Monday, December 1, 2014

A Winyah Bay Stary Night

Memories have a way of not only fading but getting twisted over the years making some things worse or far better than the actual events. This hold true for a camping and fishing trip my dad, mom, and myself took to a sandbar island just outside Winyah Bay, along with another couple and their son. The time was probably the late 1960's with my dad and his best friend holding the general idea that after crossing Winyah Bay we would setup camp on one of the long, almost barren sandbar islands and build a fire for a cookout. That night with the wives and kids asleep in the tent, the guys would then take the boat out into the Gulf Stream and do some serious fishing.

Winyah Bay is a coastal estuary in South Carolina situated about sixty miles north of Charleston. It has been an important fishing and hunting area stretching back to the times when only Native Americans occupied the continent. For the residents of Georgetown county, and a huge number of visitors, the outer edge of the bay close to the ocean is still very much a paradise even now after fifty years of hyper-development making most of the coast one gaudy attraction after another interspersed with overpriced condos and suburbs.

The main reason the outside edge of Winyah Bay has yet to suffer the usual ecological indignities is because of the danger of hurricanes. Way back in the ninetieth century I believe there was a significant settlement on North Island, a barrier island situated on the northern side of the entrance to the bay. Several local legends tell of how a massive hurricane hit North Island, not only killing everyone who did not heed the telltale warnings and leave, but literally leveling all the buildings down to their foundations. Whatever actually happened, except for a lighthouse nothing permanent has been built there since, although there are always countless proposals from weasel-like developers desperate to get their oily hands on its pristine beaches despite the ever present danger of hurricanes.

My parents, Sean and Lilly, myself, along with Peter and Michelle, and their son Kent set out in my dad's boat to cross Winyah Bay about mid-morning. This wasn't the first time I was going to cross Winyah Bay, there were a couple of earlier fishing trips with him, my uncles, and my granddad. None of those trips were easy, Winyah Bay is famous for its rough waters, so much that many experienced boaters have drowned over the years for not taking a quickly developing thunderstorm seriously.

Another issue was the potential trouble small boats could get into at both the North and South Inlets of the bay. To enter or leave the bay from the North Inlet required navigating a meandering array of shallow, muddy waterways through the marsh. The potential of running aground was always present, especially at low tide along with simply getting lost. At the South Inlet the problems revolved around ocean going cargo vessels entering or leaving the bay. While wider than the North Inlet, those behemoths took up a lot of space and could easily swamp a small civilian pleasure craft, which almost happened to my dad's boat once.

Like I said earlier, memories get twisted and simply fade over time but I seem to remember we took the North Inlet passage for this trip. I vaguely recall talking with Kent while going through the muddy channels heading out towards the ocean.

I do remember when we left the muddy waters and entered the ocean and saw the sandbar island we would be camping at for the first time. I'll hazard a guess and say it was about a half-mile long and at it widest point it stretched about five-hundred feet. The only vegetation on it was patches of sea oats and a few other stunted species I wouldn't recognize even now. Immediately after the bow of the boat hit the beach my dad and Peter made sure it wouldn't float away by embedding the anchor into the sand then setup the tent up on the highest portion of the island, to protect it against the coming high tide. Kent and I just ran around I believe talking about finding pirate treasure.

After the tent was assembled, we broke out the trusty Coleman camp stove and the portable charcoal grill and cooked up some burgers that made the journey packed in an ice chest. Right then I started to notice the isolation inherent with our out-of-the-way location. Yeah, I was five or six years old and something in me was soaking up the solitude. The years have only enhanced those feelings. For me these is just something about being away from the greater mass of human civilization I find attractive.

Trust me, I wouldn't want to make it a permanent condition but those moments alone without having to deal with the human-made sounds in some weird way reboots my brain. Yeah, I realize I have an anti-social side to my personality that can be damn inconvenient living in a world where a lot of people take great pains examining and judging the actions of others.

As night fell we were treated to the sun setting on the marsh creating a glorious array of colors. The funny thing in all this is that I don't remember being bothered by any horse flies or mosquitoes, which makes me think this trip probably took place during late fall or early winter. The trouble with that idea is that I clearly remember wearing a t-shirt and shorts with everyone else in similar clothes. Whatever the case, my dad and Peter began getting the boat ready for the night fishing trip on the ocean.

I distinctly remember both my mom and Michelle telling their husbands the fishing trip was a very bad idea. They also asked the guys how those of us left behind would get off the island if they never returned. Neither Kent nor I were privy to some of the heated discussions going on between the spouses although in hindsight their questions were important. I am sure my dad's boat didn't have a marine radio and, of course, cell phones were far in the future.

Despite the protests from the females members of our tiny and temporary colony, I remember seeing the guys push the boat out to deeper water and quickly disappear into the night with only a couple of navigational lights to signify they existed at all. With the moms in charge, both Kent and I were rounded up and put to bed, which was an old blanket spread out on top of the bottom of the tent. Screened windows in each of the tent's canvas walls allowed the breeze to blow in the cool and salty air.

The best part of the whole trip took place a few hours later. Being a little kid I woke up sometime during night needing to go pee. A small propane lantern turned way down allowed me enough light to get outside without tripping over any of the other three. I did wake my mom enough to hear her say something about doing my business quickly and getting back inside.

It took a couple of minutes for my eyes to adjust to the near pitch black darkness. Although, even then I was expert enough to complete the mission without needing much in the way of light. When my eyes did adjust, I looked up and saw something that to this day still blows me away thinking about it. I don't remember if the moon was out that night, but the sky was crystal clear with the stars looking very much like glittering diamonds. There are damn few today living in North America and that can see such a display. These days the constant glow of city and suburban lights overpower most of the celestial nighttime show leaving just a few pitiful examples of the universe's brilliance for humans who will take the time to look up at the sky.

Since this camping trip occurred in the late1960's, a little over a decade before the hordes of commercial developers descended on the South Carolina Lowcountry, the Milky Way sparkled in a way that seemed god-like. I'm not a religious person but someone would have to be truly dead inside not to be shaken to their core with a sense of utter awe to see such a sight. A rational conclusion would be that my memories have warped over the years making more out of that experience than what it was in reality. Any other time I would possibly agree, except that there were a couple of other occasions where I felt a similar awe. The first was in my granddad's backyard, his neighborhood was well enough away from Georgetown's lights for me to do some decent stargazing. And during my years in the active army I spent several rotations out at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California and got to see what was at least similar sights out in the Mojave desert. The NTC is about a two-hundred miles away from Los Angeles and that distance, along with the relative isolation, made it a great spot to look up at the universe. There was even a few times while at the NTC I got my hands on a starlight scope, a night vision device that magnifies ambient starlight. When I aimed that thing towards the Milky Way it was like seeing the stars for the first time.

Whatever the case, camping on that sandbar and my nighttime surprise was more than enough to make that trip something I will probably remember for the rest of my life. So much, that one of my deepest desires to be able to see the stars like that again at least once before I die. 

A map of Winyah Bay to make some sense of this post.


MikeP said...


I've had two similar experiences. Wrote about one for a class once. Wonder if I still have that.

The raw night sky is a very special thing.


Pixel Peeper said...

An experience like this can make you feel like you are the only person in an entire's awesome and a bit terrifying at the same time!

Jimmy said...

There is nothing better than seeing a sight and feeling it's wonder like this at least once in your lifetime, memories may get cloudy but the sight and feeling will always be with you.

Marja said...

Great memory Beach. I can imagine your excitement
I hate the pitch dark which we had on a dock camping here. I slept with a torch in my hand. I do love the starry starry skies and the utter quietness which you experienced.
We have beautiful skies here but the clearest is at lake Tekapo, 3 to 4 hours drive from chch were you can see one of the most spectacular skies in the world.

Beach Bum said...

Mike P: My desire to see the stars without having to deal city lights is so strong I've looked into astronomy adventure trips to the deserts of southern Chile.

Pixel: Such sights make humans look like a glorified viruses.

Jimmy: I admit I had to fill in some spots that I couldn't recall, but yeah, I hope I can retain the rest.

Marja: Yet another reason I will visit New Zealand at some point. The real question, as always, is how I could stay.

Teresa said...

Warped memories or not we can't forget the awesome feelings that seeing the night sky brings.