Navigating the salt marshes of St. Simons Island

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA. — “There’s one thing about the area I don’t like, ” said the bartender from Idaho. He was talking about his adjustment to life on the Georgia coast.

“What’s that?” I asked distractedly as I read over the dinner menu.

“The Martians.”

My head snapped up and I studied his face.

“The what?”

“The marshes.”

“Oh.”

My hearing difficulties aside, his comment struck an ironic chord. I’ve spent my life vacationing along the Southeastern coast and had never given much thought to those grassy wetlands we crossed over to get to the beach. That is, until a recent trip to St. Simons Island, when I officially fell in love with the mucky, verdant wonderland of salt marshes.

I know the moment it happened. I was walking around Fort Frederica, the remains of fortifications used by British Gen. James Oglethorpe and his men in the early 1700s to defend the newly founded colony of Georgia from foreign attacks. The fort backs up to a great expanse of marsh laced with the tributaries of Fancy Bluff Creek.

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On this day in early spring, it looked like a sea of tall, Kelly green grass. I’ve since learned the plant is called spartina, and it turns yellow in the fall, which is why Georgia’s southern Barrier Islands are called the Golden Isles.

The tide was high and the river was running at a fair clip, creating a trickling, rustling sound as it flooded the grasses beneath a cloudless blue sky. My heart was set aflutter. I was overcome with a desire to get in the marsh, to see it up close, to navigate the twisty creek, to smell the salt and mud. When I got back to my hotel that afternoon, I booked a guided kayak trip for the next morning.

I am not the first person to fall under the spell of the marshes of Glynn County. The ecosystem’s most celebrated fan is poet Sidney Lanier, a Confederate soldier from Macon and a significant writer of his time whose works were inspired by nature. His poem “Marshes of Glynn” is among his most notable works.

Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea? / Somehow my soul seems suddenly free / From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin, / By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.

According to the state Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia coastline boasts 380,000 acres of marshland. In the 1900s, that represented just 10 percent of the East Coast’s salt marshes; today it represents 35 percent, thanks to the state’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, established in 1970, which manages activities and restricts development in and around the area. It is a delicate ecosystem, but an essential one that serves as a vital breeding and feeding ground for birds, fish and shellfish, and it provides a buffer against offshore storms. In addition to all that, it is just plain beautiful.

Early the next morning, I met Matthew Morton, a guide for Southeast Adventure Outfitters, at Village Creek Landing. Being a novice, I was given a single kayak with a rudder to help keep me on track, and off we paddled through the sea of green.

It took me a few minutes to get the hang of my vessel, but before long I was paddling along, dodging the occasional oyster bed with relative ease. It was a weekday morning, so other boats were scarce, making it seem as though the marsh was all ours.

We crossed Village Creek and paddled into the creeks behind Sea Island, where we spotted brown pelicans, oystercatchers, cormorants and white ibis going about their avian duties. Every once in a while, a mullet leapt from the water and slapped its gills on the surface.

“Do they ever jump in the boat?” I asked.

“I’ve seen it happen, ” Morton said.

At one point, we wedged our boats against the shore and sat quietly, feeling the sun on our skin and listening to the birds chatter, the grasses rustle.

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“I do my best thinking out here, ” Morton said after some time had passed.

Just then, I detected an occasional popping sound.

“Oysters snapping shut, ” Morton explained, a result of the changing tides.

It was a revelation. Oysters make a sound. How could I have gone my whole life and not known this?

Back at the bar, once I understood what the bartender was talking about — that it was marshes he disliked, not Martians — I asked him why.

“They’re swampy and buggy, ” he explained with a shrug.

It’s true, they are. Bug spray is a necessity.

He seemed apologetic, acknowledging he held the minority opinion on the subject.

Too bad, I thought, as I sipped my glass of wine. You’ll never know the sound an oyster makes.

Story and Photos by Suzanne Van Atten

Published June 26, 2016, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This story is one of a nine-piece series, Discover Georgia’s Barrier Islands.

Click here for a PDF of this article.

 

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