Light up history later this summer or in October with a tour of Lighthouse Island in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, with access a short drive south from Georgetown.
Based in Mount Pleasant, Coastal Expeditions gives these tours to see a 65-foot-tall conical lighthouse, in red brick, built in 1827, and an octagon-shaped lighthouse from 1857, in white and black, standing 150 feet in height and dating to 1857. Both lights, retired from service for decades, are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although the trip is full for this Sunday, reservations are available for treks at 11 a.m. July 16 and 1 p.m. Oct. 29 – both Sundays, and each with room for 49 passengers. Everyone gathers for a slide presentation in the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center, on U.S. 17 in Awendaw, about 35 miles south of Georgetown, then drives about 10 miles north to McClellanville to board a ferry. Buy tour tickets for $45 – and check out an array of other outings, such as for Bulls Island and the Francis Marion National Forest – at 843-884-7684 or coastalexpeditions.com.
Capt. Chris Crolley, a career naturalist who has helped pilot ferries to and from Lighthouse Island since the early 1990s, talked about how these tours – which “sell out weeks in advance” – highlight not only such up-close access to the lighthouses, but the wealth of wildlife to see on each hourlong, 6-mile, eco-tour crossing.
Patrons are advised, too, that in this designated National Wilderness Area, without a docking area, they are advised to wear footwear to wade ashore from ankle-to-knee-deep water off a ramp and walk dirt paths about a half-mile on a grass path to the lighthouses.
Q: Numerous times, a walk up the Hunting Island Lighthouse – in that state park near Beaufort for which parts reopened June 2 after such severe damage from Hurricane Matthew – has enchanted me. What is it about each lighthouse that makes every one so different, like a fingerprint, and how much do the surroundings add to that distinct character?
A: That’s what you see approaching what is about the most southeastern point in South Carolina. ... The habitat is so wild and undeveloped. It is surrounded by a Class I wilderness area, ... which is totally pristine and unique. This ecosystem is abundant in seafood ... and we see hundreds of sea turtles come and nest in the area in the summertime, ... the most prolific sea turtle nesting grounds north of Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Q; May guests enter and climb the taller of the two lighthouses?
A: You can walk in the door; it used to be you could walk to the top, but the stairs have failed. An ongoing project, led by Tommy Graham, involves looking for funds and donations to rebuild the steps, and he is on hand and just is all about efforts to preserve these lighthouses.
Q: From how far do people travel to indulge in these special tours?
A: Lighthouse enthusiasts are an interesting group of people; they’ll come from all over the world, really. The lighthouse crowd ... is an ecosystem unto themselves, very interesting, eclectic people who share a passion for preserving these places, and the lore and mystique of the lighthouses. ...
This is a trip where you go out in a boat and head out into the wilderness, in this salt marsh estuary system, and it’s timed with tides. ... Tommy Graham once told me, “Look at the tides; even God can’t get to Lighthouse Island at low tide.”
Q: Wildlifewise, what sightings have been the most unexpected and unforgettable?
A: One time, we saw seven loggerhead sea turtles, a pod of 30 dolphins, a flock of bobolinks and a pair of painted buntings – that was a particularly good day. ... We never go out to Lighthouse Island and not see dolphins. With all the sea birds, and shore birds, there are 297 different species of birds that can be seen, and that varies seasonally.
Q: What makes lighthouses in general more than just pieces of history, but also works of art and identities of an area’s culture?
A: I’m a professional boat captain, so the way a poet sees a lighthouse is different than the way I see it. I think of their purpose in the sense of a storm and helping save lives. ... Lighthouses are coastal sentinels, ... a part of our human history.
Contact Steve Palisin at 843-444-1764.
If you go
WHAT: “Cape Romain Lighthouses” tour
IN: Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, through Coastal Expeditions, the latter based in Mount Pleasant.
WHEN: Full for this Sunday but book reservations for other public tours this year – 11 a.m. July 16 and 1 p.m. Oct. 29 – both Sundays, and each with room for 49 passengers.
WHERE: Meet for slide presentation in Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center, on U.S. 17 in Awendaw, about 35 miles south of Georgetown, then drive about 10 miles north on U.S 17 to McClellanville and board ferry for the hourlong, 6-mile, eco-tour crossing to Lighthouse Island.
HOW MUCH: $45
NOTE: Arriving at the island, guests depart boat on a ramp and wade though a section of marsh to reach solid ground, so appropriate, sturdy footwear is recommended.
RESERVATIONS: 843-884-7684 or coastalexpeditions.com