2017-08-31 / Editorial Page

Down a back road to backwaters

Across The Savannah
By TOM POLAND tompol@earthlink.net

Big gator crossing the bay. (Photos by Tom Poland). Big gator crossing the bay. (Photos by Tom Poland). Dateline Georgetown County, SC, Aug. 15, 2017—Not quite a year later I return to South Island Road and Carolina backwaters. The destination? The Tom Yawkey Center’s North Island. To get to North Island I again have to drive down South Island Road and take the ferry to meet guide Jim Lee in the briefing room. I did just that on a hot August morning beneath a sky salted with puffy white clouds.

During our briefing, Lee took a call from a man I had interviewed earlier in the week, the Alliga­tor Man. In these parts you can’t talk wildlife without the name of Phil Wilkinson coming up. During my Sunday night interview with Wilkinson, I had asked him if it were true that a gator could outrun a quarter horse for forty yards.

“Bull crap,” he said. “I can out­run a gator but I sure can’t outrun a horse.” It would not be the last col­orful pronouncement from Wilkin­son, who told me he had been lucky all his life. “I grew up in the Santee Delta. I’ve been lucky all the way.” Indeed, it did seem that Lady Luck had smiled on this man who was fortunate enough to work in the region where he grew up catching gators and studying eastern brown pelicans.

Guide Jim Lee. Guide Jim Lee. Following our briefing, Jim Lee had us board a Boston whaler. Bugs weren’t a problem but we had to wear lifejackets per SC Department of Natural Resources’ regulations. Wearing them was as hot as a night in a South Georgia jail.

As we headed toward a destina­tion with the North Island light­house, I though of all the times Wilkinson must have coursed over these waters. Lee stopped here and there to point out historic sites: an old Confederate fort, Tom Yawkey’s abandoned boathouse, nothing but its rafters and roof visible, like an upside down beached ship. We saw, too, an abandoned Coast Guard station. We saw an island of spoils dredged from Winyah Bay.

Steep, spidery steps Steep, spidery steps As we crossed wide Winyah Bay, a 10-foot alligator crossed the chop 100 yards in front of us. Again I thought of Wilkinson, wondering if he had tagged that very gator himself. A woman asked Lee to get closer to the gator but he paid her no mind. The gator made it to shore after a long swim across Winyah Bay.

We, too, made shore but not on a spoils island but on North Island, the island where Lafayette first set foot on North America. It was here that Lee discussed gators and that brought up the Alligator Man, Phil Wilkinson. Lee said that Wilkin­son’s knowledge of gators was vast, and it should be. Wilkinson, who remained active after retiring from the South Carolina Depart­ment of Natural Resources, contin­ues to study gators. He has records going back thirty-seven years on gators. “A gator,” says Wilkinson, “can live ninety hears if it is in good shape.” (There’s a lesson in that for us too.)

North Island lighthouse. North Island lighthouse. We docked near the North Island lighthouse. We put ashore, removed the sweat-inducing lifejackets, and headed toward the lighthouse, built in 1811. After some advice on watching our feet—cacti and snakes—we climbed the white- painted brick lighthouse. It’s an easy climb; easy that is if you don’t mind spiders, including black wid­ows. It’s South Carolina’s oldest continuously active lighthouse, and it gets its power from the sun. So­lar charged batteries fire it up. So here, you see this blending of old and new technologies.

Charleston contractors Thomas Walker and James Evans built the lighthouse employing slave labor it’s said. It’s solid as rock and with good reason. It’s made of iron, brick, and stone. Bricks at the base are five feet thick and the circular steps are cut from rock. The bottom of steps bring to mind stalactites, albeit short ones.

Coast Guard vessell in bay, viewed from lighthouse. Coast Guard vessell in bay, viewed from lighthouse. The old federally operated light­house, one of two that remain in South Carolina possesses quite a history. It served as an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812 and as a refuge when the 1822 hur­ricane destroyed most dwellings in the area. Confederate soldiers used it as a lookout but in time it fell into Union hands. None of these things were on my mind as we climbed the 124 steps to the top. It was dark, fairly hot, and a winding route to the top, the domain of spiderwebs. The light plane itself is 85 feet.

When we climbed up through the trap door into the light room itself and stepped out onto the iron cat­walk we had a spectacular view. The panorama included Winyah Bay, North Island, and far across a line of maritime forest, the Atlantic. Directly below us we saw the aban­doned remnants of an old Coast Guard outpost, now the realm of wasp and bird nests.

History and spectacular views weren’t on my mind. I got to think­ing about all the years of salt air and how it rusts iron. That made me a tad nervous, queasy even, about all of us standing on the cat­walk. I retreated to the light room but it was hot, mighty hot. I decid­ed to take my chances with grav­ity and rejoined the folks on the catwalk. I wasn’t superstitious but I had read beforehand that some bad luck struck men who worked at the lighthouse. In December 1915, Charles F. Johnson, the keeper on South Island, shot himself. John­son had been suffering from tuber­culosis of the throat and had been unable to eat. He had threatened to kill himself several times and just days before had picked out his cas­ket. In 1933 Head Keeper Joseph W. Grisillo was found dead in a chair inside the keeper’s dwelling. The coroner ruled that Grisillo died of natural causes.

Keeper Gabriel Jackson, who replaced Grisillo as head keeper in 1933, was serving with as­sistant keeper George C. Ellis. Then, on November 5, 1938 an explosion rocked the boat the men were traveling in on Winyah Bay. Both men jumped overboard. El­lis, who couldn’t swim clung to a wood plank, but lost his hold and drowned, never to be seen again. A towboat out of Georgetown picked Jackson up two hours later who suf­fered burns over ninety percent of his body. A month later he returned to the lighthouse.

All that bad karma made me glad when we descended to the ground. We boarded the Whaler, donned lifejackets, and on the way back, Lee spotted a bald eagle perched in a cypress. Its head gleamed like snow. We drifted ever closer to get photos but the eagle would have none of that. Off it flew. And soon off we went, our tour complete. But what a tour it had been.

Where else can you see historic forts, remnants of the rice culture, the state’s oldest lighthouse, places a man who owned a baseball team loved, bald eagles, alligators, and more. Where else can you step onto an island as Marquis de Lafayette did. Where else can you enjoy a place the Alligator Man influenced Tom Yawkey to donate to South Carolina.

Down a back road to back wa­ters. That’s where.

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