Saturday, April 30, 2016

St. Simons Island

We had a beautiful camping site at Crooked Island State Park, so we were reluctant to move on down the road to a private park further north on the Georgia Coast. But we had more islands to explore, and a move to the Golden Isles RV park was a great stepping off point to do that. Another Passport America park, we could get half-price camping for up to three nights. We were gone all day to explore this area, so we didn't even notice that we were parked side-to-side in an open campground.

One of the places we explored was only 3 miles down the road at Bryce Island County Park. Here we found another great bicycle trail, winding through the palmettos and live oaks.

Around seven miles through the thick forest, it was a great bike ride. We have really put our bikes to hard use lately, enjoying the flat and shaded trails of the coastal region.

Another interesting fact about this new (to us) area of the Georgia coast line is that the port at Brunswick is famous for its role in shipping new vehicles across the world. When we crossed the bridge closest to the port, we could see brand new cars parked as far as the eye could see. They were waiting their turn for the next leg of their journey to future owners.

But the real reason to be camped near Brunswick, is the group of islands off the southern Georgia coast known as the Golden Isles. The Golden Isles are made up of four barrier islands, and we were planning to visit two in the two days we were staying in this area. Our first day we drove the 15 miles to St. Simons Island. Because of Denisa's weakness for lighthouses, that was our first stop of the morning.

The weather forecast showed an 80% chance of rain today, but we wouldn't suspect that from the blue skies of the morning.

We walked on the pier as the morning fishermen were trying their luck. We talked to the couple fishing for blue crab using a metal basket with chicken pieces tied into the trap. When the crab grabs onto the easy chicken meal, they are caught.

So far they had trapped three crabs that morning.

Another woman was using a net to fish from the pier. It spread into a big circle as she threw it into the Atlantic.

We also saw another accomplished fish-catcher on the pier. We love to watch pelicans soar through the air and then plunge head-first into the water for fish.

But this lazy pelican was actually flying to the pier to stake out his spot next to the fish cleaning station. He was hoping for fish scraps this morning,

and didn't mind posing for our camera.

St. Simons is another island covered with live oak trees with branches that bend down to the ground. A tree shaped like that is too much for a tree climber to pass up.

We also drove to the "Avenue of Oaks" that were planted in 1826 as an entry lane for carriages going to a prosperous cotton plantation of the time. The trees made a perfect canopy, and we could just see the pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel.

Our next stop on St. Simons Island was Fort Frederica. Built in 1736 by General Oglethorpe (who we keep hearing about in southern Georgia history), this is the remains of the the fort overlooking the river.

Now a national monument, we watched the background film at the park office. Then we meandered the grounds listening as the audio headsets described what we were seeing. This was once the thriving town of Frederica and we learned about its role in the wars in coastal Georgia.

As we travel further east, the history we find is older and older. We are finding more things that were built in the 1700's and 1800's. Built in 1884, Christ Church is largely unchanged since that time both on its outside . . .

and inside.

With all the low-hanging limbs and vines, we are glad to be driving the car instead of the motor home on this island field trip. We don't remember seeing height signs attached to trees before. We saw one as low as 10'9" that would have peeled the top two feet right off of our motor home.

We didn't spend as much time on the beach today. Our first stop at Massengale Park Beach was at high tide, and there was almost no sand to walk on.

A few blocks north at Coastguard beach gave us plenty of sand for a stroll on the beach. Is it crazy that a couple of travelers from Oklahoma have been to so many beaches lately that we didn't take any pictures? A predicted late afternoon thunderstorm sent us home from St. Simons Island earlier than usual. We are also learning that these Atlantic islands have their own weather patterns that don't always follow the forecast on the mainland. But we needed to get home to get rested for another big day tomorrow with more adventures.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Happy Birthday trip to Cumberland Island

It's our family tradition to start your birthday with a piece of your birthday dessert for breakfast. So this picture was taken only seconds before cutting that cherry cheesecake. Those that know Mark well will recognize that this blog is being published a week late. By the time you read this, the entire cherry cheesecake is history, and Mark is on the way to the next birthday.
Since we get to do fun things in beautiful new places almost every day, it really is hard to plan a special activity to celebrate a special day. We had heard from many sources that going to Cumberland Island was a "must" when in this area. But the only way to get to this national sea shore is on a private boat, and the $28 fare per person was far too steep for a normal day. But it was a special destination for a special day like a birthday!

To preserve the natural environment of the island, only 300 people are allowed onto the island per day. We were thinking that it looked like more than 300 people were on the top deck of our boat with us. We were joined by a large group of the store managers from REI stores all over the southeast today, here for a team building experience.

A 40-minute boat ride later, we were greeted to Cumberland Island by a pod of dolphins playing in the water just off the side of our vessel.

After we docked, most of the people on the boat stayed in the southern section of the island--so of course we started walking north. We crossed the one mile width of the island and found ourselves alone on one of the widest beaches we had ever seen.

For that wide expanse of beach, there were almost no shells. We were told that there used to be more shells before a big storm hit the area several years ago. Far from the water, we did find a group of white shells, still connected to their matching side. That's something we don't see often.

We discovered coquina shells on a beach on the Gulf, marveling at their ability to bury themselves quickly in the sand. Now on an Atlantic Ocean beach, we found them again on one very narrow segment of the beach. There were thousands of very tiny coquina burying themselves as quickly as the waves could uncover them.

We walked three miles on this almost shell-less beach, then suddenly came upon a section with a smattering of very interesting shells. We found our first-ever starfish! We also spotted three good-sized sand dollars. The sand dollars were dark brown on the back instead of the usual white we have seen so many times. We read later that the darker color means they are still alive.

We took a picture of our limited shell hunting for the day. We are learning more shell names, and the ones below include 3 whelks and one lettered olive.

We realized that the beautiful red color of the starfish means that he is still alive. When he began curling his arms, we knew he needed to be back in the water. So we deposited him in a salty tidal pool, and he immediately changed his shape as he waved good-bye. Because we don't have room in the motor home for all these beautiful shells, we are content to take a picture and leave them for another beach walker to find. Incidentally, the shell on the upper right is an angel wing--another of God's wonders!

We were just talking about the small number of shells on this beach, when we realized we hadn't seen any shore birds either. This single great white heron seemed unafraid when we passed him on the beach.

As we walked further up the beach, we found several other people. One woman offered to take our picture together so we gladly obliged.

Another guy told us about a sizable sea turtle that had perished high up on the beach.

Because this is a national sea shore, there are few places to enter and exit the Atlantic beach side of the island. That's why we had to walk three miles on the beach, and why we didn't see other people until we got close to another exit/entrance point. So we crossed over the tall sand dune on the designated trail and entered the natural forest area that covers the middle section of the island. The winds coming off the Atlantic cause these old live-oak trees to grow at a 45-degree angle

The sunny beach is just over the dune, but it looks like it was a world away from this cool and shaded forest.

The only way to get to Cumberland Island is via boat, and the only way to get around on the island is via foot or bicycle. The trails are sandy, and of course the beach is all sand. So we opted for foot transportation instead of trying to ride rented bicycles in the sand.

Besides the trails that meander through the forest, there is a single sandy road that runs most of length of the 17-mile island. By this time we have walked around 8 miles, and the sand makes it feel like it was further.

We'll be on Cumberland Island for just one day, but there are two overnight options. Campgrounds are available, but campers and day-hikers must bring and transport everything they need because there are no stores or vehicles for them to use. The second option is staying at Greyfield Inn. For a mere $600 per night, we could have stayed here, and they provide transportation and three meals each day. Now converted to an inn, this was once the home of one of the grown Carnegie children.

This island was once the private sanctuary of the Thomas Carnegie family--made wealthy in the steel industry in the 1800's. He bought the island and built the 59-room mansion named "Dungeness" on the southern part of the island in 1884. It was originally a vacation house for his wife Lucy and their nine children. When Thomas died before the mansion was completed, Lucy decided to raise her family here year-round. As those children grew up, she built homes for most of them to stay on the island with her. Shortly after Lucy died, the Carnegies left Cumberland Island. Dungeness sat empty for three decades before it was destroyed by fire in 1959. Denisa is standing in front of the shell that is left of the regal mansion.

Mark is sitting on the curved entry bench just outside the front door. We can only imagine how majestic this area once was.

The back of Dungeness overlooked a massive yard complete with statuary and fountains and views of the Atlantic. There was also a recreation house with indoor pool, bowling alley, weight room, etc. On the other side of the stable was a dormitory to house some of the 300 servants needed to run this household in its heyday.

When the Carnegie family left the island, they also left their horses. The offspring of those Carnegie horses have become the herd of wild horses that are found in the open field areas of the island today.

In our orientation talk about the island, we were instructed to keep our distance from the horses. With colts born this spring, the wild mares are very protective. The ranger also warned us not to try to ride the horses. It seems that happens enough to mention it.

We packed our lunch with us--including more cherry cheesecake for dessert--so we were thankful that our backpacks were getting lighter as the day wore on. We had reservations for the return ride to St. Marys on the final boat of the day at 4:45. It leaves promptly, and if you miss the boat you must charter a private boat to pick you up. That's pretty good incentive to not be late. We were so tired from our day of walking, that we even got back 15 minutes early, glad to sit and wait until the boat's arrival. We walked over 13 miles in our trek around the island, and the effects of the sand made it feel much further. We had literally sand-papered our feet all day, and we welcomed the excuse to sit down for that 40 minute boat ride back to St. Marys. Mark was too tired for a big birthday meal, so he finished his special day with pizza--and more cheesecake for dessert of course.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

We made it to the Atlantic and Amelia Island!

We spent lots of time at the beach on the Gulf of Mexico, and now we have finally made it to the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean! So we planned a day trip to Amelia Island to get our feet back into the salt water. Amelia Island is actually in Florida, so we traveled back across the Georgia state line and over the bridge to the historic downtown area of the town of Fernandina on the island.

We stopped by the welcome center for maps and advice, and took a walking tour of the many houses built in the 1800's and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fernandina is a lovely little city.

It also has a busy little port, with sea-going sailboats anchored in the bay behind Mark, and sizable yachts in the marina beside him. We tried our best to look yacht-like, but I'm pretty sure they could tell we weren't sailors--just land-lovers traveling in our land yacht.

Main street is filled with cute shopping and eating options. We ate wild-caught-fresh-local-shrimp (not to be confused with that frozen foreign farm shrimp) and grouper tacos for lunch, and then cruised main street. We don't usually shop, but this pirate insisted we stop in at this store because it had a big sign on the window, "We buy and sell shark teeth."

For some reason, Amelia Island beach is a great place to find shark teeth. Inside the store, we found displays of shark teeth for sale from $3 to $300. There was even a shark tooth vending machine, right beside the display of beach tools necessary to make anyone a professional shark tooth hunter.

Right outside the visitor's center downtown, we found a statue of one of the prominent citizens of early-day Amelia Island. Mr. Yulee was trying to read over Denisa's shoulder as she read her new brochure about present-day Amelia Island. It has changed a bit since he lived here in the 1800's.

We stopped in at the shrimp museum, and learned about the local shrimping industry. We were interested to find that a local company has been in business for the last one hundred years, sewing shrimp boat nets. They have learned that it is necessary to diversify as the number of shrimping boats have decreased. So now 95% of their business is sewing back stops and other sporting nets for baseball fields around the country. Knowing that we love a factory tour, we found out that they welcome drop-in tourists, so we just dropped in at Burbank Sports Nets. In their big warehouse they had netting stretched across the floor, and were beginning to sew sections together for another project.

On a smaller scale, they can produce any kind of protective screens or netting product that a coach can dream up. Our tour guide apologized that there wasn't much to see today because all their orders had to be finished and delivered in recent weeks. They have been working long hours getting everything produced and delivered before the start of baseball season.

They also sew the backstop and wall pads for each stadium. He mentioned that they outfit most of the Division I baseball fields in the SEC and ACC. When we saw the bright orange, we wondered if they also supply the Big 12 universities. Sure enough, they had been in Stillwater, Oklahoma, installing new backstops this year. They also do most of the professional baseball stadiums, so we have seen their work on television many times. Interesting to find such a big business in such a little town!

After exploring around town, it was time to hit the beach. We finally got to dip our toes into the waters of the Atlantic for the first time since we started this motor home adventure!

We think it is interesting that every beach has its own personality. Amelia Island is strewn with many shells, but they are some of the tiniest we have ever seen.

This is a sample of some of the shells we picked up today. They are tiny little wonders that are smaller than Mark's wedding ring.

There were parts of the beach that those tiny shells were stacked an inch thick over the sand. There were millions of shells in these areas. As we walked back at high tide, the beach narrowed and we couldn't walk around these areas on the sand any longer. We can confirm that walking on millions of tiny shells can be a very uncomfortable trek with bare feet.

Among all those tiny shells we had our eyes pealed for a treasured shark took. We never did spot one ourselves, but we talked to a woman who comes down to the beach each day. She had found two so far this afternoon, and she let us take a picture. Before seeing them in the store earlier today, we assumed that shark teeth were white. But they are actually black, and shinier and harder than most shells. We were sad to see that our camera focused on the sand instead of the shark teeth in her palm, so this blurry picture is the best example we have of the prize that evaded us today.

We did find a blue man-of-war jellyfish on the beach. We found only this single jellyfish, and it's the first we have seen in all our recent beach combing.

But our best find of the day came at the end of the beach. We walked over three miles to get to the pier, and we were greeted there by a large flock of birds.

There was a great diversity of shore birds hanging out together at the pier. We could spot five different kinds of birds in the picture below. Maybe we have visited too many civil rights sites, but it seemed the birds were segregated by types.

All the black skimmers (with their long beaks necessary for skimming lunch as they fly low over the water) were standing together in one section.

While all the Caspian terns were standing together in another segregated area. Denisa thinks these guys look like something out of a cartoon, with their black caps pulled down over their eyes.

But Denisa's favorite were the tiny birds, just a few inches tall. The sanderlings were closest to the water, and looked especially small compared to the sea gulls.

There were a couple hundred of these tiny birds in their segregated group. These sanderlings are just vacationing in Florida for the winter. Very soon they will be migrating to their breeding grounds in the Arctic for the summer. People from up north that spend their winters in Florida are often called "snow birds," but we would say these are the true definition of snow birds.

The birds were surprisingly calm, as we walked very slowly on different sides of them taking pictures.

But then some swift-walking tourists decided to walk right up for pictures and spooked the entire flock. We started snapping pictures as the sound of a thousand flapping wings filled the air.

Since we were on opposite sides, we got opposite pictures of the take-off.

The tiny sanderlings were the last to take off towards the waves.

We had spent thirty minutes, just watching the flock and marveling at their differences and similarities. We are so lucky to have the time to enjoy our nomadic life and wander His wonders in places like Amelia Island!