The Raleigh Naturalist

August 10, 2021

Edisto Island seems 1,000 Miles From Nag’s Head

Filed under: About & reflection, climate change, Exotica, Nature Lore — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 6:25 pm

Edisto Island back road – 2 miles from the ocean

When we traveled with our daughter and her partner to South Carolina Carolina for a week at the beach, I knew we would have nature adventures. After all, Lily was the 2019 Environmental Educator of the Year, and Collin is a bonsai artist and expert botanist who looks for new plant experiences at every opportunity. Sure enough, the back porch of our beach house in Edisto Beach looked out on a vast prairie-sized marsh of cordgrass (spartina) slowly oozing fresh water toward the ocean, crisscrossed by freshwater creeks and a river, (though pushed backward twice daily by the tides),and edged on the other side by a heavily forested state park. Our house was surrounded by beautifully formed live oaks and other hardwoods, which were inhabited by cardinals, blue birds and several kinds of wrens. Thing is, we were two blocks from the beach. All week, I pondered: “How and why is this so different from the North Carolina beaches I grew up visiting?”

Edisto is an example of a Carolina Sea Island, of which there are over 100 between the Santee in SC and St John’s River in Florida. They are a special kind of barrier island that usually faces somewhat southward. These islands are the historic and present home of the Gullah people and culture, of which we saw evidence at the historic museum and in the basket weavers making and selling sweetgrass baskets at the craft market. The accents of the basketmakers and indeed many of the African American folks working all over, sounded Creole. Their history as the dominant population in this land of rice plantations is a wonderful story itself. But my first love in this situation is topography, and I found myself in one of the wettest topographies to be found.

Young greater egret hunts freshwater creek 2 blocks from ocean

Edisto barely qualifies as an island because at its northern tip, the Edisto River sends part of its flow on a different path toward the ocean, forming the North Edisto. The larger area of which it is part is called the ACE basin, for the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers that flow through it. The 350,000 acres are about half wetland, and comprise one of the largest wetland natural areas on the East coast. Our beach house stood at 4 meters above sea level. Ten miles back up Highway 174 toward 17, the marshes beside the road are at 5 meters and the high point at the middle of the area has a wooded rise that is just 18 meters above the sea. That’s flat=wet! This is one of the main reasons excessive development has not reached the area , because very few through roads connect the necks of the woods, which are everywhere fragmented by marshes. The tide pushes back such that even inland where the waterways are not brackish the fresh water rises and falls with the tidal rhythm that allowed rice to be grown and harvested.

HIghway 174 leading from 17 to Edisto Beach

   The other reasons for the lack of massive development are a fascinating human history. The rice planters made large fortunes using slave labor to clear and dike the wetlands for planting. As the Industrial Revolution produced a new class of wealth in the north, some of those men developed a passion for waterfowl hunting and purchased many of the plantations after the Civil War, maintaining the dikes and managing the landscape for hunting. Alongside these developments, the black residents, who predominated the population and acquired significant land holdings in the aftermath of the Civil War, developed a strong and somewhat isolating local culture that helped maintain the Gullah language, crafts and outlook that permeate the area to this day.

Boat channel beside Spanish Mount, a large shell midden

In the 1980’s duck-hunting organizations joined with the federal government and conservation groups to place permanent protections on well over 100,000 acres in the ACE basin, which has become a premiere legacy of South Carolina’s Low Country and its unique ecosystems. From 250 bird species to loggerhead turtles to shortnose sturgeon, the area’s success at what amounts to ecotourism represents a boon to wildlife and local residents and treasured experiences for the many visitors.

A live oak in the Botany Bay Nature Preserve about 3 miles from the beach

Edisto Beach jetty built to reduce beach erosion. One is at each public access point (verboten in NC!!)

Edisto Beach is full of beach houses, but the look and feel is retro – that is the beach towns of my childhood. There is one small Food Lion, with a Subway next door. Otherwise, all the shops and businesses are local. There are no high-rise motels. The only four story building is a residential hotel that is part of the large marina. A Wyndam villa resort shares the interior of the town with civic facilities and a small golf course. Bike sharrows edge all the roads, and the ubiquitous bike and golf cart rentals minimize car traffic. The edge road on which we stayed was so quiet a five year old would be safe bicycling on it (we can’t wait for that – our grandson is three). The beach houses get grander and less rental looking as you travel from the main island out to the point. Many of the sound side houses have boat docks.

The larger area is filled with wonderful naturalist destinations. The Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve contains the most popular and dramatic: Driftwood Beach, a remote stretch of sand that is inundated with the bleached skeletons of oak, palmetto and pine trees which were washed out of existence by severe erosion over the last 100 years (the shoreline has moved a mile landward in that time), but have persisted in death to create a surreal and quite beautiful tableaux.

2 Roseate Spoonbills hunting the marsh at Botany Bay

On the half-mile walk to the beach from the parking area, we had the great luck to encounter two Roseate Spoonbills hunting in a marsh creek. When we got to the beach, we wandered among the trees, some toppled, some partly submerged, a few eking their way back up the beach with each tide after being torn out by the roots by a hurricane.

Soil profile created by ongoing erosion at Driftwood Beach

“It was erosion that formed Botany Bay in the first place. One hundred years ago, the shoreline was nearly a mile out to sea, and the area where the beach now stands was a saltwater marsh.  This is evidenced by large strips of slick mud deposits that line areas of the beach called “marsh relicts” which mark the foundations of where the marsh once stood.  Over time, erosion caused by longshore drift currents formed a twomile beach along one of the wooded barrier islands.  The saltwater poisoned the trees, and the sun turned them white.

The erosion that created Botany Bay is now wearing away at the current beach, accelerated by the passing of hurricanes. It was closed for nine months after Hurricane Matthew ripped away the causeway bridge. The beach took a beating again when Hurricane Irma swept through, carving a large, impassible inlet towards one end of the beach, and sweeping almost all the sand away for a period of time.” Kristina Rackley in the Carolina News & Reporter

 

Mother and baby egret below our back porch

The huge salt marshes that predominate the visual and road landscape are richly populated with species that need patience to observe. The denizens are mostly hidden by the tall cordgrass, but every few minutes, a greater white egret or two will rise up and cruise around looking for a new spot to disappear.Gulls come twisting through, swooping closer to the plants and then resuming long distance flights. Popping shrimp sound like percolating bubbles in the mud, reminding one of all the invisible creatures that depend on and enrich this homogeneous and thus also specialized ecosystem. The cordgrass provides no food for wildlife during its life cycle, which confused early developers into undervaluing and destroying it, but the previous year’s rotting cordgrass is the base of the entire rich field of nutrients that nurture so many ocean and shoreline species.

Since the 1980’s, he ACE Basin preservation efforts have protected over 200,000 acres and is one of the most successful campaigns in the country. The acquisition of Botany Bay through a deeded agreement with the private owner was a highlight. We will be returning to this unique area for further exploration of its natural and human history.

black vultures have at a dead armadillo

Book resource

The Ace Basin  A Lowcountry Legacy

Websites

Ace Basin description

Nature Conservancy page

Fish & Wildlife visitation info

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The Raleigh Naturalist, formerly called Raleigh Nature, has taken on a statewide perspective following the publication of a book based on this blog. Check it out here.

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