Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An Island Working For Everyone

Sargasso Grass on Cumberland Island's Atlantic Beach.  The grass provides the building blocks of a coastal ecosystem, giving small animals that become food for coastal seabirds a place to live.

Biking down the center of Cumberland Island through the Oak Forests festooned with Spanish Moss

Probably the most amazing thing Cumberland Island National Seashore is that it works.  It is an island, serviced by a ferry, across a long stretch of water that takes forty five minutes to cover.  It does not welcome cars in any way, and insists on foot and bicycle travel for everyone but the rare long-term resident.  But it works, and people, like the birds that call it home, flock here with enthusiasm. 

Dungenesse was designed by Lucy Carnegie as a 50 room Scottish castle on the south of the island.

The Atlantic coast of Cumberland Island from 20 meters up in our camera Kite.

According to the National Park Service website, "Cumberland Island is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in along the Atlantic coast. The island has one of the largest maritime forests remaining in the United States and one of the largest wilderness areas in a National Seashore on the east coast of the USA."

One family we met hiked the length of the island with their children, reveling in the wilderness, camping out every night at the convenient park campsites.  Much of the park is booked out most of the time, even though there is only one main campsite with clean drinking water and no other places to stay except one extremely expensive bed and breakfast spot.  Most people come for a day and travel around the south part of the island by foot or rental bicycle then leave in the afternoon.

The wild horses in front of the ruins of Dungeness have been around since as early as the 1500s and were thought to have been abandoned by the Spanish.

One of the other most amazing things about this island is the wildlife.  Most places in the world wild animals are just that... wild and prone to hiding out when people are around.  Not the case with Cumberland.  The animals will walk right up to a human, even deer and armadillos.  Under the dense forest canopy most furry critters have such little fear of humans that a local raccoon walked right up to a fellow camper and stole the scrubby he was using to do his dishes.  One deer even stood right in the path and refused to budge out of the way for a mother of two. 

Cumberland Island is protected through a special partnership between the National Park Service and the Cumberland Island Conservancy.  The conservancy is proud to be a co-steward of the island, and helps raise money for the protection of the park.  They also help with the research and protection of the Loggerhead and Leatherback turtle species that come to nest on the island.  One night we went out after the moon had set and walked kilometers up the beach from Sea Camp with our red headlamps, trying to find one of these gentle marine giants digging a nest for her young.  We did not see one, but this year has been a huge year for returning turtles on this barrier island and already more than 95 nests have been logged, a marked increase from last year.

The Atlantic Beach of Cumberland Island under starlight and the light of far-away savannah Georgia on the left.  It is here that Green, Leatherback, and Loggerhead Turtles drag themselves up on the beach to lay their eggs.

A Loggerhead turtle nest on Cumberland Island.  The nest is covered by a mesh laid down by conservation workers to protect it from feral pigs and racoons.

According to the website Wild Cumberland more than 50,000 people visit this island every year, but the website alleges that the owners of the expensive Greyfield Inn lobbied congress to remove the north end of the island from official wilderness designation.  Alarmingly, it alleges that:  "The commercial hotel lobbied Representative Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) for the removal of Wilderness designation. In late 2004, Kingston managed to slip a rider on the Omnibus Spending Bill taking the route of the Greyfield Inn motorized tours out of Wilderness designation, as well as the entire north end of the island and the beach. It was the first time in U.S. history that Wilderness has been removed and fragmented."  If these allegations are true, it is a sad testament to Conde Nasts' ratings that they do not include a caveat that staying at this establishment may endanger the very wildlife people have come here to appreciate.

Despite these challenges, the island remains a very special place, and one that carries an important lesson: For every wilderness area, people have fought for it to be named and remain protected.  Every National or local park enjoys national and local champions.  These people are real heroes, directly responsible for giving us these amazing wilderness areas we enjoy today and we all owe them a deep debt of gratitude.

For our little team on the Lily Rose, Cumberland Island is our last stop on our way north through the barrier islands of Florida and Georgia.  The boat has been taken out of the water at Rocky's marina in St Marys, and we were "evacuated" (along with the rest of the public) off of Cumberland Island two days ago.  Tropical storm Beryl was barreling down on the area and the Park Service was taking no chances in leaving campers on the island.  Fortunately, the island is resilient in its natural state and the storm caused little damage, but according to local residents we spoke with they are already seeing some beach-front property disappear due to rising sea levels.  Whatever the future of this grand island, for now it's present is a gift that everyone can cherish.

The journey up from Miami has been an amazing adventure.  We would like to particularly thank the researchers and most importantly the crew of the Sailing Vessel Lily Rose for making this such a special trip.

Raising the sailing vessel Lily Rose out of the water for the hurricane season.

We will be heading down the coast through the far south of Florida to the Keys, the third largest barrier reef in the world, and the front line of the battle over the future of Florida.  There we will find out how researchers are battling to save the less then 10% of the healthy coral still remaining, and hopefully bring some of it back.  There also we will see how tiny islands are being affected by the global changes still to come. 

A lady and her young son are evacuated off of Cumberland Island before tropical storm Beryl hit the Island. The Island lays in the background.

These islands in the ocean and the long thin barrier islands of the eastern US coastline are the "canaries in the coal mine" of Climate Change, and we will be listening very carefully to the lessons that they tell us. 

SPECIAL GUEST BLOG:  Mira Dutschke's Images from the Islands

Storm on the Atlantic - photo by Mira Dutschke

Tall man in little window - photo by Mira Dutschke

Flying the Camera Kite at Nettle's Island - proof that good things can happen at spoils photo by Mira Dutschke

Yellow eye and foot color coordinated snowy Egret feasting in the shore photo by Mira Dutschke

St Augustine Fort - was attacked by the Brits but never taken photo by Mira Dutschke

Armond the Dillo coming to visit at Seacamp on Cumberland Island photo by Mira Dutschke

Punk Bird "Male Cardinal" aka the Anarchist photo by Mira Dutschke

Wild horses at Cumberland Island Do not feed, do not attempt to ride photo by Mira Dutschke

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