Every forest holds a secret. Some secrets are mundane, or only important to a few people: a tree tattooed with a heart-shaped equation, a defaced rock scrawled with graffiti. Other secrets are expansive, crackling with immediate energy—like a forest trail newly discovered on an early morning run, fog lifting from its floor. Every forest holds a secret. Cumberland Island’s live oak trees seem to whisper such truths to me as I catch myself deep in thought, staring up into the web-like canopy of dense, twisted, Spanish moss-covered limbs that reach for the overcast sky as the path winds its way to the beach.
How did we get here? It’s easy to forget that we had come by way of Capt. Bill Pike’s lovingly restored Cape Dory 28 Flybridge and not teleported here after piling into a magical wardrobe. Cumberland Island, the longest and southernmost of Georgia’s Golden Isles—also the wedding site of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1996—is only a short boat trip from the mainland, but it might as well be a fairytale land. Herds of horses run wild across marshland. Crumbling ruins strain against the test of time. Sea turtles nest along 18 miles of shoreline and armadillos forage for food beside dirt roads.
What humanity has built here, nature is doing its best to reclaim. There is hardly any manmade structure: no bridges or paved roads, stores or beachfront property. Much of the island now belongs to the Cumberland Island National Seashore, publicly recognized land administered by the National Park Service (NPS). Visitors can only access the island by boat, and the vast majority are deposited by ferry twice a day from St. Marys, Georgia. But here’s the catch: Only about 300 people can visit each day, due to the maximum capacity of the ferry. This makes Cumberland Island the ideal escape for boaters looking to take in nature in its purest form.
Rediscovering nature is one thing, though; surviving nature is a different story. We—myself, Bill, Editor-in-Chief Dan Harding and Digital Director John Turner—had assumed we would spend the night at one of the designated campsites, a long two-mile hike inland. But the weather (thankfully) had other ideas.
Docking Bill’s Cape Dory 28, the famous Betty Jane II, at the Sea Camp Dock—an open-faced structure at the narrowest part of the island, to the south—we tie up beside the ferry. (There are three different docks available for public access on a first come, first served basis, but recent hurricanes have made some of them inaccessible. My advice? Check with the NPS before cruising here.)
“I think, in general, private boating is a great way to see the island,” says Nicholas Roll, a Cumberland Island park ranger and guide, whom I spoke with after our cruise. Roll has been working for the NPS for 11 years and at Cumberland Island for three years. He knows the island inside and out. “The most stressful part for most visitors is making sure they get to the ferry on time.” While we don’t have to worry about the ferry leaving us behind, a thunderclap rumbles in the distance.
Our plans sufficiently change. Instead of camping, we take a day to tour the island’s well-trodden 6-mile southern loop, seeing the varied ecosystems along the way: forests, beaches, marshland. We retrace the footprints of Native Americans, missionaries, slaves and wealthy industrialists—or what amounts to over 4,000 years of human interaction with the island, now preserved as parkland. In that time, the island has gained many names: Tacatacuru, San Pedro, the Debatable Land, the Highland, Cumberland. Worlds within worlds, falling backwards into history.
Stepping onto the beach at low tide, we are one of only a few groups of visitors stumbling across what feels like a primordial world. The beach, wide and long, has returned to a state that is, for the most part, entirely unblemished by the detritus of civilization. The only thing alien that has washed up on the island is … us. Even our footprints look foreign here. As I turn to look back at the way we’ve come, I watch as they are hastily reclaimed by a ravenous tide.
It’s there, on the beach, that three of the island’s Houyhnhnm-like denizens regard us with mild curiosity. A sire and dam graze languidly on the dunes as, close by, their filly lies undisturbed in the sand. We scramble for our cameras. While letters place horses on the island as far back as 1597 (brought here by the Spanish), it’s only during World War II, when the island was practically deserted, that they were left to roam free. Before us are the descendants of generations of horses that have never been vaccinated or saddled. The NPS tracks what is now a naturally occurring population, which hovers around 150 each year.
Most visitors—us included—find the sight of horses grazing on sand dunes to be incongruous. In putting together Wild Horses of Cumberland Island, Anouk Masson Krantz visited the island multiple times over the course of 10 years, oftentimes lugging her camera equipment for miles. Her efforts were rewarded, as she was able to capture the daily lives of one of the most celebrated, if misunderstood, animals on the island. One of her photos, “Placid, 2011” depicts a scene that is playing out before our eyes: Three dreamlike, hooved creatures stand like sentinels in the sand.
Gallery: Betty Jane II Cruise to Cumberland
As Krantz tells it: “It was a moment where I was on the beach, it was low tide. I was walking north, and I stopped to have some water or something like that, and suddenly I could feel a presence behind me. I turned around and they were just right there looking at me. And I was like, ‘OK, there’s no one else here—it’s just us.” Such magical moments seem to be a part of the island’s magnetic pull. (Though one cannot help but wonder how difficult a life it is for large grassland animals that are ill-suited to a coastal ecosystem.)
Making our way back inland, we come across the island’s most impressive feature: the Dungeness ruins. We see them just as the sun pokes its way through the clouds and illuminates the fallen glory of a Gilded Age mansion. Built in 1884, the estate was owned by Thomas Carnegie, the younger brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Thomas and his wife, Lucy Coleman, built the mansion after purchasing over 90 percent of the island. Everything—from the façade and cathedral glass to the woodwork, cement and marble floors—was constructed in another location and shipped here. All told, it took a year to transport everything down and build the entire property. In its heyday, Dungeness spanned 35,000 square feet and had 59 rooms. There, the Carnegies had all sorts of recreation at their fingertips, including swimming pools, tennis and squash courts and acres to hunt all manner of game. And they hosted parties that would rival those held by Jay Gatsby.
Today, wind whistles through the open foyer and what was the dining room. Though the estate looks like it’s been ripped apart by Tomahawk missiles, legend has it that a hunter had a dispute with one of the Dungeness game keepers. Shortly after the quarrel took place, the Cumberland Island mailboat was shot up with bullets and lit on fire; it partially sank by the jetty. A short while later the mansion bursts into flames. Coincidence?
“Like so many things with this island, Dungeness has such a big history,” says Roll. “A lot of stories are word of mouth, but there may not be a lot of history to back them up.” (Since a mailboat was attacked, the FBI came down to investigate and, according to Roll, no one was ever charged with either crime.)
Leaving the mysteries of the island in our wake, we watch as herds of horses gallop around the ruins. It’s easy to forget where we are—and how close we are to, say, Fernandina Beach and civilization. Over the course of the day, I’ve been hearing about how this place—this Edenic island encased in amber—has been an escape, for the photographer, for the wealthy tycoons and now for us. It’s a secret worth sharing.