Posted by: jeanne | July 25, 2010

hunting island, south carolina

my sister and i just spent a week in hunting island state park, in a little cabin built in the ’40s and renovated in the ’70s, and now in its last months and maybe another year or so before being washed into the ocean. not a product of global warming, but the life cycle of a barrier island.

they knew it was washing away back in the late 1800s when they built a lighthouse and then had to move it inland a mile, and now it’s only 50 yards from the current high water mark.  and for awhile they did all the usual things, like groins and jetties, but the waves are rough and the island is wearing away at both ends, and every time there’s a big storm a bunch washes right out to sea.

last year when we went to hunting island, we stayed in an expensive beachfront cottage.  (this is because the year before, we went to fripp island, where houses are crammed chockablock and it’s just so crowded, so our beachfront cottage had interlopers in chairs out on the sand, and it was eroding too, and we had a bad time, so the next year we chose the mostly unoccupied hunting island right next to it, and we’ve been so happy.)

hunting island is a rare island in that it’s all state park, and thus mostly undeveloped.  when the i think four owners donated the rest of the park back in the ’30s they reserved a bunch of it for private land, and so there were private cabins built.  maybe a couple of dozen.  spread out, isolated from one another, not crammed together like on fripp.  and i hate to think what it’s like on hilton head.  i just don’t like people crowding up my beach, is all.

out of a couple of dozen cabins of old, there was a nasty storm in 1995 or 1996, i forget, and they lost a bunch of them.  and then something awful happened a couple of years later and they lost a bunch more.  and now there’s just a handful.  a few state cabins that the park rents out (on the less desirable, more buggy side of the road from the private beachfront cabins), a few private cabins that look out over what’s left of the dunes at the ocean.

the state cabins no longer rent, and this is an old map

last year we stayed at one of the few that were left.  it was getting some water underneath the pilings during large high tides, and when you stood at the deck you looked down and out over the beach.  no dunes, just sand and a few boles of washed-around dead palm trees.  they’re round and straight, and they roll when the tide comes in.  right into the pilings of the house.  bang.  bang.  comforting, sort of,  a real physics lesson.

a rolling dead palm tree

there were dead trees all around the cabin we rented.  trees that the waves had crept up on, undermined, poisoned with salt in the roots, and then knocked over in a storm.  the dead trees were all positioned in odd ways on the beach, partly buried by the sand.  they gave the impression that they were slowly washing out to see half buried like that, as if the sand liquifies at high tide and the trees crept out by inches each time.  it was an eerie sight, especially at night.  tree carcasses in the moonlight.  at high tide the sea came in around them and made it impossible to swim, because you couldn’t be sure where there was now an invisible barnacle-covered branch or trunk.  but that was easy, just go up the beach a few yards until you cleared the tree graveyard.

these babies have barnacles

one good thing about the cabin where we stayed was that nobody came walking by at high tide.  our cabin was the place along the beach where the high tide came right up to the edge of the maritime forest and took chunks of dune away, so there was no place to walk unless you hiked thru the woods (chiggers) or hoofed it down the road which is still only 20 yards or so from the beach in places.

when the park service gussied up hunting island back in the ’60s, they cut and dredged a salt-water lagoon thru the middle of the island.  because of erosion, it’s now just a hop and a jump from the ocean itself, which is cutting its way thru as quick as it can.  so the cabins are rather squeezed between them, meaning there’s no moving the cabins or anything like that.

last year i walked around the south end of the island and examined what was left of the beachfront houses.  they ranged from ex-building materials stuck in the sand – a bathtub, a cistern, plumbing, sections of foundation wall, pilings twisted but still attached in a framework – to cabins that were still being lived in and  rented out.   i made note of the ones still being occupied last year.  there were four or five on the beachfront side, and five or six state cabins on the other side of the road and deep in the woods.  the road was washed out in ’08 right before where the cabins started, and the renters had to use a golfcart and ride around thru the lagoon road and over a pedestrian bridge (wide enough for two golfcarts, how’s that for planning?).

yet more isolated this year

it was a sobering trip.  there were these old cabins, been there from the ’40s.  screened porches, stilts, window a/c.  old and dingy, the way i’ve always liked it.  fripp has all the modern conveniences, but i hated it, and really resented being forced to use air conditioning.  we wanted the breeze, the sound of the waves.  air conditioning, we could have been anyplace for all the experience it would give us of being next to the beach.

fripp at the south end

on fripp, paying the kinds of taxes they do, they take good care to pile rocks on the beach, build groins and jetties, and armor the beach from the waves which nonetheless break on the  rocks with tremendous energy.  but on hunting island they’re just letting it go.  houses that are damaged by storms are condemned, bulldozed, or left to fall over and wash out to sea.

i went down to the end of the island this past week when we returned to the next house up the road from where we stayed last year.  there is only one beachfront house still being rented down there, the farthest one around to the lagoon side of the island, where it looks like the beach is kind of growing.  all the other houses were condemned and empty.  even the house that they’d taken the extraordinary precaution of piling up dead trees around was lying empty this year.  the road was washed out in two places, the second place all the way thru, so there was no escaping cutting down to the beach to continue.  but not at high tide.

the house we stayed in last year, up on pilings at the very edge of the beach, now sported a ring of dead trees, piled up to prevent the very loose-cannon-like dead palm trees from bashing into the pilings of the house.  it’s kind of interesting looking, sort of like arranging a bunch of deer antlers around a little figure in the center.  the trees weren’t preventing the high tide waters from getting under the house, but would be a lifesaver in a good storm.  the water was washing up under the house last year, as well, and sometimes i’d just have to go sit on the deck and watch the house not being battered to death, to make sure.

a different house, still renting

this year the erosion south of the house we stayed in last year is worse than ever, the waves eating into the maritime forest and pulling down palms, oaks, slash pines, whole tree-covered dunes.  there were many more dead trees in the sand of the incoming tide than last year, except around the cabin we’d stayed in.  the bulldozers had cleared all the dead trees to make the fence, so the present occupants had a clear beach in front of the house, which they stuck obstinately in front of all day, offended that people wanted to walk down the beach, their beach.

you get this idea about the beach in front of your cabin not because this is a private island and you paid big bucks for your slice of it, but because there’s nobody there.  the campground is four miles north on the other end of the island, and the cabins are all hundreds of yards from each other, and at this point barely visible from each other even with their lights on at night.  so you don’t expect to see anyone, that’s the issue.  we took our clothes off and went in naked all the damned time this week, the three old broads, and nobody was around to gawp, or run screaming; whatever.

the cabin we were in this year was set back much farther from the other cabins, maybe.  or maybe it is that the end is really wearing away faster and it only leaves more sand and forest around us that the others.  i really think this is it, because the amount of soft sand at high tide narrows as you go down, from dozens of yards up where the first house on cabin road sits, to a dozen paces in front of our house, to actively eroding maritime forest at the next house.

the view from our cabin

so the sea hasn’t reached us yet.  it’s nine paces from the steps beginning the path to the house.  they changed the sand fence from last year, from the usual straight one in the dunes to a triangular shape, out and back in and out and back in, like a folded fan.  one more step.  perhaps next year they’ll pile dead trees around.

our house was an old one, with a side gable that they renovated into a great room ceiling in the living room and our bedroom (sleeping with your sister is cool when it’s a queen bed.  we never had to cross feet).  we had all the air conditioning vents shut off except for the friend and her bambino who slept in the fridge bedroom.  we had all the fans on high speed, and all the doors and windows wide open.  a full screened in porch and rocking chairs.  tv only on when absolutely necessary (babysitter style), we couldn’t figure out how to get the dvd to work.  it was heaven.  breezes all day long, right under the trees that were only beginning to be killed by the encroaching salty ground water so it was shady all day.  a clear view of the ocean and the beach and the breakers over a screen of seaside bushes and baby palm trees.  it was heaven.  got up to 95 with no chance of rain, but my sister had hoped for hot hot hot, since she lives in ireland where it’s not and never is hot (70 is a heatwave).

so we had a great time, and we’re down for next year, and unless it’s been condemned, and unless there’s gulf oil all over the beach, she’s got a while to decide she doesn’t want to take it, and then maybe we’ll go to the mountains and do river tubing instead.



  1. […] is all that’s left of the house that used to be next to the cabin we stayed in.  it’s the place we stayed in 2009, and it was getting knocked […]


  2. This for your message and links mx


  3. They actually just lost the last one that was on the water 😦


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: