Ossabaw Island – Georgia’s Gifts From the Sea

Painting of Moonlight over Ossabaw Island by Ann LitrelI grip the thin handrail of the boat as it crests another wave. We’re entering “Hell Gate,” a narrow sea passage on the way from Savannah to our destination. At the wheel, the captain seems unconcerned that six middle aged women are perched on the edges of his bouncing boat.

We’re headed for one of Georgia’s wildest places – Ossabaw Island.

This is “Turtle Weekend,” a trip organized by Ossabaw Island Foundation, which stewards Ossabaw in partnership with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. It’s a chance for us to learn about Georgia’s sea turtles – and perhaps see a turtle nest hatching.

Naturalist John “Crawfish” Crawford sits in the front of the boat, wasting no time in launching our education. His gray, curly-haired head seems overflowing with a lifetime of lore about Georgia’s salt marsh, and the ways of her birds and wild creatures. In a tumble of words, he spills the treasure of his knowledge as we travel through the waves.

Ossabaw sparkles bright green on the horizon. The sky arches high overhead. I am unprepared for the shore’s utter wildness: this could be the New World a half millennia ago. Welcoming us ashore is Elizabeth, the Executive Director, who takes us to our accommodations. The century-old Club House is tucked into the trees, built long before the island was designated a State Heritage Preserve in 1978.

After dinner Crawfish gathers us around a table in the common room for our orientation. Amid an array of turtle skulls, a Green Turtle shell, and a preserved turtle hatchling in a jar, he relates the ecology of the island and the history of ongoing sea turtle conservation and research. Two solitary research residents have lived here all summer, monitoring the turtle nests, counting hatchlings as they emerge. Twenty years of national conservation programs appear to be successful: a decade ago, Georgia’s annual count of sea turtle nests numbered 1005. This year, the count is 3956. But Crawfish cautions us: Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc this summer.  Many eggs were drowned in the rising storm waters. He wants us to be prepared for the nest we will see tomorrow.

The next morning I grab a mug of coffee to watch the sunrise over the marsh. The full moon is setting, faintly illuminating the ghostly forms of tall birds fishing in the water…  wood storks and white egrets.

Promptly after breakfast, a jeep appears to take us to our destination for the day – South Beach, to see a turtle nest, a hatching – or whatever we may find.

The Beach is a graveyard of trees, their twisted forms looming out of the sand like the bones of huge skeletons. We meet the researchers, Brianna and Caleigh, at the nest site they have marked for today’s excavation. It’s been 65 days since the mother Loggerhead turtle laboriously dragged herself out of the sea to lay her eggs, leaving her trail in the sand. Caleigh begins to dig. This is the reason we are here – to see the hatchlings.

But as feared, it is not to be. Caleigh brings the eggs out of the hole one by one – round, the size of ping pong balls. They have all been drowned.  She breaks open one of the soft, permeable eggs to show us the unborn turtle with his tiny flippers.

Brianna reminds us of the good news, that more turtle nests were laid this year in Georgia than ever before. Many hatchlings are already safely in the ocean. More will hatch, no doubt.

On the return ride to the Clubhouse, we are a quiet group. The ruined nest, though expected, has dampened our spirits. Halfway back to the Club House we pass a bare, leafless tree marking the edge of the marsh. Amid the branches we catch a glimpse of movement – bright pink, flashing  –

There, strutting and bowing on the branches are strange birds – rare Roseate Spoonbills! Prehistoric, with platypus like beaks and bright red eyes – looking for all the world like the distant dinosaur cousins that they are. They cavort like pink-plumed clowns, dipping and flapping their wings.

Roseate Spoonbill at Ossabaw ISland - painting by Ann LitrelWe watch for long minutes, this unearthly gift from a wild place.

Not what we expected. But beautiful and rare just the same.

This year, as you wind up this season of gift-giving, consider seeking out the gifts from Georgia you may not know you have.

 

Explore the Bucket List of Georgia’s Gifts:

“35 Natural Wonders of Georgia To See Before You Die.”

Altamaha Adventure: Kayaking On Georgia’s Little Amazon

Great Egret On the Altamaha River, painting by Ann Litrel

 

Alligators and six foot long sturgeon reputedly swim in the depths of the murky river under our boat. My friend Ginger sits behind me, steering the kayak while I periodically break to click a quick photo. We are deep in south Georgia, navigating the wildest unbroken stretch of river east of the Mississippi: the Altamaha, which flows freely for 137 miles with no dam to break its course to the sea.

The river is known as Georgia’s “Little Amazon.”

We’re here on a weekend stewardship trip with the Georgia Conservancy, joined by 70 fellow paddlers from all over the Southeast. Our bright boats and life vests form a colorful parade gliding atop the water. On either side of us the wide fingers of the Altamaha reach far inland, spreading quietly between the trunks of cypress and tupelo.

The silence is eerie. Small drips and splashes follow our paddles through the water – but there is no motor noise anywhere to be heard.

So far, so good. I briefly recall the warning in bold print on our registration form: “Intermediate Paddlers only.” I blithely ignored it.

It’s been two days since Ginger and I pulled into the Altamaha River Campground, tossing together a two person tent that appeared designed for a single small child with a pillow.  A night in the tent produced dents in my back and frozen fingers at dawn, but multiple pots of coffee and hot eggs resuscitated all of us, and by 9 a.m. we were fortified for the all-day paddle from camp to sea.

The river surged with spring rains and a slow tidal breath from the sea. But the miles of wild banks were peaceful, and even as we drew near the small town of Darien, our take-out point, no signs of humans marred the landscape. Swamp trees gave way to rustling marsh grasses. Bald eagles soared high in the blue, alighting from time to time in the few lonely trees standing in the marsh.

The wilderness made its imprint on us in silence and ancient wildness.

Today, our second day, is another gift. We have ventured into the deep swamp creeks surrounding the campground – the “best part of the weekend,” say returning paddlers. With each stroke we penetrate further into the prehistoric forest. Trunks of trees loom large in our path. Ginger and I suddenly notice water inside our kayak, sloshing over our seats. Maybe a slow leak. We look up. The spaces between the trees have narrowed.

Perhaps an intermediate paddler would know what to do.

One of the guides paddles up behind us. “This is where is gets a little tough for a tandem kayak, “ he says laconically. “Y’all have much experience?”

No.

Experience would be handy right about now – say, when you’re paddling a leaky 18 foot kayak into a thicket of trees and you need to execute a sudden 90 degree turn to avoid crashing into a snag of fallen logs.

We weren’t the only ones having problems. Kayaks running into kayaks. Canoes stuck between trees. One boat taking on water and getting close to capsizing. Within three minutes, our group was a floating traffic jam. Forget about enjoying the wilderness. Ginger and I wanted only to get out of the swamp without swimming with the gators.

As it turned out, we finally did get untangled, and after a couple more hours made it back to base camp. As a matter of fact, we became “intermediate” paddlers.

Lying in the tent that night, we heard the barred owl call. The stars shone like maybe they have since the beginning of the world. And at dawn we watched a great white egret hunt along the shoreline in the mist.

Worth a couple of cold nights and wet bottoms.

Kayaking the Altamaha River with the Georgia Conservancy

 

Resources for Georgia Nature Excursions:

The Georgia Conservancy 

The Nature Conservancy

 

35 Natural Wonders in Georgia To See Before You Die

Painting of Cumberland Island beach by artist and writer-naturalist Ann Litrel

[A list authored by CHARLES SEABROOK
for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Published on: 02/03/08]

Inspiration for this new series of paintings comes from Author and Naturalist Charles Seabrook. Since beginning my studies with the Georgia Naturalist Program, I’ve been paying more attention to the huge diversity of ecosystems right in our home state. This list by Mr. Seabrook, first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, inspired my latest art-making trip, to Cumberland Island.

Here’s what Charles Seabrook had to say about Georgia’s Natural Wonders:

“Bookstores are filled now with such titles as “1000 Places You Must See Before You Die” and “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
Everywhere you turn, in fact, there are lists suggesting things you should do, see, read, taste or listen to before you die. So, I’ve come up with my own list — 35 Natural Wonders in Georgia You Must See Before You Die. You might have candidates of your own, but here are mine:

1.
Okefenokee Swamp. World-famous wetland.
2.
Marshes of Glynn. Far-as-the-eye-can-see coastal salt marshes that inspired poet Sydney Lanier to write his famous poem.
3. Cumberland Island National Seashore. Former President Jimmy Carter called it one of his most favorite places on Earth.
4. Ossabaw Island. Unspoiled barrier isle; amazing natural beauty.
5. Cabretta Beach, Sapelo Island. One of Atlantic coast’s most beautiful undeveloped beaches.
6. Woody Pond, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge (McIntosh County). In spring, thousands of egrets, herons and endangered wood storks form spectacular nesting colonies.
7. Ebenezer Creek (Effingham County). National Natural Landmark; harbors 1,000 year-old bald cypress trees with huge buttresses eight to twelve feet wide.
8. Altamaha River. Lower Altamaha called “Georgia’s Amazon” for the lush, jungle-like growth along its banks; river’s entire 137 miles unfettered by dams.
9. Broxton Rocks Ecological Preserve (Coffee County). Rugged sandstone rock outcrop deep in South Georgia; sculpted over centuries by water into fissures and shallow ravines that are now havens for many rare plants.
10. Ohoopee Dunes State Natural Area (Emanuel County). Sometimes called “Georgia’s Desert” because of its dry, sandy soil and scrubby vegetation. Biologists call it an “enchanting environment.”
11. Wade Tract Preserve (Thomas County). Privately-owned 200-acre swath of old-growth long leaf pine and wire grass; one of few remaining examples of great long leaf forest that once covered Coastal Plains region.
12. Providence Canyon State Park (Stewart County). Eroded land that transformed into a place of great beauty; sometimes called Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.”
13. Doe Run Pitcher Plant Bog Natural Area (Colquitt County). Lush growths of carnivorous pitcher plants in spring.
14. Pine Mountain (Harris County). Spectacular view from Dowdell’s Knob of valley below; President Franklin D. Roosevelt often came here to picnic and meditate.
15. Warm Springs (Meriwether County). Naturally warm, soothing water bubbling from Earth; FDR came here for treatment of polio.
16. Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area (Houston County). See for yourself why conservationists are intent on saving from development this place of roaming black bears and rare wildflower habitats.
17. George L. Smith State Park (Emanuel County). Bald cypresses growing in pond are magnificent in fall when they take on their orangish-bonze tints.
18. Sprewell Bluff State Park (Upson/Talbot counties). Little known gem on Flint River, which is one of South’s most beautiful and interesting streams; 3-mile trail offers superb views of river and rocky cliffs.
19. Palisades unit, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Spectacular greenspace in midst of sprawling, bustling metro Atlanta.
20. Graves Mountain (Lincoln County). Rockhounds from all over world come here for amazing array of rocks and minerals.
21. Stone Mountain/Arabia-Davidson Mountain/Panola Mountain. Huge geological wonders that sport some of Georgia’s most colorful arrays of wildlflowers in spring and fall.
22. Tallulah Gorge (Rabun County). Hard granite walls fall perpendicular to land above, forming steep cliffs.
23. Amicalola Falls State Park (Dawson County). Falls plunge 729 feet in seven cascades; highest waterfall east of Mississippi River.
24. Richard Russell Scenic Highway. 14-mile-long road is not natural, but it winds through some of the most splendid mountain scenery in the Southeast. Along the way are trailheads to waterfalls and scenic spots.
25. Cloudland Canyon (Dade County). One of Georgia’s most scenic state parks; rugged geology and beautiful vistas.
26. Brasstown Bald (Chattahoochee National Forest). At 4,784 feet above sea level, it’s Georgia’s highest mountain; four states can be seen from top.
27. Rabun Bald (Chattahoochee National Forest). Rivals Brasstown Bald in elevation and spectacular views.
28. The Pocket, Pigeon Mountain. (Walker County). Lush growths of colorful spring and fall wildflowers in a beautiful setting.
29. Rocktown, Pigeon Mountain. Stunning, house-size boulders make it a rival of its famous cousin, Rock City near Chattanooga.
30. McLemore Cove (Walker County). One of Southeast’s most picturesque mountain valleys.
31. Chattooga River (along Georgia-South Carolina border). Untamed and unimpeded; wild and rugged.
32. Sosebee Cove (Chattahoochee National Forest). High elevation, north-facing cove forest; rich diversity of shade tolerant trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
33. Cooper Creek Scenic Area (Chattahoochee National Forest). Harbors large hemlocks and white pines, some with bases as big as four feet in diameter.
34. Raven Cliffs Falls (Raven Cliffs Wilderness Area). Splendid waterfalls; trail to them almost equally stunning.
35. Anna Ruby Falls (Unicoi State Park, White County). A must-see for visitors.”