an airstrip.  You know, so you can easily get to the mansion with the outdoor shower and toilet.

On the main road a short distance south of the mansion, we stopped for a break at the Stafford Cemetery – again, not for long because the no-see-ums were swarming with a vengeance. Seashells are embedded in the cemetery walls. Robert Stafford is buried here along with his mother and sister.  He never married, but he did father eight children with two of his slaves.  Read more about the cemetery here.

Cathy and Mike turned left on the road to Stafford Beach, to check out the campsite we were skipping and to walk along the shore looking for seashells.  Jim and I continued to grind out the miles to the ranger station. 

We reached the ranger station at 1:30 p.m. and I had to rub my eyes to see clearly:  is that a ferry?? Why, yes, IT IS!  Turns out that, in addition to the morning and late afternoon ferries, there was a mid-day ferry because of the holiday weekend (President’s Day) and…it leaves for St. Mary’s at 2:30!!! AND…we can get on it!!  My apologies for yelling, but this was good news on the level of winning a lottery.

There’s the ferry!

Jim and I settled into rocking chairs on the visitor center porch.  The light breeze helped keep the bugs at bay.  I noticed a little brown dot moving on Jim’s leg: uh-oh, a deer tick. He started inspecting and found three more.  (I found two on myself after we got back to Charlotte.)  Deer ticks are carriers of lyme disease, which can lead to lifelong illness if not treated quickly.  Aaaarrrggghhh…..

Will Cathy and Mike make it back in time for the ferry? Yes, and with pockets full of seashells.

So goodbye to Cumberland Island, an experience that in hindsight I learned a lot from and would still recommend with precautions.  The human history is fascinating, but the real story is the ecological importance of barrier islands and how easily the balance is upset by humans.  Even a guided tour in a vehicle has an impact that is contested because of wilderness designations, but I believe it is a good way to see and learn about this unique place.

“Every adventure is worthwhile.” ~Amelia Earheart

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Cumberland Island National Seashore: Hiking to Plum Orchard and Brickhill Bluff

Cumberland Island National Seashore – 2/17/18 – 16.2 Miles

Jim and I like to think of ourselves as experienced campers, but this trip to Cumberland Island got the better of us both. We were testing Cathy’s Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 tent, a tight fit for two real people with the single exit at the head end and a tapered foot end. Believe me, two inflated sleeping pads, sleeping bags, odds and ends, and two people trying to maneuver is a test. Jim realized too late that he had brought the sleeping pad that has a slow leak (meant to fix that…) and so spent the night repeatedly blowing up said pad whilst sitting on it.  Then morning came.

Breakfast, packed up, a little (a lot) short on sleep but anticipating an easy day on flat ground, we headed north on the Parallel Trail, a long straight tunnel beneath twisted live oaks and ethereal Spanish moss.  (Thanks to Mike for sharing photos.)

The little brochure map from the Visitor Center doesn’t include every feature “on the ground” so we puzzled over a few intersections that proved to be roads to private residences.  (Yes, there are still Carnegie descendants living on Cumberland Island. Eventually when they are all gone the land will become fully owned by the National Parks Service.)

Another backcountry site almost dead center of the island, no beach, no view.  Not sure why anyone would stay here unless it was the only place left to reserve. Which is a good reason.

It’s about 7.5 miles north by car to Plum Orchard Mansion, on the western side of the island overlooking the expansive sea marsh.  As I mentioned earlier, Lucy Carnegie gave all of the Carnegie children homes on the island when they married (if they chose) and Plum Orchard was the first, built in 1898 for her son George and his new bride Margaret Thaw.  The intriguing story of Plum Orchard’s occupants through the years is worthy of a Downton Abbey season – read all about it here.

We walked around the exterior of the mansion and settled at a picnic table to eat lunch on the side lawn while waiting for a tour of the inside.

Free tours of the mansion are given every hour except noon, beginning at 9:00 a.m. and ending with the 3:00 time slot.  The tours last 45 minutes. Our visit was facilitated by a woman with Volunteers-In-Parks.  She and other volunteers live in the house and take turns giving tours. We went up and down the main stairs, in and out of secret passages used only by servants (white or black knobs determined which servants were allowed to go through which doors) and wandered through the expansive basement learning how the house was heated and cooled. In my experience, NPS tours are always worthwhile and this one was first rate.

I asked the facilitator about the wild ponies on the island, the subject of much controversy.  She made a point of taking off her Volunteer-In-Parks role and donning her advocacy role, explaining that there is no such thing as a wild pony (they are feral) and that the living conditions of the island are not unsuitable for them – in fact, they suffer.  The public, however, has a romantic view of horses galloping along the beach and the outcry is severe when talk of reducing the herd is brought up.  She was very compassionate and very compelling in her knowledge of the horses. 

This ghostly fellow looks different to me now

We left Plum Orchard behind and headed to Table Point, featured on the map so it must be worth a look, eh? Well…we wandered around the circular path looking for the Point (is it low tide?) but all we found was this concrete block. 

The horses did not offer any advice 

From Table Point we made some tricky turns to get to the main road (really, why are there so many trails right in this area?  Is it because of the proximity to Plum Orchard (and other Carnegie houses? If you visit the island, please ask a ranger about this.)

The day had warmed up and the bugs that were supposed to be asleep at this time of year were awake, alert and ready for a snack.  As long as we kept moving we were okay, but stopping for any reason attracted a swarm.  The bug spray Jim had grabbed may have repelled the first million or so. Our mileage for the day was ticking up and we were ready to get to camp at Brickhill Bluff, but the no-see-um situation was a concern.

We came across a tent bag lying on the side of the road but didn’t pick it up; it might belong to someone going in our direction or the opposite direction. Poor guy, he’s gonna kick himself when he realizes it’s gone.  (Later we met Boy Scouts at our campsite who realized they were missing a tent.  The aforementioned poor guy had to walk back more than a mile to get it.)

Brickhill Bluff is a primitive site on the edge of Brickhill River (which flows into Cumberland River).  There’s plenty of room for multiple groups to spread out, so don’t stop at the first flat spot you see.  We dropped our gear and spent some time looking around to get some distance away from the Boy Scouts and other folks.  The limiting issue for the number of campers, however, isn’t space but fresh water:  the site has one hand pump. (You still must treat the water.) No one wants to haul water for 10 miles from Sea Camp, so it is a blessing to have a pump at all, but that baby gets a lot of use.  If it breaks, you’re out of luck.

Pumping and collecting water using both hands means you have no defense against the no-see-ums, which numbered in the gazillions at this point.  Cathy and Mike have nerves of steel (screaming helped).

We set up tents near the bluff’s edge, but sitting down to relax undisturbed was not possible.  Boiling water to hydrate a meal that I was too tired to eat (and couldn’t get a mouthful without bugs in it), I was ready to call it quits for the day. Somehow we had managed to walk 16 miles on this little island (flat but with loaded backpacks). Mike and Cathy came around with the deck of cards and I was already in my sleeping bag.

The bright spot (literally) - we were rewarded with a glorious sunset in a remote and wild place where few people venture. When the sky faded from blue to deep purple, the strip of land with its orange outline, and the trees turned black in silhouette, I recalled that a good friend used to say, “You gotta take the bitter with the better.”

“When the sun is setting, leave whatever you are doing and watch it.” ~Mehmet Murat Ildan