Cumberland Island Getaway
When you think of a weekend adventure, what do you think of?
A day hike, maybe? A trip to the climbing gym to try out the ropes? Renting a tube and floating down a river, maybe (or as we call it in Atlanta, “shooting the ‘hooch”)? Perhaps it is detoxing from the night before in a hot yoga class.
I have in me this huge desire to share it with others, because it feels like I’m truly living my life to the fullest every time. But oftentimes the desire is unmatched. In that, I often feel incredibly alone.
I’m not usually the guy going out for a weekend adventure like that. Every once in a while, maybe. But for the most part, I’m planning big trips that really involve more than one adventure. And if I’m not using the entirety of the weekend—from Friday night to Sunday night, then it better be a 4-day trip or even better an adventure that spans weekends. And these trips are truly epic; really awesome stuff that many people aspire to do in their lifetime—that’s a weekend for me. I love it! I have in me this huge desire to share it with others, because it feels like I’m truly living my life to the fullest every time. But oftentimes the desire is unmatched. In that, I often feel incredibly alone.
I am on an island. An island full of potential for wild adventure, but somehow lonely in my love for all the opportunities around. It is wondrous to think about and paradise when I am exploring it. But, this island is where I spend the other half of my life. It is the place I work and grocery shop and pay bills and all the other mundane things that uphold the lives we must have in order to make space for the lives we love. It is from this island I attempt to rally others to venture outside to try something new—to night hikes and month-long bicycle challenges, to trips to Yosemite, and even to attempt rock climbing for the first time. I push the boundaries all the time, because that is where true adventure lies.
I squeezed it all into a three day weekend, but for most it would be considered an aggressive schedule for a four-day adventure. As I said earlier, epics.
And over and over again it seems that I am alone in that. In February, I began planning an adventure to a non-metaphorical island. The Cumberland Island National Seashore is an island off the coast of Georgia only accessible by water that hosts wild horses, among a plethora of other wildlife. The plan was to paddle down the Crooked River to Cumberland Island, a narrow strip of land dividing the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean, portage our sea kayaks a mile to our campsite, pitch tents, spend the following day portaging to and paddling in the ocean before returning to our campsite, then break camp and paddle back the following day. I squeezed it all into a three day weekend, but for most it would be considered an aggressive schedule for a four-day adventure. As I said earlier, epics.
Twelve people were interested at that point, as access to the island is highly sought-after and generally needs to be applied for six months in advance to guarantee a permit. We purchased our permits for the August trip, and so we were ready to go. People were sick of winter and dreaming about the Salt Life, and the financial commitment for the permit was small, so it was an easy sell. But four months later when it was time to rent kayaks, it was crickets. The twelve who had signed up dropped to five, five to four, four to three, and three to two.
At that point I was in 'screw it' mode. Despite the scale of the endeavor, I decided to make it a family trip and bring a second kayak for my son, Mason. He would be joining Shanna Irving, the only other person bold enough to undertake this trip, and me on what would be the hardest camping I have ever done. We arrived after midnight Thursday night after driving out to a locked gate at Crooked River State Park, where we intended to camp. After getting a late night hotel room, we ate a big breakfast the next day, drove back to the park, unloaded and packed the kayaks, and departed.
The paddle down the Crooked River was unexpectedly tough. It was roughly 8 miles of paddling, but because the tide was coming in, had a significant back flow. So, while we were technically headed downriver, we were paddling against the current. Despite being at the mouth of the river where there is generally a labyrinth of small grassy islands, we managed the navigation swimmingly well. The paddle took roughly four hours due to the 1 mph current into which we were paddling. We made it to the Plum Orchard Dock just as Shanna broke down. The endeavor was certainly feeling a tad ambitious at this point, given the mutiny that had already begun to brew.
The endeavor was certainly feeling a tad ambitious at this point, given the mutiny that had already begun to brew.
After everybody had a rest, it was time to get our equipment to camp. This involved water, camping gear, and an 80lb Necky Amaruk tandem sea kayak. I had brought portage wheels, and the island has several gear carts available for folks to use to help get their gear to their campsites. So after some exhausting trial and error, we managed to devise a system that would support what we needed to do. The mile of portaging our gear to Yankee Paradise campsite took at least an hour. Even having a working system, figuring out our roles in moving it all down the trail and working together was largely a failure. In the midst of the heavy work, we had our first bout with the August heat, which hit us full force as we left the water to head inland.
The next challenge was finding water near our campsite, as we were on an ocean island. Spiraling from the campsite was fruitless, so I ventured out on the trail, eventually finding a sign pointing me to water. After what seemed like endless walking (it was a half mile but when you don’t know where it is, ten minutes of hiking starts to feel a lot like you missed it), I came upon a ground pump for the non-potable water. Drenched in sweat from the heat, I took the opportunity to bathe off beneath it only to discover that the it was “egg water”, water that I’ve learned adopts a terrible rotten egg smell and taste because it commingles with sulfur gas pockets beneath the surface. I now wreaked of it, and both Shanna and Mason noticed as soon as I returned.
Having found a water source, we found a suitable spot and began pitching our tents. We noticed two giant Citronella candles that had been left behind by wiser campers. This was an early sign of what was to come.
Having found a water source, we found a suitable spot and began pitching our tents. We noticed two giant Citronella candles that had been left behind by wiser campers. This was an early sign of what was to come. Because our campsite was inland, the mosquitos were atrocious. We lit up the candles and a smokey fire, and put on our head nets to face the onslaught. However, building a fire and being fully clothed to protect from the mosquitos meant being hotter in the oppressively hot and humid night. These are the tradeoffs you sometimes have to make in the wilderness.
At first, the mosquitoes beat me, and I resolved myself to enduring the heat. As we rolled out the tent Shanna and I would be sharing—a mostly-mesh Marmot single-person bivouac bag that I had only used once before in a desert because I live in Georgia, where it rains pretty often, I severely underestimated how much breathability the mesh would provide. The bag quickly became a sweltering hotbox. The bivy bag being too small meant making another decision between the mosquitoes and being hot—every square inch of of skin contact added to the sweat I was sleeping in, while separating meant buddying up against the bivy mesh, through which the mosquitoes were happy to feast. Even still, the heat was intolerable.
So, as I left the bivy bag to be eaten alive by mosquitoes while sleeping under the stars, I was at least happy to be free from the oven that was my sleeping environment. Shanna slept cooler, still being bitten through the mesh, and Mason was roosting comparatively better off in an Eno protected by mosquito netting, but he was getting up in the night as well due to his own suffering. Nobody was comfortable. Morning couldn’t come fast enough.
We started the next day with breakfast and the discovery that in the night food had been eaten and other food had been stashed away. Given the misery we had already undergone, this was an unwelcome discovery, to put it mildly.
We started the next day with breakfast and the discovery that in the night food had been eaten and other food had been stashed away. Given the misery we had already undergone, this was an unwelcome discovery, to put it mildly. After explaining vividly that in historical maritime environments, his body would have been given to the ocean, Mason was told the food would come out of his meals, meaning he would no longer have snacks or lunch the following two days. This was hard news, but necessary—given the constraints on hull space for the paddle out, we had packed only the minimal amount of food for living on the island for three days.
Although the heat had taken the edge off it, I was still pretty excited to get to the Cumberland Island beach. That excitement was tempered by the fact that we had run out of water the night before, so we had to refill the MSR Dromedary (a 10-liter wineskin-style bladder for supporting a campsite) with rotten egg water. Afterward, we began our portage to the oceanside of the island. On a plus side, we had less gear to portage. Additionally, we put the knowledge we had acquired the previous day to use and were working well moving together as a team. On the negative side, the trail became narrower and gnarlier, so the journey took an equal amount of time as we figured out how to navigate the bends in the trail.
Unfortunately, after taking the kayak out on its very first run into the open ocean, one of the cables that control the rudder broke. It was my turn to break down.
After guiding our the kayak caravan to the Cumberland Island beach, we were relieved to get a day of play in the water and cool breeze—for a short time. Unfortunately, after taking the kayak out on its very first run into the open ocean, one of the cables that control the rudder broke. It was my turn to break down. Shanna encouraged and roused me to make the two mile round trip hike back into the windless island to fetch the repair kit—our only hope for fixing the kayak. It was the hottest part of the day, and after another forty minute hike during it, I returned to their telling stories of the jet black wild horse they had spotted shimmering amidst the sand dunes while I was away.
After some creative engineering, we were able to repair the kayak rudder. At this point, we took the sea kayak back out to sea, playing in the surf for a couple of hours before retiring to rest in the Eno, which Shanna had slung between two palm trees before falling asleep in it. We had decided that with the ocean breeze, beach camping would be far more pleasant, and so our plan was to portage the kayak back to the campsite, retrieve our camping gear, and return to the ocean.
The return portage was again much improved, as we knew better how to navigate the trail bends and roots. This was offset by our exhaustion from the long day in the sun, and further exacerbated by Mason having lost a shoe in the turf. He would be half barefoot for the remaining half of the trip. Having prepared the kayak and other things we didn’t need for the return trip the following day, we broke camp and made our way back to the Cumberland Island beach.
When the light of morning came and revealed that the insects had been feasting on my legs all along, I was done. I attempted to walk with dignity to the ocean to wash them off, only to break into a run after I simply could not take it any more.
As we approached the beach again, storm clouds gathered and began to dump rain on us. It was welcome because it meant a cooler and bug-free night, and if Mason’s wilderness water-gathering techniques worked out, fresh water in the morning. But as soon as the rain drenched the hammock and bivy we pitched, the wind died and the rain stopped. The water gathered was less than a swallow, and now that the storm had abated, we faced a new challenge—sand gnats. While the dampness in the tent helped to cool us off, the sand gnats were capable of making their way through the mesh of the bivy bag. I woke several times in the night thinking the sand was just stinging my legs, brushing it off for temporary relief, only to wake again later to the same horror. When the light of morning came and revealed that the insects had been feasting on my legs all along, I was done.
I was in awe. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments on Shark Week where upon seeing it you swear off oceans for good.
I attempted to walk with dignity to the ocean to wash them off, only to break into a run after I simply could not take it any more. Wading into the water was sweet relief, and for a wonderful moment I was both cool and relieved be bug free. It was at that moment I was surprised to see two dorsal fins in the shallows a mere hundred feet away. It became clear they weren’t dolphins when one of the sharks launched out of the water with a fish in front of its tooth-filled maw, the entranceway into its stomach opening and closing several times midair. I was in awe. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments on Shark Week where upon seeing it you swear off oceans for good. The shark was roughly 5-6 feet long head to tail, and I wouldn’t have guessed it to be in such shallow water. The dorsal fin of the other was no smaller. I was then faced with a decision--to stay in the water with the sharks, or to return to the sand gnats. With a vigilant eye focused on the sharks, I stayed. It was in this way I learned I hate sand gnats more than death.
The third day was the most pleasurable by far. We were mostly smell-blind to the rotten eggs, knew exactly how to portage the kayak the remaining distance out, and this time we had the pleasure of paddling the Crooked River with the bizarre upstream current. In fact, the most tedious task of the day was no different from that most people face while going on a beach “adventure”: washing all the sand away.