Link to 'a jewel'

Wood storks are one of many species of birds that inhabit the barrier islands at the Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown.

SANTEE DELTA - Imagine a huge, remote barrier island of live oaks, longleaf pines and waterfowl ponds, haunted by bald eagles, a place few people have seen.

Now imagine another island beyond it, and a third beyond that - an ocean-washed maritime forest wilderness so thick it barely has trails.

Now the best part: This idyllic refuge is real and you own all 24,000 acres, thanks to a family who used to hunt there with legends like baseball icon Ty Cobb.

The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve south of Georgetown is maybe the most curious property managed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for the public, partly because - by deed restriction - the public has only limited access to it.

It's run as a wildlife management area, and for research and education. Even hunting, in most cases, is prohibited. A nuisance feral hog hunt is held once a year.

There's no way to get onto the preserve by land. Visitors must park on the mainland and take a boat or a barge ferry across the Intracoastal Waterway. But there soon might be a bridge - of sorts.

DNR has asked state legislators for approval to install a $2.5 million swinging bridge to replace the 40-some-year-old ferry, which is rusting out. That request is in front of the Joint Bond Review Committee, which sent member Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, out to the preserve on a recent afternoon to review the request.

No way, you might think - $2.5 million for a bridge that most people will never use? Well, the bridge is actually free to the state. Limehouse went to make sure it won't impede waterway traffic.

The bridge would be paid for - as the entire preserve operation is - by a foundation Yawkey established. It would allow larger group tours, like classes on school buses, to cross to the islands without repeat ferrying. That potentially could open the islands to more tours, although the deed restrictions would still be in place.

Guided tours now are offered two days per week, September to May, but tour numbers are limited by the number of seats on a small sightseeing bus. The waiting list can be months long.

The swinging bridge would remain tied off on the island bank, clear of the waterway channel, until it's needed, preserve manager Jamie Dozier told Limehouse. That made this decision nearly a no-brainer, with the economic benefits that this sort of wildlife nursery brings to coastal tourism.

"This is a freebie for us, so to speak, and these islands are a jewel," Limehouse said.

This preserve is the wide open coast it used to be, with a history dating to Colonial rice plantations whose owners ranked among the wealthiest people in the fledgling nation. Archaeologists have found 16th century black glass worked into arrow points.

At times, ducks comb the islands by the thousands. Some of the oldest alligators in the state live there, because Yawkey forbade hunting them as far back as the 1930s.

DNR staff live on the middle island, South Island, and their children once had to carry a note to school saying they were late because of a gator - a big one that blocked the causeway over the black needlerush marsh and wouldn't budge.

"Sort of like 'The dog ate my homework,'" Dozier said.

White pelicans flock. Bizarrely blazoned roseate spoonbills can be found, along with more commonly seen wading birds such as wood storks and white ibis.

On a recent afternoon, a bald eagle spooked from the South Island trees over Winyah Bay toward North Island, the farthest-out island. A large, immature eagle glared from a dead tree in the marsh. Dozier said staff had recently seen four or five eagles floating and feasting on a dead dolphin in the bay.

The islands were bought in the early 20th century by Tom Yawkey, the son of timber industrialist William Yawkey, who purchased a share of the property as part of a hunting group. Tom Yawkey then turned around and bought the Boston Red Sox baseball team, which he owned for several decades. The islands became a hunting retreat and stopover for noteworthies such as Red Sox great Ted Williams. Today, Dozier can point to the spot where home plate stood in the field where players practiced.

On South Island there's the cypress and heartpine "playroom" with its arching boathull ceiling beams. It was a hunting lodge complete with huge elk trophy mounts on the wall from Yawkey's western hunts.

Today, photos also hang of Cobb and others, holding game birds they shot on the islands. On North Island is a tiny chapel, built for plantation workers, that Yawkey added onto for staff. The wood board St. James AME Church stands preserved with its stiff wooden pews and the bell outside that calls to service.

That's just touching on a few of the curiosities of the islands, which also include oddities like a 550-acre pond Yawkey had constructed in the needlerush marsh when he took a fancy to Canada geese.

The islands' 16 miles of beach make up a large chunk of some 70 miles of undeveloped beach across the state - some 40 percent of its coast.

"This is the ACE Basin north," said Limehouse, referring to the public-private, ecological preserve of nearly a quarter-million acres of the deltas of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers south of Charleston where his family owns property. "What we have to realize in South Carolina is we are blessed with two gems."