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Georgia’s Sea Islands: A destination worth the paddle

Kayakers paddle on a branch of the Altamaha River, on the north side of Little St. Simons Island. Numberless rivers and creeks flow around and through Georgia's Sea Islands. (David Brown/For The Washington Post)

“Do you like living out here, Iregene?”

Six of us were in a van riding from where we’d beached our kayaks to the hamlet of Hog Hammock, population 31, on Sapelo Island. Our driver lived there. His answer came as no surprise.

“Yes, I do,” said Iregene Grovner, 64. “Nobody bothers you out here. No need to lock your house. You can leave your keys in the vehicle. No crime. No police. No government.”

As we made our way down the one-lane road, its potholes hungry for gravel and the woods swampy and dark, I thought of the after-dinner campfire reading of the night before. We’d heard excerpts from “Rehearsal for Reconstruction,” a book about the effort to provide land to the Sea Islands’ freed slaves during and after the Civil War.

Sapelo Island and Hog Hammock are among the last remnants of those communities. We were lucky to be there. Given the tides of history and the fragility of barrier islands, we’d arrived not a moment too soon.

We’d just finished the second day of a five-day, four-night kayak excursion exploring a half-dozen of the hundred Sea Islands that stretch from Cape Hatteras to the northern end of Florida. The bigger and better-known of them (such as Hilton Head and St. Simons Island) are connected to the mainland by bridge or causeway. Many others are uninhabited, sparsely settled or wildlife refuges reachable only by water. That’s how we had gotten to Sapelo.

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The trip, in late November, was run by Upstream Alliance, an environmental education nonprofit in Annapolis. The two dozen paddlers included scientists, educators, photojournalists, board members, donors and a few people (including me) who had done volunteer work for the organization. One of the things Upstream Alliance does is promote public access to waterways, and one of the purposes of the trip was to see how much of that there was on this section of the 300-mile-long Sea Islands chain.

A co-sponsor of the trip was conservationist Wendy Paulson, who with her husband, former treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson, owns Little St. Simons Island, an “eco-resort” with seven miles of beach and 11,000 acres of undeveloped land. It was our destination; we’d been given permission to camp there.

“We’d like to develop a reservation camping program. This trip was a step in that direction,” she said when it was over.

Saltwater kayak touring requires meticulous planning, knowledge of tides and currents, and the ability to read the weather. Luckily, we were led by Don Baugh, Upstream Alliance’s head, who ran trips for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for 30 years.

We began at a public landing on Harris Neck, Ga., about an hour and 45 minutes north of Jacksonville, Fla. After loading the kayaks and three support skiffs, we headed down the Wahoo River for a half-day paddle to St. Catherines Island.

The Sea Islands aren’t like the rocky, forested knobs that dot the New England coast. They’re low, fragile accumulations of sand and marsh, bounded and bisected by creeks and inlets through which a prodigious volume of water flows each day. On the day we left, the tide rose and fell 6½ feet — three times the range of Chesapeake Bay, and close to that of southern Maine.

We covered 8½ miles in less than two hours, swept along by the outgoing tide and wind. The afternoon light turned the marsh gold. Wintering birds entertained us. Over the course of the trip we saw many species — ospreys, bald eagles, marsh hawks, great blue herons, ibises, egrets, Wilson’s plovers, a merlin, a wood stork, and numberless gulls and shore birds.

We arrived at the southern end of St. Catherines with just enough time to make camp.

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In Georgia, it’s legal to camp on many islands below the average high tide point. Our trip was exquisitely timed to make the most of this. Our home for the night was a tongue of sand with river on one side and a tidal slough on the other. There wasn’t a sprig of grass in sight. Clearly, the place was often covered by water.

However, the moon was only half full, so the tides wouldn’t be extreme. Baugh was confident we’d stay dry, even if a number of us weren’t.

We found the wrack line where the last high tide had deposited debris and set up our tents along it. They looked like vertebrae sticking out of a buried carcass.

Before the sun set we had time to walk down the beach and see real carcasses.

Three pilot whales had beached and died two months earlier in a stranding that killed 21 animals in all. Their backbones were half-buried; the ribs protruded like stripped branches of washed-ashore trees. The heads had been carried off by biologists who did necropsies in search of a cause of the deaths. (It’s still undetermined.) Two months before the stranding, about 50 pilot whales had come ashore on St. Simons Island. Beachgoers, pulling them to deep water, saved all but three.

We returned to the campsite and, after dinner, sat around a fire and listened to a reading about the history of the islands. Then we went to sleep.

As it turned out, we stayed dry. Nevertheless, our good fortune was a warning. On the Sea Islands, residence is impermanent. People rent or occupy; nature owns and repossesses.

Quarantine island

We were favored by a tail wind, slack tide and sunny weather as we crossed the mouth of Sapelo Sound the next morning and sneaked into a creek that meandered through the marsh behind Blackbeard Island.

The island is named after the pirate, who may have used it as a haven before his death in 1718. The more interesting fact is that Blackbeard Island was the site of the United States Marine-Hospital Service’s South Atlantic Quarantine Station from 1880 to 1910.

The outpost is long gone. As we came ashore, there was nothing to see except two mini-islands of rocks in the river.

The federal government bought the island in 1800 to harvest live oaks for Navy ships. However, after a yellow fever epidemic killed more than a thousand people in Savannah in 1876, it erected a complex of buildings to inspect ships arriving from tropical ports. Those with yellow fever aboard were fumigated, and the ill were hospitalized and isolated. Many troop ships returning from Cuba after the Spanish-American War stopped there first.

Not until 1901 were mosquitoes proved to be the transmitters of yellow fever. However, even before that, health authorities knew that dockworkers who removed ballast from fever-infected ships were at risk of getting the disease. Even crew members berthed over ballasted parts of the hold were at risk.

Today, we know that bilge water in ballast is a place where mosquitoes breed. For most of the South Atlantic Quarantine Station’s life, however, all that inspectors knew was that removing ballast from yellow-fever vessels was a good idea. That explained the rocks in the river.

We had to wait for the tide to rise so we could get through a shallow cut near the south end of Blackbeard created by Hurricane Irma in 2017. After we paddled through it, we went ashore. We ate lunch on a triangular piece of beach and dune that had a few trees and its own raft of flotsam.

Say hello to Little Blackbeard, the newest Sea Island!

It seemed a good time to learn a little about the birth and death of such places. Luckily, among us was James F. Renner, a 58-year-old geologist. He found a stick and drew in the sand as we finished our sandwiches.

The Georgia coast consists of seven ancient shorelines — “coastal terraces” — each older and higher as one moves inland, he said, carving lines in the sand. The larger Sea Islands were formed by the rising and falling of seas of the Pleistocene epoch, 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. More recently, in the Holocene epoch, smaller islands formed on the oceanside of the large ones. Sapelo, where we were headed, and Blackbeard, are a Pleistocene/Holocene pair.

Eons of moving water had done more than make islands.

Renner pointed to a patch of black sand. They were grains of minerals containing titanium and zirconium that had been winnowed from the dominant quartz sand by wind and tide. When “mineral sands” make up 2 percent or more of a deposit, they’re worth mining. Renner works for a company that does just that 50 miles inland.

“We can’t mine beaches, so we mine where the beaches were 10,000 years ago,” he said.

It was time for the final leg of the day.

We paddled the rest of Blackbeard Creek to Cabretta Island, a “mini-Holocene” attached to Sapelo by a one-lane wooden bridge. There’s a public campground there. Waiting were two vans to give us a tour before the sun went down.

Remnants of African culture

The Sea Islands’ isolation is famous for black communities whose language and culture retained features of their West African ancestors. Time, television, development and economic exigency has greatly diluted this “Gullah Geechee” culture. Nevertheless, some remains in Hog Hammock, the last of a dozen hamlets on Sapelo Island peopled by the descendants of enslaved Africans. (Nearly all of the island is now owned and managed by the state of Georgia.)

Grovner spoke of some of this as he drove us around. He grew up on the island; Hog Hammock had 200 people in his youth. For 25 years, he worked on the ferry that goes back and forth to the mainland three times a day. The tour he gave was mostly about loss and injustice.

Many ancestors of Hog Hammock’s residents were forced to move from Raccoon Bluff, a hamlet on higher ground and closer to the water, in the 1950s. Tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds Jr., who owned most of the island, threatened to close the road to Raccoon Bluff if people didn’t trade their land for less desirable parcels in the interior. Today, all that remains is a church built in 1898 from lumber washed ashore after a hurricane. It was renovated in 2000 and now holds services three times a year.

Grovner took us through a dark and moss-hung forest that ended at the ruins of Chocolate Plantation where, from 1789 to 1875, hundreds of enslaved people grew cotton. In a field of high grass stood the gray walls of their cabins, built with “tabby” concrete made from oyster shells. We looked at them in silence.

The final stop was Behavior Cemetery, named after another long-gone hamlet. It’s reserved for descendants of slaves owned by Thomas Spalding, who controlled most of Sapelo for the first half of the 19th century. Grovner said his ancestors in the cemetery go back 11 generations and that one day he’ll join them. Some grave markers incorporate favorite objects of the deceased, a practice in parts of West Africa. They’ve become targets of souvenir hunters, so the cemetery gate is now locked.

But it’s not all loss.

That evening, Grovner’s wife, Yvonne, showed us how she makes baskets from sweetgrass and saw-palmetto leaves. A woven disk, two shades of green, emerged from her fingers as she talked in the light of the fire. It’s an African craft. She learned it years ago from a man in his 90s who had been among the last people to leave Raccoon Bluff. Now her daughter and granddaughter make baskets, too.

In the morning we thanked them for showing us a bit of their world.

Don had earlier asked Iregene if he thought it was safe to paddle out Cabretta Inlet and down the east side of Sapelo in the open ocean. “Whoa!” the former ferryboat captain said. After a moment’s consideration, he said: “You leaving first thing in the morning when the tide is dead low? You’ll be fine.”

As we loaded the kayaks on the tide-exposed bank, we were about to find out if he was right.

The 'eco-resort'

Paddling a kayak in the ocean is always a calculated risk. Wind and tide can take you out to sea; the weather can change. But this was the perfect place and time. The water was shallow for hundreds of yards offshore. There was no wind, none predicted, and the sun was out.

“What’s our heading?” I asked Don after we’d been on Doboy Sounds, off Sapelo Island, for a while. “Your heading is the stern of my boat,” he said curtly. He knew where shoal water was likely to kick up waves. He wanted to be able to change his course at will. We fell in behind him like ducklings.

The swells, never more than two feet high, came to the shore at a rakish angle. Some of the time we were able to surf down them. Other times, we had to tack up them. Occasionally they were broadside. It was sporting.

The beaches were long and empty. The only sign of man we saw was a wrecked, mastless yacht high in the sand. In the hook of one sandbar, a group of dolphins fed in waist-deep water, birds hovering for the leftovers. We stopped at another for an early lunch. Like a flak-jacketed platoon, we watched nervously as the tide captured our territory from two sides.

We breathed a sigh of relief as we headed into the Altamaha River, possibly the most important unknown river on the East Coast. Flowing undammed for 140 miles, it carried an immense volume of tar, pitch, and turpentine in the late 19th century when Georgia was the naval-stores capital of the world.

As we proceeded upstream, the ocean and river water kept their own identities for a while. At the mouth, they were as distinct as patches of a quilt. Farther on, the river was pebbled with spurts of water, sending a message about speed, salinity, depth, and bottom contour, if we only knew how to decipher it. Soon, the paddling was easy as we made our way, tide-assisted, to Little St. Simons Island.

Little St. Simons has a 1917 hunting lodge and numerous more recent buildings, with accommodation for 32 paying guests. The Paulsons bought the island for $50 million and deeded a conservation easement to the Nature Conservancy.

We spent our next-to-last night on a sandy ridge called Five Pound at the northern end of the island. The last night was in a live-oak grove near the lodge.

After setting up camp at Five Pound, some of us went across the river to a deposit of dredge spoil on Broughton Island. It was said to be a good place to find fossil shark teeth. It wasn’t, but what we did find was almost as good — the calligraphic tracks of birds, raccoons, foxes, pigs and snakes on the rolling dunes.

Wouldn’t this be a good place to camp? I inquired later. It’s part of a state wildlife management area, I was told. No camping allowed.

To make this part of the Sea Islands expedition-friendly, it would be nice if there was a place to pitch a tent somewhere in the vicinity of Little St. Simons. Georgia might also want to think about allowing overnight use of some of its wildlife areas to a green and generally well-behaved kind of visitor — kayak trippers.

Let’s hope both happen. The Sea Islands are a hard place to visit — and too good to miss.

Brown is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. His website is

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Georgia Sea Islands by kayak

The islands are not camping friendly, but with effort a route for a multinight kayak trip can be devised.

We left from a boat ramp in Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, 50 miles south of Savannah. There is no campground there, but at least one cabin is available through Airbnb.

The state of Georgia allows camping on Blackbeard Island by hunters at specified times of the year but never by kayakers.

On the west side of Sapelo Island on the Duplin River, camping is allowed at Moses Hammock in a state wildlife management area. An “access license” is required to use WMA lands; a fishing license is the cheapest option. The camping area on Cabretta Island, which abuts Sapelo, is for groups of 15 to 25 people only.

Several Sapelo residents offer accommodation through Airbnb.

There is a WMA campsite at the western end of Rockdedundy Island near Rhetts Island, on the north shore of the Altamaha River.

An interactive map showing the campsites, boat ramps, etc., on Georgia Department of Natural Resources land is at