Kayaking to Cumberland Island, Georgia, is truly Coastal Georgia kayaking at its best. Cumberland Island has long been a destination for tourist seeking pristine beaches and classic maritime forest landscapes; but over the past 15-years, kayaking to the island has become a must-do for paddlers from all over the world. The trip to Cumberland Island, however, is not for beginners; and even experts can find themselves Up The Creek if they don’t check the tides.
Tidal currents in the area are substantial and can be a double-edged sword. If you know what the tides are doing and work with them, tidal currents can make your trip a breeze. If you don’t heed the tides, they could make your trip a nightmare. There is roughly a 6-foot to 10-foot tidal range along this part of the Southeast coast; meaning that, depending on the time of year and the time of month, High tide can be 6-to-10-feet above Low tide. That translates into a lot of water coming and going through these waterways every six-hours. The result is tidal currents that can reach 6-kts or more! For reference, that’s a pretty respectable speed for a racer in a kayak built for racing.
So, check the tides before you set off for the island — or before paddling anywhere within 20-miles of the coast. With the tides in your favor, the trip to Cumberland can take anywhere from an hour and a half to a little over 4-hours, depending on your destination. From the boat launch at Crooked River State Park, the trip over to Plum Orchard is approximately 6-miles and the trip to Sea Camp is closer to 9-miles. For back-country campers seeking the solitude of Brickhill Bluff, the trip is about 12-miles (paddle the 6-miles to Plum Orchard, then 6-more miles up the Brickhill River to your campsite). With a 5-hour window of outgoing tidal currents (you lose some time when traveling toward the coast), any of these destinations can be easily reached by an experienced kayaker.
To negotiate local tides in any area, you should contact a local expert, or at least pick up a tide chart from a local outfitter, fishing supply store or bait shop. Along the coast, everything that happens in the water is affected by tides in one way or another, so tide charts should be easy to find. After acquiring a tide chart, check the tide for the day you plan to paddle and then apply the correction factor for your put-in and take-out. The times listed on the chart will be calculated for the outer bar; but it takes about two-hours for that water to reach the put-in at Crooked River State Park (the most popular jumping-off point for paddlers heading to Cumberland). When kayaking to Cumberland Island, in other words, find the High Tide for your departure date and add two-hours to that. You’ll want to leave shortly after High Tide at Crooked River State Park and ride the falling tide out to the island.
For the return trip, you’ll be leaving the island after Low Tide and riding the incoming tide, or flood tide, as it fills the estuarine system and pulls water back in the direction of Crooked River State Park — where you’ll want to arrive BEFORE the next High Tide. If you don’t make it back to Crooked River before High Tide, the tide will change and the currents will reverse in the river as it empties back out into the Atlantic. Do Not Think You Can Paddle Against This Current! You Cannot. Just imagine the Crooked River as a reversible treadmill that changes direction every 6-hours, and quickly accelerates to speeds that are unmanageable for paddlers.
Coupled with winds, the tidal currents in the Crooked River can sometimes create rather dramatic surface conditions that require advanced skills to negotiate. Make sure you’re up for a challenge and check with local experts while you’re planning your trip in order to avoid any trip-ruining mistakes. Paddling to Cumberland Island is worth the effort it takes to do it right, so check the tides, and make sure you understand what the tides are doing before you put-in, in order to make sure your trip starts and ends on a good note.