Paddling down the Bear River into St. Catherines Sound, the ocean and sky extend as far as my eye can see. St. Catherines Island to my right, or south, and Ossabaw Island—my destination—to my left. Georgia’s barrier islands hug the coast like a strand of pearls in the rough, and Ossabaw and St. Catherines are two of the finest of the string stretching from Tybee to Cumberland. Georgia’s barrier islands themselves are part of a larger chain—the Sea Islands—that extend from South Carolina to north Florida. The expanse of sea, sky, and beach give the illusion of wilderness, that my footprints on the beach are the first to land, but I know better. The sea has washed away the footprints of multitudes, including native Americans, enslaved Africans, colonial English, and, finally, the wealthy families who preserved these gems.
Paddling the Georgia coast is a bucket-list item for many kayakers, but wilderness that beckons makes the trip logistically difficult. Most islands south of Little Tybee either strictly regulate or prohibit camping, so it’s either paddling with a guide or stealth camping (not advised). So, when Marsha Henson and Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia invite me to join their trip to Ossabaw and St. Catherines, I said yes. Marsha is a certified Ossabaw guide, so our group was permitted to camped on Ossabaw while we learned about this biologically- and historically-rich island.
Way too early one morning, our group of seven gathered at the Kilkenny Marina in Richmond Hill. After loading our boats with four days of food, gear, and wine, we launched onto Kilkenny Creek for the seven mile paddle to our campsite. Riding the out-going tide, we paddled down Kilkenny Creek to the Bear River which carried us to St. Catherine’s Sound and the southern tip of Ossabaw Island.
We took a break before the day’s greatest challenge—finding the creek that led to our campsite. We paddled out and around the ocean side of Ossabaw, looking for the creek. Kevin and I had hoped for some surf on the sandbar that protected the island, but the wind was calm, with little swell that day. Finally Ronnie spotted the creek near a large deadfall. Fortunately we had enough tide to reach our campsite, about ten minutes upstream.
The ebbing tide revealed our next challenge—climbing up the slick mud bank. I found a clear patch, aka gator slide, and dragged my kayak up onto the grass. Victory—only half my drysuit was covered in mud! While the rest of the group came onshore, a small gator swam back and forth across the creek, staking claim to our launch.
Ossabaw Island Foundation manages two primitive group campsites for visitors, and our campsite was far from the island’s few buildings. We can thank the Torrey family from Michigan for preserving Ossabaw island. The family bought the island in 1924, and their daughter Eleanor Torrey West created the foundation in 1961. In 1978, the families deeded the island to the state of Georgia, creating Georgia’s first Historical Preserve. Several other Georgia barrier islands also followed similar gifting patterns, including Cumberland and St. Catherines. Because these islands passed directly from the families to the state of Georgia, they remain largely undeveloped, and visitors experience the ecosystem of coastal hammocks.
The coastal ecosystem is not shy. From the moment I stepped out of my kayak, it swarmed around my head, dive-bombing my drysuit in search of exposed skin. The gators, no-see-ums, and mosquitos made clear that I was merely a link in their food chain. In fact, shortly after my trip, actor Will Smith, filming Gemini Man on the Georgia coast, lamented that “y’all gotta do something about these bugs.”
The marshes and estuaries are biologically rich, fed by the seven-foot tidal flows of the Georgia Bight. The concave curve of the southeast coast funnels the tidal flow into the center, near Savannah and Tybee Island. Fish, clams, oysters, and shrimp thrive in the nutrient-rich mud of estuaries, nourishing birds, mammals, and humans. These islands once supported large populations of native Americans, followed by waves of immigrants from Spain, France, and England. The English, in turn, enslaved Africans for their rice plantations, favoring west Africans who had created novel techniques of tidal irrigation in Gambia and Senegal.
Today, these flows draw kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders for river mouth surf. The ever-changing sandbars St. Catherines Sound and the Back River near Tybee Island, for example, create rough water and waves that are fun for surf and rescue training. Storms and hurricanes frequently rearrange the sandy ocean floor so that surf patterns can change from one week to the next. Even islands disappear and reappear. Just last year, Hurricane Irma created an island now named Little Blackbeard. I had heard that the sandbar near St. Catherines had some of the best surf in the area, so I hoped for some waves when we crossed St. Catherines Sound from Ossabaw to St. Catherines Island. No such luck.
We landed on St. Catherines, like Ossabaw, minimally developed. But sitting on the beach, none of us could have guessed that lemurs roam this coastal forest. As a child, I visited St. Catherine’s as a child and learned about the New York Zoological Society’s (or the Bronx Zoo, as we called it) rehabilitation programs. St. Catherines Island hosts several animal rehabilitation programs as well as field schools in archaeology and ecology.
Please let there be surf on the way home, I thought. The incoming tide rewarded our patience as waves broke over the sandbar for a short surf session. We didn’t linger long — dark clouds loomed in the western sky.
The next morning, we fought a stiff wind back to the marina, reversing our journey. For several years, I’ve looked longingly across Waussau Sound, wanting to continue south towards Sapelo and Cumberland, to learn about their unique histories and cultures. Seeing Ossabaw has whetted my appetite to see the rest of Georgia’s barrier islands. To quote Marsha, it’s “Ossabawesome!”