A quiet snuffle, and a snort, awakens me from slumber. Silhouettes of live oak branches laden with Spanish moss pattern the roof of my tent in the pale moonlight. I roll over in the sleeping bag and peer out through the tent screen.
Horses! The moment I’ve waited for.
They walk softly through our campsite, as if not to awaken too many backpackers from their slumber. Sniffing at the ashes of the campfire that kept us warm after dark, the herd of wild horses ambles off beneath the oaks without stepping on a single tent.
Foot Traffic Only
The southernmost of Georgia’s famed Sea Islands, Cumberland Island was first settled prior to the American Revolution. Home to many famous residents over the centuries – James Oglethorpe, Nathanael Greene, and Thomas Carnegie among them – it is now mostly protected as Cumberland Island National Seashore. Most of its 16 mile length is a wilderness area, and can only be visited by backpacking. Winter is that rare time of year on the Georgia coast when there aren’t many mosquitoes, so it’s an ideal time to explore this national park, accessible only by boat.
Our pile of backpacks sits on the ferryboat deck as gray shapes emerge in the wake. Dolphins! Racing, chasing our ferryboat, slicing through the icy waters. I count one pair, two, three— everywhere I turn, I see dolphins. This is a playground for the Atlantic bottlenose, the ebb and flow of rivers and tides through the estuary. After a dozen, I stop counting.
At Sea Camp ranger station, we go through orientation before shouldering our packs to move rapidly out of the “tourist” end of the island. North of Plum Orchard, only backpackers roam. Gnarled oaks, twisted by stiff salt breezes, shade us as we walk down the Parallel Trail, a corridor lined by thickets of palmetto. Larks twitter in the trees, and lizards scurry underfoot. Cumberland Island pulses with life.
Well-marked, the trails are soft and flat. There isn’t a single rock to stumble over. The weight of my backpack seems insignificant, since the only climbs are at the dune line. We reach our first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. To the north, the beach stretches on to infinity; silent, desolate, peaceful. The sand is soft like talcum powder, decorated with conchs, moon shells, jingle shells, clams, and the remains of horseshoe crabs. Starfish lay splayed in patterns of purple and pink, dying, drying, in the warmth of the sun.
A Sense of Wild
Over the next two days, I see my fill of armadillo. Truffling through leaves. Snuffling under palmettos. Crashing through camp, bold and unafraid. Good thing they only eat grubs! But I’m eager to see the wild horses. At our camp in Yankee Paradise, set deep in a tangle of lush palmetto scrub and live oaks, we saw their signs: scuffed ground, fresh manure. Walking down the trails is like an obstacle course at times, trying to avoid the droppings.
We’re walking up the main road – a one-lane sand track shaded by shapely live oaks – when Judy motions me to stop. A chestnut-brown horse stands just off the road, browsing the fountain tail grass, the wild descendant of a train car full of horses that Thomas Carnegie set loose on the island in the 1920s. It lifts its head in curiosity, and tosses its mane.
Back in Time
Using Brickhill Bluff as our base camp, we spend two days exploring the north end of the island, home of the Cumberland Island Museum and the Settlement. Set on an organic farm, where two biologists live a life right out of Mother Earth News with an Amish buggy as transportation, a cold outdoor shower, and an organic toilet, the museum is simple enough. It’s their life’s work, biological specimens and studies on the wild that is Cumberland Island.
Behind the farm is a humble white building set under moss-draped live oaks, the First African Baptist Church. Its creaking floors and stark pews speak of the days when newly freed slaves gathered here to worship; in more recent times, it hosted the wedding of where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette married, away from paparazzi crowds.
That night, from our circle of tents, we watch the sun sink down into the coastal swamps, framed by live oaks and palmettos. Dolphin play in the blue shimmer of the Brickhill River as the sunset seeps across the horizon, broad bands of gold and orange fading, fading, sweeping day into night. In the chill of the evening, we play virtual campfire. Gloria produces a candle, and we huddle around it as it casts a warm aura of reflected light from inside a circle of aluminum foil. We tell stories. Laugh. Share popcorn and gorp. The horses bring their magic in the night.
Morning is brisk, but the sun outweighs the breeze. We make one last trek to the Atlantic shore. As we hike out to the beach, several horses stand on a distant dune, manes riffling in the sea breeze. They speak to the spirit of the wild, recaptured on an island given back over to nature. They make us smile.
Visit Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island can only be reached by boat. The National Park ferry concessionaire offers options for a van tour or renting a bike on top of your base price of the ferry trip ($28, does not include park admission). Space is limited and reservations well in advance (accepted up to 6 months in advance) are recommended. You must check in for the ferry at least 30 minutes before departure or you will lose your seat.
Cumberland Island National Seashore park fee is $10 per person and is good for one week. Reserve your backcountry campsites well in advance. Cost is $9 per permit per night for backcountry camping, $22 for Sea Camp. Check the park map to plan an itinerary. Plan to hang your food bags at night to keep them out of reach of wild horses and raccoons. Mosquitoes can be fierce near interior marshes and along the back edge of the island. Bring bug spray and consider a mosquito head net, even during the winter months.