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Walking Through History at Yawkey Center

My educational field trip to the Yawkey Center in 2016 provided a glimpse of pristine maritime habitat through a van window during a three-hour driving tour. When the opportunity for an “off-the-bus” visit came up, including strenuous activity with several miles of walking, I jumped at the opportunity. The hiking trails led us to the abandoned chimneys and water cistern at historic Smithville, ruins of a steam-operated sawmill, and Civil War fortifications with a commanding view to guard the entrance to Winyah Bay.

The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center is 24,000-acres of barrier islands that is owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in a partnership with the Yawkey Foundation. This property comprises of North Island, South Island and Cat Island and was the second home to Tom Yawkey. After Yawkey’s passing he willed the land to South Caroline in 1976 and set up at multi-million dollar endowment to pay for ongoing wildlife habitat management. The Yawkey Foundation in Boston administers the funding today, including a directive for educational tours of the Yawkey Center.

How do prospective visitors plan a trip? Visit the SCDNR website and look for the Public Lands tab, which lists the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve. The good news are that these trips are offered for free, but the groups are limited in size since a short boat ride across the Intracoastal Waterway is required to access these islands. Tours begin at 10 a.m. and last about 4 hours, but they can run a little longer when wildlife sightings are frequent. Educational director Jim Lee never hesitates to stop any tour so that everyone can enjoy any nature that reveals itself, like an alligator sunning at the edge of a pond.

“This property consists of uplands, bottomlands, swamp, marsh, beach and everything you find on barrier islands,” said Jim Lee. “But what you won’t find here is a lot of brick and mortar, because of the foresight of Tom Yawkey to preserve the natural habitat found here. We manage the uplands with prescribed fire, and it is my job to scour the landscape to document any historical artifacts that are revealed after the controlled burning.” Lee marks these items and leaves them in place for future tours to observe, like the Big Frosty antique soda bottle we saw.

The Civil War fortifications found here were never used in battle, helping them to remain stalwart in place today. Live oaks and palm trees cover the site now, but history shows that all trees were cleared in this area in time of war, lest they provide cover to any advancing enemy. Old timbers jut out into the edge of Winyah Bay just below the ramparts, evidence of an old pier that was no doubt used to unload supplies for the outpost. Lee shares that it’s not a stretch to say that the view looking out from the fort today, is not too different from the view back then.

The history tour with walking through the old sawmill location is generally conducted in winter to try and minimize encounters with insects and snakes. “Ticks are present here any time of year so I advise visitors to check for them at the end of the day,” said Lee. The hiking trails generally offer firm footing but the exception comes when crossing a ditch or two with water and soft mud in place. Stepping on a log, or jumping from bank to bank is where this walking tour requires a more advanced level of readiness, but I found it wasn’t more than what an outdoor enthusiast is already familiar with. The difference between this place and others, is that your footprints are one of only a limited few that have touched the ground in this storied locale.

“We want people to know that we are ready to engage them here at the Yawkey Center using these tours,” said Lee. Once on the SCDNR website choose between tours on birding, longleaf pine, rice culture and sign up to meet Lee at the boat ramp one day. Even specialized trips are coming like the unique opportunity on March 23 for artists to come and paint scenic vistas, including the exact spot where American artist Andrew Wyeth painted Cat Island in the 1930’s. The names of other historical figures that came to visit Tom Yawkey are just a natural part of what is reveled during each educational tour here.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (359 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com