More than fifty years ago, my Dad had a friend who loved to challenge the sounds and rivers of coastal Georgia with an eighteen-foot, wooden boat, and a thirty-five horse Johnson outboard motor. Despite the dangers imposed by the big, open expanses of water that we often traversed, Dad brought me along to enjoy the natural beauty and wonder of the tidal tributaries and mysterious barrier islands. The most important reason for many of these trips, however, was the excellent fishing that we experienced.
It was during one of these excursions that I first experienced the wonder of Sapelo Island. We had put in at Shellman Bluff, which is a fish camp on the Broro River that quickly empties into the broader Sapelo River. We made our way east across the wide open expanses at the mouth of Sapelo Sound to a small opening into Blackbeard Creek at the northeast end of Sapelo Island. This tiny tributary is also bordered by Blackbeard Island to the east, and made a wonderful path for exploring the interior of both islands.
Since those boyhood days, I have returned to Sapelo many times by boat, have admired it from the docks of close friends near Shellman Bluff, and even once landed on the DNR’s tiny landing strip near the middle of the island. The normal way to come, however, is to enjoy a leisurely trip on the “Sapelo Queen” across Doboy Sound to the southern tip of Sapelo Island, then travel by road towards the north. The ferry routinely leaves the mainland bound for the solitude and beauty of Sapelo Island. The half-hour boat ride takes one through picturesque tidal marshes that have inspired many poems like Sidney Lanier’s, “The Marshes of Glenn”. Out in Doboy Sound, the noise of seagulls and pelicans is constant, and if one looks beyond the stern of the boat, dolphins can usually be spotted splashing playfully in the churning wake.
This kaleidoscope of nature also captured the imagination of tobacco millionaire, R. J. Reynolds, more than a half-century ago. He was the last in a long list of wealthy men to own the island.
Reynolds also had a passionate interest in marine research and allowed faculty members from the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute to set up shop in a converted dairy barn on his South End estate in 1950. It was the first time anywhere in the world that research people were afforded the opportunity to concentrate solely on marshland ecology.
Scientists from around the globe have utilized the surrounding 16,000 acres of unspoiled marshland as their living laboratory. Their research has revealed that the protected nutrient-rich environment of the marsh, propelled by the ebb and flow of the tide, is crucial in the early stages of development in many species of fish and shellfish.
Most of Sapelo Island is now owned by the state of Georgia, but about one percent of the island still belongs to the residents of a small community on the south end called Hog Hammock. Descendants of slaves who worked the island’s plantations over two-hundred years ago still maintain a disappearing way of life in this tiny community. Time seems to stand still in Hog Hammock, which will revert back to the State of Georgia after the last descendant of the slaves dies or departs the island.
Sapelo Island is located one hour south of Savannah, about an hour north of Jacksonville, and can be reached by riding the ferry from the mainland dock at Meridian. This gorgeous barrier island offers visitors miles of natural unspoiled beaches, chances to see rare coastal birds, excellent fishing, hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, or canoeing. One might explore a historic shell ring that dates back to 2500 BC, stroll through the two-hundred year old ruins of the plantation known as Chocolate, or visit the former R.J. Reynolds estate, and the Hog Hammock Community, which is the last surviving slave community on Sapelo.
Sapelo Island is truly one of the remaining unspoiled spots in the “Peach State”, and days spent there are always memorable. For more information, call the Sapelo Island Visitors Center at (912) 437-3224.