Castaway for the Day

Savannah’s marshy surroundings hide secrets for naturalists and water lovers to discover
lifestyle, travel, outdoors, nature
Written By Adam Van Brimmer

Visitors often liken Savannah, Georgia, to a time capsule. The beguiling historic district is a mix of brick and cobblestone streets, monument-laden squares, antebellum architecture and sprawling, gnarled trees that attest to the fact that mankind just doesn’t build cities like it used to.

Gulfstream’s hometown dates back only to 1733, however. For a deeper look into the past, shun the horse-drawn carriage and come aboard a boat instead. Many of the islands Savannah’s founder, Gen. James Oglethorpe, bypassed en route to the site of his colony-on-the-bluff remain as unspoiled today as the day the first Europeans arrived in the New World.

All one needs to explore these natural wonders is a boat, bottled water and buckets of bug spray.

Bring the rod and reel, too.

The Georgia coast is tidal marshland broken up by barrier islands, hammocks, sandbars and waterways. Of the 15 barrier islands, only four are linked to the mainland by road, and only one of those, Tybee Island, lies near Savannah. Tybee’s neighboring isles, such as Little Tybee, Williamson, Wassaw, Ossabaw and St. Catherines islands, stand as quiet, almost forgotten sentries along the Atlantic coast.

“This is what I think of when I hear the name Savannah,” says Captain Brian Woelber as he steers his shallow-draft bay boat through a narrow cut on the inland side of Wassaw Island. “Downtown, the squares, those are nice. But the water is the best part of Savannah.”

Woelber spends 300 days a year prowling this soggy backcountry as the operator of One More Cast Charters. He enjoys several dozen more exploring the natural beauty of the coast with family and friends. From the “boneyard” beaches—those littered with driftwood trees—to maritime forests and seemingly limitless fishing holes, Savannah’s primitive far reaches are recreational treasures.

Islands of Discovery

The predawn cruise to Wassaw Island is mesmerizing. The boat glides past the inhabited inland islands of Wilmington and Skidaway, and as the last of the docks and boathouses slip off the stern, the aura immediately changes.

The eastern sky turns pink, the color broken by scattered clouds stretching to the horizon. The flat waters of the sound shimmer in daybreak’s light. Only the steady pulsing of the outboard motor breaks the silence.

Pleasant weekends bring heavier aquatic traffic to the tidal waterways, but on many mornings, scatterings of boaters have these locales to themselves. The Savannah area’s deserted islands are a mix of public and private-owned land, although all the beaches are public, with private property rights beginning at the high-tide mark.

All one needs to explore these natural wonders is a boat, bottled water and buckets of bug spray.

Wassaw Island is a national wildlife refuge while Little Tybee and Williamson Island, located across Wassaw Sound, are state nature preserves, making all three open to incursions for the curious. The beaches are littered not with towels and sun umbrellas but driftwood and sand dollars, and more than 200 species of birds fly, wade and forage on the islands.

Wassaw is thought to be the best representation of the Georgia barrier islands as they appeared upon the arrival of the first Europeans. Unlike its neighbors, Wassaw was never cleared by timbering or for cotton growing or cattle raising. The only signs of human contact are a fish and game check-in station, a series of dirt roads built in 1866—which aid today’s inland explorers and ornithologists—and Battery Morgan, a small fort built on the beach in advance of the Spanish-American War that today resembles a giant, symmetrically shaped boulder.

Little Tybee and Williamson Island, meanwhile, lack the high ground of Wassaw, and their proximity to the tourist hotspot of Tybee Island make them a popular day trip or weekend destination. Kayakers launch from Tybee Island’s south-end beaches for the short paddle to Little Tybee and the state allows overnight camping on the island’s beaches.

The two other large barrier islands near Savannah, Ossabaw and St. Catherines, are owned by private foundations and not open to unannounced visitors. Ossabaw hosts a handful of public events each year and is dotted with structures, including tabby cabins that housed slaves during the plantation days. Ossabaw’s last permanent resident, Eleanor Torrey West, whose mother was an heir to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass fortune, left the island in 2016.

St. Catherines, meanwhile, is reserved for research. Archaeologists from the American Museum of Natural History, scientists and students studying sea turtles for Georgia Southern University, ecology students from Sewanee University, and specialists with the Wildlife Conservation Society—there to study troops of African ring-tailed lemurs introduced to the island in 1984—frequent the island.

Trip on the Wild Side

Royce Hayes’ college degree is in forestry, but he insists he majored in St. Catherines Island. He first worked there in the summer of 1971, when the U.S. government turned down his application for a smokejumper’s position because of a glut of candidates from the University of Utah, located much closer to wildfire country than Georgia.

He spent two more summers on St. Catherines while completing his education then moved permanently to the island in 1974. He’s never left.

Today, he can track the island’s wildlife, from gopher tortoises and those ring-tailed lemurs to wild boar and loggerhead turtles, and pinpoint the best creeks for fly-fishing, depending on the tide and wind direction. The natural state of St. Catherines and Georgia’s uninhabited barrier islands is what makes them special, he says.

“Tybee, Jekyll Island, St. Simons—you know, the ones with bridges—are all beautiful,” Hayes says, “but beautiful in ways much different than the others.”

The same goes for the waterways. Navigable creeks come and go with the tide, and the small sea creatures native to rich estuaries—shrimp, oysters, clams—mean fish congregate along marshy shores.

Back aboard Woelber’s boat, the captain instructs his passengers to watch for eagles in the air and porpoises in the water while he scans the surface for redfish tailing through the shallows. Easily identifiable by their spotted skin, redfish are the inshore trophies and, along with sea trout, are eager to chase hooks baited with live shrimp.

“You swim a little, you beachcomb a little—that’s a pretty good day,” Woelber says. “Those who don’t experience this side of Savannah are really missing out.”

The Sands of Time

Image By NPS Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Loggerhead sea turtles nest on the warm sands.

Georgia barrier island beaches are popular sea turtle nesting sites

Georgia’s 71 miles of undeveloped shoreline are the birthplaces of thousands of loggerhead sea turtles, a number that has multiplied significantly since state-authorized programs to protect nests began in 1989.

One state-run university, Georgia Southern, spearheads efforts on St. Catherines Island near Savannah. The program has protected over 3,000 nests and put more than 185,000 hatchlings into the ocean over the past 27 years. Many of the turtles now nesting on the island were born there—loggerheads reach sexual maturity after 25 years and typically return to their place of birth to lay eggs.

The season lasts from late May until late October. Those eggs found in areas threatened by tide or prey are relocated, greatly improving newborn turtles’ chances of survival, says R. Kelly Vance, who co-directs the program along with its founder, Gale Bishop.

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