Will Harlan, as a recent college graduate, signed on to spend a summer as a volunteer park ranger before starting his career as a teacher. Strolling Cumberland Island’s beaches on “permit patrol,” as he calls it, sounded like a good plan—one last adventure before entering the real world. He had no idea that his summer spent in paradise would lead to a lifelong devotion to a woman, Carol Ruckdeschel, and her island.
“Even before I met her I had heard all kinds of stories from island residents, especially the Carnegie family residing on the island. She was already larger than life and more than a little bit scary,” Harlan recalls. He was told Ruckdeschel was a hard-drinker and a gun-toting lunatic who ate roadkill for dinner and lived in a shack in the wilderness that she built herself.
His first encounter with the woman who would become his muse was on the island’s sandy beach. “She was sitting there carving up a sea turtle with a rusted and bloody knife.” As Harlan cautiously approached Ruckdeschel, he says she was “bright-eyed, smiling and more welcoming than I ever expected.” That day marked the beginning of an enduring friendship between the two.
Harlan’s best-selling book Untamed is the product of 20 years spent working alongside Ruckdeschel, champion of the diverse wildlife that inhabits this southernmost barrier island along Georgia’s coast. In his free time over the years, Harlan would visit Ruckdeschel, working with her to protect and preserve the island. He wrote her story in an effort to memorialize her struggle to stop development and save sea turtles there.
“Carol is a pack rat, which was great for my writing because she has a wealth of data and knowledge. Her collections are a treasure trove of information, which she understandably did not want to leave the island . . . so the next thing you know, I am driving six hours south from my home in North Carolina, taking a ferry to Cumberland and then hiking 14 miles into the wilderness so I can have access to her records. I would read into a tape recorder or take handwritten notes so I could go home and work on the book. It was quite the process.”
At night, Ruckdeschel, who is an very good cook by all accounts, would serve up whatever she had found dead in the swamps or on the beach or even roadkill she found on the island’s single road. “Dinner one night was woodchuck and porpoise served in an armadillo shell,” Harlan says. “She eats road kill and necropsies dead animals because she truly believes it is the best way to respect the souls of those animals—to honor them by not letting their bodies go to waste.”
Ruckdeschel was drawn to the outdoors and nature from an early age. As a teenager, in order to avoid the nightly fights between her parents, she often took refuge in a cave along the Chattahoochee River, where she would spend the night and plot her escape to the wilderness—away from the structure of society. She wrote in her journal, “I’ll get as far away from the fighting and from expectations as I possibly can. 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.”