Camping on Cumberland Island

Cumberland #9 US Map Location Back in bitterly-cold February, when my friend Julia asked if I wanted to join her for her annual week-long camping trip to Cumberland Island she had scheduled this year for late March, it took me a few days to decide whether or not I wanted to go.

My most recent camping trip had been almost 40 years ago – ironically, a trip to Cumberland, when Julia was among the five of us that had somehow made the 5.5 hour trip from Atlanta in my VW Beetle. A photo of our circa-1978 camping crew on the ferry to Cumberland (Left to right: Julia Strong, Cathy Hope, Raven Wolfdancer, Cal Gough, Jim Struve): Cumberland Island #0 Although I’d done my share of camping before then, after the late-1970s trip to Cumberland, I’d sworn off camping, having concluded that standing in the rain trying to fry an egg over a sputtering campfire was never going to be my idea of fun. But I knew that taking up Julia’s invitation would be a perfect opportunity for us to re-connect (we’d lost track of each other when she had moved away from Atlanta decades ago), and I’m always tempted by any trip that includes the sight of ocean waves. Especially if it’s February when my annual bout of cabin fever and cold weather hatred is at its peak, and when the proferred trip has been scheduled for late March, before bug season swings into high gear.

The fact that my ancient tent and sleeping bag were packed away somewhere in the remotest corner of my attic turned out not to be an obstacle: my camping-enthusiast friend Randall offered to loan me his recently-bought eight-person extravaganza, plus a humongous new tarp (the better to avoid a repetition of the rain-in-the-frying-pan episode). Aiming to guarantee my sleeping comfort, I decided to take along the double-sized air bed I occasionally use for guests staying at my house, so there was no need for unearthing the sleeping bag.

As our departure date approached, I began wondering whether my long-standing qualms about re-exposing myself to the vividly-remembered rigors of camping – especially an entire week of it – would be trumped by the great conversations I expected to have with Julia, by a rare and welcome break in urban distractions and in my daily routine, and by the spectacular beauty of the semi-tropical environment we’d be camping in.

Reader, I had a good time!

Every hoped-for pleasure of the trip did in fact materialize, and the numerous meals Julie had planned for us tasted really good, as camp food often does – partly because of all the trouble it takes to prepare those meals without the usual kitchen mod cons (running water, efficient refrigeration, sterilized pots, serving dishes, and utensils). Another plus: the night before embarking for the island, and for lunch on the way back to Atlanta, Julia and I partook of some yummy fresh seafood at restaurants in the exceptionally quaint little port of St. Mary’s. Also memorable: the excellent campfires we created for the three of the nights of our stay when it wasn’t pouring down rain.

Not so pleasurable (besides the rainstorms):

  • The attack of the no-see-ums while waiting for the ferry to the island to depart. Sure enough, I didn’t see them as they methodically chowed down on my hands and forearms. I’ve always been a bug magnet, and the periodic itching was intense until it finally subsided a full week after our return to Atlanta (I looked like a recovering measles victim.) Next time: wear long sleeves no matter how balmy the weather, buy one of those neat hats with the builit-in mosquito netting, and take along a pair of gloves!
  • The fact that I had to stop reading when it got dark every night. I’m not used to turning in at 8 o’clock, certainly was never sleepy then, but I was afraid to of use my flashlight to read by, fearing the battery would run out before the week did. (And I did need that flashlight to last – among other things, I needed it for thwarting the racoons’ nightly raids on our campsite.) As it happened, I’d brought along to read on the trip three particularly absorbing books, so these nightly reading interruptions were really frustrating. Next time: pack a lantern!
  • The repeated schlepping of our gear all over creation. I had forgotten that camping on an island entails much loading and unloading: first, wedging everything into the car, then hauling it out of the car and across the parking lot onto the ferry dock, then from the dock onto the boat, then from the boat onto the dock at the island, then from there somehow loading everything onto a rolling cart to schlep it from the dock to the campsite a half-mile away, then unloading everything at the site – and then setting up the ingeniously-designed but still unwieldy tent (and the tarp) …and then, once the week is over, doing all of the above in reverse. Next time: take less stuff – fewer clothes, less food, fewer books.
  • Wedging into the tent an air mattress that’s too big for the tent’s door. After the laughable spectacle of Calvin blowing up a double-wide, three-foot-high airbed via the electric plug in the tiny campsite restroom (located probably a fifth of a mile from our campsite) came the equally hilarious spectacle of Calvin pulling the wider-than-the-path blown-up mattress through the jungle with the help of the rolling cart. (I felt like I was guiding a giant balloon down Fifth Avenue in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.) it took both Julie and me at least fifteen minutes to squeeze the bed through the door of the tent. Next time: take a smaller airbed!

These minor frustrations were far outweighed by the pleasant company and the gorgeous, exotic setting:

  • Cumberland is the largest of Georgia’s coastal islands, and the site of one of the few non-developed marine forests and pristine beaches on the entire eastern seaboard. Ninety-percent of the island is occupied by the National Park, and only 300 park visitors are allowed on the island at a time.
  • The place is full of history, and Julia was clever enough to book us both on a six-hour van-based “History and Heritage” tour whose personable guide was (like every Park ranger and volunteer) extremely knowledgeable about every historical era and all the local fauna and flora.
  • I attended all but one of he daily lectures at the camp headquarters given by the park rangers, and learned all sorts of interesting things about Cumberland.

So, all things considered, it was a great trip!

However, I was also very glad to get home –  especially after we endured a massive traffic jam south of McDonough that we thought we’d never see the end of. After The Great Unpacking, I treated myself to the lengthiest hottest shower I’ve ever taken, having learned that I really can go a whole week without a shower when I need to.

Have I changed my tune about camping? I’m not sure. I do know that I am fonder than I imagined of conveniences like running water (especially hot running water) and copious, non-mobile kitchen storage. I do prefer spending time at the cabin in Blue Ridge to the rigors of any campsite, even one as stunning as the ones at Cumberland Island. And my next camping adventure will probably be a shorter one. But I’m glad I tried camping for an entire week, as that gave me an extended period of time to leave the tent up before facing the ordeal dismantling the dang thing. And I’m even gladder that I had such great company.

If you’ve never been to Cumberland, you really should try to get there, even if you don’t choose spend the night there. (And if you do want to camp there, expect a six-month wait for a campsite reservation. Cumberland is a popular destination for campers!)

Except for three photos of me that Julia snapped, I grabbed the following photos off the Internet, as other people’s photos were bound to be better than anything I might’ve taken myself. However, I’m posting here only photos of things I actually saw myself while on Cumberland; the Internet abounds with photos of areas of the island I didn’t get to.

The ferry one uses to get to Cumberland from St. Mary’s (for a long time the southernmost port of the U.S., back when Florida was still controlled by the Spanish): Cumberland #10 Ferry The blessed carts that awaited for us at the campground’s dock, used for schlepping our camping gear to the campsite a half-mile or so away:Cumberland #7 Carts The signpost for our campground: Cumberland #16 Sea Camp Signpost

Schlepping our gear down the path to the campsite:

Cumberland Island 2015 #3

The entrancing and ubiquitous oak and palmetto forest canopy where we camped: Cumberland #11 Typical Forest Canopy The boardwalk at the edge of the forest that crosses the dunes to the beach:  Cumberland #12 Boardwalk to Beach The dunes: Cumberland #4 - A couple of unexpected beach companions (there are about 150 feral horses on the island): Cumberland #14 Horses on Beach Plum Orchard, one of the island’s half-dozen Gilded Age mansions being restored (this one belonged to the Carnegies from Pittsburg; we got to tour its sumptuous interior, which included an indoor swimming pool and racket ball court): Cumberland #12 Plum Orchard

One of the stops on our all-day van tour was the tiny African-American church at the top of the island, where JFK, Jr. got married:

Cumberland Island 2015 #2

Campsite visitors:  Cumberland #18 Raccoon Cumberland#16 Armadillo

Waiting outside the rangers’ office for the ferry to arrive and carry us back to civilization:

Cumberland Island 2015 #1

Postscript: Camping is a refreshingly cheap way to travel! The entire week – including camping fees, the food (and ice) we bought, the costs of the ferry rides and the van tour, and meals at several restaurants on the way down and back to Atlanta – cost me $340, and I spent fully half of that for my swanky room at Emma’s Cottage House, a Bed & Breakfast in St. Mary’s, the night before we took the ferry to the island. And if you do your camping in a National Park (like Cumberland Island has been since 1977), did you know seniors can buy a National Park Pass for a mere $10?


6 thoughts on “Camping on Cumberland Island

  1. Another exciting journey from my older brother that I am more grateful to be reading about than experiencing with you in person. I can’t imagine the bed balloon through the forest and over the hills and dales. Your comments about going to Cumberland remind me of my friend, Barbara Thomason asking her camping friend how long her extension cord should be to be able to use her hair dryer. Such Pioneer beings! Well good for you to adventure out of the big city and into the wilderness. See you soon, I’m coming home Easter Sunday. Sam and the kids will stay five days and I’ll stay 3-4 weeks more at home. I hope you’ll come and we will get herbs and stuff. Gayle

  2. Two things that make camping bearable – actually five, now that I’ve thought about it a bit more: 1)  beautiful scenery 2) airbed at least 18 inches above the ground 3) Screen house where you can sit around without bugs 4) not moving every day 5) gin and tonic

    The schlep w/the airbed is worth every minute it takes to get it in the tent. Loved your photos.  Looks beautiful.   Hugs, Peg

  3. Good for you Cal. How brave. Sorry about the noseeums. Thanks for writing about it and sharing. Are you now thinking of hiking the Apalachian Trail?

    1. No trail-hiking for moi! That would mean doing without even more mod cons than camping does! I think I’ll confine my hiking to a few more of the “urban (day) hikes” sponsored by the Wilderness Network of Georgia, a gay organization I recently joined. Its Atlanta hikes feature zero noseeums!

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