A Little Breathing Room
Georgetown, SC, Sept. 7—We were on a mission and there we stood at the dead end of a long Lowcountry road in searing heat. Anonymous Mysterious Florida Woman, Robert Clark, and yours truly were waiting on a ferry. Standing too long in a roasting September sun can evaporate resolve, but not ours. September no doubt pilfered some July heat. These days, it’s as hot as the hinges of … well, you know, and especially so where the continent runs into the sea, but the heat be damned. We were about to cross the Intracoastal Waterway and set foot on primitive South Island.
As we waited for the ferry to pluck us from the mainland, the month of sapphires and morning glories showed no mercy. The water reflected all that heat, and the Big Ditch glinted as wavelets morphed into a rogue solar farm, but we didn’t care. The scent of pluff mud, salt, and sea had us jacked up for adventure.
The ferry approached and we gathered up our gear. We were moments from touring the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center’s South Island. In all, the center sprawls over 24,000 acres. When you’re slap dab in the middle of South Island’s marshes, you feel what the word “vastness” means. Gazing across all those grasses and creeks you see herons, ibises, and great blue herons in great abundance; you, man, feel like a speck. Cast your eyes to the far horizon and a shimmering, smoldering mirage-like line marks where sky meets land.
Robert and I once visited places like this for a living. For us, the day provided a bit of déjà vu. Our host was Jim Lee of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, one-time employer and where we met thirty-four years ago. Throughout the day we heard names familiar, one annoyingly so. But what mattered was what we were about to do. Explore a huge, remote barrier island rife with wildlife, a rare plant found nowhere else, gators, and more waterfowl than I’ve seen anywhere. We were about to see what few people see.
After an orientation complete with maps and visuals of how coastal dynamics move land around, we boarded the tour bus. As soon as we pulled out, clouds of mosquitoes, horseflies as big as nickels, and ravenous deerflies swarmed the windows. They smelled blood and would not be denied. Each time the door opened, in they flew and soon we were slapping each other, killing the winged assassins.
Lee, an excellent guide, recounted the history and natural history of this place where more than a little breathing room exists. To go to the island after driving down over-developed Highway 17 is surreal. It’s literally a step back in time to a place where you see how nature once ruled. Thick carpets of duckweed create the impression you can walk on water here. As we listened to Jim, a bobcat bolted across a sandy lane. Only AMFW and I saw it. Later, a deer crossed the road and leapt into brambles.
Along the edge of an old rice field juvenile alligators cruised through aquatic vegetation and one kicked it into high gear to snag a fat juicy dragonfly that landed close by. As a bald eagle wheeled overhead, an osprey folded his wings and plummeted into the water. We couldn’t tell if it came up empty or had a fish too small to see. Wildlife was at work, making a living wherever you looked.
If you like birds, you’ll like this place. White ibises and herons dot broad stretches of green marshes and more great blue herons stalk the shallows than I’ve seen anywhere, and that’s saying something. Jim stopped the bus to pick up a pink feather, lost by a roseate spoonbill, the only pink bird you’ll see in the South. Feathers aplenty are to be found but an amazing thing came to pass. We saw zero litter save a Mylar birthday balloon that had fallen to the island. Think about that the next time you buy helium-filled birthday balloons. They’ll end up somewhere.
The island possesses evidence of man’s need to colonize places. Ruins of a home modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright’s design once stood here. The Phelps, relatives of a private owner who long held land here, lived in it. You’ll find sparse remnants of an old rice mill and Tom Yawkey’s dwellings, among them a mobile home, one of the first, a “Mobile Chateau,” a luxuriant forerunner of today’s mobile homes. When Yawkey’s island home burned it hit him hard. He had a temporary mobile home set up on the island and though a millionaire he lived in it the rest of his life, from 1957 to 1976. Imagine that. You’ll see too outbuildings painted black during World War II so German submariners had a hard time seeing them.
Tom Yawkey was a man of good fortune. He inherited his vast landholdings from an uncle and spent winters there. He loved the outdoors and watching birds. Taught himself the rigors of being an amateur ornithologist. As the years rolled by, he added to his holdings and preserved the land for wildlife. Today, the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center includes marshes, wetlands, forests and beaches. Hundreds of species of wildlife live here and migratory birds, eagles, osprey, falcons, alligators, and endangered species find sanctuary here. The beaches provide excellent nesting locations for loggerhead sea turtles.
We thank Tom Yawkey for all this breathing room, for all this vastness and richness. Borrowing from his bio, let me introduce you to the man. Thomas Austin Yawkey, born in 1903 in Detroit, Michigan, grew up and was educated in New York and Connecticut. Orphaned at a young age, Tom was left to the care of his uncle, a lumber, mining, and oil entrepreneur. Yawkey inherited the considerable fortune the Yawkey family accumulated over the prior century, as well as a significant amount of land in Georgetown County his uncle purchased in 1911.
A cum laude graduate of Yale University with a degree in engineering, Yawkey purchased the Boston Red Sox in 1933.
He had a radio and telephone he used to keep stats on his team. He never failed to listen to the games. One day the radio station failed to broadcast his game. After a call to see what was up, he learned that the station had been bought and no longer carried his team’s games. No problem, he bought the radio station as well as others and had his games returned to the air. Money well spent.
Yawkey spent winters in Georgetown where he carefully managed his land using his own conservation practices. A pristine area reserved for waterfowl, turtles, alligators, and other wildlife resulted.
He died in 1976 but you’ll find his legacy alive and well among marsh grasses, birds, gators, and ecosystems that ever refresh the natural world the great cosmos bequeathed to us. Yes, it was hot and buggy but AMFW, Robert, and I love this primitive place. How primitive? Well, you have to bring your own water and food. It’s not handicap accessible either, so that ought to tell you just how wild it is in this era of legal mandates. You could say nature rules here and you’d be right. Here, where you’ll find a little breathing room, the air seems sweeter and the landscape possess a haunted beauty all its own. Let’s all thank God, developers excluded, that man can’t get his hands on every square inch of island property he covets.
- Images: all of the photos are by the author, Tom Poland