Cumberland Island Memories

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Main Road on Cumberland Island

(The Georgia Conservancy asked me to write some brief thoughts about my time on Cumberland Island.)

I first visited Cumberland Island in the late 1970’s, and ever since that marvelous day hike, I’ve wanted to make a film about the island. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I began shooting the film. During the production, I was fortunate to spend a week or so every month on the island for a period of almost two years.

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Shooting on the beach.

Cumberland Queen sets the scene. The 45-minute ferry ride over to the island is like going through a psychological cleansing. Modern day concerns and anxieties seem to fade away with the mainland. Cumberland offers visitors its own special sense of place and time.

Spending weeks on the island allowed me to witness some wonderful wilderness moments – a giant alligator napping on the road, a foal being born in the forest, a rattlesnake up close and personal, and many others. However what I treasure most about Cumberland is the wonderful sense of isolation. This reclaimed wilderness is a place apart from modern life. Two things that Cumberland offers every visitor are silence and the darkness.

Silence. In winter months when insects are few, the woods seem totally silent save for a few palm fronds rubbing in the wind. Unlike my home in Atlanta, where the distant roar of the city is ever present, a dawn walk through the Cumberland forest allows you to literally hear the beating of your heart. There is a stillness that is astonishing. Then you begin to sense the subtle sounds of life around you – the birds in the trees, the waves on the shore, and the many animals that scamper around the forest.

One day when I was filming time-lapse in the marsh, I heard an unusual sound. I crouched down to see a small army of fiddler crabs running around and waving their large claws in the air. Their legs lightly tapped the dark earth – a faint sound that would be drowned out anywhere else. It was an island symphony.

Darkness. Cumberland’s splendid isolation makes the night sky a stargazer’s delight. Unlike the city, there is little ambient light to interfere with the view of our Milky Way. On a moonless night, stars seem to sparkle with enhanced intensity in a grand panorama. Coupled with the rhythm of the cicadas, this makes for a magical summer evening.

One Cumberland evening in August, while my family and friends sat around after dinner to take in the stars, a meteor streaked across the sky. It seemed to last about 3 seconds, an eternity. It was Hollywood perfect. I could even make out the ball itself burning orange through the atmosphere. What a special moment at a special place.   It also happened to be my birthday.

The next day on the ferry back to the mainland, and civilization, I did what I do every time I leave Cumberland. I gazed back at the receding island and longed to return.

If you are interested in seeing the program check out the Trailer.

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Camera shooting time-lapse at the Sea Camp dock.

Winter clouds over Cumberland beach.


Ship profile

The following are some observations from a shoot for the upcoming Little Mammoth Media® production, The BIG Freeze.    

It was 9 degrees and still dark when I pulled up on the US Coast Guard dock in St. Ignace, MI. Our icebreaker, USCGC Biscayne Bay was quiet, as the crew arrived and parked their cars. Soon a giant fuel truck would come to pump hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into ship to feed its two diesel engines. These engines don’t drive the ship, but they power a generator that creates electricity, which powers a large electric motor.   It’s the electric motor that drives the ship.

The ship’s youthful captain, Lieutenant Commander Tom Pryzbyla and Executive Officer Lieutenant Ty Bateman welcomed me and showed me around the ship. Like all working ships, space was at a premium, and every corner was utilized. There were lots of small hatches and walkways connecting the various parts of the ship.

As the sun was coming up over the solid ice in the harbor, the captain held a navigation briefing on the bridge. He led a discussion of the mission for the day, and the crew discussed various navigational and weather issues. Soon we pulled away from the dock and entered the shipping channel. The entire portion of the lake was completely frozen. The channel was evident only by the long trail of broken ice that had re-frozen overnight.

Shadow ship

As the Biscayne Bay moved through the channel, it broke and parted the ice with a loud banging sound, combined with a crunching sound of ice being squeezed and broken. The captain explained to me that the ship actually rides up on top of the ice and its weight crushes it. As the ice is broken the bow wake of the ship pushes it away, leaving a wide path of clear water and broken pieces of ice behind it.

An icebreaker is a special kind of ship. The Biscayne Bay is 140 feet long and carries a crew of 19. From a distance it looks like a regular ship, perhaps a seagoing tug. But it’s what’s beneath the surface that makes a difference.

The captain explained, “An ice breaker is built stronger than a regular ship, so it can handle the impact with the ice. So the steel is thicker, in addition to that, it has more power than most ships so that it can get through the ice.” He continued, “The ice that we break is about up to three feet thick. Sometimes it gets piled higher, the wind will move ice plates around, and it will begin to stack ice on top of itself. Those piles can be as high as ten feet.”

To show how thick that ice was, the captain had the ship ram into the large plates of ice. As we hit the ice plates, the ship began to slow down until it came to a stop. The ice was too thick to break. Luckily, the ship is equipped with a special compressed air system, which shoots bubbles around its hull. This keeps ice from attaching to the ship and allows it to escape from being trapped in the ice.

We were soon back underway. As we passed under the beautiful Mackinac Bridge, I noticed we were the only ship out on the lake. It was truly a sight to behold – a giant green metal arc over a white ice-covered lake. This year over 88%, of the surface area of the Great Lakes were covered by ice, one of the frostiest years on record. This kept Coast Guard ice breakers busy.
Great Lakes Winter

Millions of tons of cargo are shipped across the Great Lakes every day. Giant lake freighters carry bulk cargo like coal, iron ore, grain and cement to keep whole industries operating. If freighters get stuck in the ice, commerce comes to a halt. That’s where ice breakers come in. The US and Canadian Coast Guards keep icebreakers on call to rescue ships caught in the ice. They break the ships free and then create a channel for the freighters to reach port. It’s a very important job, and it’s done in extremely cold weather.

The captain told me that many winter days are well below zero, and with the wind chill it feels even colder. This day happened to be sunny and bright, but still bitter cold, especially with the wind off the lake.

Ice breaking

We filmed in all parts of the ship – from the rudder in the stern, to the engine room, stateroom and the bridge. We even filmed the cook in the kitchen as he made lunch. The best vantage point for seeing the ship at work was from the front upper deck of the ship called the forecastle or fo’c’s’le. From there we saw the ice being broken and pushed away from the bow. We used a small GoPro camera to capture the ice being broken right at the water line. The day was so cold that when water splashed up on our cameras, it immediately froze, so we had to warm the cameras inside to melt the ice in order to wipe them dry.

It was an exciting day. As the crew dropped me back at the dock, they had to immediately rush off to aid two freighters caught in the ice near Salt Ste Marie. We drove to the base of the Mackinac Bridge and filmed the Biscayne Bay as she moved through the channel of ice.

This filming was for the Little Mammoth Media® production, The BIG Freeze, which looks at all things frozen – from snow to ice to ice cream. This children’s video will be released in late 2015. For more information, go to