It was a promising group of circumambulators that left Garris Island before 9 on Island Cat heading to Bull Island for the first guided walk around the entire island, dubbed Down the Island and Back Again. Besides many people I did not know, the gathering included several neighbors, and some friends and co-workers I had not seen in years. As the identified guide, I shared with the group the good news, and the bad news. The good news – a spectacularly beautiful January day, clear skies, a mild ride over to the island and projected warming (several of the hikers started the day with shorts), and the mosquitoes knocked down by the 20 degree morning on Wednesday. The bad news – I was recovering from pneumonia diagnosed one week before, and would only participate in a portion of the total hike, calculated to be about fifteen miles. The good news – Chris Crolley would be leading the entire hike, and his qualifications as a guide for the SE barriers islands are exemplary.
(Photo credit – Stephanie Smith).
He also would provide me with a bike to meet up with the group at different places on the island. I was feeling great, but planned to rein in my enthusiasm for doing it all in order to promote my recovery.
The ride over to the island was as always wonderful in its own right, with Chris interpreting the Class I wilderness, and a parade of birds greeting us, including horned grebes, buffleheads, dowitchers, willets, oystercatchers, northern harriers, and many others. The restroom stop on the island with the limited capacity available made our getting started on the hike a little later than anticipated. Flying over the yard in front of the Dominick House, a red shouldered hawk rewarded our early arrival as it passed over the large live oaks. Finally moving ahead with our group of thirty, we found no human but plenty of animal prints (deer, fox tail squirrel, raccoon, bobcat) in the sandy road as we turned on to Summerhouse Road heading south.
How would this large group do on such an ambitious hike? It would be more of a concern for Chris who would be shepherding the group for the whole day. In fact, the group did excellent. Everyone was prepared for this long walk, physically and mentally. Several people in the group were only along for part of the day: my friends Brantley and Jeff brought their own boat, and had offered to take me home when they left. It was a generous offer, but the day was too fine and I was feeling too good to consider leaving. The three of us left the group as the pack walked south, and we cut over to the beach on a trail to loop back.
The beach was quite spectacular – outgoing tide, blue skies, blue ocean, wide beach without footprints, and a light southwest wind. The wind was at our back as we headed north. The high tide line and below presented various forms of marine life deposited by the ocean. Bivalves appeared on the beach still hinged. The beach was colored in places by sea whips, splashing red and yellow.
Back on the Beach Road, Brantley and Jeff headed on the Turkey Walk trail, and I returned to the Dominick House to have lunch on the brick front porch. An eagle flew over, and after a second pass I rushed to change the lens on my camera, but alas, too late. (I learned later the main group had seen an eagle fly by and land on one of the power poles at Price’s Inlet. Stephanie Smith provided the photo. To see more of her photos from this hike, take a look at her gallery.)
I planned to meet up with the group at the outlet of Beach Road to the beach, and I jumped on the bicycle to make this connection. When I arrived at that location I could see the group was still far to the south. A group of turkey vultures was on a kill a little bit to the north, and I ventured over to see what they had. An eagle came over the maritime forest toward the beach, but turned before a closer inspection of the kill. Until I got close, one of the vultures stayed on the dead animal, reluctant to abandon this fine seafood meal, which turned out to be some type of ray.
The group approached out of the beach haze to the south, and we soon reconnected. This was the half-way point, and already 1:30PM. We had considered Beach Road to be a place where people could decide to shorten their walk “without shame”, and I modeled that. One of the group opted to catch the 3PM ferry in order to make a later appointment. Chris would take the whole group to the Boneyard, and I would meet them there to guide a dozen back to the dock. Chris would continue on with a longer walk for the rest. The lure of the Boneyard drew many of the tired walkers to go a little further and enter that magical domain.
(Photo credit – Stephanie Smith).
On the bike ride north on LIghthouse Road, I stopped to take a look in the pond where Alligatorzilla once resided, and found a moderate sized alligator. At the first access to the Boneyard, I climbed down the growing scarp, and In a minute observed the group coming through the trees. Our return walk allowed us the path through Alligator Alley. Pond 2 presented the best alligator viewing. One gator lay partially on the bank, and then the reptile struck out, swimming slowly and calmly by us. Others lay out in the sun, soaking up every bit of solar radiation the day offered.
Our group arrived well before the Chris and his walkers returned. I had “cheated” and ridden the bike for part of the time. The wind was picking up, and we pulled on warmer clothes for the ride back. The other group arrived right at 4, Chris having brought them off the beach on a dike that dead-ends on the island’s eastern face. They actually had time to also take the walk to the observation tower and have a look around. I heard of only one mosquito on the island. After boarding we compared shells and observations. We awarded a prize for the best find of the day from the beach, and among the many worthy entries a tiny but exquisite drill claimed the prize. I kept my personal shell of the day in my pocket – a beautiful naturally polished little specimen of our state shell, the lettered olive. It had been a terrific day for participants, and the beneficiary of the fundraising, the SEWEE Association.