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.

Training for the Everglades Challenge: 125 Miles by SUP

Ready to launch (Photo credit: Brian Sheridan)

[Reprinted from Coastbusters Newsletter, May 2021, edited by Rick Wiebush, Cross Currents Sea Kayaking.]

“Get the picture. It’s time to go,” as our quintet of two SUPs, two sailing canoes, and one kayak struggled to hold a pose. The rising breeze, harbinger of winds to come. We had come for Scott Baste’s, owner of Tavernier-based Paddle! the Florida KeysEverglades Challenge (EC) January Preview, to learn the routes, passages, and campsites between Everglades City and Key Largo. A collection of EC veterans and newbies, all of us were eager to escape into the Everglades wilderness.

What my Inreach says I did
Loaded up

This trip would be a series of firsts for me: my first time on the Wilderness Waterway, my first multiple 25+ miles days, and my first solo SUP camping. My 14′ Bishop A’u paddleboard carried almost 80 pounds of gear, food, and water, enough to last at least 8 days. A Yeti Panga duffel strapped to my stern held my clothing, camping, gear, and food. My safety gear, including lights, flares, repair and first aid kit, was stuffed into an NRS Taj M’haul deck bag in front. I carried a 3-piece Werner Rip Stick as a spare.

A Seakayaker on a SUP?

Why SUP? After all, I have done numerous training
and coastal expeditions in my NDK Pilgrim Expedition. But I fell in love with stand-up paddleboarding even before I stood on a board, and the board plays well with our sailboat on Kevin’s and my SUP and sail trips. But there is a learning curve. SUP surf and SUP touring/expeditions have challenged me to adapt my kayak skills to a board. Wind and waves affect board and boat differently, for example, and I am experimenting to determine my limits. I recently began a SUP technique training program with Coach Larry Cain through Paddle Monster and am already seeing the benefits. Most important, I like my view of the world from a board.

Brian and sailing canoe striking a pose on the Crooked Creek Chickee

Starting Out: Eight Miles to the First Chickee

Buoyed by a rising tide, the paddle to Crooked Creek Chickee went quickly, and we reached the platforms just before sunset. Joe and I paddled straight there, past Chokoloskee and up the Lopez River, while Scott, Brian, and Don added miles by going up the Turner River and through Mud Bay. Cramming five people’s gear and tents on the platforms is an exercise in geometry—especially after dark. Mangrove forests line the rivers in the Everglades, and there are few spots dry enough for camping. So, the Everglades National Park built a series of chickees, or raised platforms, along the Everglades’ rivers and in Florida Bay.

Lulled by the evening calm

A 30 Mile, Windy Day

Our Everglades Challenge Preview started here: a 30 mile slog upwind, not even a real wind by EC standards. I left early, knowing that I am slower than the others. I relished the early morning calm as I paddled up the Lopez River to Sunday Bay, Oyster Bay, and Huston Bay. I followed my GPX track on my Garmin Fenix watch, but the occasional signs for the Wilderness Waterway, the 99 mile route between Everglades City and Flamingo, reassured me that I was on track. By the time I reached Last Huston Bay, the winds and my friends had caught up.

Break time in Huston Bay

Reality set in, when we turned into the wind. The bumpy waters of Last Huston Bay grew to whitecaps and small waves in the long fetch of Chevelier Bay. I paddled my board up and over the waves, grateful for my long board surf sessions on Tybee Island. (When I returned to Chevelier Bay several weeks later, I had my best downwind surf run ever.) The tiny creeks linking the bays offered some respite from the wind and a chance to appreciate the beauty of the region. But, long days into headwinds are the reality of the Everglades Challenge.

Creek right after fav cabin
The cuts offer a break from the wind

The Everglades Challenge

According the website, “The Everglades Challenge is an unsupported, expedition style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, and small boats. The distance is roughly 300 nautical miles depending on your course selection. There is a time limit of 8 days or less. Your safety and well being are completely up to you.”

A daunting challenge, especially on a paddleboard. But even more important to me, preparing for the challenge has sharpened a range of skills and introduced me to “kindred spirits”, in EC lingo. In 2020, I did the Ultramarathon, the shorter version of the Everglades Challenge, and planned to enter the EC in 2021. (Ultimately, I postponed until 2022.) This 30-mile paddle might have seemed long, but EC days can stretch to 40-50. I was tired when I reached Rogers Bay Chickee just before dark, but I felt surprisingly good both that night and the next morning.

Going It Alone

I faced a decision the next morning: remain with the group until Flamingo or separate and begin heading north to beat a projected front. Given the weather forecast and cumulative distance, I questioned my ability to complete that paddle. I assessed my water supply and realized that I needed to either continue to Flamingo or begin my trek back to Everglades City. I was sorry to leave the group—I loved the banter and cameraderie. But I also didn’t want to risk injury, and I knew that I needed to practice solo paddling.

Mangroves, mangroves, and more mangroves

Alone, I retraced my route through Rogers Bay, Big Lostmans Bay, and Third Bay, then headed west through the creatively named Second and First Bays to the mouth of Lostmans River. It felt strange to be on my own, but also exhilarating. I was confident in my abilities to handle the conditions and navigation, but now I needed to be completely self-reliant. By the time I reached the mouth of the river, the wind had picked up, and the tide was coming in. I made camp on a small beach just north of the river mouth and settled in for the night. It had been a 15 mile day.

Lumpy waters

I placed my tent in vegetation that looked both hidden and above the high tide line. (Despite multiple washings, those leaves still cling to my clothing.) I built a small fire on the beach and reflected on my trip and the solitude. I hadn’t seen anyone after I left Big Lostmans Bay, and the horizon was empty. I was really alone.

Tricked out NRS Chinook PFD

I carried multiple communication devices in case of emergency, including a VHF radio, PLB, and a Garmin Inreach, I also carried two GPS, heeding Chief’s admonition that ‘two is one, and one is none.’ Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. Since I had preloaded GPX tracks onto my Garmin Fenix watch, I rarely turned on the GPS instead glancing at my wrist for route and waypoint information.

Day 4: Lostmans to Highland Beach, 26 miles

Where to paddle? The north winds that were giving my friends a killer downwinder would have made my north-bound paddle hell. So, I decided to take advantage of those winds and paddle back up Lostmans River, past Rogers Bay, and down the Broad River to Highland Beach, just several miles south of Lostmans River. By now, some of these bays felt like old friends, but with benefit of tailwind. Bays I had struggled through now passed quickly. That is, until Broad River Bay where I fought for every inch.

Lounging gator

Slightly more active gator

I dragged my board and myself through the bay, down the river, and across the very, very shallow river mouth. I wanted to get as far from the delta and its tidal flats as possible. I knew that the next morning’s low tide would trap me on the beach if I didn’t get far enough up the coast. The west wind pushed me towards the shore, and I felt like I was paddling through mud, which I was. Later, I realized that I had been dragging my fin though the mud.

Tracks of my fin
Highland Beach, several miles south of Lostman’s River
Paddleboard wind block

Highland Beach was my second night solo camping, a skill I knew I would need for the EC. It seemed odd to be so far removed from any signs of people, although I wasn’t fully cut off. I texted Kevin through the Inreach, and frequently checked the forecast on the Inreach, itself a form of entertainment. (In return, the Inreach taunted me with promises of a tailwind.) Further, the occasional chatter on my VHF radio was interesting. But I was never bored.

Unintended relaxing morning

Stalled by Tidal Flats, Then the Wind

Despite my best efforts at an early start, the tidal flat trapped me for several hours. I started a fire and watched the water creep over the mud. Eventually, the water had risen, and so had the winds.

Someone had a bad day

After paddling for several hours, I did the most un-EC thing ever—I declared a beach day. I spent the afternoon bathing and reading on Hog Key. That evening, I burnt through even more of my required fire survival kit. A glorious day.

Somewhere in the Everglades

Day Six: 28 Miles and Too Many People

Northward bound, I passed New Turkey, Mormon, and Pavillion Keys then ran into a group of kayakers from Iowa near Jewell Key. It started to feel crowded!

Perfect paddling conditions

I reached Lulu Key, where I intended to camp, but music-blaring jet skiers were too much after days of solitude. I doubled back to Tiger Key, where multiple raccoon prints alerted me to my evening adventure. I hadn’t seen any critters until then. I stored my food in a bear barrel and my water in a heavy plastic container, and each night I placed my water bag under the weight of the board. The raccoons came out at dusk, not daunted by my fire. I slept with my paddle nearby and woke to a raccoon licking condensation off my board.

Foggy departure

The Last Leg: Tiger Key to Everglades City

Tired, happy, and stinky, I rode the tide into Everglades City. My only complaint: after miles of fantasizing about lunch, Nelys was closed that day.

This trip was an enormous learning experience and confidence builder. I paddled distances unimaginable the year before and explored a remote and fascinating part of the Everglades. It was the culmination of a year of skill-building and training, including SUP and sail trips with my husband and an overnight crossing of Florida Bay in December. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do the Everglades Challenge in 2021, but I’ll be ready for 2022.

Time for another trip