Cumberland Island Alternative Spring Break

After an extremely successful first year leading the Cumberland Island Alternative Spring Break program, the Georgia Conservancy returned to Cumberland in 2015 to support dozens of collegiate, high school and scout volunteers for three months of service in its wilderness backcounty and on its deserted beaches.

This year, the Georgia Conservancy's team leader was intern Claire Northcutt. Claire, a vital volunteer leader during our 2015 Cumberland Island Service Weekend in January, is a 2013 UGA graduate and a trained geologist based out of Jacksonville, Florida. Her role on Cumberland Island this winter and spring was to coordinate and lead service projects throughout the island - maintaining and clearing trails and repairing National Park Service facilities - allowing NPS to provide a safe environment for visitors throughout the year.

Cumberland Island (CUIS) National Seashore, a unit of the National Park system, is a barrier island accessible only by passenger ferry service and has the annual visitation to the island of approximately 45,000. Visitors enjoy undeveloped beaches, ranger programs and over 50 miles of hiking trails. In addition to daily visitors, CUIS is also a popular destination for service groups, including Boy and Girl Scouts, church groups and college groups during spring break season.

The Cumberland Island spring break volunteer program has existed for a number of years, but due to budget constraints, the 2014 season was in jeopardy. In stepped the Georgia Conservancy. In 2014, Georgia Conservancy stewardship trips veteran Julia Moore led more than 250 volunteers - continuing the Conservancy's storied history of stewardship and conservation on the island.

Read about the Georgia Conservancy's 2014 Cumberland Island Spring Break Program.


Winding Down on Cumberland Island

My last few days on Cumberland have been busy and beautiful. We finished up the last little leg of Killman Field trail and began working on some chores down on the South end of the island. There were a few trees that were down and needed to be moved as well as some clearing of old fencing.  For the last few days of my last week, we put in some long hours of labor! It was quite a lot of fun, though, and we were able to take a few breaks and hunt for shark’s teeth. Work isn’t really work when you enjoy what you’re doing and have awesome people to share the time with!

Over the course of my time on Cumberland I met so many wonderful people and was able to see and experience numerous things. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am so grateful to have gotten to spend the last few months here! All of the volunteers that I worked with were simply outstanding. We cleared so many miles of trails, and had tons of fun doing it! And when there weren’t volunteer groups on the island, I was still able to put my time into clearing the trails with the Park Service team. With the work of our volunteers and the trail maintenance crew, we cleared over 16 miles of densely overgrown foliage on Cumberland. I’m very happy with the work that we all put in, and the trails look happy too! I’m sad to go, but I know that I’ll be back to this beautiful island. Until next time, Cumberland!

Week 8

Finishing Lost Trail and Hosting a Final Group

For the last few days, I have been finishing work on Lost Trail with the Park Service trail crew. We have been working tirelessly to clear this trail! It is so beautiful, though. Definitely one of my favorite trails! (Second only to Willow Pond trail). There is such a variable terrain and varied amount and type of plants on the trail. From the main road, there is a flat pine and live oak forest, followed by some areas of open meadow-like areas with a few scattered oaks, vines and flowers. Then there is an extensive area of saw palmettos and live oaks that parallel the Sweetwater Lake complex. This area is up and down in elevation as it follows the relict dune structures on the edge of the beach. The dark water of the ponds provides plenty of areas for adorable frogs, dragonflies and snakes, as well as some sweet little aquatic plants. Each day that we’ve worked out on the trail we have been able to listen to the symphony of wild hogs in the lakes snorting at one another. They sure do sound funny talking back and forth through the tall and camouflaging grasses. I love walking that trail and admiring the constantly changing nature.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting a group from Savannah Presbytery. They were my last group, but they were so much fun! We only had a short time together, but everyone enjoyed every minute! They arrived on Saturday morning, and we deposited their gear at the dorms and set off for the trails. There were thunderstorms threatening the skies overhead, but the group was ready for an adventure in any weather. Half of the group worked on Pratts Trail and the other half worked on a section of Parallel Trail. Both groups worked hard and the trails really reflect it! On Sunday morning, we met up at the dorms and walked over to Nightingale Trail to get a little morning workout in. We cleared the entire trail and got to see some neat green tree frogs and a beautiful King Snake. We followed the Main Road back to the Dorms and searched for shark teeth along the way. It was such a great experience to work with such a varied group and see everyone having an awesome time, despite the weather and hard work! I’ll miss having groups to enjoy these trails with, but I will cherish these memories of meeting and getting to work with such awesome people!


Week 7

Not Getting Lost on Lost Trail

With each passing day on Cumberland there’s always new and exciting adventures. I have had the privilege of getting to help the Park Service out with all kinds of projects - from trail clearing to visitor surveys and cleaning the foliage from the main road. For a few days this past week, I was able to talk with visitors about their experiences on Cumberland and the best things that the island has to offer. While distributing visitor surveys at Sea Camp and Dungeness, I met all kinds of people and had some extra time to explore the South end of the island. Another volunteer and I went down to the St. Marys River shoreline at Raccoon Key and were able to look for shark teeth on our lunch break. It was quite exiting to find some beautiful teeth that had washed up from the dredging of the river.

Cumberland has also been graced with the presence of an All-Star Georgia Conservancy trail clearing crew. This group was made up of long-time Georgia Conservancy Stewardship Trips particpants who have all logged many hours on Cumberland Island as part of the Conservancy's annual MLK Weekend service trip. The group spent their time camping at Hunt Camp, and we worked on Lost Trail down Duck House. The trail isn’t called Lost for nothing! Before working on clearing the dense foliage, it was hard to tell that there was a trail there at all! After a few hard working days with the GC group, the trail was looking glorious and wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side! In the time when the trail work wasn’t calling, the All-stars spent some time at the beach, fishing from the dock, and exploring all around Plum Orchard. Their trip was a successful and adventurous one!

Weeks 5 and 6

North and South (UNH and GA Tech)

My second month on Cumberland has been blowing by! They say time flies when you’re having fun, so clearly this is like super spring break for me! The spring break groups volunteering this go-around featured students from Georgia Tech and the University of New Hampshire. Both groups arrived and got straight to work the next day. I traipsed the trails with UNH and Jim manned the Tech group. By lunchtime on the first workday, everyone was well acquainted and we were having an awesome time! The students were lively, loving the volunteer work  and always asking lots of questions about the island history and wildlife.

Throughout the course of the week, the UNH trail crew completely cleared Ray Field Trail and finished up the last of King’s Bottom and Ashley Pond. In addition, they dismantled an old hog trap and hauled all the pieces off of the trail. The Georgia Tech trailblazers worked on Tar Kiln and Lost trails, and both of the trails look awesome! Both groups had an incredible work ethic and got so much work done - all while having fun.

After the daily volunteer work time was completed, all of the students engaged in different activities. A tour of Plum Orchard, hiking on alligator-ridden trails, fishing in the Cumberland River, and walking and shell hunting on the beach were just a few of the daily activities. There was also a great group campfire each night. One of the students initiated a daily ritual of going around the campfire and telling the group what your “high” and “low” of the day were. It was nice to hear what made people really happy during the day and what was a struggle. Most of the students had few low moments, and usually had multiple awesome things to note for their “high” during the day. Often times, we all shared similar “highs,” usually with it involving a bonding moment or something really cool and unique in nature.

Overall, the groups had so much fun, and I had a blast leading them and getting to know everyone. I look forward to the future UNH and Georgia Tech groups doing awesome work on Cumberland Island!


Weeks 3 & 4

Blazing Trails with Spring Break Volunteer

What a whirlwind couple of weeks! Time is just flying by with all the great service volunteers and clipping and snipping we’ve been doing! This week I was graced with the presence of a group of Spelman and Morehouse students, as well as a group from the University of Central Florida. Both groups were really excited to be here, and I couldn’t thank them enough for donating their Spring Break time to making the Cumberland Island trails better for everyone. The groups arrived on Sunday, and our boat ride to the island was quite exciting! We saw numerous dolphins and some students spotted some neat shore birds and a few horses grazing in the marsh. Once the work commenced, there were horses, armadillo, wild hogs, and a few alligators bringing excitement to the trail. When the groups had some time off from working, they got to see the Plum Orchard mansion and grounds, the Settlement, Dungeness, and the beach, of course! I was so pleased to have such enthusiastic volunteers and dedicated workers who were excited just to be on the trails and see more of the island. Over the course of the week, the groups cleared all of Willow Pond Trail, Kings Bottom, and Ashley Pond. Trail clearing is hard but rewarding work, and I believe they felt very accomplished and proud of their work on Cumberland Island. I can’t wait to see what the volunteer groups can accomplish in the next few weeks!

Week 2

Clearing Trails and Looking for Gators

My second week on Cumberland Island has been filled with lots of trail work! Jim and I have been steadily improving the condition of some of the most overgrown trails on the island. In my first week, we powered through the North end of Bunkley Trail, and this week we worked further on Bunkley and through Brick Hill trail. The terrain is fairly smooth and constant on these trails; wide open sky and a few swampy areas accompany the views. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of trails to spend so much time on! Our progress has been documented with a few before-and-after photos, and I must say there is such a strong sense of triumph as we move down a trail and are able to look back and see how far we’ve come!

With warmer weather moving in, being outside all day has been awesome. Warm, sunny days mean more wildlife will be venturing out! We have seen a few male turkeys with their impressive mating plumage, and we can’t help but notice the little armadillos that scout the trail ahead of us foraging for food. Even a few horses gathered on the trail today just to see what we were up to. They didn’t offer to help us out with the trail work, but their moral support and curiosity was much appreciated. I’ve been keeping an eye (or two!) out for snakes and alligators, as well. No sign of any reptiles yet, but I’ll keep you posted!

Our first Spring Break Volunteer Groups will be arriving this coming weekend. I am so excited to meet all the new people, and see what great efforts we can put towards making these trails even more beautiful!

North End swamps:

Pelican on watch:

Brick Hill Trail (before and after):


Week 1

One Week Under the Island Belt

In my first week on Cumberland, I have come to realize how easy it is to describe the island in one simple word: magical. My camera is literally filled with innumerable photos of the sunrises and sunsets that I have had the pleasure of witnessing, as well as the beautiful live oaks and palmettos that enclose the trails. Each day is beautiful and different and new. And it has only been a week! Even working the overgrown trails this week has been awesome…blisters, slight sunburn, and thorny Similax vines included!

Island beauty aside, this introductory week also included some serious business and preparing for the volunteer guests of honor to come and stay. I certainly feel special getting to serve with the Conservancy and being welcomed into the National Park Service family. My supervisor, Pauline, was very welcoming and helpful when I arrived and had dozens of questions for her. We had a day to travel around the South end of the island and allow me time to get my bearings on locations of tools and supplies and practice using the mystical powers of the master keys. The rest of my first week included exploring and grooming the densely vegetated trails on the Northern section of the island. I followed Jim around as he showed me the trails of interest for our volunteer spring breakers this year. We focused our efforts this week on Bunkely Trail beginning at North Cut Road (which was clearly named after me!) and working southward toward Brickhill trail. Being that this area is in the Wilderness, we relied on machetes, bush axes, and loppers for our trail coverage demolition. Although the effort put in to clearing these trails with thick vegetation is hard work, it is truly remarkable how much every plant thrives on this island! The trails must be maintained frequently or else the trees, palmetto, and vines grow too fast for their own good! I snapped a few before-and-after shots of our work on Bunkley, and the results of our work were pretty impressive, if I do say so myself.

Today also brought with it new and exciting experiences; I assisted Doug, the island wildlife biologist, and some visiting birders with the annual winter bird count. My birding partner, Theresa and I were assigned to the 6-mile stretch of beach between Sea Camp and Duck House trail. Our day was filled with counting awesome shore birds on the beach, including hundreds of Dunlin and even a few Avocet. Overall, it was a fascinating experience! And thanks to Theresa, I am now a pro birder who can identify and count flocks of birds with ease! 

As the start of my second week on Cumberland presents itself, I am more and more excited to see what new adventures await me. I still feel as though I am being spoiled! It’s definitely the experience of a lifetime!

Bunkley Trail Before and After:

Sunset on Cumberland: 

Spotting Birds: