Walkabout Hilton Head Island

naturehhi“How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those who are wise and of good will.”
– Albert Einstein

FORTUNE HAS BESTOWED upon me the opportunity to spend much of my life on islands. First, Cuba (pre-Fidel), then four decades on Hilton Head Island interspersed with a stint on Oahu, Hawaii. There is something about island living. Not just the sparkling sea, soft moist air, or laid-back lifestyle. What One Thing makes living on this island — Hilton Head — so desired, so enriching? To discover the secret, we will take a Walkabout — a meandering, maybe mystical, and definitely eyeopening journey of discovery across this grand old isle. Perhaps we shall find the One Thing, the True Secret Place — and in the process, rediscover ourselves.


Tides are the pulse and blood of nature on Hilton Head Island. Flood and ebb have always been certain, the rhythm of life here. Over 40 centuries ago, coastal Indians migrated on tidal rivers, sounds, and creeks. In these waters they harvested abundant oysters, clams, crabs, fish, and game. We trace these ancestors to the Indian Shell Ring — their ceremonial grounds in what is now the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Walk into the center of the Ring. Feel the light breeze as it teases old beards of Spanish moss in arching live oaks. The First Ones felt that breeze here, too. They gathered that moss for medicinal use, and to temper their pottery. The oysters they consumed still flourish on the banks of tidal creeks here. Those craggy mollusks are easily overlooked — but they are our primal bond to antiquity, to Home.


It’s Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. In this state the Civil War began —about 100 miles north at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Hilton Head residents could hear the cannon fire. The Palmetto State paid a heavy price for its rebellion against the Union, and the war changed everything on this island. On our Walkabout we discover the old fort sites — Walker (Port Royal Plantation), Howell (Beach City Road), Mitchel (Hilton Head Plantation) and the graveyards, such as Union Cemetery and secluded ancestral slave burial sites, still maintained by relatives. These are sacred ground — testament to the Great Hard Times that befell this island after the war. We walk with reverence here.

Nearly two-dozen cotton plantations operated on Hilton Head Island before the war. When Federal troops invaded (November, 1861) the mostly absentee owners fled inland, and their slaves fled to the Union camps. The army considered the slaves “Contraband of War” under the care of the U.S. Government. Many former escaped slaves were employed and educated by the army during this period.

In 1862, commanding General Ormsby Mitchel authorized establishment of one of America’s first freedman’s villages on high, forested land along present-day Beach City Road overlooking Fish Haul Creek and Port Royal Sound. Mitchelville stood as a selfgoverning community until the early 1900s, according to archaeological studies. The site is now preserved as a Town of Hilton Head Island open space park. Presently, the non-profit Mitchelville Preservation Project is developing plans to show the property as an historical park with educational exhibits, trails, and interpretive programs.

The chapter of plantations, slavery, war, freedom and community by freedman families is embedded in Hilton Head Island’s legacy. Guide your Walkabout down Gumtree Road, Jonesville Road, or northern Spanish Wells Road in “Ward One”— the vibrant community of the Native Islanders — the Bin-Yuh (been here) — proud Gullah families with their sweat and blood forever rooted in the soul of this island. Want to learn more? Take a Gullah heritage tour on the island. It will open your eyes and touch your heart.


The sea surrounds Hilton Head. On the sparkling horizon a shrimp trawler churns across the ocean. Its two outriggers pull (trawl) long, conical nets in the water, just above the seafloor. The nets will bring up hundreds of pounds of seafood — shrimp, fish, squid, crabs, eels, and more. On the leeside of this island, charter boats pull out of marinas. They will convey sport anglers out to the banks, bars, channels, drops, and of course, the Gulf Stream about 70 miles from Hilton Head Island. Closer to home, people fish from a kayak, surf cast from the beach, and catch crabs from docks and turf-clad banks near parks, homes and resorts.

From industrial shrimpers to recreational fishermen, all seek the ocean’s bounty. Out there on the bobbing blue seas, it’s hard to imagine that all this seafood owes its life to muddy creeks and billowing grass. But it does: at least 70 percent of seafood and other aquatic life spends a portion of their lives in salt marshes and their tidewaters.


Now our Walkabout turns marvelously mucky. We’ll wade in Hilton Head Island’s many tidal streams, called “inlets.” Bear Creek, Fish Haul Creek, Folly Creek, Baynard Cove, Braddock’s Cove, Stoney Creek, and the Mother Water — Broad Creek each incise the shoreline of this island. Fringing these streams is the salt marsh — vast grassland adapted to tidal flooding.

Kayakers know all about inlets, tidewater, and marshland. At high tide, you can blaze your own trail through the sea of tall salt marsh cordgrass. But with the falling, at ebb tide this wispy grass becomes a rustling, bustling jungle. You can sneak close to craggy oyster colonies (but don’t touch: sharp!), surprise claw-waving armies of fiddler crabs, glimpse stilt-legged wading birds stalking the shoals, and have the bejeebers scared out of you when you startle a territorial “marsh hen” (clapper rail). Here, the water is brown. The soil is brown. And your kayak paddle will be brown with “pluff mud,” the porridge of silt and micro-bits of plant matter that tides stir into the marsh. Cordgrass intercepts waterborne pluff, and it settles, adding another layer to the watery soil. New grass sprouts and builds more marsh. The process repeats day after day. This is nature’s way, a perfect recycling.


From the ancients paddling their dugouts to the convoys of automobiles now streaming over the Great Bridge, people have always sought out Hilton Head Island. No wonder. Our Walkabout has rediscovered how lively and perpetually beautiful Hilton Head is. Yet this journey is not over. The mission of a walkabout is to gain wisdom and chart a new course for the future. Preserving natural resources. Building a more open community. Embracing tourism and new business growth. Welcoming all kinds of newcomers. Planning for a future that we do not fully understand but must address. Is the Hilton Head community up to this task? Maybe it’s time for another Walkabout.