VHWIRRRR, through dense fog, the sound of an approaching motorboat rises.
I swivel my head left and right, listening closely to place the direction. There's no way they'll see me at speed, I realize, slightly panicked. But if I paddle in any direction, even backtrack, I might move right into their path.
I'm floating in my packraft on the Cumberland Sound, part of the Intracoastal Waterway. My fat bike is stacked in thirds and lashed to the bow. In the past few minutes, as I crept out hesitantly from Crooked River, the fog has thickened until I can no longer see the shore behind me.
Ahead — what's been directly ahead for the three miles I've already paddled — is only a vague whiteness. So blank, I watch little pings of noise dance across my vision. Occasional dust specks float on my eyes, jumping wildly with every blink.
For the first three miles, I'd always seen at least one shore of the Crooked River, and usually both, which is more like a broken channel meandering through a tidal-influenced delta. Now, all I can see is a pair of navigational buoys. If my orientation is correct, these mark the eastern edge of deep water in the sound. Beyond the buoys should be the island. I hope.
VHWIRRR! The boat is still oncoming. Shit.
"Hey!" I yell, raising my paddle in the air and swinging the red fiberglass blade like a flag. "Hey, I'm in the water here!"
The motor throttles down, and I hear the boat slosh to a near-halt. The faint outline of its hull emerges from the mist, then it turns and surges off into the fog.
This situation is not what I'd originally planned. Only a month ago, a buddy contacted me about Cumberland Island National Seashore, a lesser-known preserve off the coast of Georgia. Being 18 miles long and averaging a few miles wide, Cumberland is the largest barrier island in the Southeast.
My buddy, ensconced in wintry Iowa, was searching maps online for someplace warmer when he zoomed in on a landmass which, from map-view, somewhat resembles a fish. He asked me what it was like. Being only five hours away in South Carolina, I decided to go find out.
There's no bridge to Cumberland, just an NPS ferry from the quaint colonial town of St. Marys, Georgia. Once on the island, private vehicles aren't allowed on the few unpaved sandy roads which run tip to tip. Visitors typically hike or backpack, but bikes are also welcome most places except some interior foot trails. Pockets of private land remain on the slightly developed southern half of the island, which also has a small seaside campground. Meanwhile, the northern half is NPS-designated wilderness, where a few primitive campsites can be reserved.
The original plan was a fat-bike trip using the ferry, but then the government shutdown suspended the service. I pumped up my Kokopelli Nirvana in my living room and disassembled the bike into pieces. My packraft is a compact one designed for rivers and Class II-III whitewater, so it would be a tight fit. But it looked plenty do-able for the five-mile paddle-out from Crooked River State Park, in a channel known for four swift tides each day. With printed maps and tide charts, I hit the road for Georgia.
In the fog-filled Cumberland Sound, I tepidly paddle onward hoping for a glimpse of land. After what feels like a half-mile but was probably only 1000 feet, a squat bank of tidal muck and reeds appears. I breathe deeply and relax, turning and following the shoreline north. Actually, I over-relax as it turns out. I don't even bother to recheck the map, faintly recalling the next move is to turn right into a side-channel, which leads to my intended landing dock. Twenty minutes of wasted tide-time later, I'm in the wrong side-channel, fighting the current back into the sound.
The next side-channel is much wider and properly marked with buoys, leading to the dock at Plum Orchard. As I approach, a private ferry is pushing an empty vehicle barge. I have no idea what to expect as I carry my equipment to a picnic table near a preserved mansion. An armadillo is playfully snacking in the grass under a massive live oak. The branches are twisted from salt-pruning and draped in admirable beards of Spanish moss that would make a hipster expedition paddler jealous.
The Plum Orchard mansion, like most of Cumberland Island, was once owned by members of the Carnegie family, steel magnates from Philadelphia. After a battle over conservation versus development, the island was sold in 1972 to NPS and established as a national seashore.
While switching from boat to bike, the fog lifts until lingering high above the treetops. Looking out beyond the dock, I can clearly see most — if not all — of my many wrong turns. A pair of SUVs arrive, visitors taking advantage of the shutdown to explore the island in private vehicles. Having never been here before, I barely notice them. Though I could see some diehard preservationists being outraged at their presence.
As I ride the island back and forth over the coming days, I'll return to the centrally located Plum Orchard frequently. On Day Three, I'll hear piano music coming from the mansion and walk over to meet a caretaker. Being a volunteer, she's stayed behind to work without pay just like she always does. By this point, she's invited a group of four 20-something canoers to camp in the NPS hunting camp, typically only used for six managed hunts each year.
"It's kind of a free-for-all right now," says the volunteer, with a shrug. "But that's fine, something different. Everyone's behaving."
In sum, I get almost four days of fat-bike exploration. During which I see what the volunteer meant. On an island with a daily limit of about 300 people, there's maybe 50 visitors per day on Cumberland throughout the New Year's holiday shutdown. I see a handful of campers here and there. A few cyclists on day-trips, all staying at the single inn located on the southern half of the island. And maybe a dozen private vehicles, mostly going to the beach. Unlike the stories of trash and vandalism at other National Parks during the shutdown, Cumberland’s remote qualities seem to limit it to respectful visitors. Everyone is friendly, driving slowly with heads out the windows, awestruck at the scenery around them.
I camp at Brickhill Bluff, in the jungle-like northern wilderness. These few primitive sites overlook a tidal river channel where dolphins frolic in the mornings. There, I meet seven sea kayak racers from Florida who paddled the extra five miles up the snaking channels of Fancy Bluff Creek to camp a few days. After they depart, my new neighbors will randomly include a raft guide I met years ago at the Gauley. He and his partner had the same idea and canoed out for a wilderness island weekend.
Over 72 hours, I ride along both coasts from tip to tip, getting big ideas for coming back to paddle the tidal channels, inlets, and coastline that surrounds the island. I explore the nearly empty beach on the Atlantic side and the woodland interior where saw palmettos line the sandy roads. I visit the Dungeness ruins. The old airstrip where wild horses now gallop. Preserved settlements from the plantation-era.
When I push off in the packraft on Day Four, following the rising tide back to the mainland, I know two things. One, I'm coming back. And two, I'm getting a bigger packraft.
It will take another three hours to go five miles in my overloaded whitewater boat, reaching my truck just before the tide switches at sunset. My arms ache from about 10,000 half-strokes. Regardless, like most paddlers, I am a glutton for punishing bicep development. So gonna say, worth it.
Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs Weekend Expeditions and Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters for C&K. He is author of Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route and Paddling the Ozarks for Falcon Guides and Twit Lit Classics for Skyhorse Publishing, a book series which reimagines classic works of adventure literature as tweets for a 21st century audience. Learn more at mikebezemek.com.