Saturday, March 4, 2023
While camped in Darien, Georgia, we learned it was possible to visit Sapelo Island, one of Georgia's 14 major barrier islands and the fourth largest. Sapelo Island was once occupied by Guale Indians and was the center of territorial struggles between the Spanish, French and British. By the 1800s, the island was owned by Thomas Spalding and his plantation was run using over 400 slaves. When freed, the former slaves established several settlements on the island. RJ Reynolds purchased much of the island in 1934. It was his widow, Annemarie Schmidt Reynolds, that sold her island holdings to the State of Georgia.
Today, all but 434 acres of the island now belong to the State of Georgia. There are three major programs currently run on the island - The RJ Reynolds Wildlife Management Area, The University of Georgia's Marine Institute and The Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. Guided Tours are offered by the Georgia's Department of National Resources. When we stopped at the Sapelo Island Visitor Center, we also learned it was possible to arrange private tours from island residents or rent bicycles for a self-guided tour.
Our day started at the Sapelo Ferry Dock where we meet Yvonne Grovner, an island resident and tour guide for the DNR. We paid our $5.00 each to ride the ferry and confirmed with Yvonne that we would catch up with her tour so we could climb the lighthouse. During our 30 minute ferry ride, we had a chance to meet and chat with a number of the folks taking the bus tour, including a friendly couple from Boston who were down in Georgia for a 10 day visit with friends from Maine who had rented a place on nearby Jekyll Island. Once we docked at Marsh Landing, we met Kent Grovner (Yvonne's cousin) and picked up our bicycles. With our self-guided tour book in hand, we set forth on our adventure.
Our first stop was Oakdale Creek. According to our guide book, this area is popular with birders hoping to spot the elusive Painted Bunting. The island plays host to over 250 species of birds during the year. Since a cold front had just blown through bringing lots of rain, the birds must have still been hunkering down.
In 1953, R.J. Reynolds, Jr. provided the facilities for the University of Georgia Marine Institute to encourage research in Georgia's coastal waters and marshes.
The former dairy barn now contains saltwater laboratories, scientist's offices, a library and movie theater. In addition to the research done by visiting and full-time scientists, many college students participate in class and summer projects.
The area across from the Institute is a beautiful example of a coastal swamp. The azaleas in Georgia are just about at their peak.
We were so busy admiring the footbridge, duck weed and Spanish moss, we almost didn't spot this heron resting in a dead tree:
Every plantation needs its mansion. The South End House was originally built by Thomas Spalding, but it was destroyed during the Civil War. The house was rebuilt by Howard Coffin, who sold it to R.J. Reynolds. Today, the DNR Lodge Parks runs the Reynolds Mansion as a bed-and-breakfast. Visitors staying at the mansion have use of 10 bedrooms, the circus room on the top floor and the bowling alley in the basement. We thought about staying in the mansion, until we learned there is a minimum group size of 16. So much for that idea.
As we circled the mansion, we ran into several other bike riders who were camping on Cabretta Island (an area on Sapelo Island). They kept losing each other as they rode around the mansion property. We told them if they wanted to see the inside of the lighthouse, they should get there by 11:00. We took off and wondered if we would see them again.
We stopped at the trailhead for the Sapelo Island Nature Trail. If we had more time we would have liked to hike the 2.5 miles through the maritime forest, salt marsh, and dune habitats to Nanny Goat Beach. However, we needed to meet Yvonne at the lighthouse. Truth be told, Kathy was being eaten alive by bugs and didn't relish the idea of walking in the woods.
While we waited for the tour bus to catch up with us, we climbed the old beacon light. This beacon would help mariners line up the Sapelo Lighthouse so they could follow the proper channel for entering the Doboy Sound.
As we walked around the base of the lighthouse, we almost stepped on this little guy. Fiddler crabs are usually found in the marsh. This little guy must have decided that hunting for bugs in the gravel was easier than digging around in the mud.
As with most things on the island, the tour runs on island time. After about 20 minutes, during which time we met up again with the biking campers, the tour bus arrived. Yvonne unlocked the lighthouse and we made our way to the top.
Not all 25 bus people wanted to climb all those steps, but we did run into our friends from Boston, who were willing to make the climb.
After the lighthouse tour, we rode down to Nanny Goat Beach. As we crossed Dean Creek, we spotted this snowy egret doing a little fishing in the outgoing tide.
Reaching Nanny Goat Beach, we found the perfect picnic spot perched above the sand with expansive views both north and south:
The tour bus did catch up with us, but they only had a few short minutes to visit the beach and take a few photos before heading back to Marsh Landing for the 12:30 return ferry. We had the rest of the afternoon to explore, since we didn't have to leave until the 4:30 ferry.
After lunch, we took a walk on the beach to stretch our legs, digest lunch and see if we could find some shells or beach glass. It didn't take long before we started to fill our lunch bags with all sizes of conch shells and sand dollars. We also had fun poking around the remains of some old structures. We wanted to imagine this was the remains of some old shipwreck, but it looked more like a ground-bound construction:
We also discovered a real shipwreck. Sorry, no gold doubloons here. Just an old motorboat that went astray during a storm. It looked like "treasure" hunters had stripped it bare of all valuable materials.
This piece of tubular coral caught our eye. We are not sure what once lived in those tubes but we weren't going to stick our fingers in to find out.
After our two mile walk on the beach, we returned to the picnic area to clean up our shells and decide who was coming home with us. The five in the front left were the keepers. The rest we left on the table for anyone else who might want them.
As we were leaving, we ran into two of the bike campers. They had finally found their friends who were hiking across the island. They asked if, as we pedaled back toward the center of the island, we could tell the remaining two bike campers waiting at their trailhead that we had found their hiking friends and everyone was hanging out on Nanny Goat Beach. We delivered the message as promised and began our ride over to the Hog Hammock Community.
Hog Hammock is the last intact, island-based Gullah-Geechee community on the Georgia coast. The Gullah-Geechee people are the descendants of slaves that once worked the island plantations. The origin of the word "Gullah" can be traced to the KiKongo language, spoken around the Congo River's mouth from which the Gullah language dialects comes from. There are currently 70 full-time residents of Hog Hammock.
As we were riding through town, Kathy noticed a beautiful red cardinal and stopped to point it out to Dave, who argued that it wasn't a cardinal, but a painted bunting. We were looking at two different birds! Unfortunately, the bunting flew away before Kathy could spot it. Even though there is no photo of the bunting, Dave still gets credit for spotting it. Better luck next time, Kathy.
As we arrived at the country store, we found it to be closed. Apparently, it only opens when the bus tour stops by. We ran into our bike camping friends again as they were making their way back to camp. We compared notes on all the places we have backpacked over the years. Since we still had two more stops on our tour, we wished them well and made our way across the island.
We stopped to take in the view from the Community Landing:
One of the oldest structures on the island is the Long Tabby. It was originally built by slaves as the processing house of Thomas Spalding's sugarcane mill. The walls of the old extracting house show the original exposed tabby, which is equal parts water, sand, oyster shell and lime. The rest of the mill building was converted to a summer camp and later a post office.
By the time we finished our bike tour, we had covered 13 miles by bike and two mile on the beach. We were happy to have the time to sit and rest before the ferry arrived. As the boat pulls into the dock on each trip, it stirs up the water, creating feeding opportunities for the laughing gulls and dolphins. Trying to photograph a dolphin in motion is hard. Here is our best shot:
Capturing the gulls was easier. They fly behind the boat and look for small fish being kicked out by the boat's motor jets.
As the sun set on our adventure while we were crossing back to the mainland on the ferry, we considered ourselves lucky to have had such a great day exploring.
May we have more of these!
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