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Secret spot off the beaten path: Harris Neck

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

The secret history of Harris Neck is that it once belonged to a thriving community of Geechee folk descended from freed slaves until the government, passing over thousands of uninhabited acres, seized the Neck to build an Army airfield. Residents were given a pittance and two weeks to clear out before their homes got torched. Later the base was abandoned but the dispossessed weren’t allowed back — instead, they turned it into a wildlife refuge.

Today there is a movement to reclaim Harris Neck that would allow black families to resume living on their historic homeland in an ecologically sustainable way, keeping the better part open to the public. But that’s not what this article is about. It’s about a lovely day spent exploring the Neck by bike. With 15 miles of old roadbeds and runways sprouting weeds through the cracks, the refuge is a great place to ride. Remote, little visited, on the fringes of the continent, these coastal Georgia hinterlands are silent. Armadillos populate the forests; turkeys bob over the meadows; egrets stalk the creek banks and wood storks colonize the ponds; redwing blackbirds sing from former rice fields; sand roads are printed with deer tracks.

And there are surprises amidst the landscape, too. A graveyard with headstones dates back to the 1800s and a little black angel statue keeps vigil. The remains of a decorative tank now overgrown and sunk into the forest floor, once part of a romantic garden. An old stone fountain, weathered and lichen-stained, sitting in a pool filmed with soft green scum, against a backdrop of Spanish moss and vines like a dripping watercolor. Haunting scenes of grandeur come to ruin.

At a public pier and boat ramp facing out over endless marsh, a man was doing maintenance on his oyster boat while his wife, wearing rubber boots, looked on. We struck up a conversation. They asked where I was from and I said somewhere like this but too grown up, that the peace of this place was refreshing. “Nobody out here but the homefolks,” I commented.

“Mhmm you right!” he said proudly. “We ain’t got no stores, nuthin’.”

Suddenly the refuge came alive. Families rolled up with their fishing rods and two preteens sat on the dock with elders who’d clearly dragged them out. “I ain’t brangin’ you two fisin’ no mo’,” the old man chided playfully. “Ya’ll bad luck.” The kids just shook their heads and said “You wrong for that,” then went back to singing gospel and Christian rap that was playing on a cell phone. It struck me that these dull times were something to miss later. Whomever the future of Harris Neck belongs to — families, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or maybe just to critters — I hope I can still ride here.

This fountain and two decorative pools are all that remain of the 19th century plantation that existed at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

How to get there

Location: McIntosh County, Georgia

Mode of transport: Bicycle

Directions: Head south on I-95, take exit 67 and follow signs to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Park at the entrance and bike or walk in. You can also tour the refuge via a one-way wildlife drive.

If you go: Don’t miss the Smallest Church in America at the head of Harris Neck Road.