Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Georgia's best kept secret - Sapelo Island

Our journey to Sapelo Island first led us to Darien, GA. Located about 50 miles south of Savannah at the mouth of the Altamaha River, it was founded in 1736 near the site of Georgia’s oldest fort, Fort King George. Not long ago I read “Drifting into Darien” by Janisse Ray about the extraordinary biodiversity of the Altamaha River corridor, but our arrival long after the sun had already set ensured that we saw little of the town and surrounding area except for during the short drive to Meridian landing the next morning – and we were in a hurry to catch the ferry.

Our first glimpse of Sapelo Island from the ferry
Spending the very last days of summer on Sapelo Island was not the original plan. We had hoped to spend a few days near the ocean, enjoying the beach and relaxing before getting sucked into the busy days of autumn. Upon doing research I was looking for a place we hadn’t been to before, not too far from Greenville and allowing us the option of leaving the crowds behind. Something kept pulling me back to the remote barrier island, despite the five-hour drive from Greenville; maybe it was the fascinating history of the Geechee people whose descendants still live there today, maybe that all but 3% of the island belongs to the State of Georgia, or maybe it was the story of tobacco magnate RJ Reynolds, but the thought of miles of beach all to ourselves convinced me to start planning.

We climbed aboard the Katie Underwood (named for the last midwife of Sapelo Island who delivered just about every baby born on Sapelo Island between 1920 and 1968) and settled in for a twenty minute ride through the tidal saltwater marshes of coastal Georgia. As it is only possible to visit the island as part of an organized tour or as guests of residents on the island, the boat was nearly empty. Our host easily spotted us upon landing, and after a quick ride to our lodgings we had in our possession a map and keys to a vehicle for use while on the island: we were on our own.

The island is managed by the State of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which operates the ferry service and also serves as the state liaison between the various parties on the island. These include the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR) - a partnership between the DNR and federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Georgia Marine Institute, and the civilian Hog Hammock community.

Hog Hammock was named for a former resident by the last name Hogg, a hammock being a dry area jutting up from the marsh. It is the only one of five communities established by former slaves after the Civil War that survives today, and includes a general store, bar, and church. Most inhabitants of the town are African Americans, part of Geechee community, and have been living on the island for generations. The population was estimated to be 47 in 2009; the residents must bring all supplies from the mainland or purchase them in the small store on the island, the children of Hog Hammock take the ferry daily to go to school, and the community keeps losing its inhabitants to mainland Georgia where jobs are more plentiful. Most recently the acquisition of land by outsiders to build vacation homes and a property tax increase have raised tensions to a new high, and many fear that the Geechee culture will be lost forever from the island. It is not hard to understand the appeal of Sapelo Island to mainlanders; with a small population, the promise 97% of the island will stay as is (mostly undeveloped) and with a controlled number of visitors, the island is quiet and secluded, the six miles of beach virtually deserted.

Our first day on Sapelo was spent at Nanny Goat Beach on the south end of the island. 17.5 nautical miles offshore is Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest live-bottom reefs in the southeastern United States and the only marine protected area in the federal waters between Cape Hatteras, NC to Cape Canaveral, FL. Unlike reefs built by corals, the sanctuary contains limestone rock outcroppings that stand above the sandy ocean floor. This reef supports soft corals, non-reef building hard corals, bivalves and sponges, as well as associated fishes and sea turtles. The shoreline is no less special. It wasn’t even twenty minutes before we had seen dozens of dolphins swimming north along the coast and twenty different shorebirds flying by. Watching small sharks chase the schools of fish that were forced into deeper water by the receding tide was a unique experience, and large portions of the day passed without seeing a single person. We soaked up the sun, built sandcastles, dug holes, collected dozens of intact whelk shells and watched the shrimp boats at work far on the horizon. A shelter just off the beach provided us with shade and a spot to eat lunch, but the ocean was a magnet and we were soon back in the surf watching the beach revealed foot by foot as the tide retreated even more.

More on Sapelo Island -
The Sapelo Island lighthouse
A short history of the island
Tour the Reynolds Mansion
Your guide to visiting Sapelo Island

1 comment:

  1. Vai Jūs esat iegādājušies jaunu fotoaparātu? :) Ļoti skaistas bildes!


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