Hunting Island Adventure

View through a root circle formed where an oak grew around a palmetton.
Focusing in on adventure at Hunting Island through a circle created by roots wrapping a palmetto.

Boats, books, and beaches.

These are my favorite things. They’re also my go to sources of all kinds of adventure, from thrilling, to heart stopping.

As we sailed our boat south from Rhode Island on the Intracoastal Waterway, I had plenty of books aboard. (Of course my fellow book lovers know there really is no such thing.) I also imagined that along the way we’d sail to beaches any time we wanted.

It turns out that, with notable exceptions such as the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort, (boe-fort) NC, beaches are scarce along the ICW. There’s saltwater, there’s shoreline, but in general, the beach is the eastern edge of the strip of land that protects boats on the ICW from ocean surf and wind. The western (ICW) side tends to be marshy, built up, or otherwise inaccessible. Where you can get ashore, the trek to the beach is often long, muddy, or both.

A view across marsh near Hunting Island State Park
The beach is out there, somewhere.

After we settled into our new home base of Beaufort (bue-furt), SC, we wanted to play on the beach. We wanted to swim, walk, and watch the sun rise. But the closest beach was a state park, 10 miles away as the crow flies, 14 miles by narrow winding road. To get there was not a quick jaunt, but a once-in-a-while all day bike ride, or a 30 minute drive.

We frugal cruisers pinch pennies, so we also grumbled about the cost of admission. A friend loaned us her annual pass once, and that was great. But for the most part, we denied ourselves our favorite environment because we didn’t want to pony up $5 for each visit.


We finally went ahead and bought an annual pass to Hunting Island State Park. Then the beach adventures began.

Now we go to the beach at least three times a week. The pass paid for itself in about four weeks, with bonus dividends of happiness and well being.

Fitness Adventures

My minimum movement quota is three miles walking per day. A good beach allows for that and then some. Weather permitting, both Tom and I prefer to run beaches or trails instead of riding stationary bikes in the gym. We like to scramble boulders or balance along drift logs, walk and talk instead of hanging out inside, distracted by screens, as we’re way too prone to do.

Nancy Bartlett log walking in maritime forest Hunting Island State Park

We started our Hunting Island adventures by shifting our walk out to the beach while the mornings were still chilly, and began a new love affair with sunrise.

Sunrise through a beached tree, Hunting Island State Park

Each morning, after taking 100 pictures each, we’d walk to the end of the island – one way or the other. Round trip, about 5 miles. Soon we progressed to running. The first day we wore shoes, knowing that our feet and legs, unaccustomed to the give, and the grit of sand, would suffer if we didn’t take it slow. Stopping to take more pictures helps.

A series of groins – remnants of an effort to slow the sand’s shifting – jut out into the ocean every quarter mile. Running from one to the next, they serve as markers, and goals. Where the tops have not been lifted away by hurricanes, they are also handy for step ups, stretching and balancing. Using them like hurdles isn’t the best idea. Wave action often scours away the sand, leaving one side much lower than the other.

rusty groin juts out into the Atlantic at Hunting Island State Park

Though water is my element, I’ve never been a particularly strong swimmer. In winter I do laps in the YMCA pool to increase my odds of survival should I fall overboard. As the days warmed up, it was easy to jump in the water after our run and we switched from laps to the fun stuff – boogie boarding and swimming in the ocean instead.

Once again, those groins, 1/4 mile apart, came in handy for measuring distance or struggling toward. The first time we swam 1/4 mile against the current, then we progressed to 1/2 mile. And then I had a different kind of nature adventure.

I got stung by a jellyfish.

Adventure – not always pleasant, always interesting

We’d been boogie boarding on the early morning surf, but when the seas calmed, we switched to swimming and I was about a quarter mile in, doing the side stroke, when I bumped into something with my left shoulder. I turned around to see what it was, but found nothing. Assuming it was either a turtle or a relatively benign cannonball jellyfish, I turned over to my right side and swam on.

Afterward, I headed up the beach, pushing my hair back from my forehead and felt a bump at my hairline. An egg, like I’d bashed my head. Maybe my boogie board, caught by a wave, had smacked me. Though I didn’t remember that happening. I hid out in our oasis, trying not to rub the sore place.

Hiding from jelly fish in my oasis. Hunting Island State Park

An hour later, back home aboard Sunshine, I started to make lunch, looked down, and could see my cheek. Uh oh. I ran to the mirror and sure enough, the whole right side of my face was swollen. It was a good thing I’d been wearing a rashguard for swimming or my left shoulder would have been stung as well. This particular adventure was likely with a sea nettle as the other stinging jellyfish that frequent South Carolina waters – the box jellyfish, lion’s mane, and Portuguese Man o’War – would have done significantly more damage.

A bunch of research and two days of antihistimines later, I woke up and wanted to go to the beach again. For running. Swimming could wait a bit.

Geologic Adventure

Though it is one of a set of about 100 Sea Islands that stretch along the Atlantic coast from north of Charleston, SC to northern Florida, Hunting Island is unique. Its shape and setting in the coastline makes it more susceptible than the other islands to continual beach erosion and to huge changes year after year. It’s a different island each season.

Inflatable shark washed up in maritime forest Hunting Island State Park

As the sea encroaches, the maritime forest of oaks and palmettos is engulfed, becoming a ghostly sea forest of skeleton trees standing in the surf. (And the occasional washed up inflatable shark.) Visually spectacular, this island has been the location for many kinds of adventure over the centuries.

Historic Adventure

Hunting Island Lighthouse

The island’s famous lighthouse originally stood more than two miles further east, a spot that is now well out into the Atlantic Ocean. Ten years after it was destroyed by Confederate troops to keep it out of Union hands, it was rebuilt in its current location. Now even this may not be far enough inland.

Perhaps due to the extreme, and very visible erosion, Hunting Island was never developed or inhabited. There was a trend, before the war, for using some of the Sea Islands as private hunting reserves, where wealthy planters and other elites came to shoot for sport. Hunting Island was one of these, and became a state park in 1930. It remains a wildlife preserve today.

Vacation Adventure

A cluster of vacation cottages once stood at the southern end of the park until they were engulfed by the sea. The last cottage, Little Blue, was the subject of an art exhibition called Last Cabin Standing in 2016. My friend, and fellow sailor, Jackson Ehrlich was part of the show. Perhaps because of his personal history as a waterman, Jackson was the only artist to depict Little Blue from the seaward side.

Little Blue, a watercolor by artist Jackson Ehrlich

Though Little Blue still stood above the waves after Hurricane Matthew struck the island, it was deemed unsafe and removed in 2018.

Cinematic Adventure

The Vietnam jungle scenes in which Forrest Gump rescues his whole platoon (and famously, gets shot in the buttocks) were filmed among the palmettos and vines of Hunting Island. Some scenes of GI Jane were also shot here. This year, due to HB2, the controversial North Carolina bathroom bill, movies and TV shows are not shooting in NC. So Hunting Island is standing in for the Outer Banks for a new Netflix show called OBX. One morning during shooting, we ran across a set crew installing a “washed up” buoy on the beach.

Fake washed up buoy for TV show OBX

Nature Adventure

The dramatically eroding shore, the intact semi-tropical jungle, the lack of development, the pelicans, gulls, sandpipers, terns, horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, deer, osprey and alligators are appealing enough, but then, every spring, Kemp’s Ridley and Loggerhead sea turtles arrive for nesting.

Oh, it’s awesome, Jellyman. The little dudes are just eggs, we leave ’em on a beach to hatch, and then, coo-coo-cachoo, they find their way back to the big ol’ blue.

Crush – Finding Nemo

This is the highlight of the Hunting Island season. The campground is booked two years ahead. The entire coast is encouraged to observe Lights Out for Sea Turtles, as the mama turtles, and the babies, use the light of the stars to find their way.

Sea Turtle nesting track through the sand at Hunting Island State Park

When we ran across our first sea turtle track we were ecstatic. Those mamas really move the sand.

Recent years have been slow for sea turtles, with few nests. So seeing a track raised our hopes for a good season this year.

Adventures in Conservation

Sea turtle nesting season runs from May to October. Every morning we jogged along the edge of the outgoing tide looking for the tracks left by a female Loggerhead, or Kemp’s Ridley turtle dragging herself up the beach to lay her eggs. We found pileups of horseshoe crabs that do something similar. One night we did a full moon walk and found a group of turtle volunteers watching a mama lay her eggs. We sat quietly by and watched her until she made her slow way back into the sea.

Mama sea turtle heads  back to the ocean after laying eggs at Hunting Island State Park

Each morning I pestered the orange shirted turtle conservation volunteers to find out how many nests so far. As the numbers increased, so did the hope that this was going to be a good year for turtles. When the final nest was laid, the numbers looked very good, with a total of 153 nests on Hunting Island.

Sea Turtle nest at Hunting Island State Park

Then the early nests began to hatch, and a whole new adventure greeted us one morning. Baby sea turtles scampering down the beach to the sea!

(Tom got a little excited.)

Go Little Dude! Go Sea Turtles!

Sea Turtle season starts again in May along the Carolina Coasts. Teams train in April, so anyone who wants to volunteer to help the turtles out for the 2020 season should contact their local area organization in the next couple of months.

For information on sea turtles and other conservation efforts on Hunting Island

For full State Park information

The art of Jackson Ehrlich

Jellyfish of South Carolina

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