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Monday, March 6, 2023

Hiking to Cannons Point on St. Simons Island

St. Simons Island is a barrier island located on the southeast Georgia coast, midway between Savannah and Jacksonville. St. Simons Island is both a seaside resort and residential community. It is the largest of Georgia's renowned Golden Isles (along with Sea Island, Jekyll Island, and privately owned Little St. Simons Island). Visitors are drawn to the Island for its warm climate, beaches, variety of outdoor activities, shops, restaurants, historical sites, and natural environment.

Cannon's Point, on the north end of the island, is an archaeological site that includes a Late Archaic shell ring. The Cannon's Point site has yielded evidence of occupation by Native Americans since nearly 2500 BC.  The Spanish mission of San Buenaventura de Guadalquini was established on the southern end of St. Simons sometime between 1597 and 1609.  Fort Frederica was built by the British beginning in 1736 as the military headquarters of the Province of Georgia during the early English colonial period. It served as a buffer against Spanish incursion from Florida. In the 1730s, St. Simons served as a sometime home to John Wesley, the young minister of the colony at Savannah. He later returned to England, where in 1738, he founded the evangelical movement of Methodism within the Anglican Church.

During the plantation era, St. Simons became a center of cotton production, known for its long-fiber Sea Island Cotton. Nearly the entire island was cleared of trees to make way for several large cotton plantations worked by enslaved Geechee people and their descendants. The plantations of this and other sea islands were large, and often the owners stayed on the mainland in Darien and other towns, especially during the summers, because the Island was considered swamp lands. Still, enslaved Geechee people lived on the island and were not allowed to come to the mainland unless accompanied by an enslaver.

During the early stages of the war, Confederate troops occupied St. Simons Island to protect its strategic location at the entrance to Brunswick harbor. However, in 1862, Robert E. Lee ordered an evacuation of the island to relocate the soldiers for the defense of Savannah, Georgia. Before departing, they destroyed the lighthouse to prevent its use as a navigation aid by U.S. Navy forces.  Postwar, the island plantations were in ruins, and landowners found it financially unfeasible to cultivate cotton or rice. Most moved inland to pursue other occupations, and the island's economy remained dormant for several years. Formerly enslaved people established a community in the center of the island known as Harrington.  As early as the 1870s, summer cottages were being constructed on the island's south end, and a small village was forming to serve them.  On April 8, 1942, World War II became a reality to residents of St. Simons Island when a German U-boat sank two oil tankers in the middle of the night. The blasts shattered windows as far away as Brunswick, and unsubstantiated rumors spread about German soldiers landing on the beaches.

In September 2012, the St. Simons Land Trust acquired a 608-acre tract of undeveloped land in the northeast portion of the island. The acreage includes maritime forest, salt marsh, tidal creek, and river shoreline, as well as ancient shell middens and remains of the John Couper plantation of the early 19th century.  Known as the Cannons Point Preserve, it is open to the public for hiking, bicycling, bird-watching, and picnicking. The Preserve also features a launch site for kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards and an observation tower at the north end.

Cannon’s Point Preserve has some of the last intact maritime forest on St. Simons Island and is rich in cultural and natural history. The peninsula has more than six miles of salt marsh, tidal creek and river shoreline that provide habitat for wildlife such as oysters, birds, fish, and manatee. Shell middens dating back to 2500 BCE are on the site, as are the remains of the large plantation home and slave quarters owned by John Couper in the 1800s.

After many outings with kayaks and bikes recently, we decided a hike would be a nice change of pace, and decided the 6 mile loop hike in Cannons Point Preserve would be right for us.

Our hike began from a section of the Preserve known as Taylor's Fish Camp. It boasts a reconstructed estuarial region that is presently off-limits to visitors in order to let it complete its restoration to natural conditions:

Prior to the restoration, visitors could walk out to the observation deck that is visible out in the estuary:

Already, the reconstruction work has brought healthy water back into the area near the hammock that the Preserve encompasses:

Our hike led along a 3 mile road out to Cannons Point.  The road was bordered by huge, old live oak trees draped in Spanish Moss, Sabol Palms, and tall loblolly pines:

Occasionally, along the road, we saw evidence of prior habitation, such as this wooden gate:

This was an old tabby barn built in 1925 by the Taylor Brothers, who farmed the area and raised free-range cattle and hogs.

During the plantation period, slaves lived in quarters that were built in this section of the island.  At this location, eight families lived in four duplex houses, gathered around a central well, each with its own outhouse.  All that remains of the houses are piles of brick rubble:

In contrast to the slaves, the plantation owners, John and Rebecca Couper, lived in a luxurious manse built by slave labor just on the northernmost point of the island.  All that remains of their plantation home is a chimney and portions of tabby walls:

An outdoor kitchen sat some distance from the plantation home to protect the home from the risk of fire:

This is the view today from Cannons Point where the Coupers lived:

Once we finished touring the ruins, we started back to the trailhead, but on a more primitive trial through the marine forest, rather than on the main road by which we walked north to the ruins.  The trail was marked with cute little hiker-dudes nailed as blazes periodically on the trees:

The trail is well-maintained, and we saw ample evidence of work to cut deadfall to clear the trail:

Vines are ubiquitous in this marine forest, and we had to climb over a few of them.  Below, Kathy demonstrates the proper method:

Part of the present marine forest includes old growth trees which, for whatever reason, were spared from the repeated clear-cut logging of the island.  We found one and David volunteered to hug it to show you its size:

At one or two points along the trail, the estuary was visible, with muddy channels where the water will flood in at high tide:

Our entire hike was about 6 miles.  We got a late start, and the Preserve closes at 3 p.m. -- it is only open on weekends and Mondays -- so we needed to keep up a quick pace in order to complete the walk before the gates closed.  However, we did such a good job getting out to Cannons Point on the center road, that we had ample time to walk leisurely back on the trail and learn about the marine forest all around us.

We were lucky that we hiked back in the forest, because, when we reached the open road again, the temperature in full sun was approaching 100F!  We only had a half mile or so to walk in the heat before reaching our Jeep and jumping in to enjoy the cool air conditioning on our ride home.

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