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Exploring Culture and Nature on Georgia’s Barrier Islands
Thomas R. Fletcher
It was a trumpet blast a foot from my right ear. The rooster was at my bedside window. It was enough to wake anyone–or so I thought. He was just getting started, others in the neighborhood soon joined in the raucousness. I was awake already. The crowing roosters provided my excuse to get up. Amazingly, the others in our three-bedroom unit remained asleep. I made my way outside. Morning hadn’t fully arrived, but the sky was growing brighter, chasing the shadows. A mist clung to the tops of the Live oaks. Spanish moss dangled and swayed from the branches, pushed by the soft sea breeze. I was excited, today would be spent exploring this little-known, primarily state-owned island, before kayaking and exploring her neighbor Black Beard Island the following day. This was morning in Hog Hammock, Sapelo Island, Georgia.
Hog Hammock is a small Geechee/Gullah community of about 50 people on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Geechee/Gullah refers to distinct African-American culture that developed primarily along the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. The culture is called "Gullah" in South Carolina, and "Geechee" in Georgia. Sapelo’s Hog Hammock community is made up of the decedents of slaves who worked the plantation of Thomas Spalding. Spalding first brought slaves to the island in 1802, primarily from West Africa, Sierra Leone and bordering countries, for the Africans' ability to cultivate rice and their resistance to malaria. Rice, cotton, indigo, and sugarcane were produced on the Spalding plantation. Left isolated, the Geechee/Gullah developed a distinct culture and language, a creole based upon English and several African dialects. They have retained more of their African cultural roots than their African-American counterparts who have been interspersed throughout society.
(Old church, abandoned community of Raccoon Bluff, Sapelo)
Our day would be spent exploring Sapelo and historic sites around the island. Sapelo has been many things, from Native American hunting ground, hideaway of French noblemen fleeing the French Revolution, slave plantation, and a millionaire’s playground. Sapelo is a barrier island approximately five miles off the coast of Georgia. Ten miles long and four miles wide, Sapelo is the fourth-largest of Georgia’s barrier islands. It is home to the University of Georgia Marine Institute, located on the southern end of the island. Founded in 1953, the Marine Institute is a center of near-shore ecological and geological research. The coastal marshes of Georgia and South Carolina account for one-third of US east coast salt marshes. The salt marshes are nurseries for shrimp, crabs, and fish. Research is conducted to understand what affects the salt marshes and coastline, and to identify the role of the near-shore environment in maintaining coastal resources. The marshes protect the shoreline from erosion and act as a purifier filtering out pollutants washing off the land. In addition to the Marine Institute, approximately 8,700 acres of Sapelo Island marshes, upland, and tidal creeks have been set aside as Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. All of the island but 434 acres of the Hog Hammock community belongs to the state of Georgia and falls under management of the Marine Institute, the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, or the R. J. Reynolds State Wildlife Reserve.
(Shell ring more than 10 feet high created over several hundred years of Native American Habitation.)
Habitation of Sapelo goes back 4,500 years, evidenced by the large shell ring more than ten feet high and 300 feet in diameter. The ring was formed over a period of hundreds of years as the Native American inhabitants cast their oyster shells upon the growing heap surrounding the village. The Spanish came in 1566. Later, in the 1790's, the island was owned by a group of French nobles fleeing the French Revolution. Chocolate Plantation was home to one of those nobles. The skeletal tabby remains of the buildings seen today are primarily from 1812-1819 (tabby is a mixture of lime, shells, sand, and water–readily available cost-effective coastal building material, very much like concrete). The plantation was constructed under direction of Edward Swarbreck, business partner of Thomas Spalding. Swarbreck bought out Marquis de Montalet, the last of the French noblemen, and built extensively upon what was there. Spalding initially purchased 4,000 acres on the south end of Sapelo in 1802. He went on to acquire most of the island over the next half century. Though most of the wood used in the structures has rotted away, it is impressive to see these 15 structures that have stood for 200 years. Chocolate is located on the North side of the island. Access is restricted to tours similar to the one I'd joined. It was on a three-day outfitted kayak trip with Southeast Adventure Outfitters.
(Remnants of Chocolate Plantation)
The community of Hog Hammock doesn’t have the same 200 year-old history, as the Geechee culture. Hog Hammock came about through the land consolidation efforts of tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds in the 1950's. Previously, African-American residents had land holdings scattered about the island. Reynolds offered a plot of land and house in the community for black land holdings about the island (often Reynolds received a much larger plot of land than he was giving up).
There’s no hardtop on Sapelo (other than about five miles on the south end). Getting around is via hard-packed sandy roads with catchy names like "Dogpatch Road," "Dixie Highway," or my favorite the "East-West Autobahn." Visitors to the island must be a guest of a state agency on the island, by invitation from a resident, or book a tour with a company that has island connections.
Sapelo Island lighthouse has a history going back to 1820. Built on the south end of Sapelo, the lighthouse was constructed to serve the city of Darien eight miles away on the mainland. Darien, located at the mouth of the Altamaha River, was once an important shipping center offering access to the interior of Georgia. Decommissioned and not used for years, the lighthouse had fallen into disrepair, being nothing more than a shell when reconstruction began in 1997. The lighthouse was restored to what it would have looked like in the 1890's with bold red and white stripes. A relighting ceremony for the refurbished lighthouse was held September 6, 1998.
(Put-in near Raccoon Bluff, Sapelo Island)
The next day would have us visiting Blackbeard Island, using sea kayaks as transport. We put into Blackbeard Creek near Sapelo’s Raccoon Bluff. We made a leisurely hour-long paddle to a beach pull-out on Blackbeard. Blackbeard Island is a National Wildlife Refuge under management of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The uninhabited island has been under federal ownership since 1800 when it was purchased by the Department of the Navy, as a resource for Live oaks to be used in ship building. The island is a 5,628-acre refuge, with nearly half of it remaining in pine and oak forests. In 1940, the island was set aside as a National Wildlife Refuge. In 1975 3,000 acres (of the 5,628) were set aside as a wilderness area. The island is named for the infamous pirate Edward Teach, more popularly known as "Blackbeard." Rumors of pirate treasure still persist, though none has ever been found. It isn’t certain Teach ever visited the island. Furthermore, artifact hunting on the island is forbidden by federal law.
There’s plenty of wildlife to observe, from alligators to rattlesnakes, bald eagles to piping plovers. Several species that are threatened or endangered make the island home.
Our outing on the island took down a stretch of pristine beach, with not another person in sight. We then turned down a trail of twisted, tangled Live oak trees, where we stopped for a leisurely lunch. A few people took the opportunity to grab a nap under the oak canopy, before finishing the hike back to our kayaks. All and all, it was an excellent outing of cultural and natural exploration on two islands of which I had little previous knowledge.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / Prose and Photos