Growing up on St. Simons Island, I always felt like I knew what a barrier island truly looked and felt like. Driving under the lush oak canopies on Frederica Road is a unique experience. However, over the years I’ve seen tremendous economic growth in this small town that is slowly and surely reducing the natural landscape to a bare minimum. Forests are turning into neighborhoods. Parks with oaks are becoming roundabouts. I’ve become very curious about what this place would look like in its natural state without houses, concrete, or cars.
Sometimes people would ask me if I had been to Cumberland Island, and after a while, I began to get annoyed at the fact that I’ve never been. So, in the last year, I’ve touched Cumberland Island on five separate occasions, and I’ve learned quite a bit about the conservation history of Cumberland. Last November, my good friend, Sergi, and I went camping on the island. In three days, we hiked 35 miles in the maritime forest covered under oak, magnolia, and pine canopies that competed for sunshine real estate. We walked over layers of ancient dunes formed by the raging winds of the sea.
Our plan was to hike to Whitney Lake on the north east corner of the island to witness the place where Charles Fraser had plans to create a housing community called Cumberland Oaks. In 1969, John McPhee organized a meeting between Fraser, a self-titled conservationist developer, and the former director of the Sierra Club, enigmatic conservationist “Archdruid” David Brower. The fate of Cumberland at the time seemed to be development, and Brower believed that what Fraser was going to do to the island would be a virtuous alternative to the contemporary model of coastal development: bulldoze the sand dunes, create tall buildings, and fit as many people as possible into a small space.
Eventually, Fraser’s vision came to a sputtering halt as various groups came into his direct opposition. Although Fraser considered himself a conservationist through the way he developed with a conscious eye for the natural environment, many of the Carnegies and conservation groups held great distrust and distaste for his business and political connections. In the end, Fraser had little support on the island and had no other option beside selling his parcels to the National Park Service which had been determined for several decades to make the island a national seashore.
Sergi and I camped at Yankee Paradise in the interior of the 10,000 acres of wilderness. On the second day, our plan to make it to Whitney Lake began around 8 a.m. as we hiked to the beach. Layers ancient sand dunes were evident in the island’s interior. Eventually, we made it to a depression in the elevation where wetlands formed. We kept our eyes peeled for an alligator that Marcia, a lady who we camped with, said was on the trail. Scouting the surrounding waters and watching our step, we saw the 12-foot alligator whose body was on the surface of the water.
The barrier island landscape changes drastically in a matter of yardage. Right after sunrise we made it to the end of the wetlands and ascended a 50-foot dune formation where pleasant white sand began. We had another 200 yards to the beach, and we’d crossed two sand dunes so far. On top of the hill, we met pines stretching 100 feet in the air. We trekked three miles up the beach on a cool, windy morning.
At noon, we decided to stop for water and a dip in the ocean. We placed our packs on some marsh wrack on the dune line and walked toward the water. I looked south and thought I saw a person, “wow how did they get here so fast?” As I kept walking, I saw a side profile, and it was a horse running very fast toward us. When it got close, it slowed down, took a good look at us, and then galloped fast into the dunes.
I turned to Sergi, “why was that horse running?”
“I have no idea… wait, look!” Sergi pointed toward to a massive dark cloud over the ocean, and we both realized that a storm was heading our way. We returned to our packs quickly, put our socks and shoes on, and prepared for the incoming. We went through the winding dune crossing and out of nowhere it started to pour. Roller Coaster Trail was right around the bend, so we continued through the rain onto the trail, a dune ridge, surrounded by wetlands on both sides. We went through dense saw palmettos, encountered the wild horse of the trail, and contemplated if we should continue.
“Is this horse going to charge us?,” we wondered.
We didn’t see the horse again, but its tracks were on the path before us. We made it to Whitney Lake where two additional horses were soaking in the water. I guess they weren’t concerned about alligators. I wondered what this place would look like if it had hundreds of houses surrounding it.
On the hike back, I felt like I was in an animated Disney movie. It was raining and we had to push through dense saw palmettoes. A buck with massive antlers took off after we met eyes on the trail. Wild turkeys flew to treetops. Rare nonvenomous snakes and frogs made appearances on the trail. All I could think about was Mary Bullard’s quote on Cumberland, “Without humans, history lacks meaning, can no longer be remember and dies. When that happens, the landscape becomes memorialized, leading quickly to a Disneyfication… Without the human presence, there can be no history. Without figure, there can be no landscape.”
The rawness of the maritime forest and dune system is a feat of nature and deserves to be cherished on the quiet Georgia Coast. No wonder, I thought, that this is a National Park.