Travel to Cumberland Island with travel writer Kathleen Walls where you’ll find sandy beaches, pristine wilderness, native wildlife and feral horses. But get in quick, she says, this pristine natural wonderland may not last forever.
Cumberland Eco System
Cumberland Island, the most perfectly preserved of Georgia’s barrier islands located in Camden County, is unique. There is no other place like it anywhere. It sits close to the mainland at the southern-most tip of Georgia and although it has been inhabited for over 4,000 years, man has trod lightly here.
The American island can be divided into three eco systems: saltwater marsh, maritime forest and beach. The marshes are the first view of the island, which can only be reached by boat. The National Park Service provides ferry service. Private and charter boats also visit the island.
Inland the huge oaks sprawl near the ground providing a haven for birds, squirrels and weary hikers. You will spot the newest addition to the island’s animal population, an armadillo, as he rustles through the underbrush, poking his snout in the soft sand searching for an easy meal. In the evenings, raccoons amble out of the woods to snack on crabs and shellfish.
The island grass has been grazed as neatly as if trimmed by a mower, the result of the feral horses and wild deer. Nestled into the crooks of branches, the Resurrection Fern spring to life after every rain. Bright flashes of red, blue and yellow dart among the branches as island birds announce their presence with burst of song. Deep in the forest, small rain-fed ponds glisten in the sun. Occasionally, the eyeballs of a lone alligator break the surface.
On the eastern side, the forests are thick with undergrowth. The Saw Palmetto intertwines with vines and grasses to form an almost impenetrable barrier to the dunes beyond. Only a few dirt roads and trails cross this wilderness allowing visitors access to the beach. White sand, broken only by deer and horse hoof prints, forms the dune crests. Atlantic breakers tease small sea birds playing at water’s edge, scurrying to and fro with the waves’ rhythm.
Occasionally, humans and horses disturb the pristine shoreline, weaving their way through driftwood at the high-water mark.
At night, sea turtles lumber ashore to lay eggs in over 200 nests. Then, 60 days later, guided by instinct, the newly-hatched babies rush home to the sea, according to a National Park Service resource specialist.
The island’s horses are a relic of many cultures. Spanish explorers visited Cumberland Island in the mid-1500s. When they left, a few Arabian and Barb horses were abandoned. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, General Nathaniel Greene planned his home on the site of an old hunting camp belonging to General Oglethorpe.
Greene died before it could be built. His wife, Catherine, continued with his plans and constructed an elegant four-storey mansion she named ‘Dungeness’. Catherine and her second husband, Phineas Miller, and her children operated a vast sea island cotton plantation and used many kinds of horses. After the Civil War, they abandoned the island. Many horses stayed.
In 1882, Thomas Carnegie acquired most of the island and built a replica of a Scottish castle on the site of the Dungeness ruins keeping the name, Dungeness. When Thomas died in 1886, his wife, Lucy, continued using Dungeness as a seasonal home for many years. Gradually, the magnificent showplace fell into disrepair. A fire ravaged it in 1959, leaving only a skeleton. The horses, their gene pool increased by the Carnegies’ fancy, saddle-horses, now graze on the once-manicured lawns of Dungeness.
The Carnegies later deeded most of their land to the National Park Service, so today 90 percent of the island is a national park. Cumberland Island offers a nature lovers’ paradise with miles of hiking trails, dirt roads and sandy beaches. The Carnegies specified that the land was never to be developed and remain preserved as a national park.
Of the other Carnegie mansions originally existing on the island, Greyfield is the only one in actual public use. It operates as an inn and was the site of J.F.K. Jr. and Carolyn Bessette’s wedding reception.
Plum Orchard, a wedding present from Lucy Carnegie to her son George and his bride, Margaret Thaw, is open for tours. It offers a glimpse of life among the wealthiest families in America. Ginger Cox, the ranger who led my tour, told us: “This was once literally a plum orchard, thus the name.”
She explained why the lawn looked so well-manicured in the middle of the wilderness. “There are more than 200 horses roaming the island. Since there is only so much grassland, competition is fierce and the strongest horses get the best grazing spots.”
Retired park ranger, Zack Kirkland, told of a letter written to the park service by a man who visited the island. He wrote about a deserted beach. He looked up, saw a crowd of people approaching and got angry at seeing other people on his beach. As the crowd came closer, he realized these were not people, but horses. The man urged the park service: “Never to increase the limit of 300 people per day allowed on the island”.
Presently, there is neither McDonalds nor Starbucks on the island. The only traffic you need to worry about is that line of feral horses crossing the island’s main dirt road. Unfortunately, that may change. This pristine natural wonderland is threatened with a proposed subdivision to be built about a quarter-of-a-mile from the national park’s sea camp. Hopefully, such desecration of a natural treasure can be stopped.
You must visit Cumberland Island to fully appreciate its natural beauty and wildlife but I fear you must visit it soon or it will succumb to change and become just another tangle of beachfront subdivisions.