BULL'S ISLAND -- Only a few hardy souls get to camp on this isolated stretch of woods and sand on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. So they have to rough it, for sure.
A few hours before the hunters in his camp will get up, grab their bows and slip off into the pre-dawn dark, Sump Cassels mixes pans of cornbread in the kitchen. Literally.
The Cassels camp has a canopy tent kitchen the size of a cabin. The Hanahan man cooks on a camp oven with a grill on top. He's also got a crock pot and an industrial-sized pancake griddle.
Cassels has a spice table including his mouth-watering barbecue rub and boxes of all the necessities for life in the wild: oatmeal cream pies, ginger snaps, cereal, Nekot peanut butter crackers, applesauce, Raisin Bran, Frosted Flakes, coffee creamers and, of course, MoonPies.
In fact, fellow hunter Shan Burkhalter of Mount Pleasant is out at the camp fire right now, roasting a MoonPie on a stick.
"We do it homestyle," Cassels said in his grizzled voice.
The eight men in his camp have come to Bull's Island for a week of deer hunting, a tradition in the family that dates back a half-century, back to the earliest days of Cape Romain as a National Wildlife Refuge north of Charleston. For a week in November and then a week in December, U.S. Fish and Wildlife permits archery hunting on the remote, 5,000-acre island, to keep the deer herd from over-running the place.
Camping isn't normally allowed in wildlife refuges, but daily open-water, gear-carrying boat rides in the dark could create more problems than the camps, which are overseen by officers.
So, the nights on Bull's have become one of those life experiences for families like the Cassels, and the Carrolls of York, who are in the camp alongside them. It's something they pass generation to generation.
They have come every year, twice a year, since the first hunt in 1954, because this place is one of a kind, a trip not to be missed, even for outdoorsmen like these.
The sense of solitude is tangible. In the tent at night, you feel the surf rumble a mile away. Tucked up in a deer stand, you're so remote you feel you're the only person on the island.
Brush rustles and antlered bucks just appear. Hawks glide past you under the dangling tree limbs, huge alligators bask on the creek banks. White pelicans flock by. Monster fish wait in the churning surf.
"It's as close as you can get to the middle of nowhere," said Tom Cassels, Sump's brother.
In the old days, bow hunters came by the hundreds for the Bull's Island hunt, so many that Fish and Wildlife officers had to start a quota system. Those were the days when Sumpter M. Cassels Jr., Cassels' dad, packed up the station wagon and drove his boys and sometimes his wife out of Easley at 2 a.m. to reach the landing at first light.
"He exposed us to a kind of life that most people don't see," Sump Cassels said.
The Carrolls were no different. Neil Carroll, of York, lived for the weeks he could take his family to Bulls. He brought them every year. On his last trip, he was blind and the kids led him around. They still bring Dad back, in an urn.
"The tranquility of it, the beauty. We used to listen to the howls of wolves at night," Ben Carroll said.
Camp really was roughing it, at first. The rain shelters were tarps strung with ropes tied off to rocks tossed over tree limbs. And late-fall weather on Bull's can be wildly changeable.
Sump Cassels has watched a microburst blow over gear-filled tents and roll them away down the campsite. The cold can get so brutal the camp fire has to be packed with hot-burning, resinous pine heartwood just to keep warm.
So one piece of gear led to another, just in case. The Cassels now run two trips in three skiff-sized boats "packed like container ships" to move their stuff to camp.
Take Tom Cassels' tent, for example, the one over by the gas-on-demand hot water shower tent. Tom has a $200 Tempur-Pedic mattress on his cot, in between the recliner and the table where the DVD player sits. On the worst nights, he fires a space heater at the tent flap, powered by propane. When Tom first came to the island as a child, he blew up one of those child's rafts for a mattress, he said. And shakes his head.
The numbers of hunters who come to Bull's thinned out after Hurricane Hugo tore the island apart in 1989. But the November hunt still draws a crowd to the picnic meadow where they camp. Some 60 archers turned out this year. The December hunt tends to draw only people who really care about the island, Ben Carroll said. This year, it's just the two family camps, 16 men.
Nights in camp have that relaxed, ribbing, party atmosphere. But one by one, the hunters will step away in the dark to gape up at the moon overhead and the orange flickers of light it sends down the palmetto fronds.
In the pre-dawn when they rise to the hunt, there's little talk and a lot of quiet. Bowhunting is a different world. They have to get within 50 yards of the deer to have a decent shot, about half that distance for a sure shot. It's intimate, the hunters said. Stealth is everything.
Burkhalter checks his bow, sprays on a fresh dirt scent to kill his smell. He blackens his face. He and the others slip off like ghosts in the eerie red glow of their helmet lamps.
The heydays the families remember of this place are lost. The last red wolf was removed from the former breeding colony in 2005. Wild turkey died off after Hugo destroyed their habitat.
Before the storm, one of the biggest pines on the island was so thick that it took four men to stretch their arms around. "This place here was so full of trees, you couldn't see the sun," Sump Cassels said of the open picnic meadow where the tents are set.
After the storm, the matted tangles of fallen trees were so thick, it was two years before the hunt could be held again.
Nowadays, erosion eats up the north end of the island so fast it astonishes Tom and Chris Cassels when they return to tree stand sites they used the year before. The landmark Boneyard Beach has lost its biggest sculptured live oak skeletons to the surf.
The beach is gone at high tide and in one spot, the ocean breaks against the levee of Jack's Creek, a critical waterfowl and wading bird impoundment. Flocks of ibises scatter as the hunters pass.
"Jack's Creek is almost gone," Sump Cassels said with resignation in his voice. "Change is inevitable. It's gonna happen. You just deal with it."
Even with the losses, the place remains magical. The hunters look up at night to a sky dominated by the bright stars of Orion, the hunter, drawing back his bow. Tom Cassels talks about watching from his tree stand in the dunes as the sun rises across Boneyard Beach and dolphin break the surface to breathe.
For this trip, their nephew Dustin Cassels is along for the 15th time. The next generation.
"It's my favorite place," Dustin said. "You get out here, and it's just you and the island and the deer."
This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and the ocean off the Lowcountry are changing, and what it means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea.
For more stories from the series, go to postandcourier.com/livesonthesea.
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