White sand, blue ocean and two horses eating grass in the sand.

Wild horses on Cumberland near the surf.

Diversity of uncanny natural beauty combined with multi-generational histories is only a small part of any visit to Cumberland Island. This enchanted 20-mile strip of land off the Georgia coast seems to be suspended in time far from the madness of our modern world. With the exception of a single road and a barren beach that runs the length of the island on the Atlantic side, dense forests of ancient live oaks, palm trees, palmettos and pines merge with the ever present marsh on the west side of the island. Also immersed in this biologically diverse setting are rare and endangered wildlife, alligators, feral horses, nine-banded armadillos, wild hogs, raccoons, sea turtles, shore birds, manatees and numerous other creatures.

Throughout my life, my love for fishing and photography brought me to Cumberland Island on numerous occasions, but this trip would be very special. Though I had heard of Carol Ruckdeschel many times from her writings, conservation friends and things that have been written about her … I had never met her personally until now, and it will forever be an unforgettable memory for me.

Carol has an impressive reputation on Cumberland Island, but she first gained national attention when the New Yorker magazine did a feature which highlighted her diet of roadkill animals back in 1973 before she moved to Cumberland. She is a very intelligent naturalist, whose passion for the wilderness and the sea turtles that she so loves has often put her at odds with local landowners and various government agencies.

Carol Ruckdescheland petting dog, Yogi.

Carol Ruckdeschel and Yogi

Despite being a loner, who probably prefers the companionship of animals to that of humans, I found her to be very down to earth, and extremely friendly! Though she’s more than 80 years old, her radiant smile, her signature braided pigtails with streaks of gray among the brown strands of hair along with her slim body is really quite attractive for someone who has lived alone in the wilderness for more than 50 years!

In the few hours that I was in Carol’s presence, we spoke of many things, and I asked her numerous questions. I was especially interested in the multitude of natural things that she had consumed as food over the years, and her personal relationships with animals of different kinds. It was fascinating to hear her story of a great friendship she had with a female bobcat, her fellowship with the wild pig families and her true feelings about the wild horses. I could probably write a book about the things that I learned in just a few hours from this knowledgeable and experienced naturalist … but that would be too much for this article.

The Plum Orchard Mansion - white with large columns with large trees on either side and grassy yard in foreground.

Plum Orchard Carnegie Mansion

Cumberland Island’s first residents were the Timucuan Indians followed by the Spanish and English explorers in the 1500s. By late 1886, most of the island had been acquired by Lucy Coleman Carnegie, wife of Thomas Carnegie, co-founder of the iron and steel conglomerate Carnegie Brothers & Company. Lucy brought luxury to the island in the form of estates, family mansions like Greyfield, Plum Orchard and Dungeness.

Today, Cumberland Island is mostly protected land under the classification of National Seashore, with the exception of some remaining private land still owned by the Carnegies, Candlers (of Coca-Cola), and several other private owners.

Of the 15 barrier islands along the Atlantic coast of Georgia, Cumberland is the largest and is actually 1/3 larger than Manhattan Island in New York. There are no bridges that link the island to the mainland. Therefore, the only access to the public is by ferry boats from St. Marys, Ga.

Front view of two-story hotel, Riverview Hotel, St. Mary's.

Riverview Hotel in St. Marys

Visitation is strictly controlled by the National Park Service, and except for a few private dwellings, the only lodging on the island is at Greyfield, which is extremely expensive, so unless you have permits and plan to camp, the best place to stay … and always my choice in St. Marys is the Riverview Hotel, (www.riverviewhotelstmarys.com) which was built in 1916. This property has also been the favorite of many notable people. This old hotel is on the waterfront and has become the central gathering point for folks headed to Cumberland Island. It is across the street from the ferry docks to the island.

For those who love golf and have an extra day when you visit St. Marys, nothing could be better than spending a day on the submarine base. The Navy has a course there named Trident Lakes Golf Club, (912) 573-8475 which is picturesque and challenging to play.

A wide sidewalk entrance to Dungeness Ruins.

The entrance to Dungeness.

No picture or story could ever accurately capture Cumberland. One must become caught up in the natural rhythm and feel this special place. The desert-like sweep of sandy beach is dotted with shells, the slight movement of ghost crabs and free-roaming wild horses. Inland, the moss shrouded live oak and pine maritime forests provide ample habitat for a wide array of wildlife, including deer, feral hogs, bobcats and birds. It is easy to see why Carol Ruckdeschel fell in love with this place, and spent her life making it better!


Birds on the shoreline and in the air with waves coming ashore.

Birds along the beach

Photos: by Bill Vanderford