Authors: Will Harlan
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Nonfiction, #Retail, #Top 2014
The Wildest Woman in America
Fight for Cumberland Island
Copyright © 2014 by Will Harlan
Jacket design by Royce M. Becker
Jacket photograph courtesy of the author
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011
Distributed by Publishers Group West
Illustration by Wade Mickley
bareback through the ocean
Carol shot the wild hog roaming the dunes and gutted it on the beach. She cooked the meat over a campfire as the first pinpricks of starlight pierced the sky. She had not slept in two days, and her eyelids grew heavy as the food settled in.
She felt safe on the wide-open, windswept beach. Anything was better than being holed up in her cabin waiting for a bullet. The thrum of the tides calmed her jangled nerves.
Then she spotted a wet-backed glint of moonlight moving through the curling breakers. A giant sea turtle heaved her ancient body out of the water and onto the dark island beach. She crawled into the dunes, dug a nest with her flippers, and began dropping Ping-Pong-ball-sized eggs into the hole. Gooey tears dripped from the turtle’s eyes.
Carol crept closer. She waited until the turtle had finished burying her eggs. Then she grabbed the turtle by the rim of her shell, hoisted the edge of her three-hundred-pound body skyward, and flipped her onto her back. The turtle hissed.
“I know, darlin’. This won’t take long.”
Carol stapled identification tags into the turtle’s flippers and measured her shell: 219 centimeters, one of the largest ever recorded on Cumberland Island. The turtle’s liquid brown eyes followed Carol.
“Don’t fret, mama. I’ll keep an eye on your nest.”
The giant sea turtle crawled back into the ocean. As Carol watched, a lonely trickle of wind grazed her cheek. The beach was dark and deserted, and so was she. Feverishly, Carol stripped off her clothes and waded out to the turtle, still awash in the surf.
She straddled the turtle’s massive shell and held on to the front edge, riding bareback into the wild waters. The sea turtle—slow and heavy on land—was swift and buoyant in the ocean. Carol felt lighter, too. Her fears lifted. The dread that had shadowed her for months washed away as the turtle carried her farther from shore.
Then the turtle began to dive. Carol gulped one last lungful of air and pressed herself against the turtle’s shell as they went underwater together.
She and the turtle skimmed the ocean floor. It was quiet, the water was inky, and Carol’s lungs burned, but she held on and went deeper still. Down here, she felt raw and real. She tightened her grip on the turtle’s shell and held on as long as she could.
Ahead, the ocean floor dropped off sharply. The turtle plunged into the abyss, and Carol finally let go. She clawed frantically toward the moonlit surface and finally popped out into the night air, gasping and wheezing. She floated on her back, chest heaving, the summer stars whirling overhead.
“Hooo-weee!” she howled. She drifted naked in the ocean, tossed by the waves, her oxygen-starved lungs still on fire.
Then she noticed a different burning—gory gashes along her legs that had ripped open when she slid off the turtle’s barnacled back. A cloud of bloody water engulfed her bare body. She could not see the shore.
Electric fear shot through her veins like lightning. She was swimming through one of the largest shark nurseries in the eastern Atlantic. Sand tigers, hammerheads, and spinner sharks bred and fed in the fecund waters. Carol swam hard and steady, trying not to flail or thrash. A trail of blood followed in her wake. Salt stung her open wounds. With each stroke, one thought rattled around her skull: “I’m bait!”
Carol lifted her head to scan the waves for fins but saw only scattered moonlight across the rolling ocean. The tide carried her closer to shore. Finally, her fingers brushed the sandy bottom. She stumbled out of the surf and collapsed onto the beach, her body shaking, her adrenaline-buzzed brain soaring with wild delight.
Carol pressed her bandana against the bloodiest of her gashes. The night breeze dried her. About a half mile out, she saw the giant turtle surface for air and then disappear into the deep.
She stepped back into her jeans, buttoned her flannel shirt, and shouldered her pack. Her hair was still wet, so she stopped to wring out the ocean from her braids. That’s when she looked down at the sand: another pair of boot prints followed hers. Carol felt eyes watching her from the forest.
Carol Ruckdeschel is the wildest woman in America. She eats roadkill, wrestles alligators, and dissects dead sea turtles that wash ashore. She lives on a wilderness island in a ramshackle cabin that she built herself, and she eats mostly what she hunts, gathers, and grows. She is a hard-drinking, gun-toting, modern-day Thoreau who is even more outspoken in protecting her Waldenesque island.
A self-taught scientist with only a high school diploma, she knows more about sea turtles than most PhD biologists. She is the Jane Goodall of sea turtles and a voice for wilderness, especially on Cumberland Island, a national park along the Georgia coast that Carol calls home. Cumberland is one of the most biologically diverse islands in the world—the United Nations named it a global biosphere reserve because it shelters so much rare and endangered wildlife. Alligators slide through primordial swamps, while bald eagles soar overhead, and horses roam free. Dense flocks of wood storks nest in old-growth live oaks strewn with beards of Spanish moss. Its bone-colored beaches are pristine and unspoiled, and its dunes are still covered with sea oats instead of beachfront hotels. Hundreds of sea turtles nest on the eighteen-mile-long barrier island each summer, as they have for millennia.
Turtles aren’t the only creatures that dig Cumberland. Even before John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette married there in 1996, Cumberland Island has attracted its share of lovers. It was a coveted Gilded Age playground for the Carnegie and Rockefeller families. In 1972, it became one of the country’s most beloved national parks. Today, artists set up easels atop its towering dunes, backpackers trek through the island’s mystical maritime forests, and kayakers paddle through a labyrinth of creeks fingering through its emerald marshes. It’s one of the last and largest wilderness islands in the country.
It’s also one of the most controversial. Cumberland Island, originally named
—“place of fire,” has ignited human passions for centuries. Native Americans slaughtered the island’s first Christian missionaries and were soon decimated by conquistadors. Later, the marshes ran red with blood as European commanders feuded over the island.
However, for most of Cumberland’s recent history, it’s been fierce females who have fought to protect the island. In the past century, bold island matriarchs chased off developers and saved the island from strip mining.
Today, the fight over Cumberland Island pits influential Carnegie and Rockefeller heirs against a scrappy turtle biologist who rides bareback in shark-infested waters. Will one of the wealthiest families in America be stopped by a dirt-poor naturalist with turtle guts beneath her fingernails?
Carol has made some enemies. They have described her as a “pseudo-scientist who smells like death” and a “manipulative, murderous whore who cares more about turtles than people.” She’s had three husbands and many lovers. She is an exiled island outcast—ostracized by the wealthy, vilified by government officials, and even stalked like prey.
Not surprisingly, she mostly prefers the companionship of wild creatures to human ones. Carol tromps the island in search of alligator dens and turtle nests. She likes a hard drink every evening. She is as tough as the sea turtle carapaces that line her museum. But beneath that hardened shell is a soft, bruised being.
I began hearing stories about Carol as soon as I arrived on Cumberland Island nineteen years ago. I was working as a ranger for the National Park Service on Cumberland Island, and visitors inevitably asked about “Carrion Carol.”
“Have you met the wicked witch of the wilderness?”
“Does her breath smell like roadkill?”
“Is she hiding out from the law?”
“Does she fight with the vultures over turtle carcasses?”
“Carol comes tearing ass down the beach on her motorcycle, pigtails flying in the wind,” one fellow park ranger told me. “People stand with their mouths open and gawk. She is not unaware of the effect she has on people—especially men.”
After a few weeks, I asked my boss, the chief ranger of Cumberland Island, about Carol. His eyes narrowed, his lips curled, and he grumbled, “We don’t talk about her.”
But the maintenance guys down at the park garage were more than happy to oblige.
“Carol eats dead things off the road.”
“She rides horses buck naked down the beach, carryin’ a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in one hand and firin’ a pistol with the other.”
“I seen her smashin’ ticks between her teeth. She just picks ’em off her legs and mashes ’em in her mouth, then spits out the juice.”
Inevitably, the banter ended with a long pause, followed by a cold, eyebrow-raised murmur: “You know, she killed a man.”
Island families were less vague: “She killed her boyfriend so she could live here,” a Carnegie islander told me. “She slept her way onto the island.”
“Carol likes animals and hates people,” said another Carnegie heiress. “That’s why all of her husbands end up dead.” More than once, I was warned by island families to stay away from her or I’d end up with my throat slit.
At an island meeting, Gogo Ferguson warned me not to get too close to Carol, and that wilderness was the most important thing to her. Gogo, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Carnegie, is a jewelry designer who helped run her family’s private inn on Cumberland Island. Gogo and Carol were once close friends, but later became bitter rivals.
As a Cumberland Island ranger, I hiked through snake-filled swamps and wetlands thick with alligators, but after hearing stories from rangers and island families, I was more nervous about crossing paths with Carol.
Then, quite unexpectedly one afternoon, I stumbled onto her, elbow-deep in the bowels of a dead sea turtle that had washed ashore. I approached cautiously.
“Wanna see what she ate for breakfast?” Carol asked, without lifting her head.
She reached into the turtle’s long white fire hose of intestines, which were a diary of its life. Olive goop spilled onto the beach. She sorted through the slop to find the remains of crabs, snails, and shrimp.
Then Carol opened the turtle’s chest. Its nerves twitched, and its heart was still beating. A turtle’s heart can continue throbbing hours after it has been butchered. Carol held the pumping fist of flesh in her bare, bloodstained hands.
“I have a heart like you,” she whispered.
She slid the beating heart into a plastic sack. Then she sliced off the turtle’s head and loaded it onto her four-wheeler. She dragged the remaining carcass into the dunes and whistled. A pair of black vultures appeared overhead. She knew the vultures by name, and she could tell which ones had followed her from her cabin fourteen miles to the north.
“The bird pickin’ at the turtle’s bowels—that’s Big Man. He steals mullet out of my cat’s food bowl every morning.”
Carol’s soil-brown eyes wrinkled at the corners when she smiled, and her teeth were radiant and white. With her high cheekbones, dark hair, and tanned skin, she could have passed for Native American. She was trim and fit, with calloused hands and a lean, strong frame. The sleeves of her button-down flannel were rolled up to her elbows, and her baggy jeans were smudged with turtle flesh. Tied to her horse-leather belt were a steel knife, bandana, and a timepiece. Her jeans were stuffed into white rubber boots, which she wore to keep her sockless feet dry and to protect her from snakes and ticks.
Her five-foot-six, 120-pound frame was lithe and agile, like a gymnast’s. She could stand on one hand and drink a shot of whiskey with the other. She could climb any tree on the island and catch any animal.
She invited me up to see her homestead on the island’s north end. Despite all of the dire warnings I had received, I hopped aboard her four-wheeler, wedged between Carol and a rotting turtle skull in a wet cardboard box.
Her cabin was nestled deep in the wilderness, surrounded by an old-growth forest of live oaks and longleaf pines. She had rebuilt the cabin years ago by dragging planks of driftwood from the beach. Wood was still piled everywhere.
“I couldn’t drive to the hardware store, so I brought it to me,” she said.
The inconvenience of living on a bridgeless barrier island also explained the stacks of hats, clothes, and tools strewn about. A trip to the grocery store took a full day, since the twice-a-day ferry was her only way to the mainland. So Carol collected goods that washed ashore on her weekly beach surveys, even bottled beer, canned food, and seaworthy fruits and vegetables. She had furnished most of her cabin with scavenged tables, benches, and rocking chairs. Her homestead was a chaotic collection of packrat practicality. She saved everything from auto parts to worn shoes.
Strewn about the yard were dozens of plastic buckets, each with macerated turtle skulls in various states of decay. The stench blended into a background of other aromas: citrus, smoked cedar, tomato, pine.
Black vultures lined the apex of her rusted tin roof, heads tilted, waiting to peck at the fresh turtle skull on the four-wheeler. One vulture drank from a sun-warmed ceramic bathtub—her “redneck Jacuzzi”—plopped in the middle of the yard. Her free-ranging hens
from the edge of the forest.