“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout a life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
Healing Nature Deficit Disorder
I first found Rachel Carson’s writings when I was a young person, an idealistic youth who loved nature, animals, and everything alive. While this post I wrote below started as a travel narrative, I encourage you to read it as a note on how important it is for our mental health to have an appreciation for something outside ourselves.
I had a long period as an adult that I felt uncomfortable in my own skin—a feeling of being alone, that something was off. The alienation we feel comes from the disconnect with what is right in front of us. Fortunately, I grew up with parents that taught me early in life about looking for wonder. Over time, I was able to heal myself, and I’ve always found nature to be a loyal ally in that regard.
My trip to Bulls Island was solo. Sure, there was a group of people that joined the same tour, but we were all strangers. Walking down the beach with the sun barely rising, I had solitude. Aside from the sound of the waves and birds, I had silence. I found magic in just discovering what nature wanted to show me.
More than ever, we are all so immersed in the unnatural — the devices, the apps — that we miss the sense of wonder in nature. I hope that you’ll take this little journey with me now. Explore. Find the wild and natural side of you: your soul.
Beach landscape: Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
At first glance, Bulls Island appears to be a private and secluded paradise. And indeed, the beach stretches so wide at low tide, that walking at the water’s edge, you wouldn’t even notice someone else sifting for shells at the tide-line, much less hear them if they tried to talk to you. The sound of the surf masks the sound of the birds on the island, and the breeze carries briny salt air with no hints of city pollution. The thing that may best speak for Bulls Island is how much life there is, and when looking closer, how much there is to explore.
How to get to Bulls Island
Bulls Island is the largest of the barrier islands that make up the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) just 21 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. Far from award-winning restaurants and quaint bed and breakfasts, the island is like the polar opposite of Charleston except for its charm. The only way to reach the island is by ferry or private boat, therefore limiting the number of people visiting. Aside from some occasional National Wildlife Refuge employees and volunteers that stay at The Dominick House built back in 1925 by a wealthy stockbroker, no one else is allowed to stay overnight. There are no other buildings on the island, no stores, no kiosks for directions. For all of these reasons, Bulls Island is a great destination if you are seeking an adventure travel experience.
Getting to the island is half the fun. As the ferry navigates through the estuary’s tapestry of spartina-covered salt marshes, one of Coastal Expedition’s marine biologists alerts passengers to sightings of dolphins, loggerhead turtles and some of the 293 bird species that live or migrate through Cape Romain. The trip is about 30 minutes. Once on shore, there is a bathroom, but other than that, the island is undeveloped and raw.
Walking on the beach
Wandering down the beach, the wash of high tide during the night clears away the previous day’s human footprints. The ocean deposits a mishmash for discovery: shells, sand dollars, corals, sponges, spent horseshoe crabs, loggerhead turtle ribs, clumps of pluff mud, deer tracks, and broken segments of See Wee Indian pottery. If you look up from scouring the sands, you may witness a flight of pelicans trailing their leader in a rhythmic single-file wave. Look away from the open sea towards the island, and watch an orchestra of egrets, ibis, oystercatchers, skimmers, plovers, and terns performing turns above brush, palmettos, and pines.
For an aesthetic appreciation of nature, look to the patterns in the sand around an oyster shell; marvel at South Carolina’s famous “pluff” mud and what it has attracted in its folds; and sort through a collection of ocean treasures washed ashore during high tide, collected in an abandoned horseshoe crab shell.
Boneyard Beach: A Lesson in Dealing with Change
Then you notice a shift. The subtle beginnings of Boneyard Beach come into view slowly. Hauntingly-gnarled polished smooth to a silvery-gray color, roots, and twisted branches of massive Live Oaks jut out of the sand. Some trees with the last bit of their tenacity, stand erect in the surf like giant driftwood. Barnacles attack old cedar remnants. For the imaginative, there are shapes and faces, topographical maps, and caverns carved in the trunks. With somber realization, you sense the pace of evolution as nature shows how quickly it has consumed this mile and a half of forest.
Walking on Boneyard Beach engages your senses on another level with trees stranded in the sand, washed and worn by the waves, revealing faces and odd designs. There’s been a lot of change, and you can appreciate how important it is to be in the moment you are in right now.
Walking Trails on Bulls Island
Though it is hard to leave the sandy beach, there is more to discover at Bulls. Several trails cut through the maritime forest. A thick canopy of live oak, palmetto, red cedar, juniper, wax myrtle, and other trees and shrubbery filters the trail from full sun, welcome in a humid climate. Along the trail, lacy wild fennel grows in the shade. For a punch of color, the yaupon holly shows off bright red berries that the native Indians used as both tea and in rituals. This holly is the only caffeinated plant that grows naturally in the United States. The dense plant life masks sound. A scampering in the leaves captures your attention. This island is crawling with life. Was it deer, bobcat, mink, lizard, snake, or a black fox squirrel crawling through the thicket?
The interior of Bulls Island is connected by a network of 16 miles of trails, so in addition to an adventure on the water by boat and kayak, you can also get great exercise on foot.
Then the shade of the maritime forest opens. The trail leads to the top of a levee between fresh and brackish water ponds. At first glance, there appear to be several dirt piles on the dam. Moving closer, you realize, close to two dozen alligators are sunning, giving this trail the nickname, “Alligator Alley.” As they sense the approach, one by one, they slide stealthily, leaving only ripples in the black water. As you scan the lily pads and tall grasses, you see the submerged ridges of the alligators’ backs and slightly exposed nostrils and eyes of at least another half dozen. These intimidating-looking reptiles have dodged extinction twice. Once through the dinosaur era and more recently, endangered until the efforts for protection and habitat preservation.
Alligator Alley: Diving Deep into Self-Discovery
First off, I don’t recommend literally diving in with these guys. But symbolically, alligators are about diving deep into self-discovery. Coming face to face with fear is part of that. And having empathy for all creatures is part of that too.
Alligator Alley on Bulls Island has a few speed bumps to walk over. Though you do walk on the same levy as they sun on, the alligators that call this home move as soon as humans get close, slipping into the black water. Visitors to Bulls Island have fun trying to count how many they can see on land and water.
South Carolina’s Lowcountry on Bulls Island is home to many wild inhabitants in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Once close to extinction, the American Alligator makes a comeback when given a wild space like Bulls Island to thrive.
Relaxing and taking a step through time.
After the shock of confronting such a dense concentration of alligators, the maritime forest once again provides a canopy and a different world to wander. On the way back to the Garris Ferry landing, a small cemetery with a few untended and overgrown gravestones from the 1890s brings the human element to this island. What was it like to be a pioneer here? And further back, what was it like for pirates that supposedly dropped anchor and came ashore? What did the English Colonists who arrived by ship see here? What was it like for the See Wee Tribe to hunt this land? There is a sense of having been shipwrecked and stranded, with rescue on the way. But the experience is, fortunately, very similar to those from the past. South Carolina coastal land the way it was. Wilderness protected.
If you are planning a trip to Cape Romain for an adventure on the wild side, the Coastal Expeditions has information on options to get to the island by ferry or kayak. The National Wildlife Refuge also has information about the facilities, maps, and current conditions.
“…Those who dwell…among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexation or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature-the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”
Go out and enjoy nature. It is good for you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Hey, seeing an alligator would be random, but you wouldn’t want your head down looking at your phone in that moment, would you?
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And let me know where you’ve been that inspired you to enjoy the little moments in the comments below. I’m always up for a new little adventure.
Ann Newman is an abstract photographer, writer, and creator of Annstracts. As a former, professionally-trained salesperson, Ann understands that people want to solve problems or accelerate growth for a better future. Exploring the symbolism in abstract photos, she lets them tell stories that offer hope. You might find Ann near her home in Phoenix, bent down looking at the tiniest details of a bug, patting any nearby dog, or looking up at a tree to figure out what bird she just heard.
Looks like I need to put Bulls Island on our bucket list!!!!
Absolutely. I loved this day trip. Definitely worth getting up early for!