Smoke on the Water - Sea Kayaing to Sapelo Island, Georgia


 A thick cloud of smoke filled the air as we eased our kayaks into the swift current of the out going tide. An early morning sun, low on the horizon, tried hard to shine through the haze. A lightening strike, the day before, had set fire to 750 acres of timber. Now the blaze was only a few miles to the west of our put in point. As the smoke was being blown to the east on a stiff breeze, we all wondered if the fire would move in our direction. But our biggest concern was for the van, our only means of transportation back to civilization. We all laughed at the thought of returning from our journey to find a burned out and blackened corpse of what used to be our van and kayak trailer. The laughter was hiding a fear that all of us felt.

Our destination was the Cabretta Wilderness Area, nestled on the remote eastern coast of Sapelo Island. Sapelo is located 297 miles to the southeast of Atlanta, along the pristine Golden Isles coastline of Georgia. Sea kayaking this area is like traveling back in time. This is a place steeped in rich history and tradition. The inhabitance of the island are the Gullah (short for Angola ) African-American culture. These are descendants of slaves who worked the island 200 years ago. A culture that still hangs onto it roots as heavy as the moss hangs onto the oak trees that fill the peaceful landscape. There are no roads leading into the island. The only access is by boat.

 My new paddling companions and I were being guided by Todd Eddington, owner of Adventure South Outfitters in Atlanta. I had done a previous paddle with Todd on Lake Jocassee in South Carolina, one of the many guided trips his company does, and I was impressed with how he took care of his clients. Keeping every one of us in the group well fed and comfortable. On that trip he talked about his regular tours to Cumberland Island and Sapelo Island Georgia. That got my mouth watering for more open-ocean and estuary touring. When I received the call from Todd inviting me to go on this trip, I jumped at the chance.

This adventure would take us on a journey lasting three days and covering 26 miles. We would start from our launch site at Ridgeville Georgia, follow the North River into Doboy Sound, then across to the southern tip of Sapelo Island.  The last leg of the journey would take us into the open water of the Atlantic, hugging the coast line, and north to Cabretta. There we would camp, explore, swim, relax and then make our way back on the third and final day. The first day of paddling to our campsite would be 13 miles. A trip that would take about seven hours to cover.

The North River meanders is way to the sea like a coiling snake. With it’s many twists and turns, at times the view from our kayaks was limited only to the water passing underneath our boats and the surrounding tall marsh grass. In some sections the river would narrow while pulling around a bend, putting us on guard for any on coming boats as well as the possibility of stirring up an alligator sunning itself on the banks. All we could do, while paddling a bend, was keep our ears open for the hum of an approaching motor or the sudden splash of a submerging  gator.

At one point Todd gave me the honor of the lead. Leaving it to me to navigate our group down the river. I kept glancing down at my navigational chart, studying the contours of the land and river, looking for any specific navigational points along the way - towers, channel markers, water tanks, anything that would alert me to our position on the map. In the tall grass and with the many tributaries that intersect the river, it could be easy to get lost without knowing our exact location.

The only land based references were small groves of trees that formed solid terra firma in the soggy marsh. These would show up as brighter shades of green on the navigational chart. By counting the number of tree groves, as we paddled down the river, we could plot our progression on the map.

Soon we had come to a section in the river that didn't look like anything on the map. I strained my eye’s looking up and down the river for any sign that I might have made a wrong turn - a tributary that I had followed by mistake.

“ Crap!”, I thought, “ Did I just get us lost?!”

This was the one and only trick the river would play on me. Inlets, cutting into the river, would form at high tide. These new features didn’t show on the map. Usually found when the river doubles back on itself in a 180 degree turn - the water will cut a straight path through the marsh linking the river at the top of the hairpin.

This created some confusion because now we were sitting at a four point intersection, where on the map it showed three. Todd pointed out another grove of trees to our southeast and we located that plot on the chart. A quick reference with the map proved that we were on track and, to my relief, not lost. From now on I would keep my eye’s open for anymore tricks the river might hand out.

Paddling on the out going tide, we were making good time. We were also blessed by a stiff breeze at our backs that helped in pushing us along into Doboy Sound. While it helped our time, it also kept us in a thick haze of smoke from the nearby fire. The sun, shinning through the layer of smoke, cast a mystical shade of pink to the surrounding high grass of the marsh. As if in a dream like setting, we worked our way down the river.

In the distance we could hear the sound of a helicopter’s rotor blades beating the air with an unmistakable: “thwap, thwap, thwap”.  We watched as the fire fighters attacked their enemy with an airborne assault. The large helicopter, working at a steady pace, pulled water out of the same river we were paddling. Then, the lumbering beast would carry the water back to the fire to form a man made rain over the flames. We joked about the possibility of how the helicopter, with its large bucket slung underneath, could scoop us out of the water - kayaks and all.  The headlines of the local paper reading:

“ Eight sea kayakers found in the middle of raging forest fire.”

Crossing the intracoastal waterway and paddling by Doboy Island, the fume began to burn our eyes and lungs. Would we have to endure this the entire trip? We cringed at the thought of having to spend the next three days with our malingering companion. We hoped that, with luck, the wind direction would change giving us break.

Hungry for the history of the area and for sake of my article, I asked Todd if he knew why they call it Doboy Island?  With out hesitation Todd fired:

“ Back in WWI they used the island as a quarantine for the returning Doboy’s who had syphilis.”  Then with a large southern laugh he said: “What did you think about that answer? Good huh?”.  I knew from that point on to take Todd’s stories with a grain of salt!

The history of this area, in fact, is very rich and one that goes back over 11,000 years to the lands earliest indigenous cultures.  4500 years ago the Gaule Native American culture inhabited the Sapelo area. A culture dependant on oysters, their oyster mounds or “ middens” can be found dotting the island. In 1526 a Spaniard by the name of Lucas Vazquez De Allyon sailed from Hispaniola with 600 colonist to the coast of South Carolina. After his flag ship sank off the Carolina Coast, Allyon and his followers traveled south to form the first European colony in North America. The colony proved to be a failure and after the death of most of the 600 colonist, including Allyon, the remaining returned to Hispaniola. This yet unfound settlement is believed to have been located somewhere in the Sapelo Sound. Their ghost are said to still haunt the area.

Sapelo Island and Doboy Sound were also a stopping off point for many of the pirates who ran an illegal slave trade up and down the east coast. The notorious Blackbeard supposedly used the area as a safe haven for some of his many ill-fated treasures, burying his loot in the sands of what today has become the Blackbeard Wilderness Area.

But that still does not answer the question of Doboy Island and Doboy sound. They probably got their names from the Scottish Highlanders that formed the port of Darien in 1736. But no one really knows the true answer. The town of Darien, to this day, still celebrates the highland games in honor of their Scottish fore fathers.

One story that Todd told about the area that was correct and one that we all found interesting, was to be seen passing our next island - Commodore .

In the era of tall sailing ships, large stones were used as ballast to help stabilize a ship with little or no cargo.  As the ships made their way into the North River, headed for the port of Darien, this ballast was thrown over board enabling the ship to navigate the shallow water.  Those rocks can be seen in the many mounds formed along the shore of Commodore Island as well as other entry points into the river. 

Now we were entering the faster current of Doboy Sound. The river broadened, stretching out the horizon and our view. To our east and obscured by a curtain of smoke, was Sapelo Island. Through the haze we could make out the lighthouse that has guarded the sound for the past 181 years. The 80 foot tall lighthouse was built in 1820 to help guide mariners through the shallow waters of the area and then up river to, what once was, the thriving port of Darien. In October of 1898 the lighthouse was ravaged by a hurricane and eventually put out of commission. Now, 100 years later and having undergone a total renovation, the lighthouse has been brought back to its original appearance.

Passing the red and white striped lighthouse meant it would be a short paddle to the mouth of Doboy sound. This would take us around the tip of Sapelo Island and into the Atlantic, setting up the last section of our paddle.

This leg of the trip worried Todd. While having dinner with our group the night before our launch, he expressed his concern. This would be his first trip to Sapelo in which he would attempt the challenge of paddling the open ocean along the beach to our campsite. On previous trips his paddlers were beginners and the surf on the open water would have been beyond their experience level.  Todd would end the paddle at the Sapelo Island ferry landing and then catch a van across the island to the campsite at Cabretta.

But our group, he felt, had stronger, more experienced paddlers. Although, over half of our group had never paddled in open ocean conditions before. He left it up to us and the weather to decide.

Making our way around the point we kept a vigilant watch for any sign of high surf.

If there were a chance of rough conditions we would turn back, paddle to the ferry landing on Sapelo and take the van ride.  The forecast for the sea conditions that afternoon was one to two foot seas, with an increase in wave height later in the day. We estimated that by the time the waves increased we should be safely on shore at Cabretta.

Everything seemed to be working out in our favor as we came to the mouth of Doboy sound. The only crashing waves were well out off shore in the many sandbar breakers that lined the inlet. We would continue on as planned.

Even the Dolphin, cruising the sound in search of chad, seemed to approve of our decision as they began to surface around our boats. In our excitement, watching the Dolphins frolic, we never even noticed that our eyes had stopped burning. The air was clear of smoke and we could breath without the smell of burning wood. The wind turned in our favor and we were enjoying a nice off shore breeze.

After a break for lunch along the isolated beach, we wearily climbed back into our boats for the rest of the journey. We had only spent about an hour for lunch. But within that short amount time the wind had begun to blow harder out of the southeast. With the tide still working it’s way out to sea, the friction of the wind on the water was kicking up the surf.

With only two miles of shoreline separating us from our destination, we worked our way through an ever increasing sea. Now, paddle strokes became more focused and well planned. The relaxed pace that we enjoyed while in the protected water of the North River now became more tense.

For most of the paddlers this was a new experience. They had never paddled in a rolling, pitching sea.  A concerned member of our group said:“ I had never planned on paddling in this type of water before!”  Those unfamiliar with ocean kayaking began to tighten up their grip on the paddle, keeping it close to their bodies and using short, choppy, strokes to help balance their narrow kayaks, as if a capsize would suddenly occur.

Paddling up the beach and parallel to the rolling surf, we were being hit by  beam waves. Although the height of the waves was nothing that might cause any immediate danger, it is something that takes a little time to get used to.  I thought with a little coaching on my part I could put some of them at ease with the surf. “ Just roll with the punches!” I shouted, trying to be heard over the breaking waves; “Lean into the wave and brace!”

Some of our paddlers, I had noticed, while paddling the calmer water, had more of a white water style of paddling. Arms, elbows and paddle held high with a powerful digging stroke. This is murder in a sea kayak when distance is an issue. It fatigues the shoulders and arms too quickly for any type of prolonged touring. Now they were tired and the challenge was one of making headway to Cabretta, while controlling their kayaks in the rough conditions.

Open ocean sea kayaks are designed to handle a pitching sea. In a constant beam wave, the kayak is leaned into the wave with the paddle in a brace on the backside of the wave to prevent a capsize.  The arms, elbows and paddle, when not in a brace, are kept low over the deck with the paddle loom “out in front” away from the body. The arms straight, paddling  with a slight twisting motion of the upper torso. This racing style stroke allows for immediate leverage and speed when punching through surf, or racing to stay ahead of a following wave.

Sea kayaks can be the most worthy of ocean going craft. I would much rather be caught in high surf in a sea kayak than with any other boat. But try telling that to someone while in the throws of a rolling ocean.  “ Lean and brace!”, I kept shouting, “ Lean and brace!”.

Todd made his way beside my kayak and told me to keep a look out on the beach for a white PVC pipe sticking up out of the sand. That would mark the location of our campsite. I scanned the dunes, squinting hard in the bright sun to look for our marker. Hell, there were white PVC pipes all up and down that beach. “Ok”, I thought, “ Which one is our marker?”

He knew that if we passed the inlet to Blackbeard Island we would have gone to far. Unsure of several inlets that we saw, some of us would go ashore and scout the location looking for the campsite.

Todd was now concerned about the weariness of some of the paddlers. He knew we didn’t have much farther to go, but we couldn’t waist time and energy paddling up and down the beach looking for our camp site.

By now our group was getting spread out down the beach front. Some paddlers falling back, conserving energy, until our landing was found. Todd sprinted ahead in an effort to save time. Finally, after landing his kayak and running a few hundred yards up the beech, he found our camp.

We were all visibly tired. We had just spent the past seven hours in our kayaks with few stops along the way. The sun, wind, surf and smoke had taken it’s toll. Now it was a relief for us to be out of our boats, unpacking and setting up camp anxiously awaiting one of Todd’s gourmet meals.

That evening we sat down to a healthy portion of chicken, pine nuts and pasta. A high carb, high protein meal to replentish our worn bodies.

Later that evening Todd and I had a chance to do some exploring around the area. While hiking through the sand dunes that separated our campsite from the beech, we came upon ominous looking tracks. Todd knew right away what the tracks were from.“ Alligator.“, he said.

It was easy to see the deep channel created from large tail being dragged through the sand. By looking at the placement of the foot prints on either side of the channel, we could gage the size of the gator. In my best Aussie accent I said :“ And it looks like he’s about fifteen feet!! Let’s go find the bugger! ”

In reality he was only about four to five feet. But even at that, Todd ask me not to tell anyone in the camp about our discovery in fear of some sleepless nights. With some of the other creatures we found laying around in our campsite, I was glad I brought my camp hammock to sleep in - off the ground away from anything that could crawl, slither or hop its way into my sleeping bag.

We followed the tacks as far as we could in hopes of catching a glimpse of the creature we were stalking. Although, if we had stumbled upon him, all he would get a glimpse of would be my backside. “Asses and elbows” headed in the other direction as hard as I could.

Finally the tracks ran out. Disappearing into the dense brush. Not wanting to push my luck, or  loose a badly needed body part, we headed back to camp. I wasn't disappointed that we didn’t find the alligator. There would be more to see the next day. And, while looking for this “bugger” we did stir up some other wildlife hiding in the dunes. Startled by our presence, deer would bound out of the bush instantly raising our heart levels.

Our last night on the island, we were invited by the locals to a night out on the town. As the sun was setting, casting it’s golden hues through the moss laden oak trees, a beat-up white van came lumbering down the dusty road into our campsite to pick us up.  I felt like Cinderella on her way to the ball. I don’t know why, but it was the first thing I could think of when the van came rumbling to a stop. “Here’s my pumpkin!”, I thought.

The driver, jumped out, gave us a warm greeting, popped open the hood and proceeded to pour a quart of oil into the engine. As if throwing meat to a hungry lion after it had performed a circus trick.“ This thing burns a lot of oil.”, he said. We all piled in and found our seats.  Wiping the heavy dust off before sitting down.

Todd had set us up for a visit to Hog Hammock, a sleepy village only a few miles down the road from our campsite. We ate outside behind the local bed and breakfast and were treated to a low country boil consisting of crab, sausage, corn, okra, and mosquitoes. I know the little varmints were a part of my meal, because the swarm was so thick around my face I had to have eaten some of them. But anything taste better with a cold beer. And believe me, it kept flowing.

We sat at the local bar after dinner, which was only a few steps from our dinner table, drinking beer and talking with our driver Stanley. He talked about the area and Hog Hammock. He also spoke of his life on the Island and his father. I tried hard to pay attention to his words but all I could hear was a buzzing around my head. My little mosquito dinner quests’ had followed me to the bar and were now proceeding to eat me alive.

While all of our group sat swatting at bare arms and legs, I looked at Stanley, who seemed unaffected by the bugs. “ Do they not bother you? “, I asked. “ Just drink more beer.”, he answered, “ After awhile you won’t even notice them.” And you know, he was right. When you are passed out on the bar room floor, you don’t notice much of anything.

Sapelo Island is an untamed, wild experience. Roaming the empty beaches you can get a feeling of what life must have been like hundreds, even thousands of years ago. You can imagine what the colonist in Lucas Vazquez De Allyon’s party must have felt like. Alone in a new world, surrounded by things yet unknown. But at the same time, there is a peace here. A stillness and beauty that words can’t describe.

For the sea kayaker, Sapelo offers a gradual change in paddling terrain. Starting from the slow moving confines of the North River - with it’s high grass marsh - then ,slowly opening up into the sound and on into the surf of the Atlantic. Each change containing it’s own beauty and challenge.

Our three day visit to the wild and remote waters of Sapelo Island was a true adventure. There is so much history in this area, so much wildlife, that it would take many trips to see and experience it all. We spent our 2nd day relaxing, exploring the beach and doing a quick trip into the marsh in search of more alligators and other wildlife. We knew not to push our limits  in order to conserve energy for the long paddle back to the van the next day. The van that we all hoped was still in one piece and not a barbecued shell.

At one point, while doing some beach combing, we noticed, back to the west, a black cloud billowing in the already large column of grayish smoke of the forest fire. “Well...”, Todd said with a nervous grin; “There go the tires on the van!”


copyright 2010 - Tony Kramer