NATURE, HISTORY ABOUND ON GEORGIA'S SOUTH COAST
At first glance, it looks like just a log floating near the right shore of Georgia's slow-moving Mayhall River. But as we paddle closer in our kayaks, I realize my eyes are playing tricks on me.
It's an alligator.
Something catches the corner of my eye on the left. I quickly turn my head, and see water ripple where something has just disappeared. Glancing in the direction the ripple seemed to be heading, I'm rewarded with another 'gator sighting as its head pops up, about 10 yards away.
We're just 10 minutes out from the lodge on Eagle Island, paddling with guide Dan Cressette of Altamaha Coastal Tours, our morning adventure off to a good start. The island is one of a series of coastal islands off the south coast of Georgia, just a few hours away from Jacksonville, Florida.
Alligators are not the only wildlife keeping us company. We spot a boat-tailed grackle, the first of many of the shorebird species we'll see.
Eventually we reach a junction with the Darien River, paddling a short distance along its waters to Escape Island, a spot favoured for camping. We're not stopping for that long, though, just for a break and a natural history lesson from our guide.
This part of the world has a very interesting mix of plants and animals, as it's a transition zone, a border between northern and southern forests, so both exotic deciduous and coniferous trees call it home. Georgia boasts plenty of swamps and jungle-like areas - but we also find yucca plants on this island, along with cedar trees along with short-leaf pine trees.
After our interpretive talk ends, we take advantage of the incoming tide to use a shortcut, paddling through some tall grasses where 10 minutes before, there had been no channel. This takes us back to the Mayhall without having to go back the way we came along the Darien.
Paddling back to the lodge, we spy numerous herons and cormorants - and plenty of fish, too: mullets jump out of the river, and even a garfish shows itself. Ten minutes away from the lodge, I call out, "'Gator at 12 o'clock!" as Cressette touches paddles with me and says, "Good spot!"
We paddle past, watching just his nostrils and eyes sticking above the surface of the water.
Pulling back up to the dock, I spy a turkey vulture circling overhead.
Not this time, Mr. Vulture. We all made it back in one piece.
* * * *
A few days later, I find myself embarking on another kayak adventure in Georgia, this time with Southeast Adventures on St. Simon's Island. Our group paddles into Postle Creek, a salt marsh that eventually takes us out to the ocean. We wind back and forth in the narrow channel, hearing the distinct "oka-dee!" call of red-winged blackbirds. Sometimes we get lucky and even spot one, along with an occasional egret, looking for fish for breakfast.
Along the way, we learn about The Battle of Bloody Marsh fought here in 1742 between the British and Spanish, who both claimed the area as their own. The British repulsed the Spanish and eventually won control of St. Simon's Island. The Spanish still held Florida, but eventually surrendered it to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.
As we paddle out of the marsh and into Gould's Inlet, we fight our own battle against a stiff wind and an opposing current, allies in an attempt to try to push us back. But like the British, we win the day and make our way out to a small island with a nice beach for some lazy beach-combing.
It feels good to get out of the kayaks and stretch our legs, enjoying the warmth of the day. Willets scurry around on the sand, and we see plenty of hermit crab holes in our wandering - but no crabs. Again, some of the vegetation reminds me of the contrasts in this land that's not quite temperate, yet not quite tropical…not quite wetland, but not really desert: cacti peek up through the sands all along the island.
As I climb out of the kayak at our takeout point, I reflect that while we may think of "swamps" when we hear Georgia mentioned, it is really a land of transition, a land of many surprises, even along its coastal islands.
IF YOU GO:
KAYAKING: Altamaha Coastal Tours www.altamaha.com/ provide kayaks and guide service for St. Simon's and Tybee Islands and Savannah. 1-912-437-6010
Southeast Adventures www.southeastadventure.com/ does day and overnight trips in the St. Simon's Island and Brunswick areas of Georgia. 1-912-638-6732.
Eagle Island offers secluded rustic luxury in its lodge. Owner Andy Hill can help you set up with kayaking, fishing and other adventures, using the lodge as a base. www.privateislandsofgeorgia.com/eagle-island/
On St. Simon's Island, the King and Prince Beach Resort www.kingandprince.com provides access to many adventures, and also offers a spa, a golf course and other amenities.
GETTING THERE: The nearest international airport is in Jacksonville, about a two-hour drive from the islands. Air Canada and Westjet both fly there.
PHOTOS by John Geary
1. Paddling the Mayhall
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