“DO NOT ENTER,” said the sign at the bottom of South Island Road.  That’s how everybody on the field trip to the Yawkey Wildlife Preserve knew they were on the right road. Parents and teacher chaperons drove around the sign and parked at the South Island Landing.  The group of sixth and seventh graders awaited the ferry in the chilly March air under a cloudy sky, running around the site and trying to skip rocks in the ICW.

Around 9:00, Mr. Jim Lee of DNR crossed over in the boat to pick us up and take us over the water to Cat Island.  He gave us a brief introduction to the Yawkey Wildlife Preserve—31 square miles of pristine coastal land donated by noted conservationist Tom Yawkey to the state of South Carolina in 1976.  Then we hopped on the bus and headed out to explore. 

Our first stop was a recently burned section of pine forest, where Mr. Jamie Dozier of DNR taught us how to recognize loblolly, long-leaf, and pond pines.  We had the first of many conversations about forest fires, which play a vital role in the life cycle of the long-leaf pine and that of many other species.

The land that is today the Yawkey Wildlife Preserve looks pretty wild and untouched at first glance.  However, several industries have thrived here over the years, leaving behind evidence of human activity.  Mr. Jamie showed us a “cat tree”—a pine tree which used to be regularly exploited for its sap (resin).  He also explained that a lumber business in the 1920s cut down almost every tree on the acreage. We saw a fallen metal chimney and a small water cistern that were used in the steam engines of its lumber milling and planing equipment. We also saw traces of the railroad tracks that hauled the boards to waiting barges on the Santee Delta.

Mr. Jim then drove us to see a forest of mostly long-leaf pines, where three colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers make their home.  These members of the Picidae family are endangered because they only nest in long-leaf pines.  The long-leaf pines (oddly enough) have been dying out over many decades because there were not enough forest fires.  We saw mature long-leaf pines with white bands painted around their trunks; these are where the wood-peckers nest.  Sadly, we did not see any of these fascinating birds but Mr. Jim assured us that if we can come back during their nesting season in May, they would be all over.

More evidence of human activity appeared as we drove long to another area of the property.  Mr. Jim brought us to a beautiful 40-foot chimney fashioned from handmade bricks which used to serve the rice mill.  The rice mill burned down completely but the tall chimney remains intact. We saw the handprints of the workers who made the bricks in the clay.

Finally, Mr. Jim talked to us about the small industry of tar and pitch production. Workers (known as “tar-heels”) would build a mound of heart-of-pine scraps, cover it completely with dirt with a small air hole, then set a smoldering, underground fire.  The fire released heavy resin from the wood in the form of tar and pitch.  These products were stored in barrels and sold to shipbuilders in the U.S. and Europe.  Producing tar and pitch was an extremely hardscrabble way to make a living for these forest folk.

Seeing the forest soaring above its fire-blackened bed was really magical. “Can we just stay here a little longer?” asked Nathan.  Mr. Jim thought it was a great idea.  Off the kids went, running through the trees, hollering and exploring.  When it was time to board the bus again, everyone had filthy shoes and soot-blackened pants, source of much amusement.

Our final lesson with Mr. Jim was about the sense of well-being which spending time in the forest confers.  “Your blood pressure drops and your cognitive function goes up,” he told us. “It’s especially important for young people.”  Lucky for us, we are invited to come back anytime.  Kingfishers had experienced first-hand the joy and fun of being outside in such a beautiful, protected place.

Thank you to Mr. Jim Lee and Mr. Jamie Dozier of DNR for being our tour guides.  Thank you, Dr. Neubauer, for setting up this wonderful field trip and thanks to Mrs. Crosby and Mme Gates for chaperoning.  “This was the coolest field trip ever,” said Quinn.