Pat’s Wildways: Adventures on the Cumberland Ferry

By Pat Foster-Turley

The Cumberland ferry at the Plum Orchard dock.

It seemed simple. Buy advance tickets to both the ferry and the December Christmas Tour of Plum Orchard on Cumberland Island. Board the 11:45 ferry in St. Marys, travel for 45 minutes to Sea Camp and then a little bit further north to Plum Orchard. Once at Plum Orchard, plenty of time to walk around, then at 1:30 to 3:30 a docent-staffed tour of the old mansion. Then a short boat ride back to Sea Camp to pick up people there, and back to St. Marys. Little did we know the distances involved for the boat ride. My friends and I were on the ferry for more than 4 hours and only on land for less than 2 hours at Plum Orchard.

And what a ferry ride it was! When we boarded the ferry at St. Marys the biting no-see-um gnats were swarming. I could barely stand there while the park ranger was giving us the orientation talk, so I wandered over to the boat ramp, where a deckhand was conversing with a woman dressed in a jumpsuit shark costume, fins and hoodie hat and all. OK. Whatever.

A woman in a shark suit gets close to the Kings Bay submarine demagnetizer.

And then there was the fog. When we left the dock at St. Marys, the view was muffled and the glimpses of passing boats and channel markers were ethereal. But at last, no gnats! And no scenery either, but, whatever. Within 45 minutes, as promised, we landed at Sea Camp, and a few minutes later, at Dungeness to drop off and pick up passengers. We were almost at Plum Orchard, or so we thought.

But no! Instead of continuing north to Plum Orchard, our ferry inexplicably turned south, back along the shore of Cumberland Island again. And isn’t that Fernandina Beach over there? Why are we going south? Well it turns out that the direct route to Plum Orchard is blocked by a sandbar and water too shallow for our ferry and we had to backtrack south, and then into the Intracoastal Waterway to head north again, an hour or more journey. This, of course, was well known ahead of time to the boat captain and crew, but not us.

Dolphins played in the bow wave of our ferry boat.

So, in the damp and fog we passengers settled down again, hunkered down for another long ferry ride. But soon everyone was out of their seats, rushing outside to view a spectacle. Bottlenose dolphins had joined our vessel! The waves coming off the boat’s bow, where I was stationed, provided a perfect playground for these sleek, acrobatic marine mammals. A number of us happily took videos, and most everyone else rushed out to see this for themselves. Wonderful!

Further along on this journey, we came closer to the Kings Bay Submarine Base than I had ever been before. Now the large framework of the submarine demagnetizer that I had seen only from a distance on an Amelia River Cruise was right beside us. The two ships that protect submarines when they pass through the channel and the two patrol boats that usually guide them were docked there, guarded by a staffed patrol boat complete with a large weapon facing us as we powered by. How exciting!

When we finally got there, the tour of Plum Orchard was great. Reenactors portrayed Christmas revelers in olden days, the mansion was all decked out in seasonal finery and the Chamber Music Group of Camden County High School regaled us with carols. Out in the yard, armadillos poked around looking for insects and grubs. The huge live oak trees were covered with Spanish moss and it was lots of fun. Except for the no-see-ums that found us there too.

The Chamber Music group of Camden County High School entertained us.

But then we had to board the ferry for the return voyage. When we left Cumberland Island it had started to sprinkle and the inside seats were limited. Unlike my friends, I had the foresight to wear a waterproof jacket with hood, so I opted to be the one to sit on a bench outside. Most of the way back to St. Marys, for nearly two hours, I hunkered down in the rain, beside some other stalwart passengers similarly dressed. Since we had again stopped at Sea Camp and Dungeness to pick up returning visitors, all inside seats were taken, standing room only, with no options to even change seats outside. Worse yet, a woman inside by the door, kept opening the door every minute to hack a troubling cough right in my direction next to the door. Stoically, I turned my back to her, zipped up my hood like a hazmat suit, and laughed and chatted with the women next to me.

Passengers with their hiking sticks in front of them hunkered down on the ferry.

All in all, it was a great trip, made even better in retrospect by the adventures on the ferry. This was a once-a-year event at Cumberland Island, the Christmas Tour. Mark your calendars to catch it next time. And bring bug repellent and foul weather gear just in case!


Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Noble Member
6 months ago

Sounds like an adventuresome, memorable trip! The photos are a wonderful treat too. Thank you for sharing.