It’s beginning to smell like fall; the Backyard Tourist follows his nose…
Story and Photos by Mark Shaffer
Southerners have an inborn appreciation of the autumnal equinox for a number of reasons. It signals the gradual demise of summer’s stifling tyranny – a time when our primary occupation is staying cool and still as possible. With the cooler weather talk turns to football and weekend oyster roasts. Overnight the oppressive murky haze that blurs the summer horizon is gone, replaced by a brilliant blue. The breeze off the marsh is crisper, fresher even as the brilliant green of the spartina grass begins to drain away. The scent of wood smoke hangs in the air.
Fall resuscitates us. We begin to move again and enjoy it. Instead of avoiding heat we seek it by the edge of backyard fire pits. Visitors of all sorts – feathered and finned included – return and suddenly there is more to do in a single weekend than all of August combined. Even a hurricane can’t dampen our enthusiasm for the season. It comes with the territory. Welcome to Fall in the Lowcountry.
We’re naturally predisposed to the supernatural around here and the Lowcountry is loaded with specters to spare. One of the best known is the Land’s End Light, famous for spooking locals and tourists alike for decades and luring some to their end. Find it if you dare by taking highway 21 out to St. Helena Island and hanging a right on MLK Road in the heart of Frogmore. A few miles past Penn Center where the road turns long and straight, pull over and watch for a glowing phantasm over the road. Some say it’s the spirit of a decapitated confederate soldier searching for his head. Others believe it’s the ghost of a slave separated from his family and literally sold down the river. Should you catch sight of it you might think twice before giving chase. At least two people have followed it to their doom.
In historic Beaufort the Old Point is particularly lousy with ghosts, the most famous is the ironically named Monsieur Gauche, said to be the spirit of a 16th century Huguenot dwarf. Appropriately enough Gauche haunts the old home called The Castle and is known for tapping out coded messages and leaving red handprints on windows – gauche, indeed.
The privately owned Castle is off limits, but you can still get intimate with the indigenous undead (or at least their stories) with Evelene Stevenson’s The Spirit of Old Beaufort Tours. Check out her entire slate of tours at www.thespiritofoldbeaufort.com. The “Whispers From the Grave Lantern Tour” tour is a half-mile, 90-minute walk by lamplight through the centuries with Evelene leading the way in period costume. Call for details at 843-525-0459.
In downtown Beaufort most of the tours are headquartered in or near the City Marina at Bay and Charles Streets. Climb aboard one of the famous horse-drawn Southurn Rose Buggies (www.southurnrose.com) for a leisurely carriage ride while your driver guides you through time and history.
For a different perspective on this 300 year old river town climb aboard Captain Dick’s 30 passenger Prince of Tides. Large pods of bottle-nosed dolphin are not unusual and sometimes come right up to the boat (remember, no feeding). The cruise runs right past some of the town’s harder to see estates, including Tidalholm where both The Big Chill and The Great Santini were filmed. Pack a camera and binoculars. Snacks and beverages are available for purchase on board. Call ahead to 843-524-4422 for tour times and reservations.
If you prefer to get on the water under your own power Kim and David at Beaufort Kayak Tours offer options for experienced and novice paddlers alike. Both are certified Master Naturalists and City of Beaufort History Tour Guides. “This time of year we really emphasize the ACE basin tour,” says David. ACE is the acronym for the estuarine system created by the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers. Float among giant cypress trees through the remnants of ancient rice plantations while snowy egrets, herons and ibis stalk the tall grasses and bald eagles circle overhead. BKT offers both a two-hour and four-hour ACE paddle, the latter covers 9 miles of unspoiled Lowcountry wetlands. Check out the options at www.beaufortkayaktours.com.
This is prime time for nature photography in the Lowcountry. Eric Horan’s work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Smithsonian, Lowcountry Weekly and galleries throughout the area. Horan’s also a Master Naturalist with an intimate knowledge of the area’s rivers, marshes, inlets, creeks and islands who tailors each outing to suit both the season and the shooters. This time of year he focuses on capturing the spectacular clash of colors through the waterways, marshes and Sea Islands. This is also a prime time to photograph dolphins, deer and tremendous flocks of migratory waterfowl. I’ve been out with the man and count myself fortunate to have had the experience, but don’t take my word for it. Get proof at www.horanphoto.com.
This is usually where we recommend a visit to the state’s most popular park. Sadly, a recent visitor named Matthew has left the park in shambles. While most of the park is closed to visitors until further notice, the Nature Center and a small portion of the pier is open. Updates will be posted online at http://www.southcarolinaparks.com. Matthew’s forced the closure of land access to most of the region’s best known wildlife areas including
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and Bear Island Wildlife Management Area. Again, look for updates online.
The Lowcountry is known for its historic churches. Old Beaufort is home to an impressive collection most within a short walk of one another. Their steeples pierce the live oak canopy and voices of the faithful have been raised in a few of them since Moses was a lad, or so it seems. But two of the most photographed are far from any town center, ruined reminders of both a vanished culture and the struggles of a nation.
The Chapel of Ease on St. Helena Island was built by wealthy colonial planters in the 1740’s. Such “chapels of ease” were common in remote areas where a trip to town might take days. The church was constructed out of native brick and tabby, a kind of indigenous concrete first favored by the Spanish made with oyster shells and sand. The chapel survived both the American Revolution and the Civil War only to burn in a forest fire in 1886. It was never rebuilt. The ruins are easy to spot just a few miles from the heart of Frogmore on the left past the Penn Center.
The Old Sheldon Church, formerly known as the Prince William Parish Church, is a stoic testament in brick and mortar to the two most tumultuous periods in American history. It was bankrolled and organized by the wealthy and influential landowner, William Bull. His Newberry Plantation was a convenient carriage ride to the columned sanctuary’s first service in 1757. A little more than a decade later it burned in the fires of the American Revolution. Sheldon was rebuilt by 1826. In January of 1865, troops under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman set the church ablaze. Once again the walls refused to fall, but the church was never rebuilt. It stands now as it stood then: an elegant, ruined reminder of the price paid first for democracy and then for freedom.
From Beaufort take US 21 North, bear left at the intersection of US 17 at Gardens Corner. Sheldon Church Road is the first right and the ruins are well marked just two miles down this scenic byway.
Back in Beaufort the Santa Elena History Center offers visitors a chance to walk in the footsteps of the French and Spanish explorers who set foot here 450 years ago. The center is located in the hard-to-miss former Federal Courthouse at 1501 Bay Street. And just down the block, at 308 Charles Street, the Pat Conroy Literary Center has just opened its doors, featuring exhibits and artifacts from the beloved author’s life.
Apart from all the history and nature there is one perfect way to get the flavor of the Lowcountry and that quite simply is to take a bite of it. This is oyster season and that means the tasty mollusks will be featured in bars, restaurants and backyard roasts until the months run out of “R’s.” Frank Roberts’ sustainably grown and harvested Lady’s Island Oysters are among the most sought after mollusks on the planet (oysters are the new caviar, apparently). Get your own, find out who’s serving them or book an oyster roast for a few dozen of your best friends at Frank’s scenic riverfront farm at singleladyoysters.com.
It’s fall and once again we’ve barely scratched the surface. There are galleries galore here and each one is unique. The first Friday of each month most are open late and serving refreshments for the downtown art walk. The local bars and restaurants offer a wide range of diversity. No two are quite alike. Check out our bar and restaurant guides at lcweekly.com and find a comprehensive list of area attractions and things to do via our partners at the Beaufort Regional Chamber’s website, www.beaufortsc.org. It’ll take more than a little hurricane to throw the damper on fall in the Lowcountry.
Mark Shaffer’s email is backyardtourist@gmail.