Brown Sand, Brown Water

If your idea of a dream beach vacation involves sugar-white sand and clear blue water and long shore walks whenever the mood strikes, don’t go to St. Simons Island.

The island sits due east of Brunswick, Georgia, a shipping port where giant tankers, most of them loaded with new cars, arrive and depart several times a day. It’s a place rich in history. Indians made their home here for thousands of years. James Oglethorpe arrived in 1736 and built Fort St. Simons and Fort Frederica—now a national historic park—in hopes of driving the Spanish out for good. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles, prayed and preached here before returning to England to become Methodists. In ante-bellum times, cotton plantations flourished. Confederate soldiers burned the first St. Simons lighthouse so that Union troops couldn’t use it. The new lighthouse, built in 1872, still broadcasts its beam onto the channel every night.

The island is filled with live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, numerous parks and playgrounds, a public pier crowded with crabbers and fishermen, several golf courses, wonderful paved bike paths and lots of shops and restaurants.

But the beach experience itself can be an unpleasant surprise for those who come to St. Simons Island not knowing what to expect. This is not Panama City. Except for when it’s storming, the waves here are so small as to be laughable.  Shell-seekers are almost always disappointed.  The vast majority of the island’s coastline is salt marsh—the famed “Marshes of Glynn”–not sand.  And most of the scant three miles of usable beach completely disappears during high tide.

And I wasn’t kidding when I said the ocean is brown. Tankers and shrimp boats and a twice-daily casino boat keep the water pretty well churned up. Walk ankle-deep in the ocean and you can’t see your feet. Flotsam and jetsam abound, as does seaweed.

So a certain amount of bravery, or perhaps foolishness, is required of anyone who actually gets in the water. Me, for instance. I’ve just returned from an extended work-play trip to St. Simons Island, where one of my goals (in
addition to finishing the novel I’m writing) was to get in the ocean–over my
head–every day. Except for a couple of days when it rained during low tide, I
succeeded.  It got less nerve-wracking every time, but I never completely relaxed. Because the list of creatures I encountered, some of them a little too close for comfort, includes:

  • Dolphins
  • Jellyfish
  • Stingrays
  • Gulls, egrets and pelicans
  • Jumping fish
  • Blackbirds
  • Palmetto bugs
  • A blind raccoon named Piper. Seriously.
  • Blue crabs, sand crabs, hermit crabs
  • Shrimp, most too shrimpy to eat
  • A body-less sea turtle head
  • Bonnethead sharks

And I saw two other things that were so noteworthy that they deserve a column of their own. Especially since I’m out of room in this one. Stay tuned.

(October 6, 2013)







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