Warnings at High Falls State Park

Imagine the feeling o top of the world as you tower on a boulder above a rapid river. Suddenly, your foot slips, you plunge beneath the surface as intense water pressure and gravity forces you to the bottom of the mad river. The temperature of the water is the least of your worries. The half of breath left in your lungs is all the survival you have before fluid replaces the air and you drown. Perhaps your last thoughts are the four warning signs you passed to get to that boulder. Your last feeling is regret for not heeding those warnings.

According to the 11Alive.com investigation article at High Falls State Park, there have been fourteen reported injuries since 2013, three fatalities.

When I recently visited the park, bright red warning signs were outlining the rapid river bank. Honestly, how could anyone miss them? You can barely get a decent photo of the waterfall without one of the many signs in the way. An observant hiker takes note of information boards that are usually located at the beginning of a trail. As I read the board, I notice the same-o same-o about the history of the area, the map of the trail, what committee sponsors the trail, blah, blah, blah. Management of the park posted a warning post stating that anyone climbing on the rocks has to pay a $5,000 fine and do over 100 hours of community service. It probably results in janitorial duties. Yikes.

You see the first few warning signs when you descend the steps leading to the best view of the waterfall and rapid waves. After that, it is obvious what you should and shouldn’t do while hiking the trail. Park management went so far as to create a barrier using twine to rope off the bank’s edge. Honestly, I’m not sure what else could be done to clarify the danger of the raging river. I hope that visitors be responsible and heed to the warnings so the park won’t be forced to put up large fence walls.

It’s cold.

The Coming of Fall

Fall is coming and all I can think about are my past fall trips. Last year, my trip to Atlanta was the perfect start to fall. It was a big difference from the heat of Florida and enough humidity to make a dog actually sweat. Though Georgia’s winter wasn’t very kind to my ribcage arthritis, it is definitely not a place to forget.

Being a truck driver, I finally got to see what the coming of fall looked like. As I drove through Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennesse and Northern Georgia, I got to see the trees taking on the entire range of fall colors. The reds, oranges, browns, and yellows were amazing. It’s fascinating how nature follows this schedule as they prepare for winter. One could compare it to a peak season in a warehouse. (Yes I worked in a warehouse – Amazon). The entire atmosphere changes as the big event approach.

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While in Atlanta, I got to hike through a mountain that was preparing for fall. The trees were going bare, leaves blanketed the ground like snow and everywhere you looked were fifty shades of brown. I know it may sound like a dead zone, but it was anything but that. It was peace and serenity wrapped in a neat bow. You sit on one of the benches provided for you that overlooked the calm river and your head goes to a different place. You sit at in the center of a changing atmosphere, nature preparing for what’s to come ahead. Everything dying around you and yet more beautiful than you could ever imagine. 

 

It is unclear if Florida will even have a winter this year due to the bipolar weather, but the coming of fall is still much anticipated. Perhaps this year we will actually have a fall AND a winter. We’re never prepared for it like we’re never prepared for hurricanes, but for once, we’d like to experience what so many others around the country experience.

Sweet St. Mary

I don’t think I’ve given St. Mary Georgia the attention it deserved. I am so eager to get to Cumberland Island, I fail to see the small city for what it is. Granted, there isn’t really much to see unless you’re on the Atlantic coast. That seems to be the only place where you can get a slice of old world livelihood. The old style mansions with wrap-around porches and mom and pop shops. Anything beyond that and you run into Corporate America’s Popeye’s Chicken, Walmart, and Dollar General.

After a trip to Cumberland Island, I was in no real rush to go back to my home city Jacksonville, so I took a little tour of the front coast. I got to sit on outdoor swingsets that faced the marina. What a view. They had a lovely fountain at the center that people threw their lucky pennies into in hopes of making some form of a wish come true. A small white church further down the street had some famous burials in its backyard Cemetery. That creeped me out too much to go and check it out (sorry). There seemed to have been a bed and breakfast house on every corner. It must be a favorite thing in these cutesy small Georgia towns and cities. Lastly, was the marina itself which house a large ship with all the ropes and sails, and wooden planks just like from pirate films.

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I must say St. Mary may not have had much to show off, but it’s doing well enough to keep tourism high. (Despite being the port of entry for Cumberland Island). Hopefully, in the future, I will definitely give more time to St. Mary. If the citizens are willing to invest in its small economy, then so shall I.

Morning on Red Mountain

My trip to Atlanta about two months ago was all about adventure and wilderness. The very sight of the mountains makes me feel like I am soaring. Every day on my 4-day trip, I would wake up before dawn, gas up my car and fight Atlanta’s God awful morning traffic to get onto the roads I needed to reach the mountains in North Georgia.

 

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Day 3 Hiking

Usually, the night before I would research nearby State Parks with impressive views. I fell upon Red Mountain State Park one night. I glanced over the specs of the park, including things to do and see. After surveying the stunning photography, I was sold and couldn’t wait to put my Nikon to work.

The drive up wasn’t so bad (besides more traffic.) I knew I was getting close as the highway began to take a dip and the sides elevated upward. You literally had to lean forward against your windshield to see the top. I don’t have these kinds of wonders in flat-land Florida so you can imagine the look on my face seeing trees ascend upward toward the heavens.

Besides the GPS barking at me at where to go, I could tell I was close to Red Mountain by the constant winding road upward. About five miles before my actual destination, the scenic view of the Red Top Mountain Fishing Jetty forced me to pull over.

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I couldn’t have arrived at a more perfect time. The sun made its way above the mountain top and illuminated the entire Allatoona Creek and the Bethany Bridge. Sunrise is my favorite time of day because of the idea of a new day and new adventure. Sunrise in Red Mountain definitely provided me with the feel of a new adventure and the thrill of exploration.

After the view, I carried on into the mountain and discovered why it was called Red Mountain. Literally no matter where you looked, there were hues of reds and browns everywhere. The bark of the trees and the trillions of red fall leaves painted that entire mountain red. It was shocking and stunning at the same time.

I finally parked and was ready to get my hiking on. Unfortunately, nearly every hiking path was flooded from the previous month’s heavy rainfall. I was forced to leave and venture off to another State Park. At least the memory of the sun shining like pure gold over the mountain would forever remain with me.

 

Cumberland Island’s Hike to Paradise

My friend had just bought the newest Canon EOS Rebel camera on the market in hopes to vamp up a new interest in professional photography. She asked me to go to Cumberland Island with her so I could show her all the cool spots to take photos. Since I’ve already been to the island twice before, I’d say I was the perfect guide for her. We got up early and made it to the dock in time for the ferry ride. From the moment my friend and I stepped off the forty-five-minute ferry onto the uncivilized, wild shores of Cumberland Island, the clock was on, and paradise was only a two-hour hike away.

River Trail

After stepping off of the ferry, we immediately started on the River Trail, which leads all the way down the shore. The trail is narrow with large spider webs stretched from one ancient tree to the next. Different species of vines took over the show. They draped and wrapped around anything that grew out of the ground. If it weren’t for the cloudless sky and the sun beaming through the trees, the thickness of the vines would have made the trail look like nighttime. We didn’t run into any snakes, but it is warned to keep an eye out. Our eyes danced around in our heads until they started spinning on their own. Through the trees, we caught glimpses of the river we recently sailed on, but it always looked different from the trail. The waves appeared calmer, and we didn’t have the view of the destructive coastal erosion creating an eyesore. Near the end of the trail, we finally reached an overlook, and my friend was able to finally put her new camera to use.

Museum Pit Stop

The museum of the island’s artifacts and treasures was stored in an old resident’s home. Artifacts locked in glass cases lined the walls with factual posters next to them detailing the life on the island. Near one of the exit doors was a rather odd step that everyone tripped over. I tried to warn my friend beforehand, but it was too late. I tripped over that same step the first time I visited. In a sense, it was a right of passage for her. She was officially a native on the island. After a few photographs of the old trinkets, we filled our water bottles and moved on.

The Ranger Road

This is by far the loneliness, most uninteresting part of the hike. The road was nicely cut and paved with sand. It was the road all the Ranger and work trucks used to get around the island with ease. The road was about a half mile long with nothing but trees as a company. My friends and I used this time to talk about anything we could come up with like work gossip, home drama, or dreams we had the previous night.

Dungeness Ruins

The Ranger Road led us straight through the stone gates of the Dungeness Ruins. A massive mansion owned by the Carnegie family. Most of the mansion had been swept away, but the stronger parts of the home stood tall. My friend couldn’t get enough photos of the red and grey brick home. No one is actually allowed to explore the ruins in depth, but it is safe to say we got more than our fill from the outside. We studied the old courtyard and the vine-covered walls along the outside of the mansion. We stood in the grand back yard that overlooked the river. The grounds were decorated with wild horses. They went about their day as they walked in packs grazing and traveling. There was a large old stone fountain dead in the center of the yard. It wasn’t hard to believe that Carnegie’s really lived the good life on this island. In fact, my friend said, “It must have been nice to have the entire island to yourself.” Our minds raced with excitement and wonder. As we carried on our hike, we got to see the stables where they once kept the horses, their vegetable garden and the slave quarters.

Carnegie Grave

My friend considers herself a little dark and Goth-like, so it made sense why she considered Carnegie’s graveyard “peaceful.” I found it creepy thank to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The more we stood over the ancient graves, and their half washed away tombstones, the more I felt like a hand would burst up through the dirt. A white stone fence with an old black iron fence for the entrance surrounded the small grave. An adjacent grave connected the two. The second smaller grave had four small tombstones; we assumed they were the graves of children or a dog.

The Boardwalk

The boardwalk was always my favorite part of the hike. The scenery of tall grass with streams linked to the river snaking through. In the distance, you could see the pearl white sails of sailboats floating by. Heron would tiptoe through the shallow water for something to snack on. Hawks circle above waiting for anything interesting to happen. My friend and I took a five-minute break to rest our feet before the hardest part of the trail would come. We took in the vast swampy area with gratefulness. Though climate change is affecting our world as a whole, it was nice to see nature thriving for another day.

The Dunes

The dunes were so awful on my first trip; I never made it to the beach. They were the only way to the beach unless you were camping and had your own access. The dunes were like a desert. The sand was piping hot from the sun beating down on it since sunrise.  They weren’t like normal dunes we’d get at the beach. No, you would need actual hiking sticks to get over them. I had on hiking boots with deep tread, which helped to climb the awful hills, but my friend had on basic tennis shoes. I could see her struggle, but she was determined to make it to the end, so she pushed on. It was a relief once we finally got over them.

Pick Your Hike

After the dunes came a choice between two trails to take to get to paradise. One of the trails had more dunes sand and a hike through a trail lined with hollow bushes and cacti on either side, or a boardwalk that cut through more thick vegetation. After the hike over the dunes, the answer was clear. My friend and I took the boardwalk. There wasn’t much to see on the boardwalk beside a great amount of more vines, trees, and bees.

More Dunes

After the boardwalk, there was one final climb over more sand dunes. The ground was flat this time, so we didn’t mind the difficult stroll. We looked out in the distance, and it seems sand, cacti, and prickly trees went on for miles. The sky had very little clouds in it, so we had no shade to help us. My friend’s back began to turn red as a lobster. We trekked on for a few minutes more until the wind blew filling our noses with the smell of salt and ocean. One push over a small dune and there it was, Paradise.

Paradise

We finally made it, two hours later. Paradise. The Atlantic Ocean never looked more majestic. Seagulls hovered overhead squawking and communicating about the newcomers on the beach loaded with “dinner.” My friend and I tossed aside our hiking gear, hopped out of our shoes and ran straight for the water. The water was colder than Alaska, but when your feet are aching and burning from the hike, you could care less. We laughed at our desperation for relief. We looked both ways down the lonely beach. Only a handful of people and not the usual crowdedness we usually get at the beach back at home. It was Heaven, our Heaven. We ate lunch and made up life stories for everyone who walked passed us. As more people began to flood the beach, we decided to head back. We made it to Paradise at long last, and now it was time to return home with our aching feet, our photos, and our memories.

 

Grass and Sweet Sunshine

During another long hike on Cumberland Island, my friend and I finally made it to the grand yard of the Dungeness ruins. This area was were the horses preferred to feed on the grass. We tried to get closer and closer to take full advantage of our camera’s zooms. They paid us no mind but we could tell they stayed on their P’s and Q’s about our whereabouts.

The Rangers on the island warn us about the horses. They are untamed on the island for decades and won’t understand our compassion for their sweet souls. We are advised to stay far away and use our zoom feature to get the images we want. They go so far as to give us an example of a woman who decided to walk up on a horse. Of course, the horse was startled and kicked her. She ended up being air-lifted off the island. No one knows what happened to her, but it was enough to drop complete understanding to the rest of us. Granted, we’d test our luck but we don’t get too crazy.

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There’s something amazing about watching a horse that’s never known the life of stables,  horse shows and riding crops being smacked against their bottoms. They appear so carefree and at peace. They graze with their ponies and they could care less what the world is like off the island. They are born, they live and die on the island. It’s amazing. You look at them and you couldn’t even fathom the peace and freedom they have in their lives. There are no predators waiting to hunt them. From an adult’s perspective, there are no bills to pay. Ha. Ha. Lucky them.

The best part about watching them is you get your own sense of peace and freedom. The happiness you get when you see them live so free. You almost wish you could see every horse be that way. In fact, when I see those ridiculous horse carriage rides tourist love so much in the city, it pisses me off. After you’ve seen what freedom looks like for a horse, it’s hard to imagine them any other way, in the grass and sweet sunshine.

Sweetwater Creek, My Paradise

I finally made it back to Atlanta. O, how I miss this motherland. All I could think about were the mountains and the rushing rivers. I couldn’t wait to be a part of Georgia’s natural beauty. I prematurely researched the parks I planned to visit and studied the photos with anticipation. I just couldn’t wait to get there.

The best part about the hotel that I stay at is the fact that the gorgeous Sweetwater Creek State Park is literally around the corner. I figured for a $5 entrance fee, I’d treat it like I do the parks back home. If I want to just spend an afternoon sunbathing before a great lake, I’d just hop in the car and go around the corner. If I’m up for a little strenuous hike, I’d pay to get into the other part of the park and take a stroll through the hidden hills of Georgia.

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Growing up in Florida, I’m used to flatlands, bridges, and streams. When I visit Georgia and see a hill, I jump around like a dog who knows they are headed to the park. What is it about elevated landscapes that seem to have me on such a high? What is it about the sight of a mountain that makes me feel like I’m flying? What is it about rushing rivers that create a surge of energy in me?

Sweetwater Creek is my getaway; my paradise. As I continue to explore other parks and their wonders, I will always come back to Sweetwater Creek because it is a treasure like no other. Well, at least until I really get to traveling around and see the beauty of my planet.

Welcome to Dungeness Ruins

One of the highlights of Cumberland island, besides the amazing horses, are the Dungeness Ruins. You can approach the ruins from many trail paths but what fun would that be? I prefer going right through the front gate.

I try to use my imagination every time I visit. I pretend I am coming to visit the tenants of the mansion. I stroll up through the stone gates and browse around at the massive front yard. I’d imagine workers tending to the yard keeping the place looking posh and neatly. I imagine approaching the large building awaiting my invite to tea. I take a detour around the side and gaze through the iron gates, there is a courtyard decked out with a fountain and bold blooms overfilling every flowerpot. There are proper small children playing chase and tag, a governess nearby steady clapping her hands telling the children not to play so rough.

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I continue on the fence to the ever-expanding back yard. It is a dream how it stretches to the edge of the island with the Atlantic waiting just beyond the shore. The grass is healthy and bright green. Horses graze gracefully on the grass. Turkeys stroll in packs as they make for the cover of the distant forest. I stand there a moment taking in the ocean of green and nothing else feels better than this.

Suddenly, the the perfect home disappears. I am left with decaying bricks and a fallen home. The horses remain, the grass continues to sparkle, but the life is gone. The children’s voices fill my head, but they are gone until I see them again as I cross the yard to the family grave.

Over Foggy Waters to Cumberland

Though I love hiking over the many terrains that make up Cumberland Island, my favorite part will always be the forty-five-minute ferry ride to the island. I’m a sucker for large bodies of water. Since I don’t own a boat of my own, I have no way of spending all day on it. (We’ll ignore the fact that I can’t swim).

At the docking area where people wait to aboard, there is a small meeting the Park Ranger holds to go over the island’s rules and regulations. I practically know it by heart, but it’s always good to hear nonetheless. Most of it is common sense but you’d be surprised how many people break the rules once they are out of watchful eyes. I suppose that’s what nearly cost a woman her life after being kicked by one of the wild horses for getting too close to it despite the ranger’s warning. I can see Charles Darwin shrugging saying, “I told you so.”

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This time on my trip it was quite foggy but no one cared, we just wanted to get to the island. We boarded the boat, most went inside to sit in the warmth, I could care less for the cold, I sat outside with my Pokemon towel to keep me warm. This was my favorite part of the ride, I didn’t want to miss it being inside. I braved the winds whipping around both sides of the boat. The water sprayed up over the guard rails. My hair got tossed and my jacket was too thin to retain my body heat, but I did it.

The fog created a mysterious atmosphere over the water and the island itself. It’s funny how fog changes the mood and life of a location. I once came to Cumberland Island on a bright sunny day and everything seemed so exciting and adventurous. This time with the fog, the island appeared mysterious, scary even.

The fog hung around for a couple of hours more before the sun got hot enough to make it evaporate, then it was business as usual. The two-hour hike to the lonely beach was worth it, fog or no.

Wild on Cumberland Island

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Fishing boat docked during heavy fog advisory in St. Mary’s Georgia 

Visiting the ole undeveloped seashore again was a great Christmas present indeed. The first time I went, I was very new to the island, so I wore out quickly and panicked at getting lost. I was ready this time. I had the trail mapped in my head. I remembered the shortcuts I would use to save time to get to the areas I didn’t get to see the last time, including the beach. I packed my new hiking backpack (which was sooo very helpful), my Nikon and determination and we were Georgia bound.

The first time I visited the island, I was everywhere with my idea on what to take pictures of, but this time I already had categorized what I needed and wanted to take collect for my blog. I ended up with nearly 120 images. Of course, the hard work would come later when I have to dissect each photo to make sure it was perfect. My categories included the Dungeness ruins, the wild horses, and the beach. My destination was that beach. I wasn’t leaving until I saw that shoreline.

Due to the fog, the wild horses seem to have up and disappeared. I had already been walking for two hours through the wilderness, hiking trails and boardwalks and still haven’t seen a single horse. It’s not like they were kept in barns and released during certain times of the day. They were untamed, the Rangers supervising the island allowed these horses to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. It wasn’t until the sun had fully peaked out of the heavy fog when one or two finally walked across the Dungeness grounds.

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One of the oldest horses on the island. Untamed their entire lives.

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One of my favorite parts of the entire trail across the island was the boardwalk. The last time I visited, it was low tide, and I got to see a raccoon go down on the shore and steal whatever seafood he could get his hands on while he could. This time I got to see this metallic Blue Heron sitting on the boardwalk rail. I tried my best to be as quiet as I could to get close to him. Even though the zoom on my Nikon was fantastic, I suppose for the thrill, I just wanted to get close as I could to it. It didn’t work, of course, his eye remained glued to me from the moment I stepped onto the boards. I wasn’t within three feet before he took flight. I watched as he made a giant u-turn in the sky and landed back on the same rail but several more feet away. I tested my luck again. I took two steps before he just said screw it, and took off across the salt marsh.

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After coming off the boardwalk, I encountered the worst part of the island, miles of beach sand. To make matters worse, it wasn’t flat like the average beach shore; there were tall dunes everywhere. If you wanted to get anywhere other than back where you came from, you had to suck it up and climb the dunes. The only good that seems to come from thirty minutes of trudging through sand was the view at the top of one of the dunes. You could see for miles off the island itself. At least it put a smile on my face until something flew over my head with the wingspan that could stretch from one end of the island to the other. I suppose I wasn’t the only one admiring the view. Later I learned that these significant spies were Black and Turkey Vultures. I wasn’t big on bird-watching, but I must admit these birds carried a sort of dominance that would give you chills. Now and then they would take fly and circle around the sky at the same time keeping their eye on me. They had to be guarding something. I quickly decided to quit whining about the tough beach sand and get myself somewhere out of sight of their nesting home.

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After crawling across mountains of sand dunes, I finally came to a sign that said beach ahead. First I had to cross over a small boardwalk that loomed over algae-filled ponds. Once I got off the board, there was a single trail surrounded by leafless bushes that eventually led out to the beach. There’s something amazing about being the only person on the beach. For miles in both direction was nothing but sand, waves, seabirds and open air. I felt like I was the only person on the entire island and it was exhilarating.  The tide was low, so the seabirds were hard at work with feeding and bathing. I took off my hiking boots and dug my feet into the sand. I set up camp next to the group of seabirds. Very bad idea. The second I popped out a Lunchable to eat, every eye was on me. One brave bird landed two feet away from me, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. I quickly scarfed down my Lunchable, but that did no good. They were convinced I had more food somewhere and followed me down the beach.

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The last time I visited Cumberland Island, I saw two fawns that seem to have been abandoned by their mom. They remain hid in the large bamboo area out of site. They often came out together to play and eat but they never strayed far from the bamboo.

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Two fawns staying alert while remaining close to the bamboo, July 2017 

On my recent visit I wondered if the two I saw coming towards me were the same two I saw months ago. It would make sense, they don’t have many predators after them. The only threat are alligators. Visitors are not allowed to bring any hunting gear of any kind on the island.

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Two deer grazing, December 2017

Cumberland Island is still as wild and beautiful as I saw it the last time. There is much more island to explore. At first, I was nervous about the idea of camping on the island, but now it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I can only imagine what it would look like after the sun goes down and the sky fills with stars, and the only sound you hear is the crashing of waves against a shore that has been untouched by man.