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.”

Birthday In the Swamp

Okefenokee Swamp painting with coreopsis blooming

Okefenokee Swamp – Watercolor and Ink,  Chesser Prairie with Coreopsis Blooming

I’ve told the story of my 50th birthday, when my sister Jane booked us a five-day trip to Nebraska in March, where we sat in a duck blind before dawn in sub-freezing temperatures, to witness one of the “Ten Great Animal Migrations” of the world – 400,000 Great Sandhill Cranes migrating north to their winter breeding grounds in the Arctic.

We watched as great clouds of birds with six-foot wingspans circled the sky, dawn and sunset, over their nighttime roosting site in the shallows of the Platte River. As they called to one another, the sounds of their voices filled the sky. I’ll admit, it was spectacular.

And cold.

So for Jane’s birthday this past November, I wanted to measure up with a comparable getaway. For sheer one-upsmanship, I liked the sound of a Swamp trip.

Specifically, Okefenokee Swamp – the largest freshwater swamp east of the Mississippi, located in the middle of nowhere in south Georgia.

I figured there was no way to top the spectacle of a great Animal Migration. I was hoping for alligators (and not too many mosquitos). I booked us a guided, three-day kayak trip, during which we would ferry our supplies in our boats, and camp each night on platforms raised above the swamp waters.

As it turned out, there were alligators. Every hour. Everywhere.

But there were also surprises.

Our guide Sheila was a piece of living history – a self-proclaimed “Swamper” whose family had lived in the trackless swamp going back almost two hundred years. Sixty years old, she is a member of perhaps the last generation to know so many of the old settler stories, a trove of tales she shared with us about life in the swamp as it once was.

Kayaks in later November at Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia

Lifelong “Swamper” Sheila leads us through the trackless Okefenokee Swamp

As she led our kayaks through the maze of water trails, she often stopped us to point out countless strange bird calls, and name the source of each. In one instance, she pulled up to a hummock of ground where she stripped some leaves from a bush, wetted and crushed them, and showed us “Poor Man’s Soap,” lathering in her hands.

As for the alligators: one woke us with a huge bellow somewhere just beside our platform at dawn the first morning. And as Jane and I paddled through a narrow channel the second afternoon, a big twelve-footer slid from the grasses into the water just in front of our kayak.

Jane and I froze – and then strained to stop our kayak. We knew he must be in the water just ahead of us. We called anxiously to Sheila behind us. Nonchalantly she paddled up, glanced at the tea-tinted shallows, and said “Looks like he has enough room down there to stay out of your way. Go ahead.”

The real Okefenokee was not at all what I had pictured. There were moss-draped trees and dark waters – but there were also wide “prairies,” mirrors of glass-like water, covered with pools of blooming waterlilies under the sun. Great shining white egrets perched in watchtower trees above the water, and the healthy waters were alive with fish and turtles and frogs.

Sandhill Cranes, potential header or spot illustrationAt sunset the final night, like an unexpected benediction, we heard the strangely familiar bird cries across the swamp from our platform. Sheila pulled out her binoculars to let us look – and there, heads and necks bobbing above the marsh grasses, were four sandhill cranes, settling down for their evening roost in the water.

For Jane’s birthday, Nature had graced us once again – so we could see the sandhill cranes, a thousand miles from Nebraska, for another birthday celebration.

 

 

Additional Ink and Watercolor Paintings from the Okefenokee Swamp

November Water Lily at Okefenokee Swamp

This work is deliberately minimalist, evoking waterlilies painted in the Asian tradition. Loose washes and splashes of green suggest the water surrounding the leaf and blossom, while translucent washes of warm yellow and delicate blue shadows evoke the effectof the sunlight glowing through the petals of the lily.

Ann Litrel painting in ink and watercolor, Reflections at Okefenokee Swamp

Reflections

Here the drips of the watercolor create shadowy reflections of trees in the mirror-like swamp water. My goal here was to convey the almost unearthly quiet and stillness of this out-of-the way spot in the world, still largely untouched by man.

Ann Litrel painting in watercolor and ink, a lone monarch stops for the late fall flowers, heading south for the winter, Georgia Natural Wonders

A lone monarch stops for the late fall flowers, heading south for the winter

Detailed ink lines delineate the beautiful grasses and flowers of the November prairie at Okefenokee, while the background trees and sunlight are only a glow in the distance. The lone Monarch butterfly, hurrying south before the winter comes, is lightly suggested, formed of misty color and just a ghost of line to show his wings.