“Are you sure about this?” my nine-year-old niece, Molly, asked as I held the kayak steady while she climbed in.
“You’re gonna love it. I promise!”
My husband, Archie, and I were treating Molly and her 12-year-old brother, Duncan, to a weekend of fun in Kingsland, Georgia, where we live. Spring is the perfect time to visit thanks to gorgeous weather for outdoor adventure and great local events, including the Run About in the Royal District historic car show, annual crawfish festival in nearby Woodbine, and Railwatch Day in Folkston, just west of Kingsland.
A natural wonder
Our first stop was Okefenokee Swamp. Duncan was wild about the idea, but Molly was concerned when she heard there were alligators lurking about.
“The gators won’t bother you,” Archie assured her. “They keep to themselves.”
“Yeah,” Duncan piped in as he slid into his spot in the kayak with Archie. “It’s the swamp monster you have to watch out for,” he teased with a laugh.
“He’s kidding,” I whispered. “There’s no such thing as a swamp monster.”
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. With more than 400,000 acres of wetlands to explore, we were all set for a full morning on the water. The oar made a soft splash as I pushed away from the shore and gave Molly a short paddling lesson. She caught on fairly quickly, and I watched her confidence grow as we set off down the first canal.
“Over there,” Archie whispered after several minutes, pointing toward the bank where a large alligator was lazily sunning itself on a log. Molly turned slowly to admire the creature. Glancing back at me, she gave a nervous giggle and started paddling again.
We paddled on through a narrow corridor of cypress trees draped in lacy shawls of Spanish moss, spotting a few more alligators as well as egrets, herons, and even a large owl. I’ve never considered myself a bird watcher, but I was in awe at the graceful ease in which the birds soared over the water.
We pulled off the main canal into one of the prairies and wound our way through lily pads and reeds before coming to rest at a small island. We took in our oars and relaxed, just enjoying the sound of the gentle breeze and the water softly lapping against the sides of the kayaks. Between the peaceful silence, black water of the swamp, and ancient-looking reptiles, there was something otherworldly about this place. When Archie mentioned that we should head back, both Molly and Duncan protested. But when we told them where we were going next, they were both happy to dip their oars back into the water.
Hitting the trails
Situated right on the southern tip of Georgia’s coastline, Crooked River State Park is the ideal location for exploring the unique maritime forest and salt marsh created by the Intracoastal Waterway. Archie was reading from a brochure, explaining to the kids about the different types of animals we should keep an eye out for, such as fiddler crabs, gopher tortoises, herons, and armadillos.
“And swamp monsters,” Duncan said, laughing and giving Molly a playful nudge before running ahead. She rolled her eyes.
We turned onto the Sempervirens Trail, and it was like stepping into a fairy tale. The curtains of moss hanging from the trees waved gently in the breeze like they were coming to life. Peeking through the leaves, we could see the marsh opening up beyond the tree line. Even the kids seemed in awe as we hiked along silently, taking it all in. But with kids, silence never lasts long.
I heard a high-pitched squeal. Thinking it was Molly, I turned around and was surprised to find Duncan catching his breath with Molly doubled over laughing, holding a long vine of Spanish moss in her hand. Apparently, she had crept up behind him with it.
“There’s your swamp monster,” she panted through her laughter.
Duncan smiled, shook his head, and admitted, “You got me.”
An island set apart
The next day, Molly and Duncan rushed ahead of us as the ferry pulled into the dock at Cumberland Island. Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, Cumberland Island is a national park that covers 36,000 acres of pristine forests, beaches, lakes, and marshes. While there are human touches on the island—including the Plum Orchard mansion, Dungeness Ruins, and First African Baptist Church—most of the island remains undeveloped and wild.
We hiked the trails lined with low-lying palmettos that flourished beneath a canopy of tall, elegant oaks cloaked in more of that lovely Spanish moss. Then we made our way to the south end of the island to one of Archie’s and my favorite sandy beaches—that’s when I spotted the one thing I had been hoping most to see.
A herd of the island’s famous wild horses was trotting along the beach. We all stood as still as possible, watching them roam farther up the beach and into the woods. It was breathtaking. Molly summed it up for all of us when she whispered a simple, “Wow.”
As we ventured out onto the beach, Duncan looked toward the water and asked, “Can we?”
“Let’s do it!” Archie shouted, and we all raced each other to the ocean for a cool dip. After a nice, long swim, we dried off on a stroll along the beach. We spent the rest of the afternoon combing the beach for shells. Duncan found a shark’s tooth, and Molly’s hunt turned up a beautiful, whole sand dollar.
“Can we take these with us?” Molly asked the park ranger as we boarded the ferry at the end of the day. When he told her she could, she exchanged a glance with Duncan and said, “Best. Weekend. Ever.”