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Wayback Lowcountry: Spartina grass rafts

By Michele Roldán-Shaw

The Sandbar, aka Redneck Riviera, is a local phenomenon that has loomed large in the lives of natives and newcomers alike. A mere humble strip of sand that gets exposed by the outgoing tide twice daily in the May River, it is the scene of much happy salty revelry during the hot months. Entire families repair to it with their dogs for afternoons of swimming, picnicking, tubing, socializing and partying. Then the tide rolls in and it’s gone again, perhaps leaving a few die-hards up to their waists in the middle of the river with beverages, looking like optical illusions next to their anchored boats. The Sandbar is ephemeral, un-ownable, there for all to enjoy.

These days you will see great crowds of boats clustered around it on a busy summer weekend (too many for my taste, which is why I haven’t darkened the dirt of the Sandbar in years.) But back in the old days, only a handful of little bateaux with 3-horsepower motors would arrive, containing the few people who actually lived here, all of whom knew each other. There was so little traffic on the river that a favorite pastime of local kids was to float to the Sandbar from a private dock upriver, letting the outgoing tide carry them down for an afternoon of fun, then riding the incoming home again. I’ve heard of people making the trip on pool floats, inner tubes, boat cushions and coolers; but to take it waaayyy back to the wayback, we have to talk about Spartina grass rafts. 

Carolyn Smith, a Bluffton original who grew up in the Brighton Beach area and started going to the Sandbar in the early 1960s, reckoned there were only about five kids here including her. They were taught to fish, crab, drive boats, haul out their trash, and get in the river to cure mosquito bites and ringworm. Whenever there was a spring tide — a lunar occurrence bringing particularly drastic tidal changes — great drifts of dead Spartina grass would wash up to the high-water mark, and the kids would seize their moment. The stalks stuck together by themselves, Carolyn recalled, and they’d spend all day packing them tightly to make a raft that could be floated on for days — or at least two good trips to the Sandbar and back. 

Spartina alterniflora — known locally simply as marsh grass — is the basis of our entire coastal ecosystem. Look out across iconic views of the Lowcountry, and you will see thousands upon thousands of acres of it, growing in a rare example of mono-culture in nature. Late-summer sun glances off the bottom of a purple thunderhead to create a spectacle of the marsh grass, glowing almost supernaturally gold and lime green after a squall. In this brutal environment of salinity, baking temps and alternate flooding and drying, little else can grow; but Spartina thrives, spreads and gives life to others. It is food to grasshoppers that are eaten by spiders that make meals for birds, and we all love the birds. Algae sticks to the grass, then periwinkle snails climb the stalks to graze on the algae. 

But it’s not till Spartina is dead that it makes its greatest contribution. After turning gold and lighting up the autumn marshes, it begins to die away; the king tides of fall break and wash it out, forming floating mats called wracks. The decomposing grass begins a new existence as detritus, particulates of organic waste that serve as attachment sites for microorganisms—bacteria, fungi, algae. This results in the rich, life-supporting brine of our estuaries. Directly or indirectly, Spartina sustains the fiddler, stone and blue crabs; the oysters, mussels and clams; the egrets, herons and ibises; the shrimp, fish and dolphins; the raccoons, otters and odd manatees.

And the children who once floated to the Sandbar.



Summer Hot Spot

The May River Sandbar is a tiny island that appears in the middle of the May River at low tide. It is only accessible by boat or raft.