Four thousand years ago, nomadic Indians stopped in these woods every year on their seasonal journeys. They left behind a mysterious wall of oyster shells, heaped a couple of feet high around a circular clearing about 150 feet across. Erosion has taken a toll, but much of the ring is still there, the shells glowing in the light that’s filtered through the leaves above. It’s a little eerie, a little amazing to be standing on ground where Native Americans once camped.
The next day’s destination is quite different. Pinckney Island, the largest island in the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, lies in the waterway that separates Hilton Head from the mainland. There’s no development, just 10 or so miles of grass and gravel trails through 1,200 acres of salt marsh and higher ground.
Big gators live here, too, but the larger draw is an exotic assortment of birds: white ibis, egrets, two varieties of heron, ospreys, painted buntings and more. Around Ibis Pond, they hoot, trill, chirp and caw in a cacophonous din, sometimes joined by the deep boing of a bullfrog; I pull out my iPhone and record it to keep the memory alive. This is the first time I’ve seen wood storks, remarkable wading birds with five-foot wingspans that manage to be both gawky and graceful. Here I also get my first glimpse of the sociable fiddler crabs. I’ve read about marsh snails, and there they are, clinging to the cord grass that rises from the muddy bottom. We leave happy but wondering how we could possibly have forgotten to pack binoculars.
There are a few other nature-related sites to visit, and on our last day, we choose the Coastal Discovery Museum. Housed in the modest-size former home of a plantation owner, the museum traces Hilton Head history from prehistoric times through the present. There’s plenty of information about the local wildlife, including the sea turtles that come here to lay eggs. It’s also the best place to learn about the Gullah people, whose ancestors were brought here from West Africa as slaves and whose culture remarkably survives today. A bus tour that visits historic Gullah neighborhoods leaves from the parking lot.
The museum has a butterfly enclosure, gardens and three boardwalks jutting into the salt marsh. As the afternoon wanes, we walk out over the last boardwalk to a small gazebo over the water eddying below. An interactive display lets me push buttons to hear the calls of the local birds, and mounted observation binoculars ease the pain of not having my own. Suddenly, we realize that it’s late; the museum is closing. Hurrying back across the boardwalk, I spot movement below. The tide has just gone out, and already the mud teems with crabs. They’re waving. I wave back: Goodbye.