After three years of wanting to explore Cumberland Island, the last barrier island on Georgia’s coastline, I got my chance to kayak camp there last weekend. As soon as I pulled my kayak across the muddy bank, I saw wild horses grazing in the early afternoon sun. On the steps of Plum Orchard, Carol Ruckdeschel, the subject of Will Harlan’s book, Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island, sat on the front steps of the Plum Orchard plantation.
She was talking with park docents, enjoying the sun after the previous day’s storm. Carol told me about the artisan water and the best sources to fill up bottles, winking as she dismissed the park service’s warning to treat the water.
On the mile hike to the primitive campsite at Yankee Paradise, a canopy of live oak and palmettos covered the trail. The grey tendrils hanging from the oaks blew in the wind, whispering about a past at once romantic and laden with secrets. My arm hairs stood on end, half-expecting to see an alligator scurry across the swampy parts of trail, but instead an armadillo scuttled by.
Cumberland Island delivered exactly what I needed – a temporary escape from the wintery mountain landscape. Dolphins and wild boars rounded out the exotic feel of hiking through swamps and beachcombing along miles of deserted white sand.
The next evening after paddling for a couple hours, I happily climbed into my sleeping bag at Brickhill Bluff campsite. No sooner than I’d zipped up the tent than rain began. All night, the wind whipped the nylon and the swell ravaged the nearby bank, warning of a demanding paddle ahead.
I slept in fits, waking up every few hours, surprised that the tent hadn’t yet leaked. My mind turned to the long paddle back to the truck. I planned the weekend, checking local weather forecasts and the appropriate tide charts. The Georgia coast, with the second biggest tidal range in the world, requires respect. Even with the help of the tide, it would be a formidable paddle. I lay in my down cocoon wondering if I could have planned better to avoid the weather. From my lawyering days, I’d embraced planning and predicting to control how events unfolded.
The next day I paddled against the wind. My thighs cramped from bracing against the plastic cockpit so I could crank my torso and use my whole body to paddle. Red spots formed on my hands. I paddled for hours like that, one stroke at a time, knowing that if I stopped even for a minute I’d lose the ground I’d fought so hard to cover.
The wind spit water in my face. I’d count to a hundred just to see where my kayak would be by then. A dolphin surfaced in the distance and I felt the abundance of being able to see her.
Watching the dolphin disappear, I realized that art of Cumberland’s beauty lends itself to the elements of nature that exist beyond my control. One of my favorite aspects of being in the wild is squaring up to what comes my way, including the wind.
Somewhere before the evening after crossing the Intracoastal Waterway and heading up the Crooked River, something in me conceded to uncertainty. I wasn’t going to beat the wind. I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d land my kayak before the soft pastels in the sky gave way to total darkness.
For once I was okay with being unsure and it was enough to be out there paddling, taking it one stroke at a time. My battle with the wind turned into admiration, the powerful way it whipped the river into a frenzy of chaotic peaks.
By a stroke of good luck, I landed my kayak on Crooked River State Park boat ramp in time to watch the last of the sunset. Although my hands shook from the cold, I watched the sun until darkness took its grasp. It had taken me three years to get to Cumberland Island and there was no telling if or when I’d return so I wanted to enjoy even the last few minutes of being there.