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Cumberland Island National Seashore Backpack Outing, March 2015, by Gail Bagley

April 20, 2015

There aren’t many places where you can see wild horses grazing along the beach.

There aren’t many places where crumbling ruins of a 19th century Carnegie mansion sit frozen in time, within hiking distance of your wilderness campsite.

There aren’t many places where you can sit in the tiny chapel of a settlement once inhabited by the descendants of slaves.

Cumberland Island is the place where you can experience all of this and more.

Ancient Islands Outings participants enjoyed three days of pure joy at our recent Cumberland Island National Seashore Backpack trip.

The ferry ride alone is worth the trip!

The ferry ride alone is worth the trip!

Cumberland Island, Georgia, is located near the Florida state line, just across the Cumberland Sound from Amelia Island. A scenic wildlife habitat, the island measures about 17.5 miles long by 3 miles wide, and is Georgia’s largest, southernmost barrier island. It encompasses maritime forests, wild beach, freshwater lakes, saltwater marshes, and over 9,800 acres of wilderness.  It is a place of solitude and quiet.

Our group of 10, led by Gail Bagley and assistant leader Dan Clark, disembarked from the “Cumberland Queen” ferry on a chilly and windy Saturday morning and checked in at the Ranger Station for orientation and campsite assignment.  Then we hit the nearby picnic table to prepare our first meal – Curried Chicken Salad – which was quickly devoured.

A 3 ½ mile hike took us to our tranquil Stafford Beach campsite, where we were to stay for 3 nights. Stafford is a backcountry site that has a fire pit and is about 500 yards from a bathroom with non-potable water.  It is sheltered and shaded by a canopy of huge oaks, making it hard to imagine you are just a short hike from the beach.  We quickly divided up our chores, which included meal preparation/cleanup, setting up the tarp shelter, creating a hoist to animal-proof our food supplies, water purification, and starting a fire.  We set up our tents, pulled out the “kitchen” gear, and started preparing our Mediterranean Stew dinner.  Throughout the evening we heard a Great Horned Owl calling its mate.

What a great group of folks!

What a great group of folks!

We were up at about 6am Sunday morning, enjoyed a hearty breakfast of Steel Cut Oatmeal with fruit and nuts, then hiked 3 ½ miles back to the Ranger Station to meet our van driver for the Land and Legacy tour.  This tour is a relatively new (since 2011) way to enjoy Cumberland. We included it in our outing because it would have been impossible to hike the long distances to the sites seen- especially those at the northern end of the island. Our park volunteer/driver, Bernie, added much in-depth knowledge and understanding to our Cumberland experience.  He had previously been the resident caretaker of the island’s famous Plum Orchard Carnegie mansion, and had developed close relationships with the few residents who currently inhabit the island.

At the north end of the island we stopped at “The Settlement”, which dates back to the late 1880s, and is a small village of former slaves.  This is the location of the historic First African Baptist church – a tiny timber chapel that became famous as the location where John F. Kennedy Jr. wed Carolyn Bessette in September 1996.  Judging from the time we spent sitting quietly in the chapel and then taking photos outside, you might think we had visited Cumberland for this one experience!

Monday morning was a lazy one, and we were slow getting things moving.  Breakfast was a (rehydrated) hash brown/eggs/turkey sausage casserole.  Before breakfast, one of our participants had to leave the outing due to illness.  Dan was extraordinarily helpful and generous in escorting her safely back to the Ranger Station to catch the next ferry, while the rest of us hiked to the south end to explore the Dungeness Ruins.  Dungeness was originally a home built by Revolutionary Was hero Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s widow, Catherine.   In 1884 Thomas and Lucy Carnegie began building their mansion upon the Greene’s foundations.   We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch of tuna salad, and were thankful that a little lunchtime rain did not turn into an all-day downpour.

Stafford campsite is within 100 feet of the beach

Stafford campsite is within 100 feet of the beach

Tuesday morning was another 6 am rising time!  This was our last day and we did not want to miss breakfast, nor did we want to miss the ferry back to the mainland.  Instead of having breakfast at our campsite, we packed everything up, said “goodbye” to Stafford, and hiked back to the Ranger Station. There we enjoyed the luxury of picnic tables and potable water, and Dan prepared his famous and delicious blueberry pancakes.   It is interesting to see how differently backpacks are loaded on the return trip compared to the arrival.  On the return trip you have partially washed cookware tossed in with your camp trash, on top of your dirty laundry.  You just need to get it out of there.

One of my favorite aspects of any outing – especially those with new participants – is watching the teamwork that develops and builds each day.  Skills and interests grow as someone becomes the campfire person, another becomes the meal person, someone else becomes the water purification person, and so on. By the end of the outing, you have a well-oiled machine, as they say!

I believe one thing our participants would all agree upon is that Cumberland Island is a special, healing, one-of-a-kind place of solitude.  We are thankful that the property is protected by the National Park Service.  Cumberland was at one time on its way to becoming built up with hotels, houses, marinas and golf courses by real estate developer Charles Fraser of Hilton Head.  He abandoned his plans after Island residents joined with environmental organizations and the Department of the Interior to support the acquisition of Cumberland by the National Park Service.   We are thankful that Cumberland will remain in its wild, natural state, a destination for future Sierra outings.

By Gail Bagley, Outing Leader


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