Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Latest Updates

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
Latest Updates
  • suspect john smith Suspect arrested, faces felony charges following shooting incident

    A Mercer County man was arrested and arraigned on felony charges Thursday after a domestic altercation led to a shooting incident on Methodist Hill Road.
    Mercer County 911 dispatched first responders to the scene approximately 9:50 a.m. Deputies with the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department were the first to arrive.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • Thousands rally for coal

    The echo of people chanting, “Hey, hey, EPA, don’t take our jobs away” could be heard in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Thursday.
    The voices came from about 5,000 United Mine Workers of America (UMW) members and their families along with other unions such as the Boilermakers Union and the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers International (IBEW) marching through the streets.

    August 1, 2014

  • George Allan Truhlar.png McDowell man in custody on sex crime charges

     A McDowell County man is behind bars after allegedly exchanging pornographic images with teenage girls and attempting to set up encounters with them, authorities said Thursday.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • Woman on probation for previous drug charges arraigned on new counts

     A Mercer County woman who was sentenced on a drug distribution conviction more than 2 years ago, was arraigned on Thursday on charges contained in a new 4-count federal indictment alleging that she distributed drugs.

    August 1, 2014

  • West Africa Ebola outbreak tops 700 deaths

    Security forces went house-to-house in Sierra Leone’s capital Thursday looking for Ebola patients and others exposed to the disease as the death toll from the worst recorded outbreak in history surpassed 700 in West Africa.
    U.S. health officials urged Americans not to travel to the three countries hit by the medical crisis:  Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

    July 31, 2014

  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 31, 2014

  • The virtues of lying

    Two computational scientists set out recently to simulate the effects of lying in a virtual human population. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show that lying is essential for the growth of a cohesive social network.

    July 31, 2014

  • lockport-police.jpg Police department turns to Facebook for guidance on use of 'negro'

    What seems to be a data entry mistake by a small town police department in western New York has turned into a social media firestorm centered around the word "negro" and whether it's acceptable to use in modern society.

    July 31, 2014 3 Photos

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 2.12.55 PM.png VIDEO: Five-year-old doesn't want her brother to grow up

    Sadie, an adorable 5-year-old from Phoenix, wants her brother to stay young forever, so much so that her emotional reaction to the thought of him getting older has drawn more than 10 million views on YouTube.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • Comiskey.jpg Sterling not the only bad owner

    As the Donald Sterling era in with the Los Angeles Clippers looks to be winding down, many are calling him the worst owner in sports history. From being cheap with the players to his most recent racist comments, it's hard to argue against.
    Yet, there are a few owners of athletic teams who can give Sterling a run for title of worst in history.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo