In honor of Earth Day, April 22, 2023, we’re rerunning this post about the amazing environmental activist, naturalist and author Carol Ruckdeschel and the natural, national treasure that is Cumberland Island, Georgia. (This post originally ran April 14, 2020 on this site.) Enjoy!
I had been hearing so much press about Glennon Doyle’s new book release Untamed, and I was excited to read it. Seeing as I could no longer simply mosey into my local bookstore, I pulled up Amazon and typed in Untamed. There it was, at the top of the list, with a brightly colored book jacket to match all its hubbub.
But just below Doyle’s Untamed, was another and it looked interesting too: Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island by Will Harlan. In that moment, something called me to dig deeper into this second book on the list. So, I did and from page one, I was hooked.
After reading this intriguing biography, I’m not going to argue with Harlan: Carol Ruckdeschel is the wildest woman in America, and she is also a real-life hero, a super gritty, real-life hero.
Carol Ruckdeschel, as stated on the back cover of Harlan’s book, “is a self-taught scientist who has become a tireless defender of sea turtles on Cumberland Island.”
According to the National Park Services website, “Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southern most barrier island” and “is also home to over 9,800 acres of Congressionally designated Wilderness,” this designation the result of Carol’s decades long fight.
Born in 1941 in Rochester, NY, Carol grew up an only child. Her father, Earl Ruckdeschel, “taught Carol how to shoot when she was a toddler”and “poured Carol her first glass of liquor when she was twelve years old”(11). Carol was always good with guns and enjoyed a potent drink at the end of her wild days!
Carol’s father also taught her how to take things apart and put them back together, “watches, radios, lawn mower engines, and, of course, rifles”(7). Her parents allowed Carol to roam the neighborhoods and woods by herself and early on she was attracted to nature and animals with a fervor few possess. Not allowed to bring injured creatures in the house, the basement became Carol’s animal rehab and temporary habitat.
When Carol was 10, Kodak transferred her father to Hawaii, where she “flourished in both the cultural and natural diversity of the island. Porpoises and sea turtles swam in the canal near their rental apartment. Whenever a sea turtle glided past, Carol would follow it in the canal for miles, all the way out to the bay”(10).
After a year in Hawaii, the family moved north of Atlanta, Georgia. “At age eleven, Carol was hiking four miles to the river every weekend, setting crawfish traps, tracking coons, and flipping rocks in search of salamanders”(11).
Being an only child,
“I got used to being by myself. I didn’t know anything else, so I didn’t know I was lonely. I knew from an early age that I was different. That meant being comfortable with solitude…Out in nature is where I belong. I love it so much, and it accepts me,” Carol wrote when she was fourteen”(12).
Carol’s intense relationship with nature and the outdoors developed as she did.
“After graduating from high school, she camped in her cave beside the river, testing her self-taught, self-reliant outdoor skills…she proved she could live on her own terms, by her own rules, without money or a steady job. In her cave beside the river, Carol made a lifelong promise to herself:
“I’ll live according to my own rules. And the only way to live wild and free is to not need money. I can’t allow myself to want things, because I’ll have to get a job and stay locked in that way of life. I don’t belong there. I belong out here”(23).
But life has a way of entangling us and Carol’s was no different. Working full-time to save money, she became involved in relationships that steered her away from her own goals. She dropped out of college and played a support role to the men in her life.
When her second husband left her for another one of his young students, Carol took a road trip to soothe her broken heart and ended up on Cumberland Island,
“She and Charlie were finished but a new relationship had begun. The island had already started to grab hold of her. Nothing in her life had ever felt so right. On Cumberland, she felt like she had finally clicked into place. After twenty-eight years, two failed marriages, and several false starts, the island was wiping the slate clean”(40).
A year after her first visit to Cumberland Island, at age 29, Carol landed a job with Georgia’s Natural Areas Council, “a new state agency charged with identifying and protecting the wildest lands in Georgia,” where she was assigned to work with Sam Chandler, an heir of the Coca-Cola family with direct ties to Cumberland Island.
Carol also connected with another man who would become instrumental in assisting her lifelong wilderness preservation mission. The then governor of Georgia met Carol while white-water rafting down rivers Carol was fighting to protect, the Chattooga and Chattahoochee Rivers. This man was Jimmy Carter.
“Carter was already awestruck by the brash, barefoot conservationist who moved with equal fearlessness through snake-infested swamps and snake-infested state capitol building”(53).
These connections would prove important, but most impressive was Carol herself, the self-sufficiency and drive she possessed. She knew she couldn’t go it alone completely, but she also knew she would never abandon herself and her mission, no matter what.
In 1972, Carol was offered a job on Cumberland Island as hired help for the Chandler family and she took it. Not ideal, she knew it offered her a place on this island where she needed to be, an island that had just been designated a national park.
Six years later, “In the fall of 1978, Carol bought a wobbly shack on one-third of an acre for $36,000”(143) and she was finally “home”. She was no longer employed by anyone either.
Carol still lives on Cumberland today, at age 78 (at the time of this repost, 81). Her fight to preserve the island, at least the northern part, and the creatures, especially the sea turtles, has been relentless and fierce.
“Even as a child, Carol had been especially fascinated with turtles…turtles are one of the oldest animal species still on the planet, dating back 230 million years. They are survivors, enduring the eons with unswerving, steadfast stamina”(101).
This unswerving, steadfast stamina was building in Carol too.
“Carol was becoming feral. She ate wild-caught critters, sometimes raw. She trained her body to rely on only one meal a day, staying lean and mean like the other predators stalking the island. She bathed in the surf. Her body was adapting to sleeping in short snatches, just like animals. The exhaustion toughened her resolve.
“Overextend your will to strengthen it,” she wrote in her journal”(110).
Soon, Carol became a recognizable fixture on the island.
“Her outfit of salvaged men’s clothes was often ridiculed, especially by the fashionable island families who vacationed on Cumberland, but long-sleeve shirts and rugged pants were the most practical attire for life on a barrier island…this was a wilderness island, where exposed flesh was chewed, chawed, and chomped”(111).
Her reputation extended far beyond her attire. Carol consciously became an advocate and activist, in particular for those creatures who could not fight for themselves; she gave them a voice, a very data-backed, far-reaching voice. A self-taught biologist, naturalist, and sea turtle expert, she decided to put all of this knowledge to use for the good of the island, its creatures, and our world.
“For years she had taken from the island: oysters from the marsh, driftwood from the beach, data from dead animals. The only way she could stay on Cumberland was to give something back. She could fight for the wild. She could speak for the turtles and gators. She could be a voice crying out for the wilderness”(178).
Carol’s timing to step up politically couldn’t have been better.
“Cumberland needed her more than ever. In the late 1970s, the National Park Service planned colossal developments on the island to accommodate one million tourists annually…Even well-intentioned agencies like the National Park Service had become more focused on visitation revenues than preserving wild places. Parks could be loved to death, especially a sandbar in south Georgia that was about to be inundated by a million people.
“Carol realized that the only way to prevent overcrowded beaches, noisy vehicle tours, bulldozed dunes, cluttered concession stands, and garbage-strewn boardwalks was to designate the island as wilderness”(179).
Carol, poised for the fight, was aware but not deterred by what she was up against.
“From the start, it was a gamble. She was a wild card, and the deck was stacked against her. The National Park Service, state and local leaders, the Carnegie families, and even several environmental groups already supported the tourist resort proposal”(196).
Carol figured out that her best approach would be grassroots. Instead of fighting against something, Carol realized the power in fighting for something.
“People are tired of fighting against things. They want something to fight for. An island wilderness is something that people can believe in…she proposed designating the entire northern half of the island as wilderness”(197).
And the people did fight for this. In 1982, the bill, originally supported by President Carter and finally signed into law by President Reagan, protected the northern half of the island as wilderness.
“Soon after, the United Nations designated the island a Global Biosphere Reserve, one of only 384 in the world – joining the ranks of Yellowstone, Patagonia, Denali, and the Serengeti”(204).
From the time she had arrived on Cumberland,
Carol had been assembling “one of the world’s largest sea turtle and marine mammal collections. In 1990, curators at the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, D.C., heard about Carols’s collections and asked Carol if she would share her specimens so they could be studied by the world’s top scientists. Carol was thrilled. She began providing them with specimens from the creatures that washed up on her eighteen-mile Atlantic doorstep.
“The whole point of my work is to make their deaths useful,” Carol said. “Preserving and studying the carcasses at least provides some purpose to the carnage”(235).
And there’s been a lot of carnage, but Carol never gave up.
She “spent forty-one years immersed in sea turtle research on her wild island. She has necropsied over four thousand turtles on Cumberland. Through hurricanes and hundred-degree heat, Carol has been gutting sea turtle carcasses, studying death to better understand life”(242).
The battle to save the sea turtles rages on, against devastating shrimp trawlers and their nets and underwater nuclear submarine bases, with plans to expand and build more.
“Like other scientists, Carol was a data-driven, detail-oriented biologist who insisted on absolute accuracy and meticulous research. But unlike her colleagues, she combined her research with activism. Most of the scientists she met at turtle conferences tended to write technical papers for obscure academic publications. They were trained to divorce feelings from facts. They shied away from advocacy and rarely shared their research with the general public.
“Carol was different. She didn’t dress the part. She had no job or ego at stake. She just wanted to save the damn sea turtles. Even though everyone in the scientific community agreed that turtles were in trouble, few did anything about it.
“So Carol decided to make some noise”(267).
For this she was praised and respected by many, and reviled by many. Carol’s been called all kinds of names, one of the kinder ones “the wicked witch of the wilderness,” and accused of doing things she’s never done.
Carol’s not finished. It’s become clear the fight must extend beyond the island.
“Meanwhile, Carol has turned up the volume on her call for a marine reserve along the Southeastern coast of the United States, home to the world’s largest population of loggerhead sea turtles and their most prized nesting habitat, along with the nursery of the most endangered species of whales.
“To save Cumberland, she would have to venture beyond the tide line. So, instead of an underwater navy battleground, Carol proposed a five-hundred-square-mile underwater wilderness”(281).
Carol, all while on the front lines, has written many scholarly articles and two books, Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States (2000) which she co-wrote with her now-deceased partner, C.R. (Bob) Shoop, and A Natural History of Cumberland Island, Georgia (2017).
Will Harlan, after 19 years of tracing Carol, shares this sentiment:
“Mother Nature is a tough old broad. Like the humble tortoise lining up against the hotshot hare, she will outlast us…Our supremacy is short-lived, and our species’ future is uncertain. Only one thing is for sure: we need Mother Nature a lot more than she needs us”(187).
Carol Ruckdeschel is a remarkable Nasty Woman Activist, who continues to fight the good fight for Cumberland Island and beyond.
© Maria Dintino 2020, 2023
Harlan, Will. Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island. New York: Grove Press, 2014.