|When my wife said she had to go to a seminar in Savannah, I jumped at the chance to go along and paddle Tybee Island. Just 20 miles to the east of Savannah, Tybee Island is the home of Sea Kayak Georgia, a kayak sales, training and tour operator with a strong presence on the web. They offer BCU and ACA training and run daily tours from their facility on the west end of Tybee. Also there is a kayak video out showing several kayakers surfing standing waves on the channels of Tybee Island. The action in those vids is fast and furious. I was looking forward to some good spring practice in real conditions after several pool sessions where I was tuning up my roll.
From Baltimore it is about 650 miles to Savannah or about 12 hours of driving. Switching off the driving we made it down in 16 hours with a four hour stop over at a rest area. There were no hotels available in the downtown area, a situation that occurs frequently on weekends in the very popular tourist center. However we booked an Econo lodge on the south side of town that was reasonably priced and convenient to the central district via the thruway on the east side of Savannah. From there we could easily get to the Marriott where the seminar was being held and I could get easy access to GA Route 80 to head out to Tybee Island.
After checking into the hotel, we drove up to the city, parked near the city market and did a walking tour of the famous squares and preserved architecture of Savannah. We started on River Street on the south bank of the Savannah River. The river itself was flowing east to the Atlantic at a strong 3 knots. Narrow but quite deep, Savannah is a busy port as it has been throughout its history. A tanker filled most of the river, partly obscuring the large Westin Hotel complex across the river in South Carolina. Tugs ready to help push their behemoth charges into the commercial wharves just upstream from the city sat tied up against the bright red brick of the quay. Behind them were the ersatz paddle boats that mock the real river workhorses of a bygone era.
As the sun got low, we headed back to the City Market where the carriage horses waited for their next tour around the squares. Candy stores and restaurants lined both sides of the pedestrian mall. After a brief browse through the shops, we returned to the hotel where I sorted my gear for the next day's paddle. A quick check of the weather channel showed clear skies warm temperatures and a 10 knot southerly wind, just perfect for paddling. But the really good thing was that low tide was a 7:00 AM so I would have all day to utilize the high tide to explore the marsh. With its 7 to 10 foot tidal range, that can be critical.
I asked about a chart that would have Little Tybee Island on it. I was directed to a large display of rolled charts. Before I could unroll one however, I was getting an earful of really useful information about the area and a spiel on all the great paddle opportunities pointed out on a custom sat photo of the island. Loaded with really useful information about the area I was soon following directions to the City parking lot to get a day parking pass. It seems that parking on the small island is something of an issue in high season and all parking is metered. The meters take quarters - 15 to 30 minutes per quarter - and the maximum stay at a meter is 6 hours. A $7.00 daily pass is a must if you are going out for all day.
After waiting for the parking lot attendant to get off the phone, I got my 2 day pass. I then headed to the fishing pier on back river, the channel that flows between Tybee and Little Tybee Islands. There I parked and carried out the 30 meters to the beach under the high pier. The handicap ramp was a little hard to negotiate solo. At the pier was a rest-room and a spigot for water. The steep beach makes for easy access at any stage of the tide, a serious consideration in these parts as the shallow sloping beaches on the ocean side can be several hundred yards wide at low tide.
After packing in the gear, I donned my wet suit. Although the water temperature was mid sixties, I wanted to be prepared for a lot of surf and spray. At Sea Kayak Georgia they had told me there was a new channel cut in the barrier dune of Little Tybee and that standing waves formed there. With temperatures in the eighties it would be warm in the air but being splashed a good portion of the day with sixty five degree water can get cold. I was wondering if I should be using my dry suit instead, but I pressed on.
The tidal current was flowing in from the inlet as it was about 2 hours past low tide. I headed south along the far shore. As I cranked up the turns on the paddle shaft, the heat of the wet suit started to be uncomfortable so I did a few high braces. As the cold water ran down the back of my wet suit, the heat problem was gone in an instant. Now the water, which did not seem that cold as I stood in it during the launch, took on a new dimension. Now I was glad to have the 3 mm neoprene to keep me warm.
As I reached the mouth of the inlet that paralleled the coast with breakers stretching far south of the pointed southern end of Tybee Island, I began to see several pods of bottle nose dolphin. Some were quite dark while others were a very light grey. A mother and her young calf came quite close and I was able to get a decent picture. Usually these mammals are too far away for any kind of workable photo.
I headed out the inlet and along the northern shore of Little Tybee Island. Someone had pitched a tent on the sandy beach right across from the end of the road on Tybee. I wondered what the rules on camping here where. I really hadn't considered staying out overnight here, but unless these people had some special rights, such as researches working with the sea turtles, it seems there may be a camping opportunity on Little Tybee.
Some small surf was rolling up on the shallows of the coast and I ran in and out on a couple of surf waves. But mostly they were so small it was hard to make much of them. I continued a mile or so down the coast to the newly formed inlet. (About 3 miles from the launch) There the surf was a little bit bigger and I made several runs in and out before continuing down the channel behind the barrier dune. I stopped at a beach for a rest from the strenuous paddling out to the surf line. I confined myself to the open part of the beach as a flock of sea birds occupied the upland portion of the beach. At this time of year, shore birds are in long migrations or preparing to nest and do not need the disturbance of even a lone kayaker.
The strong sun was heating me up once again so I did a couple of rolls to cool off. The difference between the cold dark murky water of the real ocean and the bright warm clear water of the pool that I had been practicing in for the last three weeks caused my style to be a little off on the first roll, but it was successful none the less. Go to the pool to work on technique, but don't assume you can roll until you try it out in the real world under real conditions.
I headed up into a creek in the marsh. With the excellent 11" x 17" satellite photo from Sea Kayak Georgia, I could see that this lead extended up about 5 miles of meanders through the tidal marsh. The map indicated that there were several high tide only exits from the top end of the creek which dwindled to a myriad of small channels in the middle of Little Tybee Island. It was now 1:30 PM and high tide had come and gone. The marsh was now beginning to drain. I did not have an unlimited amount of time for my passage. The water level was still high on the reeds growing on the tops of the mud plateaus, but soon the water would begin dropping rapidly, exposing the crab riddled banks and their oyster shell armor
Pushing off from the muddy shore, I returned to the ever narrowing leads through the grass. Now the route was getting very indistinct and even the detail of the satellite photo was difficult to interpret. I was searching for the lead marked on the map that would put me into another major creek that exited near Tybee Island and across from the launch pier. Apparently I went down one of the many leads that was too far to the south. I clearly was not headed where I had planned on going. The current, which had been flowing against me turned to flowing with me, carrying me down the passage that was too narrow to allow me to turn round. From the current I knew I had passed onto the other side of the crux point. I soon located on the map the lead I was following. It would lead me back out to the other side of the new inlet. Although not what I had planned on doing, it was a very acceptable way to return, so I kept on paddling down the widening creek. The current picked up as more and more leads joined the main stream. I was soon back to where I had sopped on the beach at noon time.
I reached the area where the map indicated a high tide passage. There was still plenty of water in the well defined channel. I stopped at a small island where there was a makeshift camp. With the warm sun and moderate wind, it was a pleasant place to stop. But I could imagine that later in the insect season, this place could be hell on earth. Around the island the flat marsh formed an Everglades style sea of grass.
With the current exiting the channel, the small swell coming off the ocean had piled up the waves a little higher and a little steeper, so I made a few more runs in and out of the surf line. It was a blast shooting down the slopes of the small waves, ruddering as hard as I could to keep the stern from turning out and broaching onto the wave. Some cross chop unexpectedly threw me onto the beach side of a wave and the kayak broached and over I went. I waited the 5 seconds for the next wave to hit the boat and die down and then rolled up. Several more runs in and out had my shoulder aching so it was time to head back. I stopped on the beach where a perfect sand dollar seemed to be blowing bubbles upon the light brown sand.
The paddle back up the shore included some more surfing as the waves drove north against the current coming out of Back River. A final surf down a small wave and I was at the pier once more. The kayak seemed much heavier as I hoisted it on my shoulder and walked the zig zag path of the handicap ramp. Putting the kayak onto the roof, i tied it down for the short ride back to Savannah.
That night we went into the River Street section and had a great meal at a sidewalk cafe. My grits and garlic shrimp, a combination that I would not have thought of, was really good. A drive through the squares at night brought out the eerie nature of the Spanish Moss under the soft glow of the electric lights masquerading as old time gas fixtures. Only the mid summer charm of fire flies would have made it any better. By 11:00 PM when we arrived back at the motel, I was tired. My head had barely hit the pillow before I was asleep.
The next day I tuned in to the weather channel on the motel TV. The prediction was for a strong line of thunderstorms to sweep through the area by late afternoon bringing winds to possibly as high as 70 miles an hour, hail and strong lightning. Clearly this day would have to be shortened. The wind in the morning was to be 15 to 20 knots. I decided to spend as much of the day as possible in the marsh. I got a move on.
Shooting up the Harry Truman Throughway and then down President Street, I was in the parking lot by 9:00 AM. True to the forecast, the wind was blowing strongly from the southwest. A large group of novice kayaks with a guide from Sea Kayak Georgia was just leaving from the boat ramp two blocks upriver of the pier. I loaded up and pushed into the strong current and winds headed up the river.
With wind and current both pushing me up the river, I flew along the first mile until the river looped nearly 180 degrees and now the strong winds opposed my progress. I was headed for another creek that came into the same area that I had visited the day before. I wanted another crack at the passage I had failed to find the day before. Unlike yesterday, the banks of mud and their oyster ramparts were exposed in the low tide of morning. I had launched just at low tide. Although the tide was rising, the shallow passage in the marsh might prove to be challenging.
I found a place to turn around after a 100 yards of back paddling. I retraced back to where I thought the proper path diverged from my present course, but it was still far from being navigable. There was no water flowing through it at all, meaning that up ahead there must be exposed mud. Nothing to do but wait. In 15 minutes another three inches of water had flowed into the lead I had earlier adventured into. The oysters that had ground into my hull were now safely covered. I paddled on through the high grass until the current once again reversed indicating that I was through to the other side. Soon I came to a much larger lead. I made a guess which way to turn based on where I thought I was. This soon proved incorrect as the lead narrowed and bifurcated several times. The current was rushing along under me and I knew at that point I was going in the wrong direction. I reversed course and paddled past my original point of entry. Pulling over to the bank, I used the shape of the larger lead to locate myself on the map. Once again I had failed to negotiate the desired route through the marsh, winding up too far to the left and further north than i had planned. I was in another lead than that which I had intended.
Unlike the day before, I was way down in the grasses as I wound my way down the channels. I connected with the same channel I had paddled the day before, passing the island without stopping. Once again at the place where I had gone astray, I carefully made my way into the tall grasses. I found my way blocked by low water in the direction that I thought I should be going, so I kept following the deeper channel with water moving up into the marsh. My fiberglass kayak ground on a column of razor sharp oysters under the water. In a pique, I reached over and plucked them from the bottom. Clearly I was going no farther in this direction for the moment.
I followed the creek back out into the river from whence I had started and paddled back down the river against the current. Now on certain turns in the river, both wind and current were against me. The 20 knot winds made progress slow. I had to be mindful of the time as I did not want to be out on the water by the time the squall line approached. As yet there was no sign of its approached in the consistent light grey skies.
I found another small lead in the side of the river that looked like it might provide access to the creek I had intended to paddle. With the water nearing full high tide there was a chance that I could follow the very faint indications of passage in the sat photo. I paddled into ever narrowing marsh channels until the grasses were touching both side of my kayak. Just as I thought that I was done, the lead began to widen. I was through to the other side, free to follow the photo map back to my launch site. Arriving at 2:00 PM I had the boat on the car by 2:30 PM.
I drove to the north side of Tybee Island to see the 146 ft lighthouse there. The original lighthouse was constructed in 1736. This one, the third constructed here is built on top of the original foundation. At 3:00 PM I headed back to the mainland. Crossing the marsh I ran into the squall line, dark and ominous with a strong gust of wind and lightning. Not as bad as predicted, but I was glad to be ashore with the kayak safely tied to the roof. Back at the motel, I ate the oysters that had dared to scar my kayak. Revenge IS best served cold.
That night we headed back to the City Market for dinner. I had a lovely sweet and hot marinade on two large, thick and well prepared pork chops served with Savannah Rice, a sweet Spanish style rice, and collard greens. It was delicious. Afterwards we rode the horse drawn carriage through the darkened squares while the guide told stories of Savannah's ghosts.
Before heading back the next day, we drove back out toward Tybee Island to visit Fort Pulaski. This Civil War era fort was part of the coastal fortifications built to protect America after the War of 1812 exposed our vulnerability to seafaring powers. Comprised of 25 million bricks, some made in Baltimore, the massive fort was one of the biggest masonry forts ever constructed. However it was seized before the start of the Civil War from a small construction detail working on the fort.
For eighteen months the Confederacy prepared Fort Pulaski to defend Savannah. However, when Federal troops arrived on Tybee Island from the blockading ships, they set up batteries on Tybee Island that included a new technological breakthrough in artillery, the rifled cannon. With a range of one to two miles, the half mile range of the fort's smooth bore cannon were no match. The southeast wall (mostly rebuilt) was soon breached and the magazine containing 40000 pounds of powder exposed to Union cannon fire. Instead of allowing his garrison to be destroyed, the commander surrendered the fort. The fort, although technologically obsolete, kept shipping from entering or exiting the Savannah River, denying the important port to the Confederacy. The Union blockade ships were then freed to be utilized elsewhere.
We spent about three hours touring the large fort and grounds. Several small alligators inhabited the moat and surrounding the entire fort. Herons stalked the edge of the moat spearing the unwary fish with their long beaks. At 2:00 PM we headed back up I-95 arriving home eleven hours later at 1:00 AM in the morning. It was a great four day weekend of kayaking, sight seeing and gastronomic delights. I hope to go back soon.