Kid Stuff

It looks like he's conducting the waves.

Before leaving St. Simons at the end of the month to continue our travels, we wanted to see our kids again.  Fortunately, the cottage we rented this month—one of the few available on short notice—is a large, rambling, old barn of a place, with several random additions.  Too big for George, me, and Zoe, but providing plenty of room for company.

Unfortunately, the weekend that my son, his wife, and her parents came down for a visit was by far the coldest that we have had here.  While Alaskan friends are bemoaning record high temperatures and lack of snow, the lovely arctic cold that they crave muscled its way down here with a whipping wind that made it too frigid to do anything outside.  We visited the lighthouse museum, drove around neighboring Jekyll Island, with its Gilded Age “cottages” (“they’re pretty … it’s freezing … let’s get back in the car”), and ate well.

Jekyll Island Club, a Gilded Age private winter retreat for the world's wealthiest, including the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans

Jekyll Island Club, a Gilded Age private winter retreat for the world’s wealthiest, including the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans

Patterns of live oaks seen from the lighthouse above.

Live oak branches seen from the lighthouse above.

Although the frigid temperatures abated a bit, it was still pretty nippy when our daughter arrived with our grandkids several days later.  Still, it was warmer than their home in North Carolina, where it was cold enough to snow, keeping school closed for days. Having been homebound all week, the kids had energy to burn and, despite the arctic-like conditions, were ecstatic to be on the beach.

IMG_7268IMG_7280The next day, we visited the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, a rehabilitation center for injured and ill sea turtles, and—most importantly for us—a warm indoor sanctuary from the cold.

From babies.

From babies.

We arrived at the turtle hospital’s feeding time, with a presentation on all of the current turtle residents, most of whom were there for cold shock, boat propeller strikes, and fishing line entanglement.

to big boys.

to big boys.

Then we all happily wandered around the educational section, which was filled with interactive exhibits geared for kids (and adults) of all ages.  It was well worth the visit.

Next morning, the temperature eased, so we drove over to Fort King George on the mainland in Darien for a little history. The Fort, which sits on the Altamaha River marshes, has been reconstructed as an outdoor museum.  It originally was built in 1721, as the southernmost British outpost in the Americas. IMG_7360Its soldiers died like flies from malaria, dysentery, and lack of provisions.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they were described as a discontented, undisciplined, wild group of indolent alcoholics. Apparently, Fort King George was not a popular posting.

The blockhouse

The blockhouse, palisades, and moat.

But we loved it.  The Fort museum is a throwback to a time when kids were able to play and explore without constant paranoia over imagined dangers in every activity. After paying our entry fee at the museum store, the kids were able to choose wooden muskets or pistols to use while running around the Fort pretending they were soldiers.  And run around and pretend they did.

With musket and bucket, after surveying the marsh from the top of the block house.

With musket and bucket for musket balls, the kids could scope out the landscape for potential invaders from the top of the block house.

View from the blockhouse

Looking out the blockhouse window

Everyone–including kids and dogs—is allowed to wander, climb, and poke around in the buildings and grounds to their hearts’ content, without tour guides or restrictions.

Ladders!

Ladders to climb.

Guardhouses to explore.

Guardhouses to explore.

Patrolling the palisades (actually this was one restricted area--he wasn't supposed to be there).  Soon remedied.

Palisades to patrol.  Oops, he wasn’t supposed to be up there–one of the few restricted areas–soon remedied.

A small group of reenactors was living there for the weekend, not putting on a show, but just going about their daily activities.  It was a playground of history—just amazing.  The kids were in heaven.

They had just finished breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked on the hearth.

They had just finished breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked on the hearth.

Pumping the bellows at the blacksmith shed.

Pumping the bellows at the blacksmith shed.

Chain mail for the kids to touch and feel its weight and texture

Chain mail for the kids to touch and feel its weight and texture

The barracks,  You can just see George (with Zoe) at the end of the table.

The barracks. You can just see George (with Zoe) at the end of the table.

Zoe enjoyed it, too.  She was allowed in all the buildings, full of intriguing smells.  She thoroughly sniffed the food smells at the baking shed and then settled in by the chimney.   She can spot a kitchen with good food anywhere.

IMG_7380I loved all of the angles and textures.

IMG_7328IMG_7415IMG_7374IMG_7358We left tired and happy.  The bliss track continued the next morning, with some final–much warmer–time on the beach, where the waves churned up impressive foam.  IMG_7456IMG_7473IMG_7448IMG_7433

An Ear, A Rich Beach, Another Ear

IMG_6759On a brilliantly sunny Sunday morning, I took a guided kayak trip through the marshes of St. Simons.  I felt guilty because George couldn’t come too, but he is slowly ramping up his activities after shoulder surgery and was not yet ready for kayaking.  He thoughtfully bought me the trip for a Christmas present, even knowing that he would not be able to come along.  So, I took full advantage of his kindness, headed out without him, and had a wonderful time.  It’s off season here and there were only four of us—the guide, me, and a couple from the Eastern Shore of Virginia–all experienced kayakers.

We put our kayaks in at the East Beach Causeway over the marsh–a favorite perch for bluebirds on the overhead lines.

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East Beach causeway

East Beach causeway

Our starting place.  No wilderness here, but a vibrant ecosystem, full of life and history.

Our starting place. No wilderness here, but a vibrant ecosystem, full of life and history.

We paddled through the estuaries, winding along black muddy banks of Spartina grass.  It was a bit disconcerting to be so low in the marsh and unable to see over the grasses.  Such a limited view makes you feel unexpectedly vulnerable.  There is marsh life going on all around you, but you cannot see anything but the bit of water in front and behind you and a patch of sky.

Instead of seeing this:

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IMG_6926we saw this:

Lots of marsh grass, greening up as spring approaches.

Lots of marsh grass, greening up as spring approaches.

We rafted our kayaks in a slow bend of water for a brief history lesson at Bloody Marsh, the site of a (not so bloody) skirmish between British troops on St. Simons and invading Spanish, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the 1740s.  Any war named after a body part has my attention.  The Ear war was part of an ongoing conflict between the British and the Spanish over territory and power in the Americas.  IMG_6850Britain had been given a contractual monopoly on the African slave trade in the Spanish Americas, but the Spanish believed that the British were using the contract to smuggle in trade goods, and started boarding ships and confiscating cargo (the British were engaged in their own piracy, too).  Jenkins, a British privateer, had his ear cut off by the Spanish as a warning—(“Send it back to your king, amigo, aaargghh!”).  The story goes that Jenkins brought the ear back to Parliament and its grisly presence whipped up sentiment for war against the Spanish.  The Battle of Bloody Marsh cemented Britain’s hold on the Georgia.

After the intriguing history lesson, we continued on, eventually hearing the crash of surf as we emerged to open water at Gould Inlet and headed toward the beaches.  Because we made good time, we were able to take a side trip across to the spit at the end of Sea Island–the rich beach.

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Sea Island lies right next to St. Simons, but the whole island is gated and only accessible to residents and their guests (which presumably includes “the help”).  I have been informed several times since we have been on St. Simons that Sea Island is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country.  For some reason, people seem proud of this fact, as if it is an attribute to live near the immensely rich and famous.

Dollars everywhere on the rich beach.

Even the sand dollars head in this direction.

So, the riff raff cannot get on Sea Island by car, but can sneak in by kayak.  Georgia’s beaches are public up to the high tide line, so we landed our kayaks on the spit and walked the beach.  IMG_4047Remarkably, because it was a gorgeous early spring day, with welcome sunshine after some significantly cold weather–we were the ONLY people on the beach.  Perhaps the very rich only need to know the beach is there—empty of hoi polloi—and don’t actually spend time on it themselves. IMG_4039

After exploring the beach a bit, we returned to our kayaks and paddled across the inlet to the somewhat less affluent world of St. Simons. IMG_4048

IMG_4051There the beach was full of people and one very fat pig, with a shell-like sow’s ear .IMG_4068

IMG_4065Next time, George comes too.

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Waters Shaking

IMG_7014We took a day trip yesterday to Okefenokee—a swamp with a percussive Native name roughly translated as “land of the trembling earth,” or “waters shaking.”  The swamp’s name refers to its peat bog, which is neither dry land, nor part of the water, but a sponge-like floating habitat, that squishes and quivers as you walk upon it.  Okefenokee is a vast expanse of protected land–a National Wildlife Refuge–on Georgia’s southern border, with a romantically gloomy cypress swamp at the western entrance and upland swamp islands on the eastern edge.

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We visited the western side years ago, so chose the eastern entrance for this trip.  Although the day was sunny and mild, the southern version of winter was hanging on, so it was very quiet, with few visitors, a skeleton staff, and little visible wildlife.  The quietness contributed to its stark beauty, though, with tall longleaf pine forests–burned over by wild fires or intentional burns that are necessary to maintain the pine ecosystem—very still except for birdsong and hammering woodpeckers.

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OF Feb-120The drive from St. Simons to the swamp took only a little over an hour, but brought us from the affluent coast to a sparsely populated inland area with pockets of heart-wrenching poverty.  The area’s housing consisted mostly of stark rows of rickety, weathered trailers that no one should have to live in.

The area used to be inhabited by hundreds of people logging the swamp’s old-growth cypress, with a system of railroad cars and waterways for transporting the logs and lumber out of the swamp, and by homesteaders, scratching out a living on the sandy flats.  At the swamp’s eastern gate, the Chesser family’s homestead cabin has been preserved as a museum.  It was like stepping into Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ book, The Yearling, although this area is farther north than her home place in Florida.

Walking through the pines to the homestead.

Walking through the pines to the homestead.

Robins singing their hearts out

Robins singing at the sky.  Time to find a mate.

The homestead’s yard was swept white sand, with no vegetation, to keep down the fire danger and discourage bugs, snakes, and other crawly and hopping creatures from coming into the house.

Chesser homestead cabin and yard.

Chesser homestead cabin and yard.

Chesser portrait photo on the wall--I love it.

Chesser portrait photos on the wall–I loved this one.

The homestead was nicely furnished with period pieces.

The homestead was fully furnished and felt pretty authentic.

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For natural aerial bug control, the homestead had gourd nests for martins, swooping birds that feed on mosquitoes and other flying insects.

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After the Chesser homestead, we walked a boardwalk that extends three-quarters of a mile out into the swamp.

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Seen from the tower

The burnt-over pines created a wonderfully eerie landscape, especially in the areas with standing water, which reflected back the stumps and contorted tree remains and had its own colorful water plants and algae.

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It's not easy to see where the water (and the reflection) begins.

It’s not easy to see where the water (and the reflection) begins.

Cypress knees

Cypress knees

The boardwalk ended at a viewing tower surrounded by tall moss-hung skeleton trees.  Dreamlike.IMG_6992

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We only dipped our toes into a tiny edge of the park.  Dogs are not allowed on the boardwalks or in boats on the water (they’re alligator bait–so tasty).  Next time, perhaps we will leave Zoe at home, take the plunge, rent a canoe, and really explore.

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The Carport Across the Marshes

IMG_6450While vacationers, retirees, and other non-working types take leisurely walks down the long St. Simons beach, on the other side of the Glynn marshes, the people of Brunswick are making wood pulp and transporting cars.

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St. Simons is a barrier island, sitting at the edge of a vast marshland mosaic—an estuary of grasses, tidal rivers, and the intracoastal waterway–between it and the mainland port of Brunswick, Georgia.  It’s apparent to anyone with a nose or eyes that Brunswick is a wood pulp town, because its pulp mills can be seen for miles rising from the marsh shores, emitting a distinctive sulfur odor that finds its way to the islands when the wind is right.

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What is less apparent to the casual visitor is that Brunswick is one of the country’s busiest ports for the importing and exporting of cars.  As you drive along the road from St. Simons to the interstate, you can glimpse between the trees enormous parking lots, heavily guarded, with acres upon acres, as far as you can see, of identical, shiny new cars.

Then, if you are here long enough, you will see the astoundingly large ships that carry the cars.  Called “ro-ros” because the vehicles roll on and roll off the ships on their own wheels (as opposed to “lo-los” (lift-on, lift-off)), the ships follow the channel markers out from Brunswick, making a sharp turn close to neighboring Jekyll Island and then approach St. Simons announcing their passage with long, low fog-horn-like blasts that we can hear in our cottage.

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Taking the turn at Jekyll

This one, the Auriga Leader, transports Toyotas from Japan and is partially solar powered.  A beast trailing gulls.

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Right off the St. Simons beach

A ro-ro ramp on the stern.

A ro-ro ramp.

I have been reading some first-hand narratives of the area’s history and was morbidly fascinated by an account of a 1972 collision of a ship with the drawbridge over the Brunswick River, which caused a portion of the bridge to collapse, plummeting cars, trucks, and people into the deep and strong tidal currents below, and resulting in ten deaths.

A new bridge was built in 2003, named, as was the previous bridge, for Sidney Lanier, a 19th century lawyer, writer, poet, and consumptive who wrote the “Marshes of Glynn,” a romantic poem extolling the beauty and mystery of the marshes and this coastal region.  I love his description of the moss-enshrouded live oaks, “Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noon-day fire.”

His namesake bridge can be seen from many parts of St. Simons and is a beauty.  It’s completely accessible to walkers, joggers, and bike riders.

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When I ventured onto it by foot, these new-looking shoes were sitting neatly on the guardrail heading onto the bridge as if someone had put them there before going to bed.

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I admit it, I thought, “Did someone take their shoes off before heading up the bridge for a jump?”  Not such a crazy question because, if ever there was a bridge designed for suicide, it’s this one.  It’s enormously high (almost 500 feet) above a deep channel with strong currents, and has the lowest rail I’ve ever seen on a bridge of this height.  IMG_6552The rail–just a concrete ledge really–only came to my mid-thigh, and I’m not tall.  I felt as if I tipped in high breeze, I would go right off the edge.  IMG_6536Fortunately, no suicides that day.  I have no clue what the shoes were doing there nor why the bridge has such low rails.

Maybe the low rails make for a nice view for the tourists driving over.

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IMG_6563IMG_6564Downtown Brunswick feels like it is on its own precipice, teetering between economic stability and a down slide into decay.  It has a distinctive 1880s city hall, gingerbread houses, and beautifully laid out, shaded streets.

City Hall

City Hall

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IMG_6624IMG_6650But, in contrast with some other southern towns we have visited, such as Asheville and Wilmington, Brunswick feels as if it’s struggling to maintain a viable downtown.  A block from the refurbished Ritz theatre, ferns are growing out of the side of a building for sale, where the awnings are gone, and only the skeletal supports remain.

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Out on St. Simons, it’s still wintery,

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but the trees are starting to bloom and flocks of robins are noisily out and about.

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