The Edmond Sun

Features

September 10, 2013

The quiet life on an unspoiled Georgia island

I love wild, quiet places, places where I'm more likely to see a herd of whitetail deer, rattlesnakes or a rare kind of bird than a McDonald's or a mall. That's why I've come to Sapelo Island, one of the pearls in the necklace of barrier islands that protect the Georgia coast from the tumultuous Atlantic.

It's late summer, warm and humid, just as August in Georgia is supposed to be. But the salt-saturated winds whipping off the ocean temper the heat, making it bearable.

The ride from the mainland to the island takes about a half-hour, and as I step off the ferry with my tour group, I realize that it has been more than 10 years since I was last here. I wonder how much it has changed.

Turns out, not much. That's the way of Sapelo. Only the shifting of the continents moves faster than life on this remote island.

The fourth-largest of the barrier islands, Sapelo is about 11 miles long, four miles wide and about 16,500 acres. It probably hasn't changed much in a thousand years - it's still unspoiled and uncrowded.

And that's Sapelo's appeal - its sheer isolation and remoteness. There's only one way onto the island and one way off, by ferry or private watercraft, which leaves you completely at its mercy once you're there. Don't even think about cell and Internet service.

Carved out of estuaries of fresh water and the Atlantic, the island is deeply forested in canopies of pine and gnarled oaks so immense that they must have been growing since the beginning of time. Mazes of paved and unpaved roads, trails and tidal creeks curl through the island, so that from the air, it looks like a watercolor painting.

The first known residents, more than 4,000 years ago, were the Guale, a Native American tribe. The Spanish missionaries and explorers arrived in the 16th century, and the British and French came next. They were dominant until the 1800s, when most of Sapelo was purchased by Thomas Spalding, a Georgia politician and cotton and sugar-cane planter who brought in the island's first slaves.

Howard Coffin, one of the founders of Hudson Motor Car Co., bought most of the island in 1912, except for a few scattered African American communities. Then in 1934, North Carolina tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds Jr. purchased Sapelo, living there for part of the year for 30 years. After his death, his widow sold the island - or about 97 percent of it, with the exception of a chunk of land known as Hog Hammock, where the slaves' descendants lived - to the state of Georgia.

Seeing Hog Hammock was high on my list, but so was experiencing nature at its rawest and most splendid. Just a few minutes into our sojourn on Sapelo, I was marveling at a trio of whitetail deer. They stared at me. I stared at them. And then off into the woods they leapt, their flaglike tails waving goodbye.

Our tour bus - it's an old school bus, really - passes by great stands of salt marsh teeming with unseen critters and birds of every sort, and I was thrilled to see a pair of wood storks startled into flight, their wings, with an amazing five-foot span, sounding pfoof-pfoof, like the blades of a slow-moving helicopter.

During the drive around the island, to learn about its marine ecosystems and natural splendors, I caught glimpses of a lone bald eagle, ospreys, possums and plenty more deer. But I was always on the lookout for the elusive chachalaca, a game bird that looks like a cross between a chicken and a turkey and was originally imported from Central America for hunting.

"You have a one in a thousand chance of seeing one," says our guide as we meander along the dirt roads.

Today wasn't that day, nor was it the day to find Butthead.

There are about 200 wild cattle on Sapelo, descendants of those left over from the plantation era. The best-known is a solid black bull named Butthead. Turns out, though, the cattle are as furtive as the chachalaca.

"Butthead has been here for many years, but we hardly ever see him," our guide intones as he points to hoof tracks and poo. "He leaves his calling card. He lives here in Hog Hammock but hides during the day. They all hide by wading into the palmetto jungles and only come out at night."

Sapelo's long, undisturbed stretches of beach, scattered with shells, call like sultry sirens.

On the strand, I walk alone ahead of the group. In front of me is a sandbar flush with dozens of pelicans, some corkscrew-diving into the Atlantic in search of fresh fish. Behind me, sea oats sway on the sand dunes in rhythm with the ocean. With a contented sigh, I realize that at least for a little while, I don't see another human footprint.

We visit the iconic, candy-cane-striped Sapelo Island Lighthouse, standing sentinel over the island, and eventually arrive at Chocolate Plantation. The bones of the plantation's manor house, long decayed, are bleached nearly white by the sun. Slave-tended Sea Island cotton and sugar cane were once grown here. Sapelo's history is what it is and can't be changed.

At Shell Ring, a six-foot-high circle of mainly oyster shells left by the Indians centuries ago, I take a pass on walking the entire circumference in the heat but marvel at the primitive architecture.

In the huge R.J. Reynolds Mansion, which is partially constructed of tabby - a coastal concrete made of oyster shells and lime - you can contemplate a series of eclectic murals by Italian-born artist Athos Menaboni. The University of Georgia Marine Institute, also launched by Reynolds, highlights the island's plentiful ecological resources for scientific research.

We also visit Raccoon Bluff and Hog Hammock, veritable treasures of African American culture. The island's 60 to 70 permanent residents, almost all descendants of Spalding's 19th-century slaves, live in 434-acre Hog Hammock. Named for slave Sampson Hog, it's one of the few remaining Gullah - also called Geechee - communities on the Atlantic coast, and a place where the colorful Gullah language, a Creole-like melange of English and West African dialects, is still spoken.

I find Cornelia Walker Bailey at the back of her small general store, shelling red peas. A ninth-generation descendant of those first slaves, she has the distinct privilege of having been born on Sapelo.

"People come to the island because it's very special," she says. "They come for the peace and quiet, and there's no crime. Everybody knows everybody here."

The well-traveled Bailey has taken trips to Sierra Leone to find her ancestral roots and is the author of several books, including "God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia."

She speaks of Sapelo in a slow, lilting voice. "You can't save the culture if you can't save the land," she says. "Culture and land go together. You can't have one without the other."

 As we ride back to the ferry landing, I think that I could stay in Hog Hammock, learning the old African ways of cooking, weaving sweetgrass baskets, dancing and storytelling. But the setting sun is signaling the end of the day, as the alchemy of the soft summer light seems to set the marsh afire in a golden glow.

 

1
Text Only
Features
  • Latest trends on display at Party & Event Expo

    Party and event enthusiasts will have a chance to get tips and trends from a bouquet of experts Tuesday as the second annual Party & Event Expo will be held at the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds.
    The event, which is set for 3-7 p.m. Aug. 5, will feature an array of event planning options, including:

    August 1, 2014

  • ASK MR. DAD: Boys will be boys, even playing dress-up

    Dear Mr. Dad: I came home a little earlier than usual, walked into my bedroom, and saw my 6-year-old son sitting in front of the mirror, wearing one of my short dresses, heels, and applying mascara. He didn’t notice me at first because he was so busy talking to himself in the mirror. But as soon as he did, he scooted past me as fast as he could and went straight to his room. I’m worried and would like to talk with him about this, but he’s been avoiding me for days. What should I do?

    August 1, 2014

  • LIVING WITH CHILDREN: The power of ‘because I said so’

    I absolutely love it when people begin to realize that the problems they’re having with a child are of their own making; when they begin to realize, in other words, that the child is not the problem — they are! All this time (however long that might be), they’ve been trying to correct the wrong person — the child — getting nowhere and becoming nothing but frustrated in the process. Instead, they need to correct themselves, and it goes without saying that correcting one’s self is much, much easier than trying to correct someone else.

    August 1, 2014

  • 2-day Farm Transition Workshop coming to Stillwater

    An intensive two-day workshop will take place on the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater Aug. 15-16. The workshop is geared toward family farmers and ranchers interested in learning how to develop and implement a successful farm transition.
    Following a successful series of five one-day workshops held throughout Oklahoma in March and April, the two-day event will include in-depth coverage of business and personal goal-setting, financial analysis, human resources, family communications, estate planning, estate taxes and retirement planning. Expert panels featuring attorneys, tax professionals and mediators also will be available to help families who choose to have their first transition meeting at the event.

    August 1, 2014

  • YARD OF THE WEEK: Spring or summer, Clift’s yard blossoms

    The Clift Family at 2724 Woodland Creek Drive have worked many hours to make this week’s Yard of the Week a feast for the eyes. Mark Clift’s profession is in the technical field, but his passions are with the earth and sharing nature’s wonders with others, as he encourages his young children’s curiosity with their flower pot veggie gardens.

    August 1, 2014

  • pm_eagle scout John Giachino .JPG Scout earns Eagle rank

    John Bernard Giachino, 16, of Edmond, was awarded his Eagle Scout rank March 26. He is a member of Venture Crew 2021 chartered by St. John the Baptist in Edmond. John is the son of Phillip and LaDonna Giachino, grandson of Linda and the late John Giachino of Oklahoma City and Fred and Joanne Horinek of Newkirk.
    John’s Eagle Scout service project was designing and building a gaga pit for Camp Dakani in Oklahoma City for future Boy Scouts of America to play and enjoy for years to come.
    John will be a junior at Bishop McGuinness High School, where he is a member of the golf team and National Honor Society. He attends St. John the Baptist Church and participates in Life Teen. John recently visited Peru on a mission trip.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • TRAVEL - (8-2) White Haven green house.jpg New view on President Grant

    What do you know about Ulysses S. Grant? If you’d asked me that before my visit to St. Louis, I would have said: “President of the United States, Commanding General of the Union Army, buried in Grant’s Tomb and — a drunkard.”  Three out of four is not bad, but as history, I pretty much have to give myself a D.
    On previous visits to the Gateway City, Jack and I have visited Grant’s Farm — an area attraction owned by Anheuser-Busch. In the midst of the 281 acres stands a small log cabin — once the home of Ulysses S. Grant. Somehow, I never noticed the road just outside Grant’s Farm boundaries that leads to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, a property of the National Park Service.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • 1,000th baby group.jpg INTEGRIS welcomes 1,000th birth since opening in October 2011

    Being the father of a new baby boy is pretty exciting, but being the father of INTEGRIS Health Edmond’s 1,000th baby made it even more special.
    “When we got to the hospital, the night-shift nurse told us we were in a race with another couple who had gotten there at 7 a.m.,” said Bryan Lane, the new baby’s father.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • okco fair 100.jpg Oklahoma County Free Fair offers competition, free fun

    Oklahoma County residents are invited to compete in the 100th annual Oklahoma County Free Fair as they take part in many activities scheduled just for them.
    The county fair will get underway Aug. 21-23 at the Oklahoma State Fair Park and will be highlighted by its open adult and youth along with 4-H and Oklahoma Home and Community Education categories, as well as its special contest and activities.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • Grieving children find support at Calm Waters

    Calm Waters Center for Children and Families offers free support groups for children, ages 3–18 and their families whose lives have been affected by death or divorce.
    Oklahoma continues to rank among the top states in the nation for unintentional and premature deaths, leaving single parents raising children. Additionally, Oklahoma continues to have one of the highest divorce rates per capita in the nation. These tragedies leave children feeling isolated, sad, and uncertain.

    July 31, 2014