Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bulls Island, SC with children

Waking up to a bunch of wide-awake, active children when you’ve got a view over the Intercoastal Waterway is slightly easier than the daily routine…

We were up early despite having packed the night before in order to catch the first ferry to Bulls Island. Garris Landing in Awendaw was a good thirty minutes from our rental house, and the next ferry was only at 12:30pm, so we really couldn’t afford to miss this one. By the time we got the stroller and backpack carrier packed, the boys slathered in sunscreen and the rest of our gear ready, the passenger ferry was already boarding. We quickly headed down the long dock and climbed aboard for the 30 minute trip to Bulls Island.

Part of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Bulls Island is a remote 5,000-acre barrier island. No cars are allowed and it is only accessible by boat, Coastal Expeditions being the only passenger ferry. I had wanted to visit the island since our stop at the Cape Romain Visitor Center a decade ago, but had not imagined I would be doing it with two kids ages one and three. The ferry drops you off on the marsh-side of the island, from where it is a 40 minute walk on a dirt road to the beach. The roads are rough, but not too rough for a stroller. Our Combi got stuck in a few sandier spots which is why I would recommend a fat-tired stroller if you have it, but we managed just fine by swinging it around and pulling it backwards through the rougher patches. We had decided to bring both the stroller and a backpack carrier just in case, and it ended up being a good choice, as we were able to pop Mikus in the carrier and let Lauris ride for a quick traverse of the island; the mosquitos did not encourage dawdling. From our research we had known to expect this, but this time of year is not as bad as later in the season, and once you get on the beach you’re in the clear.

Source: here
A short ways from the dock we passed Dominick House, a 1920's manor house that once in a while is opened to overnight stays. How incredible would it be to spend 3 days on the island, exploring the interior as well as spending time on the beach? An adventure for another time, perhaps sans children…

We crossed the impoundment that separates House Pond from Lower Summerhouse Pond and stretches through the marsh. It was there that we spotted the first alligator, having crawled up on a patch of land to bask in the sun. Easily 7-8 feet, it didn’t so much as flinch at the noise we made, and after pointing the reptile out to Lauris and snapping a few pictures we continued on. I would have loved to head farther inland to Alligator Alley, but this too would have to be saved for another time; one where I could slather myself in insect repellant and hike quickly. With about six hours on the island we had decided to spend our time on the beach, attempting to reach the Boneyard but leaving the rest of the island to another visit. Reasons being - we didn’t want to subject the boys to the mosquitos, we didn’t want to have to carry them everywhere and everything we had read about the beach seemed like there would be more than enough to keep us happy.

The last third of the way out to the beach was a bit difficult as the road was sandier (and therefore the stroller harder to push) and the mosquitos quite obnoxious once stopped. But as soon as we stepped out into the dunes they were gone, and with the tide out, the stroller was very easy to push over the hard-packed sand. There had been about 15 others on the ferry with us coming over, and half had already headed out to the Boneyard while the other half had stayed for the short naturalist hike offered by Coastal Expeditions or hit the interior roads on their bicycles… The beach was ours.

The boys were giddy with excitement, and I could hardly contain myself over their happiness. We had brought a few buckets and sand toys with (one of the benefits of bringing a stroller, we had transportation for all the stuff we wanted to bring!) and these were pulled out and played with extensively.

In addition to the sand toys we had packed a few beach towels, water, snacks, sunscreen and not much else. Keeping the boys hydrated and safe from the sun was a bit of a challenge, but not as hard as I had thought it might be. The sun was hot, but the day was not as warm as a summer scorcher will get, and the water was on hand to cool off. At one point both boys got too cold, and a time-out from the ocean was necessary while we wrapped up in towels and had a snack.

Taking frequent breaks to build sandcastles, hunt for seashells, dig holes and splash in the tidal pools we headed northeast along the beach with the goal of reaching Boneyard Beach. Named for the skeletons of trees dotting the three-mile stretch of beach, it is a perfect example of the ever-changing status of these barrier islands. The ocean is slowly eroding away at this end of the island, the saltwater killing the oaks, cedar and pines but leaving them behind to bleach in the sun.

We reached the first skeletons as the tide was coming back in, and taking the stroller farther would not have been bright; we would have had to lift it over downed trees and push it through the water in places, and so we decided to make camp. We set out a picnic in the shade of some shrubs, filling our stomachs but all the while anxious to return to our games in the sand.

Sunscreen reapplied, stomachs full, Lauris and Roberts set to digging while I tucked Mikus in for a nap. Our ferry captain had mentioned that the very first Leatherback sea turtle tracks had been found that morning, and I was eager to try and find them before the tide completely came in. I grabbed a water bottle and went for a solitary stroll, and with eyes on the ground I almost missed the pair of ospreys and their nest. The mother was feeding what must have been young, and seeing this amazing sight made up for missing the tracks. According to the captain it was a false crawl; the turtle had come up on land but had not nested and instead turned around and returned to the sea. I stared at the ocean imagining I might see one of the beasts approaching shore.

Cape Romain is managed for the protection of habitats for endangered and threatened species like the American Oystercatcher and Wood Stork.  In addition to nearly 300 species of migratory and resident bird species, Bulls Island is home to fox squirrels, otters, bobcats and the highest density of American alligators north of Florida. We saw pelicans, storks, herons and a variety of shorebirds in addition to the half-dozen alligators and the osprey. A few more surprises were yet to come…

Upon my return Mikus was still napping, but with the tide coming in and a long way to walk to catch the return ferry we started back towards Beach road. I filled a bucket with whelk shells, sand dollars and presents from Lauris, and before long we wound up at the entrance to our road. Another 30 minutes spent in the sun and sand proved too little before turning inland to make the run through mosquito country.

The insects were not as bad as they had been that morning, and we paused at the Dominick House picnic area to pass the time until the ferry was set for boarding. Live oaks dripping in Spanish moss provided an atmosphere straight out of a novel, and the boys happily snacked and explored while one by one, the rest of the ferry passengers reappeared from their explorations of the island.

The day was straight out of an advertisement for some glossy magazine of a beach resort island in the Caribbean… except for the alligators and mosquitos. I felt a sadness  that I would probably not experience this heavenly corner of the world again for quite some time, but as the ferry sped back towards Garris landing I let these thoughts blow away over the marsh, and was rewarded with several sightings of dolphins, one pair surfacing just off the side of the boat.

To top off what had already been an incredible day, just before docking we spotted a Bald Eagle. Perched at the top of a windblown red cedar, the bird of prey was no doubt keeping an eye out for dinner, and despite having been removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2007, I still feel that a blessing has been bestowed on me every time I catch a glimpse of one.

To visit the webpage for Cape Roman National Wildlife Refuge click here
To visit Coastal Expeditions for more information on the ferry and other programs, click here

1 comment:

  1. Sounds such a nice day out together with all family!:) I miss the Baltic Sea and the beach in Latvia, too. But you are so luck to discover this Bulls Island.:)


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