An Exploration of Cumberland Island

Camping Stories
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We establish a base camp at Brickhill Bluff, spending two days with daypacks exploring the north end of the island. Our trip leader, Swede, wrote ahead to request an audience with Robert Shoop and Carol Ruckdeschel, the island's resident biologists and caretakers of the Cumberland Island Museum. To visit them, we must hike five miles north. But no one's home today — a miscommunication, perhaps — so we poke around The Settlement. It is best known for First African Baptist Church, a humble white building set under moss-draped spreading live oaks where John F. Kennedy Jr. and his bride chose to be married in seclusion. Its creaking floors and stark pews speak of the days when newly freed slaves gathered here to worship. But there are no black residents left now on Cumberland Island; indeed, few residents at all.

Swede and Anita want to find oysters. "I've carried this cocktail sauce and crackers all this way" He laughs. We head towards Burbank Point, where sand bluffs tumble down to the Cumberland River estuary. It takes several tries to find a safe path down to the tidal shore; our experts wander the oyster beds while the rest of us relax in the sun, poke at driftwood, watch for herons, breathe in the tang of the salt air.

"They're dead," Anita said, disappointed. "All dead."

"No wonder Dr. Shoop recommended Christmas Creek," said Swede. We look at the map. Six more miles, one way. Three hours of daylight left. It's unlikely we'll be eating oysters this trip.

Back at the campsite, we watch the sun sink down into the coastal swamps, framed by live oaks, by palmettos. Dolphin play in the blue shimmer of the Brickhill River as the sunset seeps across the horizon, broad bands of gold and orange fading, sweeping day into night.

Whomp! Whomp! Judy battles through the night with a mole intent on burrowing up into her tent. The mole wins; she moves the tent. I'm startled by a rustle in the night — a raccoon sauntering through the campsite. We've had pretty good luck with nocturnal visitors. The wild horses stay on the perimeter; we can hear their snorts, feel their hooves.

We all hung our food bags the night the raccoons were spotted, a hilarious spaghetti tangle of strings and bags. In the chill of the evening, we play virtual campfire: Gloria produces a candle, and we huddle around it as it casts a warm aura of reflected light from inside a circle of aluminum foil. We tell stories. Laugh. Share popcorn and gorp.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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