Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall Foliage at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina is one of the most visited national parks. This past weekend must be super crowded since Friday was the first day all federal employees reported back to work after a 15-day government shutdown. With the leaves changing color this time of year, fall is one of the busiest and prettiest seasons to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This time several years ago, we made the leaf-peeping pilgrimage to see the foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains. It's a 3 hours drive from Chattanooga. For this particular trip, we stopped at Bryson City, the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, Clingmans Dome (highest spot in the Smokies, with elevation of 6,643 feet) and drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Click on the video below to see the road trip!

The vistas were awesome along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the palette was mostly yellow, not the vibrant orange and bright reds that we were used to seeing in New England. Tree diversity and weather are key to some stunning colors. This fall however, family and friends up north reported a disappointing foliage.

typical fall colors in New Hampshire
In the Smokies, peak foliage occurs at different times due to the varying elevations;  mid October to early November is a good time for an autumn drive. Check  the park's website for information on fall colors and the best time to view it. Not to dampen your spirits, but I suspect the foliage in the Smokies this fall may not be great either. Up until Saturday, we've been having summer-like temperatures.
Maybe the artic air blowing in from Canada this week will be the catalyst for the leaves to finally change colors. Good luck!

Vista along the Blue Ridge Parkway
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Monday, October 7, 2013

Favorite Cruising Destination: Cumberland Island, Georgia

I was delighted to find the CBS Sunday Morning Show doing a story on Cumberland Island yesterday. We used to cruise up and down the East Coast in the spring and fall, and one of our favorite cruising destinations is Cumberland Island, off the Georgia coast. You can get there via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), the 1,095-mile long waterway that stretches from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami, Florida.
Live oaks canopy leading to the dock and our anchorage
Accessible only by private boats or ferry from St Marys, Georgia, Cumberland Island is very secluded, and that is probably the reason why the late JFK Jr chose to get married there. The Carnegies used to own 90% of the island; they have donated or sold much of it to the National Park Service. Due to the government shutdown, Cumberland Island is closed to visitors at this time. But is it really necessary to shut down the website too? 
Giant live oak trees gracing Cumberland Island
the remains of Dungeness mansion that burned down in 1959
Boardwalk to beach (aka Cumberland Island National Seashore)
Cumberland Island has a campground, lots of history including the First African Baptist Church and the Carnegies' mansions (Dungeness, Plum Orchard), miles of hiking trails, and 17.5 miles of hard-packed sand beach. We were awed by the giant oaks, beautiful dunes, and all the wildlife on the island. Wild horses roam freely here. We saw many species of birds, and had our first encounter with the ancient-looking armadillos.
Armadillo, oblivious to our presence
After anchoring at Dungeness Greyfield Channel for two days, we moved north on the ICW to discover another entrance to Cumberland Island. We saw the ferry from St Mary's docking there so we followed suit, dropping our anchor in the narrow Brickhill River. Here, we spent four blissful days drinking in our million-dollar view, which overlooks Plum Orchard, the house built by Lucy Carnegie for her son. Everyday at low tide, birds and wild horses would wander to the river banks to forage for food, mesmerizing us for hours. At night, we heard alligators, but shrugged off the thought of them coming up to our swim platform.

Wild horses foraging close to our boat
After four days of complete solitude, we decided to move up the river for a change of scenery. It was a little windy, about 15-20 knots, but how bad could it be on this tiny river? Little did we know.

No sooner had we left our anchorage than we hit a mud bank and ran aground on a rapidly outgoing tide. The relentless wind, gusting to 25 knots, kept pushing us further into the mud bank. We finally gave up and called TowBoat US for help.When they arrived, they couldn't pull us out until the tide came back in. So while waiting, the Captain went out to monitor the situation and take some pictures. The mud was so soft he sank into it knee deep. A dolphin swam close by, poking its head out of the water, as if to ridicule us.

A few hours later, Tow Boat US returned to tow us back to our previous anchorage. The boat ran fine, much to our relief. We stayed put for a couple of days to recoup our energy and confidence before moving to Jekyll Island HarborMarina to fuel and provision.

As most cruisers know or will learn soon enough, this part of the ICW is narrow and shallow, and Georgia has some of the greatest tidal range, as much as 8 feet. Since the Army Corp of Engineers maintains the ICW (if at all, depending on funding) at about 10 feet deep, grounding is not uncommon. Read more about the idiosyncrasies of  the ICW at Top 10 ground rules on the ICW and a cruiser's trip in Passage Maker magazine. Cruiser's net also has reports of grounding problems near this location, complete with charts.

Cumberland Island remains at the top of our list of favorite cruising destinations. If we had to do it over again, we would still choose to explore uncharted territory. Our lesson learned is to pay more attention to the wind and tide, and never ever fight with Mother Nature.

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