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Beneath the Shell: The Endangered Life of America’s Wildest Woman

Carol Ruckdeschel is the wildest woman in America. She grew up on the banks of Atlanta’s Chattahoochee River where she liked to catch snakes, sleep in a cave, and cook road kill over a fire. After high school, she hopscotched her way through jobs and schools and even got married for a year. But nothing fit until she began working for Georgia’s Natural Areas Council with Coca-Cola heir Sam Candler. That led to a river trip with Governor Jimmy Carter, an article in The New Yorker, and selection as one of Mademoiselle magazine’s Women of the Year in 1973. But the attention was too much for Carol. She wanted to get away and get back to nature. So Carol accepted an invitation from Sam Candler to work at his family’s vacation home on Cumberland Island, a wilderness barrier island and national park off the coast of Georgia and playground for the Candler and Carnegie heirs.

When Carol arrived on the island in the summer of 1973, Sam Candler gave her an aerial tour of the island in his single-engine Cessna.

Cumberland was a sliver of sensuous beauty, shaped like a conch shell. It was three miles wide at its midriff, though its girth narrowed to less than a half mile at its southern waistband. Most of Cumberland’s interior was cloaked in thick forest, scarred only by the Candler compound and four Carnegie mansions.

The plane yawed in the sea wind. Sunlight glinted off Lake Whitney, the freshwater heart of Cumberland and home to most of the island’s alligators. Sam banked left and glided low over the wide, blond strip of beach.

As they flew south, crumbling slave chimneys appeared through the trees, near an overgrown meadow and landing strip for the Carnegie planes near Stafford mansion. Just past Stafford, the Greyfield Inn came into view. The gabled manor and its sprawling green lawns were nestled against the western edge of the island, with a dock jutting into the sound. One mile south of Greyfield was Sea Camp, the National Park Service headquarters, where rangers met passengers disembarking from the ferry. Near the southern end of the island, Sam’s plane swooped over the charred, crumbling ruins of Dungeness mansion, which overlooked a vast expanse of tidal creeks all the way out to the pelican-dotted jetty.

The developed beaches of Florida loomed to the south. North of Cumberland were resort beaches stretching all the way to Savannah. And on the mainland across from Cumberland were marinas, factories and the belching smokestacks of paper mills. Even from the air, Cumberland was an oasis, a place apart.

Sam banked the plane north and landed on a bumpy grass airstrip near the Candler compound. He swung open the plane door to utter silence. Two horses grazed on the edge of the runway. One looked up to watch people emerge from the giant painted bird, then returned to munching grass.

Climbing out of the plane with Carol Ruckdeschel was her boyfriend, John Pennington. Two decades of hard-nosed investigative journalism had worn him down. He was ready to chuck it all and follow his girlfriend to a remote island, where they would work as hired help for a wealthy family. An award-winning writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was now folding linens and changing light bulbs.

“There’s something you should know about my family,” Sam said. “They’re somewhat traditional. They’re not comfortable with an unmarried man and woman living under their roof.”

Carol kicked at the bridge pilings. “We’re not leaving. We just got here.”

Sam scratched the back of his neck and wiped beaded sweat from his brow. “Maybe you could imply that you and John are planning to get married.”

“There’s a church just down the road,” John said.

“I’m not getting engaged,” replied Carol.

“Just play along,” Sam said. “For a while, at least.”

Carol made a meager $25 a week working for the Candlers. John was paid more and worked less, but Carol didn’t care. She would have worked for free to live on Cumberland, and she didn’t need much money to get by.

She had to feed herself, though. So Carol plowed a garden using the Candlers’ tiller and planted okra, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, pole beans, creasy greens, and collards. In the cooler months she grew radishes and arugula. She fertilized her garden with seaweed that had washed onto the beach. She also raised chickens and kept a hive of bees.

The island’s white-tailed deer and wild hogs were plentiful, and she gathered wild chanterelles and salad greens from the lush maritime forest. But the most abundant island resource — tidal creeks teeming with shrimp, crabs, and fish — remained elusive.

Carol was practicing casting the net off the Candler dock one evening when she heard a voice behind her: “Yo arm broke?” It was Jesse Bailey, the reclusive resident fisherman. He lived alone in a small cabin by the creek. Jesse was responsible for gathering fresh fish and shrimp each day for the Candler family.

“Throw that net wide,” he told her. “Put some muscle behind it.”

Carol tried again, but dragged in only a tangled, dripping net.

“Don’t aim it. Throw it.” Jesse showed her how to hold the net like a bullfighter’s cape, arm extended and parallel to the ground. From his hands, the net swirled out like a windblown blossom over the water.

Imitating Jesse, she threw the net again. It spread wide and sank to the bottom. Then she pulled the drawstring toward her and yanked hard. The net came up jumping with mullet, sea trout, and flounder.

“Hot diggity!” Carol shouted, amazed by her catch flapping about on the dock.

“You can admire ’em later,” Jesse said. “Get yo net back in the water while the tide’s right.”

Every evening since she had arrived, Carol had been observing loggerhead sea turtles crawling ashore to nest. She walked along the water’s edge until she came across the V-shaped tractor-tire tread of turtle crawls. On moonless nights, she nearly stumbled over giant sea turtles lumbering up the beach.

With their rear flippers, turtles scooped out flask-shaped holes deep in the dunes. Once they finished digging, Carol huddled behind the turtles like a quarterback and counted the eggs as they dropped.

Two months later, the impregnated dunes spilled their secrets. Beneath the stirring sand, one hundred hatchlings broke through their shells, climbed out of the nest, and scampered to the sea. After witnessing her first turtle nest hatch, Carol wrote in her journal: “It was nothing short of soul stirring — the prehistoric turtles, the wild beach, the transparent darkness, the wind, the primeval pounding surf. There was a feeling of being especially close to the undefinable Source.”

At first, Carol watched the nesting sea turtles from a distance. But her scientific curiosity soon got the best of her. Before long, she was counting eggs, measuring shell lengths, and flagging the buried nests so she could watch them hatch a few months later.

She stayed all night on the beach with the turtles. She slept only a couple of hours, between sunrise and 8 A.M., when she had to report for work at the Candler compound. Usually she crashed in the dunes just before dawn and let the sun wake her.

Carol soon joined the island’s turtle tagging project, one of the first in the country, which the University of Georgia had launched in the late 1960s. She published her first scientific paper on sea turtle migration patterns in the mid-1970s.

Carol was becoming feral. She ate wild-caught critters, sometimes raw. She trained her body to rely on only one meal a day, staying lean and mean like the other predators stalking the island. She bathed in the surf. Her body was adapting to sleeping in short snatches, just like animals. The exhaustion toughened her resolve. “Overextend your will to strengthen it,” she wrote in her journal.

She wore a long-sleeve flannel shirt with a wire notebook stuffed into the chest pocket, a bandana around her neck, and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat with a pencil slotted through a notch in the brim. Tucked into her firefighter’s boots were baggy, mud-smeared jeans with a knife and watch hanging from the belt loops. Most of her clothes were shades of brown, green, and gray — her favorite color — which blended with the muted tones of the forest and beach.

Carol and John’s relationship soon disintegrated. When he moved out of their cabin, Sam’s brother Buddy Candler fired her and ordered her off the island. With the help of island resident Louie McKee, she set her sights on buying a piece of property, knowing the National Park Service would soon buy it from her and give her lifetime residency rights.

In the fall of 1978, Carol bought a wobbly shack on one-third of an acre for $36,000. She was finally free. “I’m here! This is mine!” she shouted when she opened the door for the first time in 1978. She didn’t have to worry about making money or pleasing a boss. She could live off the land. She could live by her own rules.

Carol didn’t move into the cabin right away. For the next year, while she rebuilt the cabin, she lived in the old storage shed across the yard. Her shed wasn’t much better than her leaning, sagging cabin.

For Louie, the cabin construction was a great excuse to spend more time with Carol. Together they replaced the joists, repaired the chimney and patched the roof. Their relationship deepened.

While she rebuilt her cabin, she ate dead-on-the-road armadillo and dead-on-the-beach porpoise. Jesse brought her mullet. She cast crab traps and shrimp nets off the Half Moon Bluff dock. She mucked barefoot out into the mudflats to harvest clams, and she stripped off her trousers and waded half-naked into tidal creeks to fish. And she happily shot hogs on the beach that were raiding turtle nests.

By 1979, Cumberland Island National Seashore had officially opened to the public. Backpackers had begun hiking the trails, and a few made it all the way to the north end of the island. As a housewarming gift, Louie gave Carol a sawed-off twelve-gauge shotgun to keep beside her at night. Carol thought it was unnecessary, especially since she already had a pistol, but she took the shotgun to make Louie happy.

“I promise I’ll never shoot it unless I’m serious,” she told him.

Carol frantically worked on her cabin, hoping to complete as much renovation as possible before the National Park Service offered to buy it, so she could receive the highest possible appraisal. Before selling to the National Park Service, Louie also suggested that he and Carol give each other partial ownership in their respective properties.

“That way, if one of us dies, the other can make sure the land is protected and not misused,” Louie explained. Carol agreed. She had become mistrustful of the National Park Service after learning of its proposal to develop large parts of the island and run vehicle tours all over it. She was already crafting plans to stop them.

In 1979, Carol sold her property to the National Park Service for $45,000 — along with the right to live on the island for the rest of her life.

In her journal that evening, she wrote: “I’m home. No place like it.”

Louie lived just down the road at Half Moon Bluff, which was a popular party spot on the weekends. Carol preferred wandering the wild dunes with turtles to drinking cheap beer and listening to repetitious chatter.

Things with Louie were also starting to wear thin. They quarreled frequently, and after a few drinks Louie became abusive. She wanted out of the relationship but was afraid that a confrontation would provoke even more rage. So she tried to just let things dissolve.

Carol was invited to attend a national sea turtle conference in Washington, D.C. by Rebecca Bell, a resident of Little Cumberland Island who worked with University of Georgia’s turtle tagging project.

Carol was an anomaly among the turtle experts. Most were older men with university positions. Carol’s high school education and lack of formal training was frowned upon, especially when she questioned one professor over his conclusion that sea turtles appeared to be shrinking in size.

Later, she challenged a top scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who claimed that trawling by shrimpers had little effect on sea turtles. “Baloney!” Carol said. “Trawling is the biggest turtle killer.”

Whispers rippled through the crowd.

Carol came back to Cumberland with renewed energy for her sea turtle research, which was beginning to attract national attention. Her data showed that more endangered sea turtles were dying than ever before. When Patti Hagan, an editor from The New Yorker, asked to visit in the fall of 1979, Carol worried that her cabin would be unsuitable for a well-heeled Manhattan writer. So she reluctantly asked Louie if Patti could stay at his air-conditioned house. He agreed.

They all had drinks together on Louie’s front porch. Patti and Carol talked turtles and island politics late into the night while Louie sat quietly in the shadows knocking back vodka tonics.

Around midnight, Carol stood up to leave. It was dark, and Carol had to walk a half-mile back to her cabin, so she said good night.

“I’ll walk you home,” Louie offered. He could barely lift himself out of his chair.

They walked in silence through the forest. Ragged clouds hid a sickle moon overhead. Then Louie said, “I read your letter.” Carol’s throat tightened. “What letter?”

“You wrote some woman that our relationship had run its course.”

“You’re reading my mail? What the hell, Louie?”

“You’re done with me, huh. Is that how you feel?”

Carol swallowed hard. “We had some good times together, but now it’s time to move on.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Louie punched Carol in the eye. In the dark, she never saw it coming. He knocked her flat and momentarily unconscious.

She awoke to the taste of metallic blood trickling from her nose. Louie stood over her. Get up, Carol, she told herself. Get up and get the hell out of here.

Which way to run? She wanted to head for home, but Louie’s house was closer, and Patti was there.

Louie turned his back for a moment. Now was her chance. She wobbled to her feet, steadied herself, then broke for Louie’s house.

Carol raced up the steps, swung open the door, dashed into the back room and locked it. She huddled in the corner. For a moment, everything was still. Then she heard footsteps clomp across the porch. His bloodshot eyes appeared at the back window. Adrenaline knifed through her.

Louie rattled the door handle. Then a long silence followed. Carol shivered in the corner, wondering if she could make it till daylight. She counted the seconds, one by one. Finally, dawn drowned the stars in a pale azure. She steeled herself, crept to the window, and peered into the twilight. He was gone.

Fearing for her safety, Carol left the island to stay with her parents in Atlanta. Four months later, Jesse called to say Louie had a new girlfriend and it was safe for her to return. But as soon as she arrived, she discovered it was a lie and Louie had put Jesse up to making that call.

Louie showed up drunk at her door a few days after she had returned. Carol told him to leave.

“I’ve talked with the cops about taking out a peace warrant,” she said.

“You sign a peace warrant, you sign your death warrant,” he snarled.

Carol made plans to leave the island again to stay with her aunt in Rochester, NY. She slept in the dunes that night, afraid to stay in her cabin alone with Louie skulking about. The next morning, just before heading back to the cabin to pack up, Carol spotted vultures congregating on the beach. A dead loggerhead had washed ashore.

She glanced at her watch. The sun was already high in the sky, and if she stuck around to necropsy her, she would miss the boat off the island. She decided to stay on the island one more day. She gripped her knife and plunged in.

As she was untangling the turtle’s ropy intestines, a young, sandy-haired backpacker hiking up the beach approached.

“Can I have a look?” he said.

He squatted down for closer inspection. His name was Pete DiLorenzo, and he had been camping on Cumberland for a week.

Pete was also from Rochester. Short on cash, he planned to hitchhike back to Rochester after his camping adventures on Cumberland. Carol offered him a ride to Rochester, as long as he didn’t mind waiting until tomorrow to leave. Pete eagerly agreed, and he hopped in the jeep with Carol. As they drove past the road to Half Moon Bluff, Louie, watching from the woods, saw a handsome young guy with wavy blond hair riding next to Carol.

That evening, Pete set up his tent in Carol’s yard beside the chicken coop, then joined Carol inside while she cooked supper.

Suddenly, they heard footsteps on the porch. It was Louie, carrying a broken canoe paddle with a sharp, splintered end. He rattled the locked knob. Then there was a bang-bang-bang against the door.

“Open up!” Louie shouted.

Carol’s heart exploded out of her chest. “Go away!”

“Open the (expletive) door!”

Pete looked wide-eyed at Carol.

The door shook in its frame. Louie kicked in the bottom door panel. Pete jumped out of his chair and crouched behind the table.

Carol shrieked.

“Please, Louie! Leave me alone!”

“Who’s in there with you, dammit?”

He broke through the rest of the door panel. Scraps of wood fell to the floor.

Instinct took over. The sawed-off shotgun that Louie had given her was tucked behind the bathroom door, loaded. She ran to the bathroom and grabbed the gun. Pete cowered in the corner, hands clenched in prayer. Louie was waving the canoe paddle and shouting.

“You just want to have fun? I’ll show you fun!” He began to step through the empty door frame and into the cabin just as Carol returned to the kitchen.

“You (messed) with the wrong guy!” he shouted, and busted through the door toward her.

Carol had only one shot. There would be no time to reload if she missed. She had to make it count. She raised the shotgun and steadied it, braced snugly against her hip, like her father had taught her. She held her breath and squeezed the trigger. The gun fired, kicking hard against her hip.

Then the room went silent. A haze of smoke lifted from the barrel. She had shot Louie squarely in the chest. The impact knocked him back, and his body slumped to the porch.

“Is he dead?” she asked, frozen with fear. Pete peeked over the table at the motionless body in the doorway.

“I think so.”

Carol lowered her gun and collapsed to the floor.

It was finally over.

Or so she thought.

A jury unanimously found Louie’s death a justifiable homicide.

Word of the shooting spread like wildfire. Island families vilified Carol. Park rangers kept their distance. Even Sam Candler was aloof and standoffish after the shooting.

“I was a little bit afraid of her after that,” he admitted. “I couldn’t trust her. She was never part of the island families to begin with. She became the black sheep of the island.”

Their words were like battery acid on Carol’s heart. She became even more of a reclusive hermit.

For the next few months, Carol went subterranean. She buried herself in work. Holed up in island seclusion, she wandered alone through the marshes and slept in the dunes with the turtles. In her journal, she wrote: “Never get close to anyone. Ever.”

Louie’s estate only made things worse. Carol still had partial ownership in Louie’s property. She wanted nothing to do with a haunted house. But then Grover Henderson, a lawyer who represented the Carnegie and Rockefeller families on the island, claimed Louie’s house for himself.

Just a few weeks after the shooting, Grover moved into Louie’s vacant house at Half Moon Bluff.

“I couldn’t just stand by and let Grover swipe it,” Carol said.

She reluctantly decided to sue Grover. Carol couldn’t afford a lawyer, so she represented herself.

Grover hired Bobby Lee Cook, widely considered to have been the basis for the television character, Matlock. Cook had succeeded in getting dozens of felons acquitted with his courtroom theatrics and shrewd cross-examinations. He built his defense around a Georgia law that prevents murderers from benefiting from the death of their victims.

But Carol had done her homework, too, and discovered that the law did not apply to acts of self-defense. In the end, Carol triumphed over Matlock. Louie’s house belonged to Carol, and Grover was sent packing.

Carol didn’t want the house to begin with. So she gave it to her parents. But that didn’t change the facts: She had acquired the house of the man she had killed. It sparked rumors that she had intentionally shot Louie to get his island property.

Carol had come to Cumberland to find a deep connection to a place where she belonged. Now, she lived in torment and isolation. Instead of Louie stalking her, she was constantly shadowed by shame and sorrow. Everywhere she went, she felt the sting of venomous words and glares. Once again, Carol decided to pack up her belongings and leave the island.

The night before she planned to leave, she wandered out to the beach to say goodbye. As she crested the dunes, she stopped suddenly, awestruck: The ocean had come alive with light. Bioluminescent plankton shimmered across the water. Flecks of electric blue light washed onto the beach, breaking apart beneath her feet as she walked beside the water.

Carol waded out into the shining sea. Amid the fiery foam of the curling breakers, she made up her mind once and for all: She wasn’t ever going to be chased off the island. This was the only home she had ever known. This was where she belonged.

Carol still felt pangs of guilt for living in the middle of a protected national park. For years, she had taken from the island: oysters from the marsh, driftwood from the beach, data from dead animals. The only way she could stay on Cumberland was to give something back. She could fight for the wild. She could speak for the turtles and gators. She could be a voice crying out for the wilderness.

She had sheltered beneath her shell for too long, cloistered in her cabin, hidden away from humanity. Now it was time to stick her neck out and fight for life beyond her own.

Later that night, after unpacking her boxes, she wrote in her journal: “It is my fault that Louie is dead. I must face that guilt every day, for the rest of my life. I’ll have to learn to live with that. But I’m sure as hell not gonna run away. With every fiber of my being, I’m gonna stay and fight.” •

–Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and is one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Press  2014.

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