Grand Strand's best-kept secret: DNR offers free tours of area's wetlands

DNR offers little-known free tours of wetlands

GEORGETOWN COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - If you want a fishing or hunting license, you get it from the state's Department of Natural Resources. If you want to complain about hunters on public lands, you do that through the DNR. If you get cited for unsafe boating, you get the ticket from the DNR. But what very few people know is that the same agency offers what may be the best guided tour of South Carolina history ever created.

Why have these trips remained such a secret? Anchor David Klugh went out with DNR officials to find out more.

There is one war that has raged on in South Carolina for over 100 years: one that pits the Grand Strand's fragile wetlands against those with dreams of another gated community, or another 18 holes of grass, fertilizer and flags. There is no question that the latter has won most of the battles.

But along the Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers, a fragile peace is in place, thanks to the generosity of wealthy, 20th-century landowners like Thomas Samworth, Tom Yawkey and others. Their gifts of hundreds of acres of land to the state have preserved not only the millions we bring in from our hunting and fishing tourism, but the very history that is the reason we settled here in the first place.

"Most people who ride up and down the river every day and have no idea what's underneath or what's over in the marsh," explains Jim Lee with DNR. "And this is one of the ones that's remained open."

For 30 years, Lee has been the face of the status quo along these waterways. It's been Lee's job at DNR to confront development threats to this area, and recruit advocates along the way. The day-long plantation and rice tour is quickly becoming his greatest weapon.

"Everything you see out here was in rice, every single acre for almost 200 years," he says as he guides a half dozen members of a regional photo club through South Carolina's most influential time in history.

"Let's see if I can get close enough to get a sprig of this…this is a pretty good specimen here," he tells the group.

Wild rice still grows along the old cultivated rice fields, and still attracts dozens of species of waterfowl.

"This was an important food source for Native Americans here for thousands of years," Lee says.

It's this wild rice, known as Carolina Gold, that Europeans cultivated, and were made rich as a result.

The best way to see how vast these rice fields really are is to see it from the air, all 40,000 acres. It also gives you a better idea of why Georgetown County was the wealthiest county in the country at the time. And those rice fields, the earthworks as well as the canals are for the most part, still there. And so too are the impacts they're having on the local economy, some 300 years later. What's happened during those 300 years is what these Department of Natural Resources tours are all about.

"I want you to see it the way most people usually saw it, which was from the water," Lee says as the group arrives at a plantation home. "And this is the front of the house that faces the water."

The Waccamaw River is lined with plantation homes that stand to this day. Some, like Dirlton Plantation, are owned by the state and open to the public. River neighbors like Chicora Wood, Arundel and Exchange plantations are still in the hands of family descendants. Much of their lands that were once rice plantations, however, are now part of the conservation easement and unobtainable for development.

There is no question that you can find historic tours of South Carolina by foot, by bus, by boat, and by carriage. But there's a price to be paid for that kind of education. Therein lies the difference here. The Department of Natural Resources offers these highly-personalized tours for free, and there's no advertising, which pretty much makes this one of the best-kept secrets in the Grand Strand.

Secrets are a big part of what agents like Jim Lee are exposing on day trips like this: the secret closed-door battles that rage between developers and conservationists, secret spots used by Revolutionary and Civil War heroes along the rivers to outwit the English or even Union troops. Even if you can find this stuff in a history book, you have to go out there to touch it, to smell it, and to feel it.

"From the minute you start to the minute you end you felt like you were in another dimension," says local resident Rose Harkawick.

Every step is a history buff's delight, a photographer's dream, and a hunter's paradise.

"You're not going to get there by car. It's a very special thing that they are doing," one satisfied tourist says.

Tours run to Sandy Island and one of the last remaining Gullah communities, which is shrinking but still intact. Just a few short years ago, developers nearly won the battle to build a bridge here, level the island and build a golf course community, "turning this into what every little other part of Myrtle Beach looks like," Lee says.

The state has beat back the bulldozers, for now. DNR's leadership in Columbia has come to recognize the lasting impression these tours are having on the community. After years of offering them to a word of mouth audience only, expansion plans are in the works. Lee will be the first to tell you these tours are becoming the most productive link between the Grand Strand's past and the ability to preserve it for the future.

"And the only way you're going to do that is show them what they've got," Lee says.

If you're interested in taking the tour for yourself, it's simple: you just need to contact DNR.

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