Step Back In Time On Bulls Island
Visit this untamed Island, a true jewel of the Lowcountry. By Stratton Lawrence. Photos by Cat Moye.
From the beach at the north end of Bulls Island, Wild Dunes Resort is a speck on the horizon, eight miles south.
But where Isle of Palms attracts visitors to its condos, swimming pools and paved bike trails, its neighbor to the north beckons thousands of avian travelers to its freshwater impoundments, undisturbed shoreline and intact maritime forest. “This is a story of visitation,” says Captain Chris Crolley, my guide on this unseasonably warm February day. “We are visitors, coming to see the visitors.”
Bulls Island is part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. At 66,287 acres, it’s the longest stretch of protected wilderness on the east coast of the U.S., and Bulls is its beating heart. The island is managed for animals, not for humans. The surrounding marsh and neighboring islands’ classification as a Class 1 wilderness indicates the area’s pristine air and water, putting it in a category only shared on the East Coast by Wolf Island in Georgia and parts of Acadia National Park in Maine.
Its isolation and preserved state make Bulls Island a critical stopover and nesting ground for numerous species of birds. Visit in the early winter and you’ll share the island’s interior ponds with thousands of ducks. When they head south, neotropical songbirds fill the forest, before shorebirds descend on the beaches for the summer. Throughout the year, 293 different species of birds can be spotted on the island.
That’s all-in addition to the loggerhead turtles that rely on Bulls Island’s seven miles of beachfront to lay their eggs (nearly a quarter of the entire northern subspecies of loggerheads nest in the Cape Romain refuge), and the hundreds of alligators, deer, bobcats and non-migratory birds that occupy the island year-round.
Crolley has been exploring Bulls Island for over 20 years, and his company, Coastal Expeditions, offers eco-tours and a public ferry to the island. Even after all that time, his visceral excitement for the place is still evident when he speaks. When we emerge from the woods onto a pond just as a peregrine falcon dives from a tree onto a flock of ducks, he’s in visible awe. “This is my Mavericks,” exclaims Crolley, comparing the island to the once-well-hidden surf break in California. “Now I’m excited to be sharing it with you.”
The Journey to Pristine
A trip to Bulls Island begins at Garris Landing in Awendaw, where the last few miles of rural road help prepare the mind to leave the traffic and concrete of the city behind. Once on the water, we follow a literal maze of tidal creeks across a wide expanse of salt marsh. Groups of American Oystercatchers — the endangered bird species that serves as an unofficial mascot for Cape Romain — wander the oyster beds exposed at low tide, waiting for their prey to open its shell so they can snatch out a salty, fleshy meal. “The oystercatcher is a bioindicator,” Crolley explains. “You have to have healthy water to have plentiful oysters. Around Cape Romain, we see more oystercatchers than anywhere else in the world.”
The landscape as we cross Sewee Bay looks much as it did in March 1670, when Charleston’s first settlers, aboard the Frigate Carolina, made landfall on Bulls Island after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Natives welcomed them to the island (then called Oneiscau) with their customary greeting of vigorously stroking their shoulders. The island was soon renamed by the English for Stephen Bull, an early settler and Colonel of the provincial militia.
Even as Charleston grew into the metropolis it is today, 4,900-acre Bulls Island was mostly left to wilderness, likely due to its distance from the mainland. “What keeps a place pristine is that it’s hard to get there,” says Crolley. “What keeps it even more pristine is if it’s hard to be there.”
During the warmer months of the year, when mosquitoes hatch in prolific numbers from the freshwater ponds on the island, that’s certainly the case. Yet bugs didn’t stop New York banker Gayer Domenick from purchasing the island in 1925 and establishing it as a prime duck hunting retreat. He built the only house that stands today on the island, where a lucky handful of birders, photographers and nature enthusiasts get to stay on Coastal Expeditions’ weekend overnight trips to the island.
Only a decade into Domenick’s ownership, the Great Depression helped prompt the island’s sale to the federal government, who recognized that a haven for migratory waterfowl, if maintained properly, would support those species’ populations up and down the coast.
The ecosystem at Bulls Island extends into the sky and far below the surface of the creeks and ocean that surround it. Just before arriving at the island’s sole dock, our boat passes over a rare 70-foot-deep hole in a creek, evidenced by the hundreds of cormorants diving down to fish in the area. “When you get thermal layers of water stacked up like this, it’s like a singles bar and a buffet wrapped into one,” says Crolley, highlighting the biodiversity evident in a single area of salt water.
The eclectic ecology continues land. Once docked, we walk a trail that straddles the line between forest and marsh. To our right, plants like the wax myrtle and sable palmetto trees thrive next to juncus grass and sea oxeye daisy flowers in the marsh’s transitional hyper-salient zone. On our left is a young upland forest of loblolly pines and live oaks, still slowly recovering from the devastating effects of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. “These are two completely different ecosystems, operating side by side,” says Crolley. “Look out one way and you see wading birds like herons and egrets. Turn around and there are warblers singing in the trees.”
We meander down a grassy trail heavily adorned with the state flower, yellow jessamine, before eventually emerging on a beach naturally littered with decomposing pine, cedar and oak trees. Had people never built homes on Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, those islands’ northern ends would likely resemble this boneyard beach, where the ocean slowly reclaims the forest, eroding its sand and soil and re-depositing it further south.
“If you look at the size, shape and geographical orientation of Bulls Island and Isle of Palms, they are really sister islands,” says Crolley, pointing out that the awe-inducing boneyard beach we’re walking through is really no different geologically than the ever-eroding 18th green at Wild Dunes’ oceanfront golf course. After two decades of visits, however, Crolley claims he’s seen a noticeable increase in the rate of erosion in recent years. What was “two steps forward, three steps back” in the 1990s is now just steps back, with the rate of accretion falling far behind the rate of erosion. “I can come out here now after a week and not recognize the beach,” says Crolley. “A high tide with waves and a northeast wind is all it takes to change the landscape overnight.”
The encroaching ocean is also visible at the 600-acre Jack Creek Pond on the island’s north tip, where a small embankment is only a year or two away from breaking and infiltrating the pond with salt water. A new causeway is almost complete across the middle of the pond, designed to sacrifice half of it to the sea and preserve the rest as a freshwater haven for birds, fish and animals.
In the island’s interior, life is more stable. A grass causeway dubbed “Alligator Alley” lives up to its name, with over a dozen toothy reptiles sunning themselves as they have on this island for millennia. Coots, rails and more hens swim among stands of cattail, underscoring this rare abundance of freshwater on a barrier island. “This is the real undiscovered Charleston,” Crolley exudes. “People think of carriage tours and fine dining when they visit here, but let’s get out of the bars and restaurants for a day, get up early and really do something. That’s my dharma — to facilitate a high-integrity, safe experience with nature.”
The Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island are already surrounded by the natural world; one only needs to walk onto the beach or gaze across the marsh to experience the spectacle of nature. But a visit to Bulls Island takes our appreciation of the place we live to another level, serving as a reminder of how each of our barrier islands — including those that humans’ inhabitant — would look and feel like if we had never developed them. That’s an awe and an awareness we can bring back to the islands where we live, and a worthwhile reason to visit Bulls Island.