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Bulls Island: Charleston, South Carolina's Pristine Barrier Island

Just above Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, in a tiny place called Awendaw, there's a ferry that runs year round to a protected barrier island: Bulls Island. Among other things, it has the largest concentration of alligators north of the Everglades, and its biodiversity rivals that of a rainforest.

I've grown up hearing my parents talk about going out to Bulls Island, but, for whatever reason, we never did. My dad, who's a local businessman, even had ferry tickets through his business last year but gave them away (I think someone in the family was sick).

After two decades of wanting to visit this place, Landon was finally making it happen.

Last week was my fourth wedding anniversary. Since 2010, Landon and I have bought a house, adopted a dog, had a baby, traveled to five countries, and explored all over the Southeast. We've crammed a lot into those years, especially when you consider that, when we got married, neither of us had jobs (I'd just finished grad school, and Landon had just been laid off) or a place to live (thanks, parents for letting us crash with you!).

Freshly married!

For our anniversary, Landon took off work, and my father-in-law came down to watch Britton for the day.

As a day sans baby is a very rare occurrence, Landon and I decided to pack as much in a possible. Our morning activity involved a boat, some alligators, and a nearly private beach...and some creepy crawly things, but I'm going to mention them as little as possible because just thinking about them makes me want to barf.

We took the ferry out to the Bulls Island ferry dock, a trip that took about twenty minutes.

Once we were docked, the captain handed us maps of the island, smiled, and said "Have fun!" as he drove away.

There we stood, Landon and I with seven other people, completely alone on an island.

It was incredibly cool, but also a little creepy. I'm not in many situations where the bobcats outnumber the humans.

Not ones to be daunted by a potential bobcat/ alligator meeting (what am I talking about--I NEVER WANT TO MEET A BOBCAT.*), we traipsed into the interior of Bulls Island.

My first reaction was one of bliss. It's getting hot here in South Carolina, which can be bothersome to people from off, but I grew up here, and I love the heat. The cicadas have come up for the season (they hibernate underground) and the sound that they make tells me that summer has officially started.

There we were, luxuriating in the heat, listening to the cicadas, and just loving life, when we had our first wildlife encounter--the first of many.

Just hanging out on the path ahead was a 6-foot alligator. It didn't seem like it wanted to move, and it waited until we were uncomfortably close to get back in the water.

Not fifty feet after our alligator encounter, I came face to face with my nightmare.

It was a snake, y'all.

And not just any snake--it was a water moccasin (also called a cottonmouth). These things are mean. This one put its head up and looked at us, even though we were only about five feet away. Most snakes will slither away when you come up on them, but not cottonmouths. They can be aggressive. It took Landon smashing a stick in front of the thing to get it to go away.

I won't tell you what I was doing during this time.

Okay, fine. I was running around in circles, flapping my hands, and nearly crying, much to the bemusement of the group of college age girls who were behind us. I don't care. I hate snakes with a passion, and I will fully freak out if one comes near me. No shame.

I made Landon carry me on his back after that encounter. For 400 feet. In 90 degree weather.

He's a keeper, I tell you.

Once I got to the "safe" area (I'm not sure why that area was any safer than anywhere else--it was still surrounded by water and forest!), I decided to walk on my own. But my eyes were on super alert for more snakes. Luckily, none showed their nasty little heads.

After just a few more minutes of walking, we got to the beach. It was beautiful! The Bulls Island beach is one of the widest I've ever been on, and it's definitely one of the most unspoiled (second only to some of the beaches I went to on a trip to Andros, Bahamas).

We spent the next hour exploring the beach area--we found all sorts of cool things!

Landon and I had only booked a half-day on the island, so we had to head back to catch the noon ferry back to the mainland. We hurried back down Beach Road with me on full alert for snakes.

We didn't find any snakes, but we did see this very colorful bird.

When we showed the picture of the bird to the naturalists on the ferry, they got all excited because it's a purple gallinule, which is apparently a really rare bird. We're totally awesome ornithologists. (No, we're not.)

Landon and I decided that we had to go back for a full day on the island. I will be wearing snake boots and full body armor.


For anyone heading out to Bulls Island, I'd highly recommend the following:

  • Water. There aren't any stores or concession stands on the island, so if you forget a drink, you'd better be happy with being thirsty. The same goes for snacks. 

  • A small backpack. You can load in your water bottle, snacks, a beach towel, sunscreen, and your camera. 

  • Bug spray. Much of the island is covered in trees and brush--excellent places for the state bird of South Carolina, the mosquito, to be hiding. (You think I'm kidding about the whole "mosquito as bird" thing, but, seriously, these things can be huge!) Landon and I like these repellent bracelets, especially when we're out with our kiddos.

  • A map of the island. You'll get one on the boat. Keep up with it. 

  • Tennis/ hiking shoes. We both wore flip flops since that's the go-to attire around here for 3/4ths of the year, but we should've gone with something closed in and more appropriate for long walks. Not only would my toes have felt safer around the snakes and such, I probably would've been more comfortable walking the many trails on the island.
I'm glad I finally went. If you've got a free day and you're in the Charleston area, it's a great way to see a microcosm of South Carolina nature.

*So, bobcats. They are pretty prevalent here in South Carolina, but they stay away from developed areas whenever they can, as most animals do. Landon loves to hunt, so much of the fall he can be found huddled up at the edge of a remote field, looking for deer. He's not usually scared of snakes or anything like that, but he does not like bobcats. Why? Because one of his hunter friends was up in a deer stand one time when a bobcat came walking underneath the stand. It stopped, sniffed the air, and looked up at the guy. The guy figured that he was in a tree with a gun, and that the bobcat would keep on going. Wrong. The bobcat jumped into the tree and, with a swipe, knocked a fully grown man out of the stand onto the forest floor. Luckily, it didn't attack him any further, but the man did break his leg.

Moral of the story: just say no to bobcats.

What isolated or protected natural places have you visited? Are you scared of any animals?

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