HUNTING ISLAND, S.C. -- The three-bedroom beach rental house on this barrier island is dark and quiet, except for a few cellphone alarms that go off before the sun hits the sand. Someone has — thankfully — started the coffeepot, and we see that the sun again will rise with a flourish over the Atlantic Ocean and white sandy beach.
We throw on shorts and T-shirts, grab our coffee, and take our places on the deck facing the ocean, where the sea oats wave in the reflection of the sunrise hitting the shallow water closest to the house. As the sun peeks over the horizon, mixing shades of blue, yellow and orange with billowy white clouds framed by the palmettos, cheers go up.
It’s another sunrise party at Hunting Island. We toast another beautiful morning and discuss plans for the day. None is required; staying in bed late to catch up on a good book is a perfectly acceptable island activity, usually followed by a trip out to the quiet, uncrowded beach with a lawn chair, book and sunscreen.
With seven of us sharing the space for a week, the decisions run the gamut — fish in the surf, catch bait to go crabbing in the lagoon, walk the beach to take photos of the otherworldly collection of fallen trees at the island’s southern end, which has taken the brunt of erosion, including several houses and too much of the beautiful maritime forest with it.
Or go to the Nature Center and walk the long fishing pier that juts out toward neighboring Fripp Island, an upscale resort with beautiful Southern homes, an elegant beach, marina and pool, where golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation.
TripAdvisor chose Hunting Island as one of the top 25 beaches in the country in 2013. And the movie Forrest Gump included scenes from the lagoon surrounded by the lush greenery here (good for standing in for the jungles of Vietnam).
But those weren’t the reasons we chose to join my son, his wife and his in-laws in South Carolina for summer vacations. It was the excited phone calls we got about the great fishing — sometimes the big catch of the day was a shark — and descriptions of the beautiful beach and solitude. And it was the history — my daughter-in-law and her family had been coming here from Tennessee since she was a little girl, playing on the beach with her cousins.
Although Hunting Island has 200 campsites, just a few rental cabins have survived the erosion, and it’s hard to snag one.
Our first drive up on Hunting Island was like a trip into the movie Jurassic Park. Palmettos, oaks and pine trees were thick, lining the one-way roads and blocking the ocean view. On one trip in, we saw a big alligator tail wiggle off into the brush on the left side of the road. We didn’t see a lot of others, except on the morning we went crabbing with chicken parts in the lagoon. I wouldn’t have noticed, but the more experienced crabbers beside me spotted the alligator trail that went over a ridge in the sand and into the lagoon. I was done with crabbing.
You know how some things are better on vacation? Strangely, we were excited to find a vendor selling hot dogs near the camping area on the island. As hot dogs go, they were pretty good, and we came back a few times for quick food we didn’t have to cook.
One other attraction led us to this island: My son proposed to his girlfriend at the top of the historic lighthouse that is the centerpiece of Hunting Island State Park. A few years ago, they climbed the 176 steps up the spiral staircase and he popped the question on the observation deck that overlooks the island. We wanted to climb those same steps and take photos. We had our own family traditions but wanted to be a part of new ones they were creating.
You always hope that a family vacation leaves nothing but pleasant memories, but often real life intervenes. We arrived on the island on a Saturday afternoon, settled into our beach house and took walks. On Sunday, we went to the island shop to look at the T-shirts, souvenirs, even baby books. On this trip, our daughter in-law was almost eight months pregnant, so decorations for the baby’s room and books about sea turtles were in high demand. There we heard a young girl in the shop telling the person behind the counter that some swimmers were in trouble.
A young girl swimming with the group at a state park made it back to shore safely, but a man and two teens were pulled out by a rip current and didn’t make it back. It was Wednesday before the last body was recovered.
We prayed for the family who lost a father, son and cousin and for the relatives holding vigil on the shore. It’s hard to imagine how quickly fun on the beach turns to tragedy and how deeply that hurts.
Around our beach house, we often saw turtle patrol volunteers who had already marked off one nest of loggerhead turtle eggs nearby, with signs warning visitors that the nesting spots were being protected. Each summer, hundreds of loggerhead turtle eggs are laid on this stretch of beach.
The morning before we left, one of the orange-shirted volunteers stopped in front of our house to examine turtle tracks that led from the water to the sand fence, and back to the water. More volunteers gathered, as they dug and poked in the sand to try to find eggs that might have been left there the night before. We gathered around to watch their exploration. They found no eggs this time. The circle of life would be completed for this loggerhead down the beach elsewhere.
During the week, we fished, had more sunrise parties, hiked in the forest, took turns in a hammock, walked the fishing pier, and watched people pull up fish, sharks and crabs. My son pulled a shark off the hook of a child’s fishing pole, something he had plenty of experience doing, and tossed it back to the ocean.
We watched painted buntings and squirrels enjoy the feeders at the Nature Center and decorated a couple of T-shifts in a class using rubber sea-life molds and bright paint.
We were drawn over and over to the many fallen trees on the badly eroded end of the island, finding signs of good times long past where only a few partial foundations, steps, broken boards and pipes were strewn among the dead trees.
My husband, son and daughter-in-law — now almost eight months pregnant — signed up for a night flounder-gigging trip on a flat-bottom boat. I got to enjoy the fruit of their labors, paired with some sweet, fresh corn on the cob.
But most of all, we enjoyed each other’s company, the blending of two families, and held our loved ones close.
• Information: http://southcarolinaparks.com; from the pull-down menu, choose Hunting Island