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Susan Shipman, third from left, is pictured with St. Catherine’s Island Foundation Naturalist Christa Hayes, from left, Jacob Thompson of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Alan Powell, photographer

People often wonder what St. Simons looked like when the Guale Indians were the only inhabitants — before the explorers, the colonists and others found the island and began staking their claims. The answer can be found at Guale Preserve, the new nature preserve acquired by the St. Simons Land Trust from the Brenn Foundation, owners of Musgrove Retreat and Conference Center. Granted, some power lines are visible, but other than that, the land is as pristine and undisturbed as it likely was hundreds of years ago.

Entering into the preserve, on Middle Road, just across from the Frederica Stables on Lawrence Road, is to step into another dimension. A short drive down a paved road leads to a 15-space parking area, complete with a handicap-compliant space and an ADA-compliant portable toilet. Visitors must bring their own beverages, bug spray and sunscreen. Hats are also a good idea.

Whereas bonafide service animals are permitted, pet dogs are not allowed in the preserve because they could disturb the wildlife.

Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, visitors are free to enjoy hiking, biking, birding, photography and other low-impact activities. No commercial activities are permitted.

Two walking paths can be accessed directly from the parking area – a Georgia Power right-of-way that spokesperson Susan Shipman said would be great for family hike because of its width and route through a wooded area. The second is the aforementioned Middle Road, which gives people of all abilities the opportunity to explore the various ecosystems found throughout the preserve.

“It’s great for bikes, strollers and assisted mobility devices,” said Shipman.

A third trail also intersects twice with Middle Road, forming a loop.

The preserve is comprised of three parcels that were formerly part of Musgrove Conference Center, once known as Musgrove Plantation, two of which – the middle and northern parcels – are most accessible. The third section, closer to the main entrance to Musgrove, sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Michael.

Shipman touts the rare habitats found in the preserve, including extensive stands of pond pine, or longleaf pine flatwoods, in several areas.

“This type of pine is only found here, and on Cumberland and Sapelo (islands),” said Shipman. “The needles grow off the branches and the trunk, and the pine cones are different than other types of pines.”

Other than walking, or cycling, through the park, active pursuits are not a part of a visit to Guale Preserve. There are plans to install picnic tables in a few spots so people can stop and rest, but other than that, amenities are sparse.

“It’s not Disney World,” Shipman laughed. “It’s about enjoying the serenity of nature.”

Passive recreation is important to the renewal of the body and spirit, and building a conservation ethic is important for children, who, Shipman said, would do well to put down their screens and come outdoors.

“This is also a great place for bird-watching,” she said. Visitors often see shorebirds and wading birds, along with raptors like eagles, osprey and hawks. Wood storks and egrets abound. “We have so many species of concern, at both the state and federal level.”

Other animals frequent the preserve, including deer, squirrels, raccoons, opossums along with other wildlife common to the area, and most likely, some snakes, although Shipman said she hasn’t had any encounters with the legless reptiles so far.

The flora is also diverse. In addition to the pond pine, red bay, American holly, palmetto, Yaupon holy and wax myrtle are everywhere. Wax myrtle, Shipman said, attracts the beautiful painted bunting.

“Red bay is under attack by a fungus transmitted by the Ambrosia beetle, which came in through the Port of Savannah,” she said, adding that University of Florida and Georgia Forestry Commission researchers are currently evaluating a stand of red bay at Cannon’s Point, just north of Guale Preserve, to determine what’s made that stand resistant to the beetle-transmitted fungus. “Thousands of acres of red bay have been lost throughout the Southeast.”

The fancifully named sparkleberry, most likely of the blueberry family, also plays a role in attracting birds, bees and other pollinators. Deer tongue, which is important for attracting butterflies, is also abundant.

With several different zones, the preserve provides a biodiversity laboratory in our own back yard.

“The three important habitats to mention are the maritime forest, the pond pine flatwoods and the Tupelo swamp, or wetlands,” Shipman said. “There aren’t many freshwater wetlands left; they’ve all been ditched, drained and developed.”