Down Lowcountry Way
Let The Journey Be Your Destination
You’re on the interstate driving coastward near some no-name place blessed nonetheless by an estuary. Ahead to the left, a flash of white drops into the brine, then climbs, a fish in its talons. A bald eagle! Just then a dieseling eighteen-wheeler parks on your bumper and the rare moment vanishes in a lane shift. The eagle, says legend, is the only animal that can look into the sun, but you’re watching the grill of a Peterbilt. The moment is lost. Nor can you smell tidal backwaters or study endangered wood storks feeding on mudflats when you’re barreling down the interstate, a truck in hot pursuit.
Frost was right. Take the road less traveled. There are roads over here in Palmetto land that go nowhere near big cities. And that’s not bad. One road, Highway 64, leads to Walterboro where an ancient lane once cut a green leafy tunnel through a swamp. President George Washington traveled that lane, the Old Charleston to Savannah Stagecoach Road. At best, he made thirty-three miles a day the spring of 1791, and you can bet he saw plenty of wildlife.
Interstates? Well, you can rip off thirty-three miles in twenty-five minutes these days. And that’s a blessing. About all you’ll see are concrete, billboards, and big rigs. Drive an interstate—and sensory deprivation is your companion.
There’s a difference between driving and traveling. President Washington traveled, though he didn’t have a choice. Charles Kuralt did. “The interstate highway system is a wonderful thing. It makes it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody. If the United States interests you, stay off the interstates.”
I love back roads, especially Lowcountry lanes that worm their way past giant live oaks, some glittering with voodoo ornaments. You’ll discover a wonderful sense of place where tiny roads float over ancient sea bottom … Drive coastward past haunted, green swamps and oaks dripping with Spanish moss into the land of black water and white sands, ever slanting toward the continent’s edge. Let the Lowcountry cast its spell over you. Discover culture, geography, language, tranquillity, and wilderness. Ruins, canoe trails, Gullah’s intonations, history, heritage, wildlife, plants, islands, and saltmarsh. You’ll find that and more in this sea level garden where magnificent landscapes rule.
There’s something deeply moving about swamps, wetlands, and refuges. Alien yet beautiful, they testify to nature’s resilience. Consider the Great Swamp Sanctuary where 800 acres of braided-creek bottomland form the shimmering green heart of Walterboro, South Carolina. Just three minutes off I-95, a town of all places, provides a tranquil setting to contemplate Southern swamps. Stroll the boardwalk stretching over more than two miles of swamp. See the Old Charleston to Savannah Stagecoach Road where its bridges still throw up bulkheads through the black waters. George Washington gazed out a stagecoach window here, hoping, he said, “to acquire knowledge of the face of the country.”
That face has changed but Washington would still appreciate the East Coast’s largest estuarine preserve (134,710 acres), the pristine ACE Basin. The Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers sustain this great basin covering parts of Colleton, Charleston, Beaufort, and Hampton counties. The rivers twist and turn past cypress swamps, historic plantations, old rice fields, and tidal marshes. The scenery is picturesque, the South of old. And here in the land of buttressed trees and cypress knees, you might discover if the bald eagle really does stare into the sun … if you’re lucky.
The Blue Heron Nature Trail in Ridgeland will teach you something about native wildlife and plants. Travel on and soon you come to the great sanctuaries. Jasper County can’t hold the expansive Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (29,175 acres), which spills into Georgia north of Savannah. The refuge literally bursts with beauty, diversity, natural history, and man’s history.
The refuge, on the Atlantic Flyway, hosts thousands of mallards, pintails, teal, and other duck species during winter. Songbirds sojourn here on their flight to and from northern nesting grounds. The area hums with life year-round as freshwater marshes, tidal rivers, creeks, and bottomland fashion a mosaic of quintessential Lowcountry habitat. The earth melts into water, and a prairie of rippling green grass gives form to the wind. Estuaries glint beneath a sun raining a miracle called photosynthesis.
Land, water, and marsh, all in juxtaposition: the “edge” effect sets up nicely for wildlife. One acre of cordgrass alone supports one million fiddler crabs. And that is just one species in this staggeringly rich environment where sun, saltwater, chlorophyll, and decay produce a rich broth—detritus—that anchors the sea’s food chain. The interplay of sunlight, minerals, and water sustains priceless communities of life—biomes, as the biologists say, and the area heavily ripens with life. (As long as I’ll breathe, I’ll not forget a sunny dike bank where blue crabs as wide as saucers lay in the water’s edge—a veritable feast.)
The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1927, merits respect not just for the reasons above but because it’s a graveyard of sorts. Ghosts from the rice industry linger here … levee remains, remnants of slave quarters, old mill sites, and small cemeteries.
Slaves cleared riverside swamps of timber and undergrowth, erected earthen levees, and built an intricate system of dams, dikes, floodgates, ditches, and drains. And then the moon went to work, raising and lowering the tides that irrigated fields, encouraging the growth of rice and drowning weeds and pests.
It was a short run.
Hurricanes and the Civil War doomed the rice culture. Wild rice lives on, however, and the refuge clamors during migratory periods when twenty-one species of warblers and thousands of ducks, including the rarely seen cinnamon teal, descend from gray, quilted skies. Moving in great flotillas, they dive and dabble, unlike the great blue heron stalking the shallows step by step, all part of the great maritime ecosystem, each doing as nature intends.
Off Highway 278 near Hilton Head, a more modest sanctuary waits, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge (4,053 acres). Most of the refuge (67 percent to be precise) consists of salt marsh and tidal creeks. Hummocks abound. Greenery, blue water, blue sky, chocolate pluff mud, and flecks of white against Spartina compose a land of sublime earth hues.
The flecks of white, of course, are ibis, herons, and egrets. You needn’t be a birder to appreciate avian life. An amateur here can do quite well. The refuge harbors wading bird rookeries, osprey nests, and the endangered wood stork. Low tide’s mudflats become a breadbasket for herons, egrets, ibises, willets, terns, sandpipers, and oystercatchers that engage in a raucous race to glean food before high tide returns.
Of course, all this natural wealth proved tantalizing long ago. Native Americans dwelled here as early as 10,000 BC. Behold, as they did, vistas of broad salt marshes, forests, and freshwater ponds.
Mackey’s Creek, the Chechessee River, Port Royal Sound, and Skull Creek merge here, and all that water sustains some of the most pristine salt marsh habitat in the coastal zone. Not surprisingly, studying, viewing, and photographing the island’s wildlife and marshscapes are popular throughout the year. Fancy yourself a naturalist. Learn about food chains and energy flow, the water and nutrient cycles, how plants and animals adapt to changing water levels, the importance of wetlands, and man’s relationship with the environment. You’ll be all the better for it.
Many people love the Lowcountry in the dead heat of summer. I prefer the autumn although summer and winter have their moments. I recall a late afternoon journey to a primitive island in a Boston Whaler when the mainland’s hot breath kissed me goodbye. Along the channel on both sides wind ghosted over the dying sun-struck salt marsh. Come some cold winter nights, moonlight rains down over island palmettos, the silver-plated land mutating into slivers of white, black, and silver as fronds splinter the shine. Year-round, the music of light plays prettily here.
Perhaps you’re one of the lucky few weary of a fast pace and one wall too many of cement who love a wintry stroll along a line of glistening surf.
No matter the season, you’ll see none of this from an interstate. Headed to the coast? If so, as soon as you can, abandon the bingo highways: “I-95” I-this, -that, and the other. Discover the joys of traveling Lowcountry back roads. Travel the great plain that once lay beneath an ancient ocean. Go down where the surf foams and flirts with your feet. Tread the grainy remnants of ancient mountains, borne seaward for eons by rivers. There’s beauty and history here. For once, let the journey be the destination.
And the bald eagle? One sultry August afternoon long ago, working near the Combahee River, shooting footage for a film, I trained an Arriflex BL on a bald eagle. The eagle soared upwards, riding a thermal. Intent on prey, it never looked into the sun. Never does. Only the blind can.