Bikepacking Cumberland Island – Whitewater

In June of 2023, I found myself captivated by the pages of Will Harlin’s biography, unraveling the enigmatic life of America’s untamed spirit, Carol Ruckdeschel. For the last five decades, this woman’s soul found its haven on Cumberland Island, an ethereal gem off the coast of South Georgia. It was this book that planted the seed to set foot on the island that has led to Carol’s extraordinary existence.

Born in 1942 and hailing from the suburbs of Atlanta, Carol never quite fit in with the typical Atlanta suburbanite. From a young age, she was out exploring the land surrounding the Chattahoochee River and dissecting dead animals she found on the roadside. The big city life never appealed to Carol, and when she had the chance to visit Cumberland Island for the first time as a young woman, it changed the trajectory of her life forever. I greatly admire the extensive work that Carol has put towards advocating for the well-being of the wildlife that exist on Cumberland Island — more specifically the sea turtles — despite the challenges and controversies she has faced for decades. I utter her name in the same sentence as other renowned conservationists such as Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson, and I had hopes of visiting Cumberland to not only meet Carol, but also to hear a bit more about her story and relationship with the island.

Let’s rewind a bit. This holiday season beckoned a departure from tradition for myself, my partner Joe, and his family. Instead of the usual exchange of gifts, we decided to partake on a trip together. A 50/50 split between the historic charm of St. Augustine and the untouched allure of Cumberland Island awaited us. While St. Augustine’s history was certainly captivating, when the day came to head towards St. Mary’s, Georgia, where the ferry to Cumberland ports, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

As part of our preparation for our Cumberland adventure, we sifted through our camping gear the night before. A minor hiccup surfaced as I, the self-appointed gear gatherer, overlooked the culinary essentials. Our camp dinner dreams were reduced to a bit of improvisation, but for one night, we figured we’d survive.

Now, let me preface this by saying that Joe, my partner, is no bikepacker by choice. He enjoys the two activities of biking and backpacking separate from one another. But alas, Cumberland provided a reason for both, and so I was able to persuade Joe that bikepacking wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Dawn cracked at 6:30 a.m., and we headed to a small gas station nearby that served breakfast burritos, recommended by a local. Eager to be first in line for the ferry, I had us arrive way too early. But that’s okay because I was able to take some photographs, do some more reading about the island, and eat a few more snacks.

The ferry journey, a 45-minute ride through the St. Mary’s River marshes, treated us to a symphony of nature — dolphins gracefully surfacing, herons gliding, and seagulls soaring. As Cumberland’s silhouette drew near, a passenger pointed out the feral horses, subjects of a recent legal battle echoing a call for their removal from the island.

Disembarking at Sea Camp Ranger Station, we listened carefully to the Do’s and Don’ts from a Park Ranger, preparing us for our camping experience at Hickory Hill. The moment we left the ranger station, a transformation occurred – Cumberland Island unfolded in front of me as an untouched oasis of natural splendor. As we rode our bikes up the only dirt road on the island, I found myself having to stop every couple of minutes in order to try to capture the essence of what surrounded us. The dappled sunlight peeked through the tree limbs and the iconic spanish moss that hung down from them, casting beautiful patterns along the dirt as we rode along.

What really struck me was the quietude of the almost perfect day. The island continued to reveal itself in a series of snapshots – a wild horse frozen in curiosity, the crushed shells lining the dirt road from dredging, the scamper of an unidentifiable animal in the distance. The 8-mile journey north felt like a trip to another dimension.

Upon reaching Willow Trail, we stowed our bikes for a hike into our campsite. Bikes are not allowed on any trails on the island, hence why we had to stow them. As we hiked, the environment shifted, yet again – from hiking through dense forests to walking on a wooden bridge weaving through the marsh of the inner part of the island. We happened upon our camp spot, where there was not another soul in sight, and had our choosing of which live oak we wished to pitch our tent under.

With camp settled, we ventured eastward to the ocean on a trail that wove through more sections of stunning hickories and palmettos and at times became somewhat difficult to follow. We listened for the sounds of the waves and eventually, we came upon the massive sand dunes that Cumberland is known for. I decided to take my shoes off to enjoy some sand between my toes for a bit prior to reaching the ocean. Well, that was a mistake because I ended up enjoying the feeling of sand spurs lining both of my feet. How lovely.

The pain subsided and I was instantly distracted upon reaching the beach by the sheer number of fully formed conch shells and sand dollars that lay in front of us. Joe and I walked for a while, investigating different shells, deciding which we would like to bring back with us. We ate our lunch on a large log before making our way back to the trail to explore the rest of the island.

After getting back to our bikes, we pedaled towards Plum Orchard Mansion, and then even further north chasing the whispers of Carol’s influence. The road eventually turned east, and I was convinced that Carol’s house was hidden back in the forest along one of the many private roads we encountered on the way up. But with a little more pedaling, we encountered a few structures around the First African Baptist Church along with a sign for Wild Cumberland, an organization that Carol is heavily involved with. There was smoke billowing out of a small fireplace coming from one of the small structures, and using my deduction skills I assumed it to be Carol’s house. I’ll leave the story of Carol for Will Harlin’s book, but the impact that she has had on the preservation of Cumberland Island as protected wilderness as well as the contributions she has made to sea turtle research, is extremely inspiring. I wish I could say that I had the confidence to go knock on her door, but ultimately, I didn’t want to disturb her. I was just glad to be in the vicinity of someone I greatly admired.

The sun was beginning to set as Joe and I made our way back south along the main road once again. We pedaled until we couldn’t see anymore and turned on our headlamps for the remainder of our journey back to camp. After almost eight hours of hiking and biking, it was finally time to settle down and enjoy a camp dinner, me with leftover spaghetti, and Joe with a freeze-dried meal. Well, it ended up being spaghetti for two because Joe forgot his freeze-dried meal back on the mainland. The cooking saga continues. Though we went to sleep with our stomachs half full, our souls were happy thanks to our day of exploration.

Awakening to the distant sound of waves crashing, we rationed a lone Poptart, dreaming of the Waffle House feast in our future. Camp dismantled, bikes and backpacks in tow, we headed south to Dungeness Ruins, steeped in history and the final chapter of our Cumberland adventure. With 30 minutes to spare, we looped back on the beach, absorbing the solitude and shells before saying our goodbyes to an island that imprinted itself on us forever.

Cumberland Island really truly is a sanctuary of beauty, resisting the relentless march of modernity we see all around us. I made a promise to myself on the ferry ride back—one day, I will return to the island and I will meet the woman who guarded the island’s true essence for the last half a century.

Emily Cameron is a photographer, videographer, web designer, digital strategist, and athlete living in Athens, Georgia. Emily is drawn above all else to telling human stories. Learn more at or follow Emily on Instagram (@ecam44).