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Posted On:  September 09th   Author: dev

Eco-tourism company explores Southeast Wilderness

By Tony Judnich

Two words often pop into Katharine Redcay’s mind when family members come to visit her in Savannah: ‘Wilderness Southeast.’

Over the past several years, the nonprofit, Savannah-based eco-tourism company has led Redcay, 62, on 10 nature tours, on many of which she was accompanied by loved ones.

For example, she and her daughter have gone kayaking with Wilderness Southeast (WiSE) on Ebenezer Creek near Rincon, and she and another family member went birding with WiSE guide Diana Churchill to see painted buntings on Wassaw Island.

“One of my favorite trips was going out on the Bull River” east of Savannah, said Redcay, who recalled how Churchill played recordings of bird sounds to lure clapper rails out of the marsh.

“That day alone, we saw five of them,” she said.

Overall, the WiSE guides are “part of the reason I like going on the trips,” Redcay said. “It’s just fun exploring with them. You can ask them anything.”

Cindy Adams, from Greensboro, N.C., agrees. She has taken a couple of trips with WiSE, and she praises its staff for being “helpful, thoughtful, engaging and bright.”

One of her adventures involved several days’ worth of exploring the Okefenokee Swamp in the late 1980s. After long investigations of the swamp from canoes, she, her husband Don, other visitors and the WiSE staff slept on platforms just above the water that teemed with wildlife.

“If you flashed your flashlight, you could see the frogs and the gators,” Adams said. “It was a goose-bumping experience for me. When you’re sleeping, you’re sharing the swamp with them. We also saw water snakes and plenty of bird life. It was a holy experience for me, to meet nature on that pristine level.”

Similar positive remarks about WiSE come from people from around the world who have traveled with the organization and posted their raves on the TripAdvisor website. Those compliments recently led to WiSE being recognized with a 2013 Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor.

The award is given to the top 10 percent of establishments worldwide, and it considers both quantity and quality of feedback received from their customers, according to Joyce Murlless, WiSE’s executive director. Reviews of Wilderness Southeast maintain an average rating of five out of five and come from folks as far away as Australia, China and Germany.

“We’re grateful for the attention and proud of what we’ve done to earn it,” Murlless said at the WiSE office on Bull Street. “We get a lot of people who say ‘This was the best thing we did in Savannah.’”

The mission of WiSE is “to develop appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the natural world and to instill a strong sense of environmental stewardship.”

“Why is a tour company educational and non-profit?” Murlless asked. “The reason is that what we want to share with people are the connections that we have with the world around us.

“We stand on the ground, we breathe the air, we drink the water. We couldn’t live without any of those things, and they’re all part of an interwoven web of life that supports us all.

“And those connections are what we like to open people’s eyes to. So whoever comes on one of our trips should bring their sense of curiosity.”

Forty years of adventure

The WiSE organization was founded in the fall of 1973 by Murlless, her late husband, Dick, who died of cancer in 1991, and their friend, John Crawford.

Murlless, who earned a master’s degree in early childhood education and teaching from the University of Georgia in 1970, said the idea for WiSE had been stirring in Dick’s ecology focused mind while they attended grad school in Athens.

“We had always enjoyed going out into wild areas,” she said. “We used to go with all the other grad students, and we would just talk about everything we saw as we went. And even though they were all biology graduate students, we were all still learning from each other. The idea that you could share your knowledge and excite other people about the place you were in was probably the basis (of forming WiSE).”

After grad school, the Murllesses moved to Savannah, where Dick began working as the staff ecologist at the now-defunct Savannah Science Museum. They soon befriended Crawford, a Savannah native who currently is a marine education specialist at the UGA Marine Extension Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island.

Wilderness Southeast began as, and remains, an “economically conservative” organization, Murlless said.

“We never borrowed any money other than from ourselves and our families” to buy equipment, she said. “We started out in North Carolina, because Dick had written the ‘Hiker’s Guide to the Smokies,’ which was the first hiker’s guide for the Smoky Mountains National Park. I typed it on an electric typewriter in my kitchen.”

Wilderness Southeast then began leading nature trips in Georgia and Florida, as well as taking people camping in Guatemala and Costa Rica and snorkeling in the Caribbean.

“It grew a lot,” Murlless said of WiSE. “But then Dick got cancer, and that sent us into a bit of a tailspin. Our growth has not been in a straight line. We went through some rough years and emerged (in 2000) with a transition to doing the day trips and discovery tours that we do today.”

Wilderness Southeast’s current programs involve explorations of the swamps, beaches, islands, forests and marshes of the coastal Georgia area.

Fees vary depending on the program, and visitors walk, drive, canoe, kayak or take a motorboat to their destination, where they learn about animals and their habitats, hydrology and other facets of nature.

Program titles include “Alligators and Anhingas,” “Birding,” “Blackwater River Float” and “Explore the Night Sky.”

Murlless and WiSE program director Kristin Peney said WiSE guides inform, not lecture, visitors about what they’re seeing.

“We’re helping people see more, pointing out things that they might have missed, and then telling them about it,” Murlless said. “So when they’re excited about seeing an alligator, for example, that’s the time to talk about how it’s adapted to its surroundings, how it has the earflaps that close, the nose flaps that close…”

The trips are enjoyed by people who have a lot of experience with Mother Nature as well as those who do not, Peney said.

“We do get some people who have been to the beach, they’ve been to River Street, but they want something different,” she said. “They want to do something that they think their friends probably haven’t done. But I definitely think the majority tend to be the more outdoorsy type.”

‘Fish Gotta Swim’

Wilderness Southeast also provides a water-quality study program called ‘Fish Gotta Swim’ for students at several local public middle schools. This hands-on program is in its 11th year and primarily funded by grants and donations.

During the program’s inaugural year, Murlless said she had to reassure one boy that, should they spot a bald eagle during their visit to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, the bird would not pick the boy up and carry him away.

“That’s the extreme example of being able to enlarge people’s ways of looking at the world,” Murlless said. “You have to do it individually, I think, because some people respond to the world in an intellectual way, some an emotional way, some in some combination thereof.”

Students in ‘Fish Gotta Swim’ “learn tools of observation, data gathering and deductive logic,” all “part of the scientific process and essential to critical thinking,” according to WiSE information.

“For me, a trip is a success when I see their eyes light up,” Murlless said of the students, as well as other tour participants.

New paths

Murlless, 69, plans to retire as WiSE’s executive director by the end of this year. The 28-year-old Peney, who earned a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2011, is slated to take over the reins.

“Forty years is enough,” Murlless said. “It’s time. I have a granddaughter I don’t see much, and I’ve got some traveling to do on my own.”

She and Peney said the keys to WiSE’s longevity have been passion, persistence, patience, flexibility and the quality of the programs.

“There’s no one who can be in the service industry for this long without providing quality programs,” Murlless said.

As the sun sets on her career, she will be missed.

“Joyce is loaded with information,” Redcay said. “They need to clone her. She’s a treasure.”

For more information, go to or the company’s Facebook page or call 912-236-8115.

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