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St. Simons Island: Seaside Reckoning

                                                      St. Simons Island:
                                                     Seaside Reckoning 
                                                     By James Calemine

And now from the Vast of the Lord
Will the waters of sleep
Roll in on the souls of men,
But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth
Below with the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth
Of the marvelous marshes of Glynn.

                                                                                               -Sidney Lanier
                                                                                               “Marshes of Glynn”

"To truly appreciate the coast of Georgia getting out in the marsh is the best way to do it," my old friend Michael Gowen told me. For a rare glimpse into tributaries, enclave and virgin hinterlands of the area, Gowen's company, Southeast Adventure Outfitters, directs kayak tours that visit remote river lowlands where the landscape looks like it did hundreds of years ago. Even amid blight St. Simons Island remains a land of mystery. This small island attracts land developers and tourists all year long. The island population increases with each year as this small barrier island carries a mystical lure. The face of the island has changed dramatically over the years due to constant development.

The Creek Indians occupied this island when the Spanish discovered the Georgia coast in 1540. English general James Oglethorpe infiltrated the Georgia island around 1736 from the British colony in Charleston. Oglethorpe decided St. Simons served as a strategic location to fortify against Spanish forces threatening from Florida. Oglethorpe prevailed—— establishing the historical course of this country’s culture since English, not Spanish, became the native language.

St. Simons retains a dense history amid traces of today’s local hurried activities near oak groves older than the War Between the States. From 1773 to 1778, botanist William Bartram traveled the southeast coastal region. Bartram documented the journey in his timeless book, Travels of William Bartram, inspiring poets like Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth as well as providing a meticulous document of valuable biological information about the area. Earlier, in 1765, Bartram and his father, John, discovered the Franklinia altamaha tree (named in honor of John Bartram’s friend Ben Franklin) near the Altamaha River in Brunswick, Georgia (Glynn County).

William Bartram’s spiritual enlightenment appeared in the opening paragraph of the St. Simons chapter of his Travels: “We are, all of us, subject to crosses and disappointments, but more especially the traveler; and when they surprise us, we frequently become restless and impatient under them: but let us rely on Provenance, and by studying and contemplating the works and power of the Creator, learn wisdom and understanding in the economy of nature, and be seriously attentive to the divine monitor within. Let us be obedient to the ruling powers in such things as regard human affairs, our duties to each other, and all creatures and concerns that are submitted to our care and control.”

More than twenty years after English actress Frances Anne Kemble divorced her husband, a wealthy plantation owner named Pierce Butler, she published her documented stay on St. Simons in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. The English actress wasn’t accustomed to such climate or terrain; in her book, she wrote of wide wonder for the island: “In every direction our view, as we returned, was bounded by thickets of the most beautiful and various evergreen growth, which beckoned my inexperience most irresistibly. Mr. Butler said, to my unutterable horror, that they were perfectly infested with rattlesnakes, and I must on no account go ‘beating about the bush’ in these latitudes, as the game I should likely to start would be anything but agreeable to me. We saw quantities of wild plum trees all silvery blossoms, and in lovely companionship and contrast with them a beautiful shrub covered with delicate pink bloom like flowering peach trees. After that life in the rich swamp, where the Altamaha kept looking over the dike at me all the time as I sat in the house writing or working, it is pleasant to be on terra firma again, and to know that the river is at the conventional, not to say natural, depth below its banks, and under my feet instead of over my head. The two plantations are of diametrically opposite dispositions——that is all swamp, and this all sand: or, to speak more accurately, that is all swamp, and all of this that is not swamp is sand.”

Upon arriving on St. Simons, the Ebo, an African tribe brought to the island on a slave ship drowned themselves in Dunbar Creek to defy plantation owners. During the Civil War, Union soldiers smashed the organ, burned pews, and broke windows in the second oldest Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Georgia, Christ Church--located at the north end of the island.

Slave cabins remain preserved on St. Simons and Cumberland islands along with well documented songs from Lydia Parrish’s priceless Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. Henry Morrison leads the St. Simons Island Singers on a redemptive version of an old African spiritual called “I’m Gonna Sail Like A Ship On The Ocean”, recorded by Alan Lomax on St. Simons from Atlantic’s Sounds of the South, revealing shoreline visions: I’m gonna sail like a ship on the ocean /I’m gonna sail until my sailin’ day is over/I’m gonna sail til’ I see my dear old mother/I’m gonna sail til I sail up in glory/I’m gonna sail til I meet my father".  With the recent passing of Georgia Sea Island Singers' leader, Doug Quimby, another link to the island's vibrant past disappears.

Located seventy miles south of Savannah, Georgia, and approximately the same distance north of Jacksonville, Florida, rests St. Simons, a barrier island about the size of Manhattan. A sixty-mile drive west from St. Simons leads into the Okefenokee Swamp near Waycross, Georgia, where cosmic American musician Gram Parsons and writer Stanley Booth grew up.

Only three (Tybee, St. Simons, and Jekyll Islands) of Georgia’s 15 barrier islands are developed; the rest remain protected to one degree or another. A third of all the eastern seaboard marshes are located in these 100 miles of coast. It’s written that 2000 miles of tidal shoreline exist within these 500,000 acres that inhabit a wide variety of birds, vegetation and marine life.

In business since 1994, Gowen explains the area’s year around appeal for Southeast Adventure Outfitters: “As far as our tours go, they’re geared towards first timers. Anybody that’s been paddling before will enjoy our trips also. We offer some of the finer opportunities for kayaking around Brunswick, St. Simons, the Satilla River, the Altamaha River, Cathead Creek. We also head out to Sapelo, Blackbeard, and Cumberland islands. We primarily camp out on Cumberland in the winter when it’s nice and cool out. We do year around day trips. We do a lot of tours around Christmas. We’re pretty busy in the summer. We’re slower in January and February, but that’s when some of the best camping can be had. It’s also good for those folks who are in cooler parts of the country to visit South Georgia. If you carry in the winter here what you need in the Rockies during the summer, you got it down...

"As the island becomes more popular, visited and busy on the roads," Gowen tells me, "it emphasizes the relative seclusion and solitude you can find within minutes on the water. To get away from the hustle and bustle of the island, you must get on or around something that floats--a preferable mode of transportation would be a kayak or boat."

This mystical island provides various distractions such as coastline activities, good food and fresh air. For high-grade barbecue and live entertainment visit  Southern Soul Barbecue in the St. Simons village. On any given evening, in the right moment and location on St. Simons, you may hear chants from an old ghost slave ship...

(All photographs courtesy of Southeast Adventure Outfitters)

James Calemine

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