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.”

Chattooga River – Unexpected Adventure

We strap on our helmets and sign the waivers. Two pages of fine print list the ways in which we can be hurt, crippled or drowned while whitewater rafting on the world class rapids of the Chattooga River.

Three friends, Amy, Celeste, and Yasmin, have joined me for this adventure. We’re here because the Chattooga made the bucket list of 35 Georgia Natural Wonders I’m painting on a three-year project. The manager of the rafting outfitter has been kind enough to arrange one of his best guides for us. He’ll pull us aside for photos at the river’s most scenic spots.

We line up for the “Safety Talk.” Our guide, Brandon, appears to be approximately the age of my youngest son. He instructs us how to float – feet first – if we fall out of the raft. That way, he explains,  we won’t smash our heads on a rock.

I wonder if the others are thinking what I am: “WHY did I think this was a good idea?”

“With all the rains we’ve had,” Brandon continues, “we’re in for a treat. The water is very high in Section III, and we’ll see some world class rapids and beautiful waterfalls. It ends with an amazing run, Bull Sluice. We won’t know if we can take it until we get closer. Normally we only take more experienced rafters.”

The girls and I look at each other and raise our eyebrows.

“It’s cloudy today,” says Brandon, “but I think this is when the river is at its best, when it’s all gray and misty like this morning. Then you can see why the Chattooga is special – why it’s called a temperate rainforest.”

We climb into the raft. Brandon pushes off and jumps in. The waters are turbulent, swollen with recent rains, and we are swept away on its powerful current.

Designated a “National Wild and Scenic River,” the Chattooga is protected from human development for miles and miles.

For the next six hours we are transported into untouched wilderness. Giant rocks loom out of the water, evoking fallen monuments, or the remains of ancient civilizations. Birds cry unseen from trees that line the river like a wall of green. Turning one bend, we are surprised by a high waterfall tumbling down the right bank, its lacy fingers running down to the river. Everywhere around us, the voice of the river, wild and tumultuous, follows us on our journey.

Periodically, the peace is broken by runs of rapids. These moments are exciting, tense. “Get down,” Brandon says, and we slide to the bottom of the raft. This minimizes the chances of flipping. If we fall out, we know to keep our feet from dangling down as we swim. The chance of getting a foot entrapped in a rock and being submerged by the current is real.

As we approach Bull Sluice, Brandon steers our raft to shore and confers with other guides gathered there with their groups.

“We won’t be taking Bull Sluice today, “ he announces. “It’s too wild. But we can watch a more advanced group take it.”

I am both relieved and strangely disappointed.

We climb out of the raft and scramble to the highest rock to watch the more experienced rafters take Bull Sluice. The river explodes in white spray, crashing into a narrow gap between large rocks, thrusting the boat like a toy into the churning waters below.

The rainclouds open up. We are soaked and exhilarated, filled with wonder at Chattooga’s power and the beauty of this wild rainforest.  And watching the explosion that is Bull Sluice, we agree that we are already feeling the loss of this wild and beautiful place –

And we vow to come back, to meet Bull Sluice another day.

 

Resources:

Rafting the Chattooga – WildwaterRafting.com

Full list of 35 Georgia Natural Wonders