Sunday, February 1, 2009

2006 Family Camping Trip to the GA Sea Isles

Took a family camping trip to Georgia in 2006. Here's my travel journal report from that trip. We started off heading down to Atlanta to see the GA Aquarium that Home Depot built. One word – outstanding! The tropical fish tanks were beautiful, the artic zone exhibits with their seals, otters, penguins, etc were cool, the river exhibit, with the tanks overhead so it gave the sensation that you were underwater, was cool, but the show stopper was the main tank (biggest in the world I think) with its “underwater” conveyor belt and its two whale sharks! They were magnificent! The tank was so big that they’d loom out of the distance, slowly coming into view and focus as they got closer and then faded off into the distance again. Of course they had sharks, great whites, hammerheads, guitar fish, large sea turtles, etc. The girls liked the octopus. We took video of the three beluga whales they had – very graceful and inquisitive – mesmerizing! I liked seeing the large groupers too. Well worth the price of admission. We decided not hang around Atlanta on a Friday, but bolted out of town instead to spend an extra day on Jekyll Island.

We headed southeast through Macon towards Savannah and then turned south on Rt. 95 to Jekyll Island. We made our way to the Jekyll Island campground at the north end of the island. The campground was very nice, but I guess our timing was bad since we got the smallest tent site in the campgrounds. We got the tent and the bug screen up and Dana immediately set about collecting fire wood. Camping brings out the pyro in everyone! We left to go get groceries for the trip and ended up getting a bite to eat at a pizza joint in Brunswick. Back to the campsite and straight to bed.

Day two at Jekyll, we hit the beach on the Saint Simon Sound (west) side of the island. The tide was low - exposing a very wide beach. Very few shells L Hailey swam in the fridgy water and could not convince me to join her. Dana messed around at the water’s edge (she’s a digger!). The girls liked seeing the horses from a tour operator that led rides on the beach, but they seemed more interested in the animals than the ride so we didn’t do the horseback beach tour. We had PB&J for lunch. Hailey says she doesn’t want to buy lunch at school anymore; she just wants PB&J!

There was a short Thunderstorm in the afternoon, but it came up quick and as we were running around to store gear and then hunker down, the tent chaos level reached maximum overload! Our Kelty tent is a champ in the rain however – we were bone dry!

On our second day at Jekyll, we woke up to overcast skies and lots of wind. So we decided to go to the Tidelands Nature Center. Hailey was especially pleased to see their loggerhead sea turtle and the baby turtles. We missed the nesting and hatching window by a month or so. Dang! The girls were also surprised to learn about the possibility of seeing manatees on the island, but again, we were early for that chance. Hailey bought her umpteenth fox for her collection of wildlife animals.

After the nature center, we walked the boardwalk to the beach that was used in the filming of the movie Glory (about black soldiers in the Civil War). Nice beach, but it was windy!!!!

We toured the historic Jekyll Island Club grounds – lots of old grand buildings since converted into quaint shops filled with unnecessary but fun items. Our favorite shop was the bookstore where they had lots of history, ecology, and picture books relating to the island and small placards with sayings like “I wasn’t born in the South, but I got here as quick as I could!”. Fun.

We rented a 4-seater surrey (bike with the fringe on top) and the girls had a ball riding the beautiful bike paths through the center of the island past the golf course and historic grounds - that is until Hailey quit peddling - proclaiming that here butt hurt!

The girls put the nearby playground through its paces and then we headed back to the camp. I rented a bike to tour some of the excellent bike trails that ran through the marshes and under the moss covered oak trees. Don’t ever go to Jekyll without a bike! We had a great chicken dinner, the girls were happy with the big fire we made, I did a little fishing and caught a couple silver perch in St. Simon Sound, but the highlight for the girls came later when, to dispel Hailey’s homesickness I pulled out the stops and burped the alphabet. I’m telling you that’s powerful mojo – good time camp stuff!

The next day, we packed up camp and headed to the Okefenokee Swamp – “Land of the Trembling Earth”. Driving from Jekyll, we headed north around the top of the swamp and after what Kathi described as “a whole lotta nothin” we arrived at Steven Foster State Park. Several deer greeted us at the gate – a magical sign of good things to come for the girls. As we checked in at the Ranger station we got our first close up look at gators – one was lounging on the boat ramp! We set up the tent and bug screen house on what was one of the natural high spots in the swamp, and took the opportunity to walk one of the swamp trails. Even though Hailey was giving us the teenager “everything is boring” attitude, she spotted lizards, a big water moccasin that was digesting a fresh kill, and butterfly caterpillars that were camouflaged to look like bird droppings. We haven’t lost her to hormones yet!

After a dinner of burgers and mac and cheese, we went for another walk. We swung on the swings in the playground and gave ever straggling Dana the new nickname Pokey-fenokee! The cabins at SFSP look great if you ever decide on an extended stay in the swamp. We were amazed that there were no bugs during the day – really! It made for really pleasant sightseeing, but beware at dawn and after dusk!

On out second day, we took another walk through the pine forest where Dana and I spotted a black snake with a red underbelly. Cool. We were hoping to spot more deer in the clearings in the forest, but no luck. After lunch we headed out on a boat tour of the swamp.

Of course we saw lots of gators; I think Dana counted 46! The scenery was beautiful and our guide told us lots of swamp lore stories including how to get a meal out of the swamp if you were stranded. Seems like each recipe started with “boil the stuff 8 or 10 times with changes of water to remove the toxins…”

After the tour, I bought some worms and took Dana fishing (Hailey didn’t want to go but opted for more gator spying). Dana made Papa proud by catching a small panfish (in between feeding worms to the grateful turtles).

The next day we packed up the camp and headed towards St. Mary’s – gateway to Cumberland Island. But first we took a last parting family picture with a Steven Foster State Park gator in the background. As you can see the girls took some convincing to get in the same frame with the gator!

We drove south and dipped into FL briefly, again driving through a “whole lotta nothing” before we reentered GA and just north of Folkston, took a detour into the east side of the Okefenokee Swamp. The swamp has a totally different look on the east side and I wanted to see the wet prairies I had heard about. So we took another swamp tour this time lead by a fourth generation swamper. It was a good tour- we saw green snakes, more gators and wide open swamp without lots of trees like on the west side.

After the tour, we headed back east to the little town of St. Mary’s where we checked into the Riverview Hotel. I’m sure in its day, it was a grand hotel, but time had taken its toll on those walls. The girls liked the resident cat and were thrilled to have their own room with their own TV! They were glued to a mini Fairly Odd Grandparents marathon. Kathi and I pared down our gear and repacked our stuff for the next day’s trip to Cumberland Island National Wildlife Refuge (no cars –so you have to carry everything to the Sea Camp) and then hit the hay.

We woke the next morning to the complimentary breakfast buffet and then we joined the rest of the island bound campers at the St. Mary’s ferry dock. Even after paring down we were loaded down to the gills with stuff – tent, sleeping bags, food, a seine net, fishing gear, bug spray, and assorted stuffed animals, rubber snakes, gators and foxes.

We had a pleasant enough ferry ride over, but it wasn’t until we were setting up the tent in our campsite that I realized I had forgotten to retrieve the camp stove from the car and had also forgotten to repack the sunscreen! The tent site was big and beautiful. It was interesting to find an oversized caged birdhouse to store the food in and keep it out of the greedy clutches of the resident raccoons. While setting up camp, the girls were delighted to see their first wild armadillo (one of many over our two day stay on Cumberland) rooting around in the saw palmettos.

We spent the first day at the Cumberland Island beach where we proceeded to fry! The beach is BROAD and beautiful! The girls made sandcastles with working moats and bridges. We searched for and collected many shells, dolphin bones, and a washed up puffer fish (which mom wouldn’t let us bring home – dangit!). Hailey and I put the seine net to use and caught the smallest little juvenile fish I think I’ve ever seen and one huge ornery blue claw crab.

No hot showers (just cold ones) at the Sea Camp so after our morning at the beach we started to become fragrant. Ever take a sink shower?

As the last ferry arrived for the day, we rented bikes and rode the bike trails south towards Dungeness, the burned-down remnants of a grand mansion formerly owned by the Carnegie family. We found wild horses one: with a totally white foal and another chestnut foal that was only a week old. The girls were about to melt!

Luckily, our main course that evening (hotdogs) could easily be cooked over the open fire. Cereal for breakfast and PBJs for lunch; we really didn’t need the stove after all. Karma! After supper the girls headed for bed and I tried my hand at some nighttime fly fishing. I rode my bike back down south to a spot near Dungeness where I had seen some good fishing spots. In the light of the full moon, I saw fish milling about, but was getting totally eaten alive by no-see-ums. Only my hands and face were exposed, but at one point there were so many flying into my eyeballs, I was literally blinded. That put an end to my fishing aspirations quick!

The following day we stayed out of the sun, toured more of the island’s historical grounds, and waited for the 2:30 ferry. Packed up, sunburned, and ready for a snooze, we were anxious for the ferry that would take us to our last destination before the long ride home.

Our last night in GA, we stayed in a Best Western hotel (hello hot shower!) on St. Simons Island. After the girls went for a swim in the hotel’s luxurious pool, we all took showers, donned fresh clothes and shoes, and cruised downtown to find the spring break crowd swarming the eclectic shops and restaurants along the waterfront (just across the sound from where we camped on Jekyll Island). We found a recommended seafood restaurant, had a good meal, and turned in.

Got up very early the next morning, chowed down at the very nice complimentary breakfast buffet, and hit the highway. We marveled at all the high priced RVs as we steered the Honda minivan homeward and arrived by about 4:30 pm. I thing the price of a gallon of regular gas went up half a buck in the ten days we were away!

Jekyll Island was nice (wish we all had bikes!), the alligators and beautiful setting of the Okefenokee was memorable, but for me, the best was Cumberland Island. It was so beautiful, fun, so full of wildlife; I’d love to return – next time with friends, our own boat, kayaks, and bikes for an extended stay. There’s a lot more to explore. We made many great family memories and hopefully we’ll be able to do it again before the teenage years steal our darling girls away.

Until next time….. Happy Trails!

Kevin, Kathi, Hailey, and Dana (Pokeyfenokee)

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