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Secret spot off the beaten track: Bear Island

Story + photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

If you like open spaces, wind-blown grass, alligators and silence, come out to Bear Island Wildlife Management Area. You will be filled up with these things for days. I visited during a final spring cold snap with my bike and a backpack full of snacks, riding into the wind with my hood pulled over my hat. I covered grassy dikes built between marshes and canals studded here and there with wooden structures called rice trunks, engineered during the plantation era and still used today to manage the wetlands for waterfowl. There’s a monotony to the landscape here that can be soothing or oppressive, depending on your persuasion.

It was the opening day of fishing and crabbing season at Bear Island, and a mildly festive atmosphere prevailed. There were more people than I expected to see in such a remote location; but “more people” at a place like this just means a couple of dozen souls scattered widely over thousands of acres. I stopped to chat with three of them. They had come all the way from Orangeburg to try their luck hand-lining with chicken, and the blue crab were beginning to bite under the watchful gaze of a medium-sized gator that kept popping his eyes and nostrils out of the water for a few minutes before submerging again.

The man and I chatted about this and that: how the gators here have a sense of humor and like to play with you by grabbing your line and running with it; how his relatives used to go on safari in Africa but stopped when the lions learned to open car doors (I verified this on YouTube); and his recent trip to Savannah over the “ten-mile-high bridge” with guard rails “only a few inches tall,” which scared him so badly he vowed never to cross it again. Meanwhile, one of the ladies was cleaning up on blue crab, scooping them two and three at a time from where they nibbled at the line.

“Frances is a pro,” the man said admiringly.

“I don’t even eat crab,” Frances announced.

“But your sister do. Your nephew do. Your niece do,” her companions all chimed in.

The day was warming up and after leaving the fishing party, I found an out-of-the-way spot on the banks of the Ashepoo in a sun patch and a windbreak to eat my snacks and take a catnap. Sculpted pine branches overhead popped in high definition from a deep blue sky, and I found the solitude restorative.

Later, I made my way back to TiTi Road in time to see the majority of people emptying out of Bear Island and going home to their fish fries and Lowcountry boils. A new couple had set up shop near where I left my truck, and they informed me there was a “pile of gators” down a side road, so I ventured in to find a satisfying concentration of them in a shallow, sun-warmed canal.

The water was a strange reddish color, perhaps from an algae bloom, and thick with millions of tiny fish. I felt at peace. Out here in this remote vastness, I had truly been “away,” my eyes filled with watery horizons, my ears awash with blowing reeds, and my mind on something other than whatever I would normally be thinking about at home. Bear Island had hit me right. LL


If you go

Where: ACE Basin

Mode of transport: Bike

How to get there: From U.S. 17 towards Charleston, turn right onto Bennetts Point Road. Follow it about 13 miles then turn left onto TiTi Road.

Travel tips: Check for scheduled hunts and be aware that certain times of year are better than others. Late spring is bad for yellow flies. Cool weather is best.