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Gullah
The shallow waters of the Waccamaw River at Sandy Island, S.C., are friendly to plants, kayakers, birders, explorers of destinations quiet and quaint. (Wessel Kok for The Boston Globe)

Precious and preserved

A Gullah community, undeveloped land, freshwater wildlife -- all just miles from busy Myrtle Beach

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / July 22, 2007

SANDY ISLAND -- After a day of cavorting around this beautiful, undeveloped freshwater island, we wondered if our final stop would bring a happy ending or a hostile one. It was hard to imagine the latter, but we had been forewarned.

We had rented kayaks to reach Sandy Island because there is no bridge or ferry service to this 12,000-acre swath of land between the Waccamaw and Great Pee Dee rivers 15 miles south of Myrtle Beach. The day so far had been blissful. With the occasional flying fish keeping us company, we had paddled past wetlands sprouting dancing grasses and the knobby knees of cypress and tupelo trees. On land, in the Nature Conservancy preserve, trails of white sand canopied by stately oaks and Spanish moss took us through stands of longleaf pines. Now, for our final stop, we steered our bright blue and red kayaks back up the Waccamaw on the island's east side and over to the Sandy Island public boat landing.

To the right of where we landed was a dock holding a few small boats, as well as the Tours de Sandy Island pontoon boat, and the Prince Washington , the "school boat" that ferries local children across the river, where a bus waits to transport them to mainland schools. Many islanders shuttle to work , using jon boats to reach their cars parked at the mainland launch, some 10 minutes away along a canal that is lined with street lights for nighttime boating. Our destination, just a few feet up from the shore on the left, was the island's only business, Pyatt's General Store , housed in a small yellow frame building with a front porch.

According to Georgetown County officials, Sandy Island has about 75 full-time residents, and some 25 others who return home on weekends. They're Gullahs, African-Amer icans who are descendants of slaves brought here from West Africa to work on the coastal rice plantations. An estimated quarter million Gullahs live among the sea islands and on the coastal plains between Wilmington, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. Some still speak the English-based Creole language called Gullah.

Stepping out of our kayaks, we glanced around nervously, relieved that no one was in sight, as we were doing what most everyone had warned us not to do : stopping at the community's boat landing.

"Sandy Island isn't really a tourist destination," a South Carolina State Parks spokesman told me. The man who rented us our kayaks said, "I would avoid that landing. The local custom is we leave them alone."

And a historian who is writing a book about Gullah people issued this warning: "You're not going to the inhabited part, are you? I wouldn't do that. I heard someone complain about kayakers."

I wanted to be respectful, but I was also skeptical that our presence would be so unwelcome. We had traded friendly nods with a few locals on the water , and all we wanted to do was check out the store. We knew the dirt roads leading to homes were private property.

"I get calls from people wanting to go there all the time," said Bill Unger, owner of Black River Outdoors Center in Georgetown . "People think you're going to see women sitting around in old dresses weaving straw baskets. They read about the Gullah and think Sandy Island is going to be a museum. It's just not the way it is. They have houses, cars, satellite dishes."

While Sandy Island may not be a recognized tourist destination, it appears that more folks are going to be visiting. For one thing, the island's remarkable story of being saved from development is told in "Saving Sandy Island," a 2006 documentary film produced by South Carolina Educational Television . Also last year, Congress approved $10 million for a Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor from North Carolina to Florida. And for the first time, tours of the Gullah community have become available through island native Rommy Pyatt , whose family owns the store.

We tried to sign up for a tour, but Pyatt wasn't available when we were there. Without him, we wouldn't have access to the church, the cemetery, or the fire station. But we could still go to the store on our own. If we dared.

Sandy Island has a fascinating history. Before the Civil War, the island was home to nine rice plantations, the crop that is synonymous with South Carolina's wealthy past and its strong link to slavery. West Africans already familiar with rice planting and harvesting were captured and brought to the state. After the war, about 30 freed slaves on Sandy Island settled near the crumbling plantations. Gullah families now own about 300 acres here.

The biggest landowners have run lumber companies and hunting lodges, and at various times have tried to develop the island , which is about 7 miles long and 2 to 4 miles across. The most recent attempt was in the 1990s, when an effort to build a bridge was thwarted by conservationists and the Gullah community.

In a much-publicized deal, the land was sold to the state, which bought it to compensate for wetland destruction from a nearby highway project. The Nature Conservancy controls the preserved 9,164 acres and will take ownership by 2009, said Furman Long , Nature Conservancy land steward for the island. Long gave us a driving tour of the western side of the island in the pickup truck he keeps there. As we headed north along a dirt road once used for lumbering and hunting, he pointed out squat longleaf pines more than a century old.

One of the stars here is the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker , and trees they've pecked holes in are marked with surveyor's tape. Other wildlife includes turkeys, eagles, ospreys, deer, alligators, bears, wild pigs, and coyotes. Rare plant communities are abundant here, and Long stopped at a bog to show us a cluster of blooming carnivorous pitcher plants .

The Conservancy has put in two hiking loops on the island's north end and plans more amenities. There are also inland "lakes" that attract up to 1,000 boaters on the weekends, Long said.

With our tour finished, we paddled the hour or so to the Sandy Island landing. Not until I reached the door to Pyatt's General Store did I see the "closed" sign. Then my husband motioned toward a nearby house, whispering "somebody's coming."

This was it, I thought. We'll be welcomed or asked to leave.

"Hey," said a woman with a gentle smile who turned out to be Beulah Pyatt, Rommy's mother. "I just saw you down here," she said, moving to unlock the door. She explained that she works at a bank on the mainland and doesn't always keep the store open. We bought sodas and looked around at the merchandise: Sandy Island-inscribed tote bags, postcards, and even books, written by her cousin Thomas Pyatt, along with Gullah dolls and a small bit of general-store fare.

"Wow, I'm really surprised you sell tourist stuff," I said. "Do you know how many people warned us to not even stop here?"

"They did?" Pyatt said, surprised. "What did they say?"

I told her everything I had heard.

Pyatt listened and shook her head. "Hmmm . . .," she said. "Well, you can tell folks to come on by."

So if anyone asks, tell them Beulah sent you.

Diane Daniel, a freelance writer in North Carolina, can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

If You Go

How to get around
Tours de Sandy Island
843-408-7187
toursdesandyisland.com
Native Rommy Pyatt gives tours of the Gullah community
Tuesday - Saturday, April - November.
Adults $30, seniors $25, children ages 12 and under $10.

Black River Outdoors Center
21 Garden Ave. (at Highway 701), Georgetown
843-546-4840
blackriveroutdoors.com
Kayak and canoe rental, $35 a day.
Regularly scheduled half-day kayak tours to Sandy Island Nature Conservancy preserve, $55.
Discounts for multiday rentals and groups. Shop carries maps of Sandy Island .

Surf the Earth
47 Da Gullah Way, Pawleys Island
800-864-6752
surf-the-earth.com
Sit-on-top-kayak rentals $35/ day.

Pawleys Island Outdoors
9790 Ocean Highway Pawleys Island
843-979-4666
pawleysislandoutdoors.com
Jon boat rentals; prices vary.

Edna's Boat Rentals
4990 Highway 17, Murrells Inlet
843-651-9921
Jon boat, skiff, and pontoon rentals; prices vary.

What to do Brookgreen Gardens
1931 Brookgreen Drive Murrells Inlet
800-849-1931
brookgreen.org
Adults $12, seniors 65 and older and children 13-18 $10, children 6-12 $5.
Sprawling sculpture garden near Sandy Island has boardwalk along former rice fields and offers daily rice field and nature boat excursions.
(adults $7, children $4).

Plantation River Tours
Wacca Wache Marina Murrells Inlet
843-651-2994
plantationrivertours.com
A two-hour narrated cruise along the Waccamaw River passes by rice plantations and Sandy Island.
Adults $25, children $15.

The Gullah O'oman Shop
421 Petigru Drive, Pawleys Island
843-235-0747
Shop and homemade museum five miles from Sandy Island boat launch is run by Vermelle "Bunny" Rodrigues and her husband, Andrew, who grew up in Roxbury. Bunny tells Gullah stories through her quilts and straw-grass dolls. (O'oman is Gullah for woman.)

Georgetown Rice Museum
633 Front St., Georgetown
843-546-7423
ricemuseum.org
Museum 20 miles from Sandy Island boat launch chronicles rice cultivation in the state.
Adults $7, seniors $5, children $3.

Information
The Nature Conservancy
Georgetown, S.C.
843-527-2557
nature.org

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