Feral Horses Of Cumberland Island Nationwide Seashore

Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave Desert, California


Feral horses at Cumberland Island are legendary, however the place did they arrive from?/NPS file

Cumberland Island’s Horses Out Of The Previous

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

“The boat to the island is right here,” proclaims the ranger.

I hoist my backpack onto my shoulders and board the Nationwide Park Service ferry with lower than a dozen different folks. I’ve by no means been to Cumberland Island Nationwide Seashore, Georgia’s largest barrier island within the Atlantic. It’s chilly right here in winter. I’m bundled up in a down coat and wool hat. I made a tenting reservation on-line: three nights on the island beginning tonight, Monday. Three nights as a result of the ferry doesn’t run on Tuesday and Wednesday. No going again till Thursday. I preserve my palms in my heat pockets and look out the boat’s financial institution of home windows, watching the mainland recede.

Forty-five minutes later, the ferry approaches Cumberland Island, its forested inside surrounded by saltwater marshes, shrub-covered dunes, and sandy seashores. One of many island’s famed feral horses stands on the seashore on the finish of the dock. It’s nibbling at a pile of Spanish moss like hay, tossing its head to shake the moss free.

It’s additionally blocking the exit from the ferry – nearly deliberately, it appears, because it appears to be like over on the boat, stamps its hoof, after which goes again to consuming. The opposite passengers and I stand to get a greater look by way of the home windows. However nobody takes a step out the door. Lastly, I go searching in any respect of us huddled within the cabin, then over on the boatmen who’ve introduced us right here.

“We good to go?” I ask.

“Yeah! Oh, yeah,” a few them reply. 

We chuckle, perhaps somewhat nervously, then stroll resolutely down the gangplank towards shore. The horse reluctantly saunters off into the bushes.

Tenting Amid The Reside Oaks

The wind off the bay is blowing a gale as I holler to test in on the ranger station and get shouted instructions to my campsite. Hunched beneath my pack, I enter a path into the bushes – and all is all of a sudden nonetheless. I marvel on the thick forest surrounding me, blocking the wind. Enormous reside oaks stand agency at nighttime soil; but, for all their solidity, they appear like they’re always blowing within the breeze, their branches intricately twisted and formed by the island winds. This wavy, rippling cover is hung with the horse’s moss, and thick vines. Beneath, noticed palmettos as tall as me fill the understory.

Camp, full with a windbreak of reside oaks/Barbara Jensen

My campsite, Sea Seashore #16, is a clearing inside this thicket. My footsteps are silent as I enter, softened by the wealthy accumulation of decaying leaves, twigs, and moss underfoot. The oaks towering overhead diffuse the sunshine, deepening and intensifying coloration. I scan the location: hearth ring, picnic desk, steel pole with dangle pegs, and a giant bear field to fend off the island’s marauding raccoons. No tying my meals up excessive between bushes, no sitting on a rock or log to eat: that is luxurious tenting by my ordinary requirements. There’s even a showerhouse with bogs and sinks. All of the comforts of dwelling.

The truth is, Cumberland Island has been dwelling to human beings for hundreds of years. Whereas the primary indigenous inhabitants, the Timucuans, have left just about no hint, Europeans and later Individuals took up residence in a giant manner – a plantation-estate-complete-with-mansion type of manner. After establishing my tent, I seize my small daypack and set off to seek out the property ruins.

Dungeness Property

The remnants of a greenhouse, servant’s quarters, stately gated entrance drive with big urns – it’s all right here. I learn the interpretive indicators. First constructed as a searching lodge in 1736, the expanded manor home was deserted throughout the Civil Struggle, and subsequently burned. Instantly atop that historical past, one other mansion was constructed on the identical web site by a unique rich household — Thomas Carnegie — in 1884. It, too, burned. Now I’m surrounded by every little thing they left behind, strong stone partitions and foundations, collapsed over time…and their domesticated animals, now gone feral.

The horses, hogs, and turkeys discovered on the island are usually not native. As an alternative, they’re descendants of livestock introduced right here, not solely by these households, but additionally by Spanish explorers occupying the island earlier than them. Born into captivity, these animals’ ancestors by some means escaped, received misplaced, or have been merely deserted to fend for themselves.

It looks like it really works for the turkeys. The hogs, too, are survivors; they’re so plentiful and an invasive nuisance that the Park Service schedules common hunts throughout the winter.

However the horses look tough. They’re small, simply ponies actually, with boring, scruffy coats and wispy manes and tails. They appear awfully skinny, little question malnourished with solely moss and dune grasses to eat. In accordance with a Park Service pamphlet, this band of horses is the one one – amongst a number of herds of Atlantic island horses – that’s not managed or protected. The Nationwide Park Service makes an annual rely of the animals, however that’s it. No extra feeding, no mineral blocks set out, no veterinary care. As a result of they’re feral, not wild. The horses don’t belong right here, so that they’re on their very own.

Winter is a peaceable and quiet time at Cumberland Island Nationwide Seashore/Barbara Jensen

But folks love them, anyway. They arrive to Cumberland Island simply to see them. Like I did. I nonetheless carry a romanticized picture in my thoughts from childhood books like Misty of Chincoteague of island horses working free, their hooves pounding alongside the seashore. The truth earlier than me is of drained ponies nibbling any little scrap of grass they’ll discover.

Cautious Horses Meet Cautious Customer

After which, a unique horse altogether comes into view. It’s gorgeous, white and shining, taller, stronger, and extra assured; it’s clearly the chief. The herd quickly falls into an irregular line, heads bobbing and tails swishing gently, following the white horse again into the bushes.

I’ve been attempting to take photographs of them with my cellphone, but it surely can not seize them, their essence as shadowy outsiders, fading into the half-light of the forest and the ending of the day. I must get again to camp earlier than darkish, since I hardly know how. The horses have taken the shortcut path, so I stroll the longer grime street up the center of the island, pondering. About how none of us reside right here now. We’re all interlopers, just like the horses. Twilight descends over the island as I attain camp. 

The subsequent morning, I wake early whereas the sky continues to be grey and observe a boardwalk resulting in the ocean aspect of the island, my steps rising and falling over the dunes out to the seashore. The waves are rolling extra gently than yesterday. Gulls and terns wait on the moist sand on the fringe of the surf, not even attempting to find mussels, simply standing in a huddle, searching to sea. I strategy progressively in order to not startle them, becoming a member of them at a distance. Collectively, we watch the solar come up behind blue morning clouds, coloring the clouds a wealthy purple at the same time as they start to skinny and separate. With dawn as their cue, the seagulls elevate off noisily, starting their day.

I begin down the Parallel Path. It runs up the middle of the lengthy, slender island, between the entry street and the ocean shore. As a result of it will take me two days to hike its full size, I’m taking a ranger’s suggestion and strolling inland to the subsequent campground, then returning alongside the seashore.

I’m from the desert Southwest, so this dense, moist forest is a brand new world for me. I cease typically to stare upon ferns rising from knots within the bushes. Moss and lichen carpet the branches, the trunks. All the pieces is so inexperienced. Vines as thick as my forearms drape from the best branches of the reside oaks. One vine hangs invitingly, making a pure seat. I ease my weight onto it and am delighted when it helps me, swinging backwards and forwards, grinning at my jungle recreation.

The horses have the run of the island, even across the Dungeness property/NPS file

Quickly, I attain the subsequent campground, and with it, Stafford Seashore, the cries of gulls, and sunshine. I hike down the island’s coast, beachcombing as I’m going, gathering shells. They tinkle collectively in my pockets like bells.

Delivering from the seashore on the path marker, I spy hoofprints within the sand. Imagining ponies working on the seashore, I crane my neck and look throughout, however disappointingly, they’re nowhere in sight. As an alternative, their path leads into the dunes past the boardwalks, off-limits to folks.

I cross the island to tramp alongside a low headland over the extra sheltered bay, mountaineering by way of the sting of the forest, catching occasional glimpses of the glowing water. And all of a sudden, with no sound, the horses arrive.

I wish to get nearer to them, to strive once more for a good image. However horses are skittish creatures even after they’re tamed. To be feral appears to imply carrying a deep wariness born of damaged belief. The pamphlet warns vacationers to not strategy them: if they alter their habits as a result of your presence, you’re too shut. Folks ignoring this recommendation have been knocked down, kicked, bitten. They might be small, however they’re nonetheless larger than me. I notice I’m intimidated by the island ponies as a result of I can not predict them. I don’t belief them. I, too, am cautious – of the very horses I would like so badly to be close to.

I transfer from tree to tree towards a grassy clearing, getting nearer. However they simply see my orange jacket, and elevate their heads to have a look at me. One steps ahead, realigning its stance to face me immediately. I rooster out and retreat towards the bluff’s edge.

As I do, the white horse floats out of the bushes. It gracefully leads the opposite horses throughout the clearing – and proper towards my path. In the event that they take my path like they did earlier than, I should journey far out of my manner, returning to camp lengthy after darkish.

I jog immediately towards the path. The white horse stops grazing its manner towards me, however retains its head low. Barely glancing at me, it subtly shifts its course to keep away from assembly. I attain the trail first and make myself stroll calmly. I hear them within the underbrush beside me, twigs snapping loudly and palmettos rustling from their motion. However they preserve their distance.

As I sit all the way down to a bowl of soup at my picnic desk, the solar has simply set. I search for on the stars glowing by way of the net of interlaced tree branches overhead. So shut and but to date, I feel, questioning easy methods to strategy the horses.

Cumberland Island, as bucolic as it is, a reminder of the past, is at threat from a proposed spaceport/NPS file

Cumberland Island, as bucolic as it’s, a reminder of the previous, is at menace from a proposed spaceport. The Federal Aviation Administration on December 15, 2021, is meant to announce its resolution on whether or not to allow the spaceport in Camden (Ga.) County only a few miles west of the nationwide seashore. The Nationwide Parks Conservation Affiliation has robust issues in regards to the software. These issues are associated to customer and employees security, customer entry and expertise, the chance of wildfire, safety of the wilderness, wildlife, and pure, cultural and historic assets on Cumberland Island. “We’re involved for water high quality in Cumberland Island marshes and on the island, the St. Marys and Satilla River and floor water, rookeries and different chook habitat, impacts on migratory birds that depend upon Cumberland for a spot to feed and relaxation on their journey, the nesting of sea turtles and impacts from gentle air pollution, and the failure, to this point, of Camden County and FAA to deal with these issues in a significant method,” says NPCA’s Emily Jones.

Protected Adjacency

After breakfast the subsequent morning, I head again to the seashore. I hike beside the ocean for a mile or two; then, on a whim, I flip inland towards the salt marshes. I like this path, watching the tall, sleek reeds swaying, life that has tailored to flourish on this briny wetland.

I take a leisurely stroll alongside this boardwalk, quietly passing low bushes and overgrown leafy bushes rising like a hedge to my proper. Sparrows have been flitting throughout my path, however apart from that, this stretch of the island’s inside is almost silent. The air continues to be.

Unexpectedly, I hear a sound, like a sigh. I cease and look behind me, however nobody is there. But, on this tranquil area, I hear it once more. After which the unmistakable sound of a horse close by, so shut it feels prefer it’s proper beside me. A contented horse, making a tender, deep rumbling noise at the back of its throat just like the purring of a cat. I look extra intently into the thicket beside me.

Squinting by way of the dense mesh of twigs and stems, I see a horse’s brown again, immediately on the opposite aspect. I can hear its tooth rhythmically cropping the grass rising beneath the bushes, the wiry hairs of its tail whisking towards its flanks with a sound just like the distant waves hissing throughout the seashore. A number of horses, in truth, are wandering slowly underneath the duvet of this hidden backyard, grazing peacefully.

I step soundlessly alongside my aspect of the hedge, conserving tempo with the brown horse on the opposite aspect. I can scent its heat pores and skin, see it flick its ears, watch it rustle its mane throughout its neck to scratch an itch. This adjacency feels protected, for the horses in addition to for me. Outsiders collectively, we merely settle for one another’s presence and share my final afternoon on the island in companionable silence, till, one after the other, they slowly drift away into the dunes of Cumberland Island.

For background on the proposed spaceport:

Rockets Over Cumberland Island Nationwide Seashore Increase Issues

Barbara “Bo” Jensen is a author and artist who likes to go off-grid, whether or not it is backpacking by way of nationwide parks, trekking up the Continental Divide Path, or following the Camino Norte throughout Spain. For over 20 years, social work has paid the payments, permitting them to fulfill and speak with folks residing homeless within the streets of America. You will discover extra of Bo’s work on Out There podcast, Wanderlust, Journey, and  www.wanderinglightning.com   


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