Seafood Foraging on Sapelo Island

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Wilderness Southeast's Ted Wesemann makes casting a shrimp net look easier than it actually is.
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Participants in the "Incredible Edible Seafood-Foraging Feast" walk through a part of Sapelo Island unspoiled by inhabitants or visitors.
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Seining requires a cooperative effort.
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Private ownership and environmental concern have managed to preserve a large portion of the Georgia coastal islands from development.
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Mussels steamed in wine or beer will please the most discriminating seafood gourmet

Like almost half of the American population, I grew up within an hour’s drive of the seacoast. Weekends and summer holidays often found me on one of Georgia’s tidal rivers, dangling my sunburned legs off an old wooden dock while fishing for chan­nel bass, mullet and bony catfish–or crab­bing with a piece of twine tied to a chicken neck. Even as a small child, I was an expert at casting a heavily weighted net into those briny waters to proudly provide family and friends with the makings for a huge shrimp dinner.

Much of my adult life, however, was spent in Manhattan, where my sea-born meals came from the Fulton Fish Market, and in San Francisco, where seafood cravings were usually satisfied by a cable-car ride to Fisher­man’s Wharf. Then, over a decade ago, I moved to the lush mountains of western North Carolina with a bass-filled lake front­ing my house and a trout-rich branch of the French Broad River just across the road. Since I prefer my piscatory dishes straight from the water, I gradually learned to sub­stitute freshwater fish for the seafood fare of my youth.

Then I discovered Wilderness South­east, a nonprofit educa­tional corporation that specializes in taking people on nature outings in such unspoiled environments as the Great Smoky Moun­tains, the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp and even as far afield as Belize and Costa Rica. This group conducts a four-day “Incredible Edible Seafood-Foraging Feast” on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, and I jumped at the chance to revisit this coastline of my childhood and brush up on my almost-­forgotten seafood-foraging skills.

Sapelo Island History

Unlike its neighbors, South Carolina to the north and Florida to the south, Georgia has managed to preserve a large portion of its coast from development. This has been pos­sible, in part, because the majority of the state’s 15 largest and most beautiful barrier islands were (four still are) private preserves owned by wealthy families or small groups of people. Today, thanks to the efforts of conservationists, only four of the 15–Tybee, Sea Island, St. Simons and Jekyll–have been developed, and one of these, Jekyll, is a state park. The federal government owns four undeveloped islands (Wassaw, Blackbeard, Wolf and Cumberland), and the state owns the other three (Williamson, Ossabaw and Sapelo).

Sapelo Island, reached by a 30-minute fer­ry ride, is located northeast of the historic town of Darien–on U.S. Highway l7–about halfway between Brunswick and Savannah. The island has a particularly rich history, thanks in large part to its abundance of easy-to-harvest seafood. Nearly 4,000 years ago, Sapelo’s aboriginal inhabitants evi­dently ignored the seashore to occupy sites with easy access to fresh water, tidal streams and salt marshes. A large shell ring on the island shows that their diet consisted main­ly of oysters and of fish, like mullet and cat­fish, that were easily caught in traps. They also ate clams and whelks, as well as deer, rac­coons, dogs and opossums. Around a thousand years ago, the island boasted a 150-acre village with a large burial mound.

In the 1500s, Spanish missionaries estab­lished the convent of San José de Zapala (the name that was to become Sapelo), but Indi­an resistance forced the Spanish to abandon this section of the coast in 1686.

When Georgia was established as a colo­ny in 1733, the Creek Indians granted the British the coastal land between the Savan­nah and Altamaha rivers, but they reserved their hunting rights on the barrier islands of Ossabaw, St. Catherines and Sapelo. How­ever, when Mary Musgrove, the half­·Indian-half-British niece of the Creek emperor, married the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth, she was given these islands as a wedding present. After a 10-year dispute with the land-hungry British, Mary ended up with only St. Catherines, and the other two islands were sold to settlers to reimburse her for previous claims.

During the remainder of the century, Sapelo was passed along through several owners–all of whom failed to fulfill their dreams of turning it into a great plantation. However, in the late 1790s, a large section of the island, which is 11 miles long and two to four miles wide, was sold to the Marquis de Montalet, a planter from Santo Domin­go. The ruins of Le Chatelet–the house he built from tabby, a cement made from lime, sand and oyster shells–can still be seen. Le Chatelet was eventually corrupted to Chocolate.

In 1802 the Spalding family began buying up the island, and they lived there for near­ly half a century. Thomas Spalding, using slaves bought in Charleston, supplied live-­oak lumber for shipbuilding, drained the interior of the island and successfully farmed Sea Island cotton, sugarcane and corn. His original South End House with its 14-inch-­thick foundations and two-foot-thick tabby walls was designed to withstand both heat and hurricanes. It was abandoned by his heirs during the Civil War.

In 1912, Sapelo was purchased by Howard Coffin, one of the founders of the Hudson Motor Company. Coffin set up an oyster- and shrimp-canning industry (long since closed) to employ the island’s African­-American community, descendants of Spald­ing’s slaves. He also built roads, sank arte­sian wells and brought in cattle as well as chachalacas, pheasantlike game birds from Guatemala, which can still be heard calling from time to time in the forests.

The island is, in fact, a great place to bird-­watch. Because it’s situated on the Atlantic flyway, migrating seasons bring flocks of ducks, ibises, swallows and warblers. Other permanent and passing residents include tur­keys, gallinules, pileated woodpeckers, cardi­nals, marsh hens, red-winged blackbirds, turkey vultures, hawks, waxwings, blue­birds, painted and indigo buntings, ruby-­throated hummingbirds and a variety of herons.

In the late 1920s, Coffin completely restored South End House, adding–among other buildings–greenhouses, docks, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a water garden. But, diverted by development of his Sea Island resort, he remained there only a few more years.

In 1933, Sapelo passed into the hands of tobacco heir R. J. Reynolds, who further expanded the South End complex. His interest in using the island for basic research led to conferences in marine and estuarine science. In 1969, the state of Georgia pur­chased the northern three-quarters of Sape­lo from Reynolds’s widow, and in 1976 it bought the island’s southern end, which today houses the University of Georgia Marine Research Institute. (The island and its institute can be toured by groups on speci­fied days by making reservations with the McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce.

Foraging for Seafood: Stingrays, Sandburs and Stars

Our group–which included trip leaders Ted Wesemann, Elizabeth King and Lynn Laycock, and eight fellow foragers from as far away as Illinois and Pennsylvania–con­verged near Darien at Old Ft. George, which was built by the British in 1721 as the first in a chain of forts erected to counteract French expansion in the area.

Once on the ferry, we were treated to a per­formance by a group of bottle-nosed dolphins playing in the ship’s wake. Then, upon our arrival at Sapelo, we had plenty of help unloading our gear from a few of the island’s 80 permanent residents, who had themselves made a food-shopping foray to the mainland. These friendly people, some of whom still speak fascinating Gullah (an English dialect that mixes in words and grammatical ele­ments from various African languages), live in a 434-acre community called Hog Hammock–land R. J. Reynolds exchanged for their private holdings throughout the island. Though a small store sells dry goods and canned food, most supplies have to be shipped in. We also shared the ferry with some of the few island children who attend school on the mainland.

A bumpy ride in the back of a truck took us down a series of narrow, tree-lined roads to a nearly untouched part of Sapelo. Over the years, much of the island was cleared for agriculture or pine plantations, but here we pitched our tents under the gnarled limbs of stately live oaks draped with Spanish moss. A salt marsh, abounding in sea life, was a minute’s walk through the trees to the west. Sparkling Cabretta Beach was a five-minute journey to the east over sand dunes held together by sea oats and pennywort and guarded by prickly pear and sandburs, which stick viciously to skin, shoes and clothing and were the bane of my barefoot childhood. At low tide, an outlying sandbar–thick with pelicans, terns, sandpipers and gulls–forms the biggest, most incredible tide pool I’ve ever seen. At low tide, too, it’s possible to wade over to Blackbeard Island just to the north. (Named after the pirate who’s said to have frequented the area, it’s now a nation­al wildlife refuge.)

We were blessed with prime autumn weather. It was warm enough during the day to make wading in the water a delight, and cool enough at night to eliminate the mosqui­toes that plague these islands during hotter seasons.

We divided our time among several pur­suits: the muddy job of collecting mussels, oysters and periwinkles from the marsh; dig­ging for clams, whelks and cockles at the beach; seining with a huge net in the tide pool; and crabbing or fishing off the bridge over Cabretta Creek. And we had varying degrees of success. Clams and mussels we had aplenty. The crab pots produced sever­al stone crabs–one so huge and beautiful that by consensus we let the magnificent “granddaddy” go. Our seining efforts were less productive but were the most fun. All we caught were a few blue crabs, small fish and lots of young stingrays, most of which we released. (I use the term “we” loosely, for we let trip leader Ted handle these somewhat dangerous bottom feeders.) We did keep a couple of the larger fellows, and–much to my surprise–we found the meat from their “wings” marvelously sweet and tender. For most of us, too, eating cockles and tiny periwinkles (which are pulled from their shells with toothpicks or used to flavor fish stews) was a first-time experience.

But foraging wasn’t our only pastime. Nights would find us out on the bridge star­gazing with binoculars, while the creek, home to a huge alligator dubbed Albert, ran inky black below, and the Milky Way streamed like a bright, white river of light in the clear sky overhead.

One morning, as some of us hiked the two miles into Hog Hammock, our passing frightened deer back into the woods and forced a great blue heron and a snowy egret to fly from tree to tree just ahead of us. Once in the small, scattered community, we stopped off at The Pig Pen, a tiny store that sells local crafts and souvenirs, and met Cornelia Bailey, its jocular owner, who is writing a history of the island. She enter­tained us for an hour with amusing and often poignant tales of her people. On the way home, we stopped off for a delightful chat with Allen Greene, a basket weaver in his 80s, whose much-sought-after sweet-grass baskets are widely recognized as works of art.

But the top treat of the trip was, of course, the food. Like most true seafood lovers, our group agreed that the less fancy the cooking the better, and we ate most of our catch steamed in beer and dipped in melted but­ter. But on the final night, with some of everything previously mentioned needing to be consumed, we concocted a Wilderness Southeast Seafood Gumbo. It may be that our appetites were made ravenous by the sea air, sunshine and exercise or perhaps by the freshness of the foraged ingredients; maybe it was simply many hands combining to make a perfect feast. Whatever the secret, that gumbo was, for the brief time it exist­ed, the world’s most delicious dish!  

Simple Seafood Recipes: Catch it and Cook It!

Wilderness Southeast Seafood Gumbo

1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons margarine
15 ounces canned okra
30 ounces canned tomatoes
1 1/2 cups quick-cooking rice
3 cubes chicken bouillon
3 ounces real bacon bits
2 1/2 cups water
2 pounds foraged seafood (in our case, steamed mussels and clams, mullet, shrimp, stingray, stone crab and blue crab; or, in a pinch, substitute whatever your market has available, or even 30 ounces of canned salmon)

Sauté onion and green pepper in marga­rine in a large skillet for 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, and stir well. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 25 minutes, until liquid is absorbed. Serves 7-11.

Steamed Mussels

1/3 cup chopped celery
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/3cup chopped carrot
2 sprigs parsley
2 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon thyme
6 black peppercorns
Salt to taste
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
1 cup chicken bouillon
2 teaspoons vinegar
15-20 medium-sized mussels per serv­ing, thoroughly scrubbed

Combine all ingredients except mussels in a large pot. Bring to a boil, and cook for 10 minutes. Add mussels, and steam until shells open (about 15 minutes). Discard any with closed shells. Serve hot with melted butter on the side for dunking.

Simple Oyster Stew

2 quarts freshly opened oysters with their juice
2 quarts milk
1/2 pound margarine
Salt and pepper to taste

Wash the oysters in their own juice, and strain juice to get out sand and bits of shell. Cook oysters in their juice about 5 minutes or until the edges curl. Heat milk in a large double boiler. Add oysters and juice to milk. Add margarine, salt and pepper, and heat thoroughly. Serves 7-11.

Clam Spaghetti

2 pounds spaghetti
2 onions, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces canned mushrooms, drained
2 tablespoons dried parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup white wine
2 pounds fresh clams, scrubbed, steamed open and removed from shells, or sub­stitute 24-30 ounces canned clams
4 ounces Parmesan cheese

Cook spaghetti in a large pot. In a skillet, sauté onion, garlic, mushrooms and parsley in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add wine, and heat over low heat for 10 minutes. Stir in clams, and mix with drained spaghet­ti. Top with Parmesan. Serves 7-11.

Shellfish and Pollutants: Pretty Poisons?

Though our shorelines are rich with seafood for the harvesting, to do so cor­rectly and safely you’ll need to learn a few rules beyond that of gathering oysters only in months whose names include r‘s

First, many states and local townships have regulations governing the sizes and numbers of shellfish and such that can be collected. Licenses are often required, so check with the authorities in your area.

Second, and most unfortunately, many formerly pristine seashores are now contami­nated with man-made pollutants. Shellfish carrying hepatitis and even cholera have made eating these treats raw an often unwise practice. And that natural phenomenon, red tide, also closes shellfish beds on occasion. (Even on relatively remote Cabretta Beach, despite a recent cleanup by local residents, the high-tide mark was marred with half-­filled jars of mayonnaise and other such ref­use tossed from passing boats.)

The manner in which you collect and cook seafood can also affect its safety. Inex­perienced foragers should learn this skill with a knowledgeable teacher or, at the very least, should read some good books on the subject. As a primer, we highly recommend Stalking thBlue-Eyed Scalloby Euell Gibbons (1987, David McKay Co., Inc., or 1988, Alan C. Hood Publishing).