Retreat! Skidaway Island GFree

DSC00599When I found out I needed pretty significant surgery, I did what anyone would do: I spent two hours researching the issue online, had a good cry, and then I retreated…to public land.

I’m a big fan of the national and state parks systems. Where else can you get breathtaking scenery, soul-soothing peace, and lots to do for so little money? In most cases, the lodging options are pretty snazzy.

Georgia gets many things wrong: the lengthening parade of public officials charged with and convicted of corruption (about a dozen this year alone), daily traffic jams and jammed up discussions about solutions, not to mention aging infrastructure badly needing repairs. It recently took nearly a week to restore water service to the fourth most populated metro Atlanta county after a worker mowed down a water hydrant. That’s not the performance of a top-tier municipality.

In contrast, Georgia’s state park system is a gem. The website, www.gastateparks.org, is user-friendly and fun. You canDSC00718 consider park options by geographic location, by amenities, by name, or by lodging availability. Each park profile includes all the information you’d want, from driving directions to historic stats, to park maps to lodging and activities options.

A few weeks ago, I clicked on the state map to investigate coastal park options. I wanted to be near the water but beach hotels aren’t cheap. Up popped Skidaway Island. One look and I was hooked.

Skidaway Island is fifteen miles south of Savannah, itself a great place to visit. Once actively harvested for wood pulp and tabby (a mix of oyster shells, sand, lime and salt water used in the Southeast as a building material), Skidaway now caters to middle class families and retirees with gated residential communities plus the 588-acre state park, Wormsloe State Historic Site (you’ll recognize its inconic long oak tree-lined driveway from the movie Forest Gump), and the University of Georgia Aquarium, part of UGA’s Marine Extension Service.

We stayed for five days and four nights in the park’s Camper Cabin A. Cabin B is fully DSC00681ADA accessible so we didn’t feel right reserving it and preventing someone who needed the access from, well, accessing it. Cabin C looked like Cabin A in the pictures and from the outside but it was a little further “down” the street than Cabin A so we grabbed A. The three camper cabins are across a paved drive from several pull through camp spots for large RVs. While you hear the motor traffic when sitting on the porch, you can’t hear it inside the cabin. The park also has plenty of campsites for those who prefer tent living or who have all kinds of RV configurations.

We called Cabin A “The Caboose” because of the little windows on top and the boxy shape. All three cabins boast screened-in porches (all the breeze and summer sounds without all the bugs), plus a fire pit, a barbecue grill, and a picnic table outside. They also have their own parking “driveway.”

Don’t let the plain exterior fool you. the interior is beautiful. The cabin sleeps up toDSC00564 five with a full bed in the bedroom (you can see it in the back of the picture) plus full and twin beds upstairs in the sleeping loft, which you can see through the railings in the picture at left. You access the loft via a steep, narrow staircase not for those with bad knees or vertigo. You have to bring your own bed linens and towels, which makes things feel more homey.

The kitchen is new and fun to use with a radiant heat cooktop and electric oven, microwave, and full size refrigerator. You have to bring your own pots and pans and plates and utensils, but that’s exactly why I love cabins. We could set up a GF kitchen without worrying about stealth gluten and then we could eat whatever and whenever we wanted. Forget the stress of finding restaurants with gluten free menu options and then getting glutened anyway. Forget arguing over where to go and how far to go and say hello to much, much cheaper food bills.

There’s a beautiful Publix just up the street from the park on the island. We knew it was there so we didn’t pack much food for the trip; we decided we’d buy once we got there. It was a good plan. Publix was well-stocked with all our favorite gluten free brands, plus loads of fresh fruits and veggies, seafood and meats. We went to the store every day just for DSC00720the novelty of it but you easily could get everything you want in one trip. The cabin kitchen has plenty of cabinet space plus a pantry and that full-sized refrigerator with top freezer with ice maker to hold it all.

When it rained we made “hash” on the stovetop with fresh shrimp, hash brown potatoes, squash, baby bella mushrooms, onions and peppers. Yum!

As we grilled fish burgers and squash on the outdoor grill by our picnic table one night, an osprey silently flew across the RVs, over our heads, and perched on a tree several yards away. Osprey are beautiful, big birds just under two feet tall with a wingspan of five to six feet. Watching the bird glide effortlessly between the moss-soaked live oaks made me feel small and clumsy, heavily human. Something about carrying on mundane human activities while God’s majestic creatures carry on theirs restores perspective: I’m not all that much in God’s great universe: time to humble down. If we’d gone to a restaurant, we would have missed the teachable moment.

Speaking of learning, Skidaway boasts four trails. The one-mile Sandpiper Nature Trail connects to the one-mile Avian Loop Trail and those connect to the three-mile Big Ferry Trail by another one-mile trail. If you hike the first part of Sandpiper and swing onto Avian Loop, you’ll bump into SkidaDSC00707way Narrows, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway. It rises and falls with the tide and high tide brings in the dolphins. We heard the dolphins before we saw them. That distinctive “phwwph” as the surfacing dolphin clears its blow-hole snapped my head toward the water and look! You can see the fin of one in the picture at left. We stood and watched them for about half an hour, delighted every time a finned back glinted in the sun. We thought there might be three during this outing given that two surfaced at the same time and a third surfaced just after they did. It’s hard to tell, though, because they are fast.

We also saw deer, great egrets, herons, lizards, squirrels with blond tails, and, of course, the ubiquitous fiddler crabs.

When I first saw a mass of crabs, I thought they were roaches and I wanted to scream. Their shells are the same color as the disgusting giant Palmetto bugs (read cockroaches) that we see this time of year in the South and their bodies about the same size. The crabs skitter sideways, as crabs do, to disappear into their holes as soon as someone approaches. The male has one huge claw and one regular size claw while the females have two regular size claws. The males wave those huge claws to communicate (hence the fiddler moniker) and boy, are they talkative. It’s a bit creepy to see the side of a creek bed filled with crabs yelling at each other. DSC00606

The landscape boggled my mind. Palmetto and pine woods give way to salt marshes which connect to grassy stretches which end where the woods begin again. My eyes feasted on the endless buffet of land, air, and water wows while my brain struggled to make sense of this scenery I’d never before seen. Some atavistic remembrance settled my spirit in a state of “yes.” Yes, this is where I am meant to be and yes, this is as it should be, even though the woods I’ve known before were stands of hardwood trees mixed with rhododendron shrubs rising from a tangle of poison ivy and pachysandra.

The three-mile Big Ferry Trail loop is open to bikers as well as hikers. Twice we rented cruiser bikes from the park office. At $10 for two hours, a bike is bargain fun at Skidaway. The trail featured flat, packed dirt as well as swells with tangled masses of tree roots. Hold onto your hat anDSC00602d butt because a few stretches with bumpy roots will bounce you hard. That was part of the fun. The trail also included a few wooden bridges over creeks plus the long wooden boardwalk out to the observation tower to make up for the root jolt.

From the tower you can see the waterway, the marshes, and the woods, all at once. It has a picnic table for those who want to feed the stomach while feeding the eyes. Our favorite spot, however, wasn’t the tower.

Our spot was just down the trail at the edge of the marsh. Riding counterclockwise, the tower and our favorite spot are about a third to a half a mile from the end of the trail, while clockwise they are that distance from the trail head. The proximity made it easy to run to every day–no bike necessary–so we did. It’s fascinating to watch the water flow and ebb in the marshes, to realize how far the ocean’s tide reaches beyondDSC00627 sandy swimming beaches.

We watched the great egrets swoop over the marshes and tidal pools, shopping for their own carry-out meals. We also saw smaller fiddler crabs skittering across the ground, their movements across dried palm fronds on the ground creating a snappy crunchy sound. More than once I thought someone was approaching behind us, only to turn and see a little scampering crab.

Twice we raced down the trail to watch the sun set. The first time we missed sunset by a few minutes because we took a wrong turn. The woods at sunset suddenly seem scary as the Spanish moss waves overhead and the unfamiliar shapes of the marshy trees hulk in newly lengthened shadows.

DSC00728We arrived well before sunset the second night; however, we didn’t watch the sun set as much as we watched a thunderstorm eclipse it. The storm clouds gathered, rose and fell, moved over the waterway and marshes toward us. The result was no less spectacular.

Evening storms are common in July, the way storms daily drench North Central Florida summer afternoons. We found the rain falling on the cabin’s roof to be a soothing lullaby sound. This particular storm waited until we had reached our car at the trail head before dumping its drops. Rather courteous, we thought.

The park also boasts geocaching, which I’ve yet to investigate, as well as ranger-led programs for kids some weekdays and on the weekends. We missed “coffee with the ranger,” which is on Saturday morning; however, we made up for the miss with visits to the office to ask questions about wildlife, trail features, why this, and how that. I kept expecting them to lock the door when they saw us coming.

Skidaway has summer day camp for kids the kids apparently love: we liked hearing the kids laughing DSC00676 as they played on one of three playgrounds at lunchtime, carefully watched by two park rangers. That playground, which is next to the Interpretive Center and the head of the Sandpiper trail looked like so much fun, we checked it out after dinner one night. There’s a funky hybrid of a balance beam and seesaw: people stand on it and depending on weights and placement, parts might rise or fall. Watching a dozen kids on it earlier in the afternoon made us jealous so we had to try it. It was way more fun than a thigh master or step aerobics class and worked the same muscle groups!

We loved our time on Skidaway Island and highly recommend it. If you’re wondering about their famous mosquitoes and noseeums, rest assured. We bought a bottle of Cutter Bug Repellent with only 11% DEET at the gift shop when we checked in and no bugs bothered us when we wore that stuff on DSC00578our skin. It had a nice clean scent that didn’t bother us and it washed right off in the shower.

Oh, speaking of showers, we took three a day because we got nice and dirty playing outside! The shower worked like a dream and being glass-enclosed I didn’t have to fight with an ugly shower curtain. The bathroom itself was spacious and squeaky clean. I never saw a single bug over the five days we lived there.

It was the perfect treatment for the pre-surgery anxiety and we never got glutened.

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