By Pat Foster Turley
September 30, 2021
Sometimes Bucko and I just want to go back to what earlier days in Fernandina Beach must have been like. On these times we head just a bit north of us, to Darien, Georgia. This peaceful unhurried town is mostly sheltered under giant live oak trees draped with Spanish moss and bordered by working shrimp and fishing boats docked along the Darien River. Pretty much nothing is going on there most of the time, a welcome relief from Fernandina today.
On our recent 44th year wedding anniversary Bucko and I headed to Darien once again. It’s a regular anniversary treat for us, usually marked by a stay at the Dockside Hotel near Skipper’s Fish Camp, walks around the quaint town square and commercial fish docks, and visits to our favorite waterside restaurants where we love to watch the activity around us. And always we drive up to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, a favorite spot for us.
At Harris Neck most of the time, if it is not hunting season (check www.fws.gov/refuge/harris_neck/ first) you can drive around empty roads cutting through land with varied human usage over the years, beginning with native Americans, then plantation owners, and later, when much of the land was turned into a World War II army airstrip. Since 1962 this area has become a National Wildlife Refuge that has returned to a largely natural state, with some remnants of its history visible if you look.
Despite our many visits there, we always find something new to marvel at. This time on one section of the road we noticed grapefruit sized fruit, some crushed by previous car travelers and we stopped to investigate. The fruit was knobby and hard, but those that had been crushed revealed an inside with flesh unlike any orange we had ever seen. Lucky we didn’t even try to eat it. Our google search revealed these to be osage oranges emanating from trees planted as a thorny protective hedge by former plantation owners. Turns out the flesh of this fruit is poisonous to humans, but you can eat the seeds. Oh well, another eating opportunity missed again!
We are familiar with the overgrown remnants of the old airstrip, where tenacious native plants have managed to break through the asphalt. But this time was the first for us to notice the old chimney from a former incinerator on the grounds. There are also remnants of an old plantation house and decorative fountain to seek out for those interested in the history. Another interesting historical site is located a few miles outside of the refuge on highway 17. The “Smallest Church in America” was built in 1949 and is open for self-guided visits all day, every day, for free.
The main reason we go to Harris Neck is for the wildlife viewing opportunities and the chance to see snakes sunbathing on the road. In the spring there is no better place to view rookeries of wood storks, herons, egrets and other water birds. You can park your car near various ponds and walk on paths to view them from safe distances. Here and there you might spot an alligator or other wildlife too. In late summer there is less bird activity but still we managed to see a few egrets, herons, wood storks, woodpeckers and more without much effort.
And another reason we go to Harris Neck and Darien are the great dockside seafood restaurants in the area. On the way from back to Darien from Harris Neck we usually stop at The Fish Dock at Pelican Point for a fresh seafood lunch, and a backroad drive back to Darien, with all kinds of rural Georgia sights along the way. At The Fish Dock, if you are lucky, you can watch them unload and process clams through windows in the restaurant. It doesn’t get any fresher than this! And if you want even more fresh shellfish, back at Skipper’s near the Dockside Hotel, there is an oyster bar with fresh oysters served every which way. And all places have fresh local shrimp too, but that’s a luxury food easily accessible in Fernandina Beach and I wait until I’m home to indulge in our own local shrimp.
Here’s hoping this has given some of you another idea for a day trip, or even an overnight one if you spend the night in Darien like we often do. And whatever you do, have fun!
Dr. Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. firstname.lastname@example.org