Wilderness Southeast marks golden anniversary with fundraising event

Spring 2023 "Fish Gotta Swim" students (Photo Courtesy of Wilderness Southeast)

Credit: Courtesy Wilderness Southeast

Combined ShapeCaption
Spring 2023 "Fish Gotta Swim" students (Photo Courtesy of Wilderness Southeast)

Credit: Courtesy Wilderness Southeast

Savannah’s own, and Georgia’s very first, ecotourism and environmental education non-profit, Wilderness Southeast, celebrates 50 years getting folks outside paddling, hiking and backpacking to learn about the wonders of the region’s flora, fauna and interconnected ecosystems. In honor of the occasion, the innovative organization is turning this year’s fundraising event into a Golden Anniversary party.

On Saturday, Oct. 7, Wilderness Southeast hosts fundraiser "Fish Gotta Swim" at Safe Harbor Bahia Bleu Marina, 2812 River Drive, in Thunderbolt. The festivities get underway at 3 p.m. with an afternoon of kayaking competitions that roll into dinner around 5:30 p.m. Beer, wine, and live entertainment by local favorites SOAP and the Crabettes keep the party flowing. The evening then features "50 Years WISE," a new documentary highlighting many of the organization's achievements since 1973.

Tickets for the whole adventure are $85 for ages 21 and up, and $20 for folks 20 and under. All proceeds support “Fish Gotta Swim,” their flagship environmental education program providing science learning opportunities for underserved middle school students in Chatham County.

Wilderness Southeast born out of friendship and adventure

A nationally recognized ecotourism trendsetter, Wilderness Southeast started as an environmental education non-profit when a group of science-focused and conservation-minded friends put their heads together in early 1970. John “Crawfish” Crawford met husband and wife duo, Dick and Joyce Murlless, when all of them worked at the Savannah Science Museum. In their late 20s, each had extensive experience as naturalists and field educators.

Shortly before they met, Crawford had gotten out of the Navy and went directly to conducting lobster research in Key West where he learned about the area’s unique ecology. At the same time, the Murllesses were leading small group, overnight canoe trips in the Okefenokee Swamp. As Eagle Scouts, both Murlless and Crawford had learned and taught outdoor skills with the Boy Scouts. And all three had science degrees from Armstrong State University and University of Georgia.

One night while the friends were sharing adventure stories, the idea was born.

Credit: Courtesy Wilderness Southeast

Credit: Courtesy Wilderness Southeast

“Dick said, I think we can start an outdoor school and run natural history trips and make a living at it,” recalled Crawford. “People were interested in getting outside, camping together, paddling the Okefenokee. Maybe more so then, than now, roughing it with a tent and backpack seemed like adventures to be embraced.”

And so, Wilderness Southeast began.

The three of them teamed up to lead weeklong minimalist nature trips for the Sierra Club, and since Crawford was familiar with the Florida Keys, they began leading camping, paddling and snorkeling trips around the Keys and Dry Tortugas National Park. In time, they ran expeditions in the Everglades and on Cumberland, Ossabaw and Wassaw Islands. By the mid-1980s, Wilderness Southeast grew to employ nine salaried staff, maintain 20 kayaks, multiple 15-passenger vans, stock an array of tents and arsenal of outdoor cooking gear.

“When we started, there were no other groups doing natural history trips in the Southeast,” Crawford said. “Sure, Outward Bound eventually had some down here, but what made our programs special was how we taught. We taught that we are part of nature. Nature is something to understand, to be comfortable in. Outward Bound focused instead that nature was an obstacle, something to overcome.”

During those early years, the organization’s goal for each adventurer was to find for themselves balance with nature. Often, expeditions would take a small library of field guides for plant and animal identification. On some trips, adventurers used small 20X microscopes to look at organisms up-close. Of course, journaling about each experience was expected.

Credit: Courtesy Cathy Sakas

Credit: Courtesy Cathy Sakas

In the fall of 1976, Cathy Sakas began guiding with the organization. Earlier that spring she’d graduated from Armstrong State with a bachelor's degree in marine biology, and she was ready to get her feet wet. To date, Sakas is the longest serving guide in the non-profit. Having led at least one trip a year, every year since 1976, Sakas estimates she’s taken 350 overnight trips into the Okefenokee, aptly earning her the moniker, "Swamp Goddess."

Sakas, who now serves on Wilderness Southeast’s board of directors, recalled one of her most challenging leadership experiences—an Everglades multi-day paddling trip in late December 1987 when a 62-year-old man experienced a heart attack. When it happened, the expedition was at least 15 hours’ paddling away from emergency services.

“That was the first year of the bag phone,” said Sakas. “An emergency phone that, luckily, I was also outfitted with for the first time, and once it powered up, someone in Naples, Florida, picked up the call and called 911. Twenty-five minutes later we heard a helicopter, it dropped a basket. We put him in and he ended up living. That bag phone was top-of-the-line technology then and an absolute lifesaver.”

That same year, 1987, also was when Wilderness Southeast was at the height of its trip offerings, as many as 50 per year through the 1980s and into early 1990. There were backpacking expeditions in the Smoky Mountains, snorkeling adventures in the Bahamas, camping in Guatemala and Costa Rica, and a slew of overnight trips along Coastal Georgia.

“You know, it’s funny, in nature it’s the generalists that typically tend to survive,” mused Sakas. “But with Wilderness Southeast we’d spread ourselves thin, and these other, smaller specialized companies came in and outcompeted us. So, we scaled back and found new directions to pursue with and within the organization.”

Credit: Courtesy Wilderness Southeast

Credit: Courtesy Wilderness Southeast

Fish gotta swim, kids gotta learn

Since 2002, “Fish Gotta Swim” has been the organization’s signature environmental education program for local middle school students. The hands-on program is entirely grant and donation funded, and in the course of eight sessions it teaches students the basics about water quality assessment, wetlands ecology and marine biology.

Executive Director Lisa Goodman points out for many of the young people studying in “Fish Gotta Swim,” it’s the first time they’ve ever visited the ocean or marsh.

“Our program focuses on serving students primarily in Title-I schools, which means many of the youth we teach are living in poverty,” said Goodman. “About 75% of the students in ‘Fish Gotta Swim’ have never visited the ocean before our program, and that’s something we are passionate about changing, and then hopefully instilling a sense of stewardship and interest in science and marine ecology.”

The 30-minute documentary and feature of the evening “50 Years Wise,” follows some of the “Fish Gotta Swim” staff as they deliver their lessons to students in the marsh and at the beach. It also highlights former students, with interviews from former guides and conversations with the organization’s two still-living founders. Footage from Okefenokee Swamp, Ebenezer Creek and Wassaw Island further complete the storytelling.

Sakas and long-time creative partner, filmmaker Mehmet Caglayan, worked together to produce the documentary, and are offering it to Georgia Public Broadcasting this fall.

“It’s an honor to live a life in which I get to do what I love deeply,” reflected Sakas. “For almost 50 years I’ve been part of Introducing people to our wonderful environment, getting them excited about it. And I’m looking forward to new opportunities with Wilderness Southeast. Hopefully, we’ll be out there making people comfortable in the outdoors and getting them excited about learning for another 50 years.”

If You Go >>

What: "Fish Gotta Swim" Fundraiser and 50th Anniversary Celebration

When: 3 to 9 p.m., October 7

Where: Safe Harbor Bahia Bleu, 2812 River Drive, Thunderbolt

Tickets: $85 for ages 21 and up; $20 for ages 20 and under

Info: wilderness-southeast.org/blank-page

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Wilderness Southeast marks golden anniversary with fundraising event


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