By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
I had to restrain my impulse to boast. As our boat bobbed in the Bull’s Bay estuary, dolphins leaped acrobatically on cue. The woman beside me, who’d come from Michigan, grabbed my arm in excitement. “Did you see that?” she yelled. “I know,” I wanted to tell her. “I actually get to live here.”
The other thirteen travelers had come from distant states and Canada to the exotic location of Bull’s Island. I was the only local spending the weekend with Coastal Expeditions at the Dominick House.
These trips are only offered 8 times a year. When registration opens, the spots usually fill within minutes. After all, staying overnight on the island is a rare opportunity.
Camping is prohibited and Dominick House is only open to scientists and these few expeditions. The historic house is nestled among live oak trees near the boat dock. It was built in 1925 by New York banker Gayer Dominick and enjoyed as a winter residence for his family until they conveyed it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1936. The accommodations are comfortable but simple. As a solo traveler, I stayed in a large room with 4 other women with an adjoining bath. Small rooms were assigned to couples.
We gathered each evening in a circle of upholstered office chairs surrounded by foraged artifacts and nature photographs. Meals were a communal affair.
Each day we were offered hikes and excursions led by College of Charleston trained scientists Anna Atencio and Olivia DePue. Their expertise was impressive. On the beach, they found an obscure animal track, a bobcat they surmised, and started following it to tell us what happened: “See how he was running here?” Olivia pointed. “Then he crouched here, see? Maybe he was stalking something. Might have been that ghost crab from that hole there. And look, then he started running….” These young women were never stumped by a question. They knew the names of all the flowers, birds and trees, the history of the island and its inhabitants and spoke authoritatively about the changing ecology due to climate change and nature. They drove boats and trailers, cooked meals, led yoga and generally made me proud to be the parent of a CofC graduate.
Olivia and Anna’s reverence for the 5,000 acre island was apparent. Throughout the weekend they told us things that made us go “wow”: how some oysters can close their shells to entrap the legs of oyster-catcher birds; that osprey have an extra bone in their talon which allows them to hold fish they catch at a 90 degree angle to be more aerodynamic; how every single pine tree on the island died after being submerged during Hurricane Hugo; why those newborn alligators were lined up photogenically on their mother’s back. The bird watchers in the group were giddy with excitement. Hauling packs heavy with telescoping lenses and binoculars, they sparred over birds’ names and checked off life lists. These self-described bird nerds were having the time of their lives in this paradise of birdland, which is home to 293 species. Not for the first time in my travel adventure career, I also found myself in a group fascinated by scat. They gingerly picked apart balls of dung and postulated about the diet and identity of the animals that had left these intriguing souvenirs.
It was a well-paced itinerary with lots of walking. “Papa Mo” made sure we were nourished for the adventure with ample, healthy meals spiced up with a few spectacular surprises. With a flourish, he hoisted in a huge platter with an Instagram-worthy Lowcountry boil encircled by conch shells. An evening’s boat ride became a happy hour with his smoked trout and buffalo chicken dips laid out on the center console. He even made a flaming dessert! Throughout it all he was a jovial cheerleader, inspiring dozens of effusive comments in the guest book and grateful hugs upon departure.
This trip is the epitome of a close-by adventure for those of us near Charleston. It’s only three miles off our coast, departing from Moore’s Landing in Awendaw. Bulls Island is the largest of four barrier islands within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge which itself is one of over 500 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The system’s mission is to manage lands and waters specifically for wildlife.
Bull’s Island’s habitat supports deer, otters, bobcats, black fox squirrels and the largest population of alligators outside of the Everglades. Protecting this environment gives visitors like us the opportunity to live the words of William Wordsworth that are posted on the lodge’s wall: “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hour’s drive of Charleston, SC as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please visit PeaksAndPotholes.blogspot.com.