As we drove south out of the mountains we entered into a VERY different climate. Asheville being at 2,500’ elevation in the southern Appalachian Mountains was starting to receive cooler weather by late November and there were no longer any leaves on the trees. By the time we reached the coast of southern Georgia the air was warm and balmy which made it feel like we rewound the seasons back to late summer. The following morning we woke up in the sub-tropics and we would remain in this climate for quite some time. Our job for the day was to organize our camping gear in order to catch the pedestrian-only ferry that would take us to Cumberland Island, the southernmost island off the coast of Georgia.
Cumberland Island was something I knew nothing about. Michelle set it up, she made reservations for the ferry ride and the few nights of camping on the island. I didn’t really anticipate or think much at all about it. I did know there were wild horses, I knew that there were no cars permitted on the island, and I knew there were miles upon miles of wilderness beach line. But that’s all. Stepping onto the island was like entering a different world. The forest had a deep dark green and quiet feel too it. All of the trees were Sand Live Oak trees, an evergreen species of oak, and the undergrowth was Saw Palmetto, a species of palm which is only waist high. The oaks were draped with long hangings of Spanish moss while the ground was soft, packed sand that was comfortable with bare feet. Their was a common feeling among all of us as we landed: This was going to be fun!
We hauled our stuff a quarter mile down the foot path to the other side of the island to the campground on these funny garden type carts and on our backs. The camp ground was nestled in the dark forest adjacent to the beach. As soon as we set up we started exploring. On the way there I had over heard a ranger talking about the most likely place to see the wild horses. From camp we set off on a network of wide dirt roads/trails south to the ruins of a large mansion at the edge of the island’s southern marshlands.
Although the known human history of the island began 4,000 years ago with various native tribes followed by Spanish settlements in 16th and 17th, and then the English in the early 18th century, what remains on the island are a series of very large estates in various stages of ruin sprinkled around the otherwise wilderness landscape. These remaining ruins were built by the Carnegie Family. The oldest and largest was a huge plantation that burned to the ground before the Carnegies rebuilt it even larger than before. After the Great Depression it was burned to the ground once again. As we walked onto the estate a heard of deer tending to the well trimmed grass stampeded off followed by a bunch of wild turkeys. Soon after that the famous wild horses of Cumberland island started showing up. One by one they would walk in from the forest or the marsh. Ila was very pleased. Even with Michelle and the boys beginning their stroll back towards camp, Ila would not leave. The two of us stayed and watched the horses for quite some time. We were used to the well kept, well groomed horses living on the horse farm at uncle Frederic’s house. This was an entirely different animal. These horses were wild, a bit shaggy and breathtakingly free…sort of how we were feeling at this point in the trip.
Through much time spent at the incredibly wild beach as well as exploring the island, we soaked in the pleasures of Cumberland Island, but not without incident. Jacob acquainted himself rather intimately with the most poisonous caterpillar in North America. As we were walking in to the forest to our campsite from spending time on the beach I saw Jacob up ahead standing there grimacing and holding his arm in pain. As I walked up to him he was moaning and he pointed down to the bizarre thing he claimed had just stung him. It was one of the weirdest little things I had ever seen. About an inch and a half long this well brushed wisp of fur could only be identified as some sort of alien caterpillar.
At the Ranger station on the other side of the island Jacob’s pain seemed to subside a little as we spoke to the ranger on duty. He had no idea. He called the head ranger who had the day off. The head ranger said two years ago someone had gotten stung by the same thing. Nothing terrible happened, just very painful up his arm and down his side. We didn’t evacuate and his pain subsided. It turns out this caterpillar is called a Puss Caterpiller, as in Pussy Cat, in reference to the cat like look to it’s hairy coat. It’s found in the southern US with most activity in Texas. It’s sting is known to be very painful and goes from a localized reaction to systemic through the lymphatic system.
That evening, as we shooed away some of the most aggressive raccoons I ever encountered Michelle jumped onto the picnic table and the boys started swinging what ever was around and yelled. Ila watched in amazement as the raccoons ate up her “doodles” (noodles). Every now and then she will tell us this again…”raccoons eat doodles”! The racoons were followed by a few opossums and armadillos.
On the ferry ride back to the mainland the five of us were all gathered on the bow of the boat. Soaking in a beautiful ride Elias yelled “Hey, look down”. We looked down at the water 8 feet below us and 3 dolphins were right there riding in the wake so close to us and the boat we could almost touch them. It was so cool. Up and down and occasional jumping out of the water they entertained us for quite some time before they veered off.
Now onward to south Florida.