I love wild, quiet places, places where I’m more likely to see a herd of whitetail deer, rattlesnakes or a rare kind of bird than a McDonald’s or a mall. That’s why I’ve come to Sapelo Island, one of the pearls in the necklace of barrier islands that protect the Georgia coast from the tumultuous Atlantic.
The ride from the mainland to the island takes about a half-hour, and as I step off the ferry with my tour group, I realize that it has been more than 10 years since I was last here. I wonder how much it has changed.
Turns out, not much. That’s the way of Sapelo. Only the shifting of the continents moves faster than life on this remote island.
The fourth-largest of the barrier islands, Sapelo is about 11 miles long, four miles wide and about 16,500 acres. It probably hasn’t changed much in a thousand years — it’s still unspoiled and uncrowded.
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And that’s Sapelo’s appeal — its sheer isolation and remoteness. The only way onto or off the island is by boat — public ferry or private watercraft — which leaves you completely at its mercy once you’re there. Don’t even think about cell and Internet service.
Carved out of estuaries of fresh water and the Atlantic, the island is deeply forested in canopies of pine and gnarled oaks so immense that they must have been growing since the beginning of time. Mazes of paved and unpaved roads, trails and tidal creeks curl through the island, so that from the air, it looks like a watercolor painting.
The first known residents, more than 4,000 years ago, were the Guale, a Native American tribe. The Spanish missionaries and explorers arrived in the 16th century, and the British and French came next. They were dominant until the 1800s, when most of Sapelo was purchased by Thomas Spalding, a Georgia politician and cotton and sugar-cane planter who brought in the island’s first slaves.
Howard Coffin, one of the founders of Hudson Motor Car Co., bought most of the island in 1912, except for a few scattered African American communities. Then in 1934, North Carolina tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds Jr. purchased Sapelo, living there for part of the year for 30 years. After his death, his widow sold the island — or about 97 percent of it, with the exception of a chunk of land known as Hog Hammock, where the slaves’ descendants lived — to the state of Georgia.
Seeing Hog Hammock was high on my list, but so was experiencing nature at its rawest and most splendid. Just a few minutes into our sojourn on Sapelo, I was marveling at a trio of whitetail deer. They stared at me. I stared at them. And then off into the woods they leapt, their flaglike tails waving goodbye.
Our tour bus — it’s an old school bus, really — passes by great stands of salt marsh teeming with unseen critters and birds of every sort, and I was thrilled to see a pair of wood storks startled into flight, their wings, with an amazing five-foot span, sounding pfoof-pfoof, like the blades of a slow-moving helicopter.
During the drive around the island, to learn about its marine ecosystems and natural splendors, I caught glimpses of a lone bald eagle, ospreys, possums and plenty more deer. But I was always on the lookout for the elusive chachalaca, a game bird that looks like a cross between a chicken and a turkey and was originally imported from Central America for hunting.
“You have a one in a thousand chance of seeing one,” says our guide as we meander along the dirt roads.
Today wasn’t that day. Nor was it the day to find Butthead.
There are about 200 wild cattle on Sapelo, descendants of those left over from the plantation era. The best-known is a solid black bull named Butthead. Turns out, though, the cattle are as furtive as the chachalaca.
“Butthead has been here for many years, but we hardly ever see him,” our guide says as he points to hoof tracks and poo. “He leaves his calling card. He lives here in Hog Hammock but hides during the day. They all hide by wading into the palmetto jungles and only come out at night.”
Sapelo’s long, undisturbed stretches of beach, scattered with shells, call like sultry sirens.
On the strand, I walk alone ahead of the group. In front of me is a sandbar flush with dozens of pelicans, some corkscrew-diving into the Atlantic in search of fresh fish. Behind me, sea oats sway on the sand dunes in rhythm with the ocean. With a contented sigh, I realize that at least for a little while, I don’t see another human footprint.
We visit the candy-cane-striped Sapelo Island Lighthouse, standing sentinel over the island, and eventually arrive at Chocolate Plantation. The bones of the plantation’s manor house, long decayed, are bleached nearly white by the sun. Slave-tended Sea Island cotton and sugar cane were once grown here. Sapelo’s history is what it is and can’t be changed.
At Shell Ring, a six-foot-high circle of mainly oyster shells left by the Indians centuries ago, I take a pass on walking the entire circumference in the heat but marvel at the primitive architecture.
In the huge R.J. Reynolds Mansion, which is partially constructed of tabby — a coastal concrete made of oyster shells and lime — you can contemplate a series of eclectic murals by Italian-born artist Athos Menaboni. The University of Georgia Marine Institute, also launched by Reynolds, highlights the island’s plentiful ecological resources for scientific research.
We also visit Raccoon Bluff and Hog Hammock, veritable treasures of African American culture. The island’s 60 to 70 permanent residents, almost all descendants of Spalding’s 19th-century slaves, live in 434-acre Hog Hammock. Named for slave Sampson Hog, it’s one of the few remaining Gullah — also called Geechee — communities on the Atlantic coast, and a place where the colorful Gullah language, a Creole-like melange of English and West African dialects, is still spoken.
I find Cornelia Walker Bailey at the back of her small general store, shelling red peas. A ninth-generation descendant of those first slaves, she has the distinct privilege of having been born on Sapelo.
“People come to the island because it’s very special,” she says. “They come for the peace and quiet, and there’s no crime. Everybody knows everybody here.”
The well-traveled Bailey has taken trips to Sierra Leone to find her ancestral roots and is the author of several books, including God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia.
She speaks of Sapelo in a slow, lilting voice. “You can’t save the culture if you can’t save the land,” she says. “Culture and land go together. You can’t have one without the other.”
As we ride back to the ferry landing, I think that I could stay in Hog Hammock, learning the old African ways of cooking, weaving sweetgrass baskets, dancing and storytelling. But the setting sun is signaling the end of the day, as the alchemy of the soft summer light seems to set the marsh afire in a golden glow.