Donkeys, SUP, and Basket Weaving on Ossabaw Island

Photo credit: Kathryn Lapolla

Just a short paddle from Skidaway Island in Savannah, Georgia, lies Ossabaw Island, offering a glimpse into Georgia’s cultural and ecological history. I had kayaked and camped on Ossabaw Island several years ago with Ronnie and Marsha of Sea Kayak Georgia, but I hadn’t seen the buildings or explored the island’s interior. When Kathryn Lapolla of Savannah Coastal Ecotours invited me to join her and a group of basket weavers from Tennessee on Ossabaw Island, I leapt at the chance to return.

Ossabaw Island is one of the Sea Islands, a chain of barrier islands stretching from the Carolinas to north Florida. Unlike many of these islands, Ossabaw, St. Catherines and Wassau have remained largely undeveloped. But the structures that remain on Ossabaw reveal both a unique history that parallels that of the Low Country. The island’s beauty obscures a rich and difficult history, including centuries of slavery and later Reconstruction wherein African Americans gained and soon lost access to land. Paddling across the Ogeechee River, I bore in mind that a place of joy to me might yield pain to others.

From the Landings to Ossabaw

Kathryn and I prepared our respective crafts, an NDK Sportive kayak and a 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard, for a 10 am departure. Although the trip was only 6 miles, Georgia’s strong tidal flows make tidal planning essential. Kathryn’s husband Fran had already shuttled the weavers to the island, along with gear and food for the week.

Courtesy of the Ossabaw Foundation

We arrived at Torrey Landing, just a short walk from the Clubhouse where we were all staying. On my last visit, I camped at the South End Beach Camp, a primitive site almost 8 miles away. The Clubhouse with its community kitchen and expansive porch felt luxurious.

Ossabaw Island’s history is similar to that of the Low Country, with waves of indigenous settlements, followed by European settlers. One notable exception was visionary Sandy West (1913-2021) who cultivated the artistic oasis that Ossabaw later became. According to the Ossabaw Island website, archaeologists and historians documented numerous indigenous communities prior to the arrival of Spanish and English settlers. In 1763, John Morel, Sr. purchased the island and brought 30 enslaved people to produce indigo and later sea cotton. After the Civil War, parcels of land were distributed to the newly freed people to farm as part of Reconstruction. Unfortunately, this was a short-lived promise. Soon thereafter, Andrew Jackson rescinded this distribution and returned much of the land to ante-bellum landowners.

Eleanor Torrey West, known as Sandy, inherited Ossabaw from her parents and founded the Ossabaw Foundation to preserve the island. She later deeded Ossabaw Island to the State of Georgia with the provision that it would remain undeveloped. She lived on the island full-time and welcomed groups of artists, writers, and educators to stay for short periods. And that is how I came to be weaving a basket on Ossabaw Island.

I came to Ossabaw to paddle, but I became strangely entranced by the process of making a basket. Kathryn had warned me that the weavers weren’t going to let me go without making one. I was game, but wary, as the least artistic person ever. But with Barbara’s excellent instruction (and mistake fixing), I actually made a basket. I loved visiting with the weavers. They come every year and told island stories of years past.

Donated to the Ossabaw Foundation

But it wasn’t all about basket weaving. Kathryn and I explored the island by boat and board. One day,we surfed the tiny waves rolling in around Bradley Point on the south end.

Another day Fran hauled boat and board up the Bradley River. We rode the tide downstream and back to the landing, looking out for gators and dolphins along the way.

The tidal currents of the Ossabaw River created an endless pool for my SUP practice. As part of my technique training through Paddle Monster, Coach Larry Cain had assigned both land and on-water drills to improve my stroke. I paddled upstream, practicing my catch and exit, floated back down and repeated, again and again. An alligator surveyed my first few passes, until the sun and repetition lulled it to sleep.

Photo credit: Pam Bullock

We also toured the island by land, piling into the back of the Foundation truck. We saw Middle Place, site of the Genesis Project, another Sandy West creation. From 1970-1983, artists and others spent from a week to a year on the Genesis Project, “a cooperative, semi-sustainable community” where they lived “close to the land.” I wish I had learned about the Genesis Project when I was writing Living Sustainably. I found these communities fascinating, but found few in the deep south.

We saw the once-elegant Main House and looked for bird life towards the south end of the island.

Ossabaw had no shortage of wildlife, some wanted and some not. Sandy had introduced donkeys to the island, and they loved their apples and carrots. A less welcome raccoon slipped into the house early one morning and helped himself to granola bars and snacks.

And suddenly, it was time to paddle back to the mainland. Ossabaw is a magical place, revealing so much cultural and ecological history. The fate of Ossabaw Island is in the hands of the State of Georgia. I hope they live up to Sandy West’s expectations.

Apalachicola SUP: 2020 Style

Morning on the sandbar

What can alleviate the insanity of 2020 better than sandbar camping, good friends, and no wifi? By 9am, November 4—the day after the election, Jill, Liz, Jennifer, and I paddled away from the noise and into the solitude of the Apalachicola River. Over the next two days, our team of four—three kayaks and one paddleboard—would cover the 45-ish miles from Jim Woodruff Dam to the Estiffanulga Boat Ramp.

Maps and points on the Apalachicola Blueway (courtesy of Apalachicola Riverkeeper)
Door to door service from om Harry Smith, Harry Smith Outdoors

Our journey began in the town of Chattahoochee, just south of the Florida-Georgia line, where Georgia’s Chattahoochee River becomes Florida’s Apalachicola River. The Chattahoochee River starts in north Georgia, flows through metro Atlanta, and continues south as the Georgia-Alabama border until it reaches Lake Seminole and the Jim Woodruff Dam. Once in Florida, the Apalachicola River streams into Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Load and launch at Clyde Hopkins Park, Chattahoochee, FL
Jennifer prepares to launch

Why the Apalachicola River? Jill needed to complete the first two days of the Apalachicola Rivertrek, and the rest of us stepped in as good friends to “help”. Every October, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper organizes Rivertrek, a 5-day, 106-mile paddle from Chattahoochee to Apalachicola Bay. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper, headed by Executive Director Georgia Ackerman, monitors the health of the river and bay, and Rivertrek raises funds support this mission.

However, in keeping with the spirit of 2020, Hurricane Sally broke the trip in half and pushed the second half of the trip into November. So, Liz and I were happy to “help” Jill and Jennifer paddle from Clyde Hopkins Park to Estiffanulga Boat Ramp where they would join the rest of their team. And Liz and I would return home.

One of many anchored houseboats along our route

Shortly after we launched, we passed under the I-10 bridge and left “civilization” behind. The Apalachicola River is wide and flows swiftly. At times, we saw evidence of the barge traffic that once plied the river, but mostly, and surprisingly, we had the river to ourselves.

For most of its length, the Apalachicola River forms the boundary between Eastern and Central time zones, and my watch alerted me to the change when I veered towards one side or another. However, just before the river joins the bay, the boundary between zones veers sharply—and inexplicably—westward away from the river. Why? Florida lore (and historical research) credits developer and financier Ed Ball (1888-1981) for this anomaly. Ball wanted his Wakulla Springs hunting lodge and his Port St. Joe paper mill (30+miles west) in the same time zone, and, in true Florida style, Ed Ball got what Ed Ball wanted.

Who drew that line? (Courtesy of ESRI.com.)

The high water propelled us downstream, averaging 4-6 MPH with little effort. Some sections featured scraggly trees still recovering from Category 5 Hurricane Michael that shredded the panhandle in 2018. In other sections, willows highlighted the coordinated efforts of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, EPA, and the University of Florida, among others, to reduce sandbar erosion.

Recovering trees

By 3pm, we found home for the night, a sandbar with ample space for socially-distanced tents. Plenty of time to swim, relax, and set up camp.

Time to chill
Liz vs the Sawyer squeeze
Home for the night

We paddled about 20 miles our first day, leaving about 20 more for the second day. Given the river’s flow, we relished a relaxed morning, drinking coffee and drying dew-soaked gear. That’s how it started anyway.

A slow morning
Manatee pajama envy
Run!

I was barely into my first cup of coffee when Jennifer pointed to her Pocket Rocket stove, now engulfed in flames. “Run,” Liz yelled, and we sprinted to the far side of the sandbar. Seconds later, a large boom echoed across the river valley, perhaps causing some to wonder if hunting season had started early. A gas leak? A bad O-ring? We’ll never know. And we never found the piece that blew off.

Alum Bluff
Topography in Florida!

Just downstream from our campsite, we passed Alum Bluff, a 135′ high sandbar that towers over the river. The heights of Alum Bluff and Torreya State Park were the biggest surprises of the trip for me–actual topography in our flat state.

We stopped for a quick break at the boat ramp in the town of Bristol. Shortly after, we reached Sutton Creek and Bayou on the river’s west side and took a side trip up this sleepy creek. Stands of tupelo trees arched over still water, providing a feeling of stillness and gravity.

Sutton Creek
Sutton Bayou

Despite our leisurely morning, the day had passed quickly. Time to find a campsite. Our goal—a sandbar two miles upstream of our take-out at Estiffanulga Boat Ramp. Estiffanulga Boat Ramp was mile 63, and the sandbar 65. We pulled over around mile 70 and coordinated charts, watches, and mileage.

Checking charts and a little break

The miles ticked by. Around mile 65, what looked suspiciously like our sandbar barely peeped out from under the water. That wasn’t going to work. We paddled on, looking for possibilities.

Where’s my sandbar?

It was not to be, and Estiffanulga County Park would be our home for the night. We rounded the final bend and saw the boat ramp—and two tents being set up. Two other members of Rivertrek had arrived for the next morning’s rendezvous.

Our evening view
The four Musketeers
Apalachicola Riverkeeper boat

The rest of the Rivertrek crew arrived the next morning, along with Georgia Ackerman and the Riverkeeper boat. Liz and I waved goodbye as they resumed their journey towards Apalachicola Bay. 2020 was not yet done with Rivertrek though. As Tropical Storm/Hurricane Eta pinballed around the Gulf of Mexico, the Rivertrekkers changed their plans once again. But, as all paddlers know—all plans are contingent, and nature bats last. Nonetheless, I envied them as they headed south, and maybe 2021 is my year for Rivertrek.

And they’re off

Paddling Georgia’s Barrier Islands

Landing spot
Camping on Ossabaw Island

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.

Ossabaw Island
Courtesy of Sherpa Guides Georgia

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.

 

Coastal Georgia
Coastal Georgia (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Kilkenny
Kilkenny Marina

Loading boats
Loading boats on the dock

 

Ossabaw point
Ossabaw’s southern end

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.

Gator slide
Canoe launch by day, gator slide by night

Landing with kayaks
Kayaks at rest

Resident gator
Campsite gator

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.

Water tower
Our water supply

Drysuits
Drying the drysuits

Campsite buoy
Campsite buoy

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.

Campsite
Nothing says relaxation like a hammock

Marsh
Marsh panorama from my campsite

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.

012-Georgia-Bight
(Courtesy of Brown’s Guides)

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.

St. CAtherines
Lunch on St. Catherine’s

St Catherines buoy
Ripped free and tossed ashore on St. Catherines

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.

Deadwood with storm
Dark clouds over an Ossabaw Boneyard

Flag
A little breeze perhaps?

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!”

716-georgia-coast
Courtesy of Georgia Coast Atlas