By Suzanne Welander
Crooked River is included in the Recommended Runs section of Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia for the access it provides to the wilderness beaches of Cumberland Island--Georgia's largest barrier island and home to the Cumberland Island National Seashore. The isolated and unique beach wilderness is only occasionally interrupted by sightseeing vehicles driving on the beach. Feral horses, wild pigs, and armadillos are easy to spot among the live oak forests and dunes.
For paddlers voyaging to Cumberland Island National Seashore, Crooked River provides the shortest and most enjoyable route starting from a public access point on the mainland. Even if the destination is the chief attraction, journey by paddle enhances the overall Cumberland experience. The river is a typical coastal estuary, the safe passage of which requires deference to tides and wind.
Crooked River State Park to Brickhill Bluff
Length: 13.1 mi
Time: 4 hr (ideal conditions)
Paddling trips to Cumberland Island may take the form of a day trip or an overnight stay. The 13-mile round-trip to Plum Orchard (B) packs plenty into a single day. Campers either continue up Brickhill River to camp at Brickhill Bluff (C) or take out at Plum Orchard and backpack into Cumberland's interior. Your choice of backcountry campsites must be arranged in advance with the park service. Permits are issued at the Cumberland Island Ferry Landing Visitor Center in St. Marys. Obtaining a permit requires a reservation or luck; there is a strict cap on the number of campers allowed on the island, and reservations are often exhausted months in advance. In the absence of a reservation, all is not lost; no-shows sometimes free up permits for walk-ons. Phone 888-817- 3421 or 912-882-4335 for reservations. There is a daily parking fee at the Crooked River State Park launch site.
The trip can be a leisurely jaunt or an odyssey depending on conditions. With the wind and tide going your way, the 6.5-mile trip to Plum Orchard takes a couple of hours. Going against a stiff wind can exhaust the entire 6-hour tide window, particularly for open canoes. Along the way, the surrounding terrain of coastal mud flats creates a wide hallway flanked by marsh grass taller than a canoeist's or kayaker's eye level. A stand-up paddler might enjoy a more expansive view. The width and openness of the scene, combined with the absence of stopping points along the way, can make inland paddlers feel vulnerable. Beyond the grass, forests are visible in the distance. Boat traffic consists of pleasure craft: anglers fishing from motorboats and the occasional sailboat. You may encounter commercial traffic where Crooked River crosses the Intracoastal Waterway. Needless to say, stay out of the way and make your crossing snappy.
Regardless of the weather, bring apparel or insect repellent that protects exposed flesh, not least of all your hands, from biting insects. The bug nuisance peaks at the boat launches. The bites continue to torment long after your paddle strokes outdistance the swarms, so cover yourself preemptively before you start packing your boat.
Time your launch carefully with all of the following phenomena in mind: sunrise and sunset; high and low tides; the lag between tide reversal and when the current gets moving in the desired direction; wind direction and strength; the time of day at which you can pick up your permit; and the time required to drive from St. Marys to Crooked River State Park. Given that some of these variables are not known in advance, arrive knowing the next feasible launch time in case conditions don't allow you to launch when you want to. --Tom Welander
Crooked River State Park is located at the end of GA Spur 40. Take I-95 to Exit 3 for GA 40 East. Turn left at GA Spur 40 and proceed to the boat launch site within the park.
For tidal flows on Crooked River, use the National Weather Service's website for Jacksonville tides at www.srh.noaa.gov /jax/?n=tides.
Suzanne Welander is the co-author, with Bob Sehlinger, of the definitive Georgia guidebook, Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia published by Menasha Ridge Press. New for 2015, the completely updated 2nd edition adds five new waterways, including the new urban whitewater course in Columbus, with all new maps and data for all 771 access points. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia is available from Menasha Ridge Press.
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