By Elizabeth McGowan // Contributor
ST. MARYS, Ga. — For southbound bicyclists obsessed with racking up miles, zipping along U.S. Highway 17 might be the speediest route connecting coastal Georgia to the city of Fernandina Beach, the East Coast Greenway’s gateway to Florida.
But it certainly isn’t the most scenic—or the safest.
That’s prompted advocates in Georgia’s Camden County to lure less-hurried riders to a network of trails and bike lanes that immerses them in local attractions and eventually, the pièce de resistance—a scenic, 45-minute crossing of St. Marys Inlet and Cumberland Sound on a bicycle-friendly pontoon ferry boat.
“The dream is absolutely alive,” says longtime bicycle tourism champion Terry Landreth, who co-owns a bike shop in St. Marys. “The water, docks and fuel are there and boats and captains are available. Do we have a queue of people lined up? Not yet.”
St. Marys City Council member Dave Reilly is optimistic that those lines will form soon, now that local operator Amelia River Cruises has been awarded a contract.
“The money is in the budget and we’re ready to go,” said Reilly, noting that the contract includes an incentive to offset fuel costs. “I’m excited about it starting up.”
Brent Buice, East Coast Greenway Alliance manager for Georgia and South Carolina, is as giddy as Landreth and Reilly about sealing the ferry deal.
“To be able to roll your bike on and off the ferry and be in the heart of Fernandina Beach or the charming historic waterfront of St. Marys is a special experience,” Buice says. “It’s such a compelling way to visit these mostly unknown and authentic places.”
For years, coordinating a regular ferry link has been a high priority for both city governments. But that momentum was stymied by a triple-whammy of unfortunate events. First, Hurricane Matthew slammed the region in autumn 2016. On its heels a year later, Hurricane Irma tore through.
Landreth summarizes the ensuing mess this way: “Matthew screwed things up a little bit. Irma put the nail in the coffin.”
Then—phew!—the coronavirus pandemic swooped in during spring 2020. Finally, after major rebuilds and recovery from that tumult, the ferry is once again an agenda-topper.
“It has just been some very bad luck,” Buice says. “But when they do launch, it will be a magical transition.”
Landreth chairs the Greenway Alliance of Georgia as well as Camden County’s Public Service Authority. Those volunteer roles give him leverage as he persists with a collaborative push to guide Greenway bicyclists into St. Marys on trails, well-marked bike lanes separated from traffic, and low-traffic side roads.
For instance, riders can pedal on the 4.5-mile Georgia Coast Rail Trail through Woodbine, some of which was completed as early as 1995. There’s also the new 5-mile Laurel Island Trail, which crosses Interstate 95 and was dedicated in summer 2021.
As well, 1.5 miles of riverside trail to the St. Marys docks reflects the city’s past. It’s constructed of red brick with a tabby inlay, the latter a construction material traditionally crafted from native oyster shells.
“Water is our superstar here,” Landreth says about the role freshwater from St. Marys River played in early area settlement. “We want to tell that story.”
That tale is why bicycle trailheads are built or in the works to connect sites such as the Crooked River, a traditional oyster-harvesting haven; the “tabby ruins” of the McIntosh sugar cane mill, and a bird rookery on a former pulpwood mill site.
Retiree Debbie Rogowicz is the type of leisure bicyclist seeking those stop-and-smell-the-roses experiences. She and her husband, Mike Alling, have split their time between St. Marys and New York’s Adirondack Mountains since 2013.
“Personally, I won’t ride on Highway 17,” Rogowicz says about the two-lane busy route frequented by trucks headed to and from area paper mills.
While she praises the expansion of side trails in her adopted county, she recognizes the irony of St. Marys remaining a cycling cul-de-sac unless water transport is included in the mix.
“Slowly, ferry service is eking its way forward,” she says. “We’re glad to see that happen because as a casual bicyclist, it takes a huge amount of terror out of the riding equation.”
Recently, and before hurricanes ripped into the region, Landreth encouraged pedaling tour groups to book reservations with Amelia River Cruises so they can skip the roughly 30-mile road route between outer Camden County and Fernandina Beach.
Now, everyday riders will have that same access.
The ferry crossing, not far from Cumberland Island of Carnegie family fame, is a respite for the body and a treat for the eyes. Alert passengers might spy Atlantic bottlenose dolphins “herding” fish or an osprey plucking a meal from the water. The St. Marys River, the watery Georgia-Florida border, drains the Okefenokee Swamp.
One of the trickiest challenges, Landreth says, is being sure the ferry operator has enough customers to pick up at both ports, thus maximizing time, fuel and other services.
That’s one reason he has been so diligent about shaping a critical mass of visitors to his Georgia backyard.
“You can build a town center but you can’t build a historic downtown,” Landreth says. “Ours just happens to be sitting on the waterfront and we want people to explore it.”
Buice echoes that sentiment.
“St. Marys is one of the most memorable stops in Georgia,” he says. “Until the ferry is running, people are missing it.”
Robert Barto, the Alliance’s newly hired Florida Coordinator, is equally gung-ho about offering cyclists a transportation option “away from the highway that breaks up the daily rigamarole.”
“Ferries are a novelty and there are other similar options along the Greenway,” Barto says. “I’m hoping this one can happen sooner rather than later.”
Washington, D.C.-based Elizabeth McGowan is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has won a Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards for her journalism. In late fall 2021, she rode the St. Marys to Fernandina Beach pontoon boat ferry while pedaling the Savannah, Ga. to Key West, Fla. segment of the East Coast Greenway with a group from Colorado-based Timberline Adventures. See more about that trip here: https://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.mcgowan.author. McGowan is also the author of “Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America.”
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