Road Kill Eating, Bareback Riding, Wild Woman of Cumberland Island

Vultures and beetles are her friends, and Ruckdeschel calls them her "laborers."

By Michelle Valigursky

Carol Ruckdeschel eats road kill armadillo and raccoon (anything once alive, really), rides sea turtles to the ocean’s sandy bottom, and takes sunset rides bareback on wild horses. She is nothing if not a living legend, and Will Harlan 97C 97G shares her amazing life journey in Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island.

What began as a post-Emory adventure as a park ranger has culminated into a lifelong – if not unusual – friendship between Harlan and Ruckdeschel. “Carol is all grass roots pluck and nerve,” Harlan says of the notorious woman he first encountered as she held a bloody steel knife over a turtle necropsy on the beach. He had been warned about this wild woman who lived in a driftwood shack she built deep in the woods where wild hogs and alligators claimed territory. His fellow park rangers told him, “We don’t talk about her.”

“I was a dreamy, starry-eyed kid coming out of Emory,” Harlan recalls. Fascination propelled him to that first beach meeting, and 19 years later, he is Ruckdeschel’s biographer, a surrogate son, and a very good friend. At 72, this much-maligned woman once accused of cold-blooded murder “is a gregarious, outspoken, fearless prankster,” he says. Yet at her core, she will always remain a fierce fighter determined to save Cumberland Island and the sea turtles from development and destruction.

A Champion for Cause

Untamed is Harlan’s award-winning debut book, though as the editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, he appreciates the intricacies of observant writing about the natural world. He is a world-class ultra-runner inspired by the Tarahumara Indians who can run hundreds of miles without injury or rest, and he is the five-time champion of the Mount Mitchell 40-Mile Challenge, a race to the top of the highest peak in the East. Harlan was also the 2009 champion of the Caballo Blanco Copper Canyon 50-Mile Ultramarathon, made famous by the bestselling book Born to Run.

Harlan, Dinzoff, and son

Dr. Emily Dinzoff 01M and Will Harlan
97C 97G with their son, River, as a

At home on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, Harlan and his wife, family practitioner Dr. Emily Dinzoff 01M, work their land at Barefoot Farm, “a seven-acre, off-grid organic homestead in the mountains of western North Carolina. We grow organic berries, vegetables, and have over 100 fruit trees. We also have dairy goats, chickens, and bee hives,” Harlan explains. “Most of our surplus produce goes to local families in need,” and all farm proceeds directly support indigenous Tarahumara farmers in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

With such a rich family life, what inspired Harlan to invest himself so fully in the writing of Untamed? “Carol had a story worth telling,” Harlan says. “Her whole story. She is not a hero, but certainly she is not the villain she’s been made out to be.”

Ruckdeschel’s trust in Harlan is genuine, and she gave him unlimited access to her field notes, diaries, journals and pictures as long as the materials remained on the island with her. During his research phase for the book, Harlan camped often in the lab on her property to record their interviews for transcription later. Though Ruckdeschel had mixed feelings about going forward with the book, “she realized this kind of public exposure was the only way Cumberland Island could be saved.”

A Wilderness is Named – and Saved

“Carol forged her wild identity on the outskirts of Atlanta,” Harlan explains. The wildness of Cumberland called to Ruckdeschel, and she claimed it as her right, moving a mile inland deep into the woods near the alligator swamps and hog paths, becoming “almost feral” in her quest for helping the island “evolve into a wilder place.”

Even with just a high school education to her credit, Ruckdeschel became an indomitable force in environmental awareness. She shot the ‘Hooch with President Jimmy Carter and took him to explore secret Indian caves, documented new species of lizards in hidden hollows of the north Georgia mountains, and after moving to Cumberland Island discovered that defenseless sea turtles were dying by the tens of thousands along the Georgia coast. Ruckdeschel began to raise awareness and enable powerful change in the fishing industry.

In 1981, Ruckdeschel’s work culminated in the formation of the Cumberland Island Wilderness. The federal designation protected the northern half of the island from development and safeguarded one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites in the world. Early on, in drawing such public focus on what was at stake if development were to continue, Ruckdeschel embraced a lifelong battle with well-heeled families like the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Candlers who thought of Cumberland Island as their personal playground and summer retreat. In fact, while Ruckdeschel once called the Carnegie heiress Gogo Ferguson her closest friend, sharp lines were drawn and the two now remain in opposite camps.

CNS Sign

Managing such a Wilderness is complicated, at best, when social history and nature collide. Once the national park was created, the island suffered from increased traffic and bus tours. “Everything Carol fought for was falling apart,” Harlan recalls of that tumultuous time. Now, though 21 families sold land to the National Park Service in exchange for lifetime rights to live on the island, those rights are beginning to expire. Cumberland Island is once again on the brink of change.

Two Decades of Biography Research

Nearly 20 years ago, Harlan began shadowing the controversial Ruckdeschel in her efforts to save Cumberland, attending to turtle necropsies, deftly avoiding rattlesnakes while feeding Ray the blind alligator on Lake Whitney, and studying the demise of the island’s wild horses dying from lack of fresh water. He watched the growth of her museum, which featured one of the world’s largest sea turtle collections, as well as skulls "and specimens of nearly every critter on Cumberland Island."

Ruckdeschel is a well-respected eco-warrior, challenged with documenting and saving the island she loves. In this insightful book, Harlan deeply respects Ruckdeschel’s achievements and delves into her transformative turtle research that has become the global go-to source for information on the species.

“She is a fearless scientist,” he says, “and even though she survives by using what nature provides, she still feels conflicted about living in the island wilderness.” Ruckdeschel, like the other 21 island residents, sold their lands to the National Park Service to create Cumberland Island National Seashore. As part of the deal, these families—including Ruckdeschel—get to continue living on the island for their lifetimes.

Tweet this: "A friend of vultures and beetles, she eats roadkill and wrestles alligators - he is her biographer."

Ruckdeschel does get lonely, and loneliness goes hand in hand with being labeled a social outcast. While Ruckdeschel once mingled at island cocktail parties with our nation’s wealthiest families, now she keeps largely to herself.

For Harlan, Ruckdeschel is as much friend as biography subject. This wild island she fights to protect holds special meaning for him. Harlan proposed to his wife, Emily, on Cumberland Island, and Ruckdeschel's second husband, Bob, married the couple in a quiet ceremony on the beach. Harlan’s children, River and baby Finn, have spent time with Ruckdeschel.

Harlan, Dinzoff, and son

Cumberland Island offers peace and

Ruckdeschel may carry a big knife and drink a potent “White Peggy” every night on her porch, but she also has a wicked sense of humor. She and her husband Bob reveled in serving what they called “mystery meat.” She was an excellent cook with a penchant for spices. “Dinner one night was woodchuck and porpoise served in an armadillo shell,” Harlan says with a laugh. “She loves making people guess, and 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.” 

To understand the message in Untamed is to grasp the notion that Carol Ruckdeschel is Cumberland Island and is the champion for the longevity of sea turtles. These concepts cannot be easily separated, for her journey to save the island’s pristine beaches, wild dunes and biologically diverse eco-systems impacted federal legislation. And her necropsies of thousands of dead sea turtles provided the world with the single largest study of sea turtle mortality. She is comfortable with death, but she desperately wants Cumberland Island to live on long after she leaves this world.

Just offshore is the world’s only calving ground for Right whales. This dwindling species is now threatened by extinction due to the disruptive activity of the nearby United States Navy Underwater Warfare Training Range. Ruckdeschel may have lost the battle to prevent the facility’s construction, but while most individuals may fear taking on the federal government, she is unwilling to give up the fight to make its operations cease and desist. “She is the gutsiest, grittiest woman I’ve ever met,” says Harlan. “After 45 years, she is still standing her ground, fighting for what matters.”

So what will it take to carry on the legacy of Ruckdeschel’s passion and life’s work? Harlan contends that we all need to care and to take action for the island’s wilderness preservation. “The only hope to save Cumberland Island is you all."

Editor’s Note: Writing about Cumberland Island began for Harlan as an Emory class assignment in “Nature and Literary Imagination” and culminated two decades later into a remarkable book. The breathtaking depth of Harlan’s research and writing in Untamed makes it difficult for this editor to put into a few short words the complexity of his subject’s life and work. “Road Kill Eating, Bareback Riding, Wild Woman of Cumberland Island” offers the merest glimpse into the life of one of the world’s most controversial self-taught scientists and the man who became her talented biographer – and friend. 

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Michelle Valigursky