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.

Tomoka-Paddling a Hidden Gem

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Tomoka, Bulow, and North Peninsula—it would be easy to fly over these gems cruising down I-95. But you shouldn’t. Nestled in the coastal waters between Ormond Beach and Flagler Beach, these parks showcase all that Florida’s coastal areas have been and can be.

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Old KIngs Road (Courtesy of Tripadvisor)

Your approach to the parks begins on the Old Kings Road. Driving through this canopy of trees made me realize that this might not be the Florida I thought I knew. Old Kings Road was one of Florida’s first major roads, designed over 200 years ago for north-south transit. As any Floridian knows, overland travel through Florida’s dense scrub landscape was—and is—dangerous and difficult. Creating a road was no easy feat. According to history buff Jim Massfeller, after Florida moved from Spanish to British rule in 1763, the road was commissioned to reach from Pellicer Creek to the Indian River. Today the road forms part of what some call the Daytona Loop and is used by bicyclists, motorcyclists, and paddlers eager to paddle through history.

I had been eager to paddle Tomoka and Bulow State Parks for a while now. Both combined coastal estuary paddling with an area rich in history. Jill wanted to visit these parks for FPTA‘s annual reunion for those who have completed Florida’s Saltwater Circumnavigational Trail which will be held in Tomoka State Park. Those paddlers might have rushed through these parks on their expeditions, but now they will have the luxury of touring the area slowly.

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Tomoka State Park Campsite

Jill and I found a shady campsite at Tomoka State Park. Mid-week on a January, the park’s campground  was relatively available and quiet. We camped on of the loops in the main campground. The group campsite is larger and has water access from a small dock.

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Tomoka State Park group campsite

After we set up our tents, we set out to learn about the park’s paddling opportunities. The park ranger directed us to the Tomoka Outpost, the camp store that also rents boats and other gear. They are also the local source for Tomoka IPA and Cajun boiled peanuts, perfect post-paddle snacks.

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A very calm Tomoka River

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Side creek on the Tomoka River

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Perfect for paddleoards

The Outpost sits directly on the Tomoka River and offers access for kayaks, boards, and motorboats. We had time that afternoon for a short paddle up and down the Tomoka River. That short paddle gave us an idea of the area and lets us explore some side creeks as well. On that day, the river was glassy, but a windy day might make things a bit more exciting.

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Boat launch and deck

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Critical information

After our paddle, we returned to the store to explore options for longer paddles. The store manager was extremely helpful about places to paddle as well as tides. The kiosk outside the store has a map of paddling trails inside the park. She also had a map of a longer-more tidal influenced paddle that extends beyond the park. The Tomoka River Paddling Guide has mileage and locations as well.

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Kiosk with paddling information

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Satellite photo of paddling options in Tomoka Outpost

These trail maps give multiple options for paddling, ranging from 1-2 hour out and back to a day  long loop trail. Make sure to check the tides—especially for the longer paddles. The manager told us to look at the Halifax River spot on Tides4fishing.com and to add 45 minutes. The paddling here is coastal estuary paddling at its best. The nutrient-rich marshland supports a a host of birds, fish, and marine mammals.

In addition to paddling, Tomoka State Park also has walking and hiking trails. One trail leads to a statue of Chief Tomokie. The Timucuan Native Americans lived on this site prior to Spanish and British colonization. Native Americans had lived in the St. Johns River region for over 10,000 years, and archaeologists are still studying their remains, including pottery and villages.

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Chief Tomokie (Courtesy of Florida Memory)

Several miles from Tomoka State Park, Bulow State Park showcases a later piece of Florida history—the Bulow family’s sugar plantation. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, British and Spanish immigrants established rice, indigo, and sugar plantations in what was then called East Florida. The extended Seminole Wars destroyed the Bulow Plantation and others like it, but the ruins tell an important part of Florida’s early history.

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Entrance road to Bulow State Park

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(Courtesy of Florida State Parks)

The long skinny Bulow State Park has multiple entrances, and it would be easy to end up at the wrong one. (And how do I know this?) The northernmost entrance holds the ruins as well as the kayak launch, and this paddling trail takes you from the historic plantation to an estuary paddle. From this launch, you can paddle upstream about 3.5 miles before the Bulow Creek become impassible. Others enjoy a downriver paddle to either the Waller Boardman Bridge or the High Bridge. Note that parking at the Waller Boardman Bridge is extremely limited. The park also has extensive hiking trails for those who need some walking time.

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(Courtesy of Florida State Parks)

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(Courtesy of Road Trippers.com)

If you are ready for some surf or maybe some beach time, North Peninsula State Park is just up the road, one of Florida’s many beach front state parks. Paddling, hiking, or just chillaxing, you can’t go wrong with any of these parks.

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(Courtesy of Authentic Florida.com)

As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barrier islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.