Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour Hosted By Coastal Expeditions And The Sewee Center--Merging Historic Charisma With Beauty And Splendor

On Sunday, the adage "good things come to those who wait" was confirmed. For two years, I have been wanting to do the Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour, but for various reasons ranging from conflicting schedules to being sold out, the highly coveted opportunity had been as elusive as the red wolf. There are only four tours scheduled through the year and timing is everything. The next tour is scheduled for October. I almost did not make this one. It too was sold out. I had my name put on the waiting list in case there was a cancelation and as fate would have it, lightning struck. I am thinking the threat of thunderstorms forecasted for the day of the tour, which was July 16, may have presented me the necessary thunder. Thank you Mother Nature.

Lighthouse Island is located in Cape Romain, a National Wilderness Area. Coastal Expeditions suggests participants wear appropriate footwear for water and pluff mud, preferably something water proof and attached to your feet. Anyone experienced with stepping into the dark-brown viscous material knows losing your footwear is always a possibility. Since I do not own boots, and highly unlikely to wear them if they were available, my choice was between flip flops and tennis shoes. So, I put on the later option, grabbed my camera and a banana for a snack, hopped into my truck and headed to the Sewee Center on Highway 17 in Awendaw for a pre-tour presentation.

Upon arrival, I checked in along with about forty other people for the hour long slide presentation outlining the history of the two lighthouses on the island. It was delivered by Tom Graham, a College of Charleston grad with a degree in Biology. He has dedicated his time and energy for the past 20 years to the preservation and restoration of the lighthouses. The shorter conical lighthouse, standing 65 feet, was built in 1847 and the octagonal lighthouse, standing at 150 feet, was built in 1857. At the age of three, Tom was present when the 1857 light was taken out of service in 1947. The two lighthouses are the only structures left on the island, the light keepers residences are just a pile of bricks and rubble.

From the Sewee Center, we headed for McClellanville and its boat landing on Pinckney Street where Coastal Expedition's Caretta Ferry awaited. Storm clouds were looming in the near distance to the south as forecasted.

Lighthouse Island is approximately a winding 6 miles through the Cape Romain estuary from the boat landing. A smiling Captain William Christenson welcomed us aboard, gave us some necessary safety reminders, and the location of the life preservers. Then, he delivered his first of many humorous witticisms, "If you should happen to fall off the ferry, we will toss you the life ring, but truthfully, all you need to do is stand up. The water in the estuary is only about 3 to 5 feet deep at the most." For the next hour, Captain William talked about life in the estuary. He instructed, "Take a deep breath," paused and then added, "You are breathing the cleanest air in the world."

Cape Romain Refuge is a Class 1 Wilderness Area. It is a place where humans haven't developed roads, pipelines, or other industrial infrastructures. What we see today is pretty much what the Indians saw hundreds of years ago as they canoed through its winding waters. Besides supporting the cleanest air, it is home of the cleanest water in the world, and that is the result of the estuary's four necessary components: water, spartina grass, pluff mud, and oysters. Spartina grass is the only plant that can grow in the estuary's salty water due to its ability to filter the salt out of the water and secret the excess out through special glands.

The most thought-provoking part of Captain Will's narrative was when he talked about the estuary's most distinguished amphibious sojourner, the loggerhead turtle. Born on the sandy beaches of the estuary's barrier islands, the tiny hatchlings who survive their demanding and dangerous scamper to the water enter the ocean and spend the next thirty years in the Atlantic currents swimming the Gulf Stream to the North Atlantic Drift to the Canary Current to the North Equatorial Current and back to the Gulf Stream. Reaching maturity at age thirty, it returns to the beach it was born on and lays its eggs to continue the cycle of life and then returns to the currents. The odds of reaching maturity are 1 in 1000.

At the start, just a small siloughette in the distance, the white and black octagonal lighthouse was now a colossus rising high above the island's trees. The captain eased the Caretta into the spartina grass and the ramp was deployed. We waded through the ankle deep water and traversed the bush-lined path to the lighthouses. For the next 45 minutes, I took pictures and walked among the brick strewn ruins of the keeper's houses. I touched one of the huge iron treads of the circular staircase now callous from rust and imagined ascending the 150 feet to the light room at the top--a task the light keeper performed daily. At present, imagine is all you can do, the light room at the top where the Fresnel lens was housed is off limits to the public for safety reasons. Possibly, within two years, you will be able enjoy a 360 degree panorama of the stunning surrounding vistas.

Lighthouses of old are remarkable relics of ingenuity and for many of us today, fascinating pieces of history and highly sought after subjects of photography. They were outwardly, geometrically simple in design, inwardly, an amalgamation of ingenuity all wrapped in a mystique as beguiling as an old grandfather clock. The Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour by Charleston Expeditions merges that historic charisma with the beauty and splendor of the Cape Romain estuary. The tour is both informative and entertaining thanks to the knowledgeable hosts. If you like boat rides, water, wildlife, and lighthouses, I highly recommend the Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour.

Departure Points:
Sewee Center
5821 Highway 17 North
Awendaw, SC

McClellanville Boat Landing(Boat)
Pinckney Street
McClellanville, SC

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Paddleboarding The Remarkable IOP Estuary Along The Serene Morgan Creek

I mounted my board suspended over the bustling waters of the IOP Marina located at the point Morgan Creek enters the Intracoastal Waterway. A slight teasing breeze brushed past. It carried with it the pleasant scent of the aromatic concoction fermenting around the docks--the resultant byproduct of boat fuel mingling with the fishy, marine air. With paddle in hand, I stroked the surface of the tepid waters impelling me forward into the unhurried tidal current of the creek. My two hour excursion was underway.

A gauntlet of weatherworn floating docks lined with boats of varying sizes attached to waterfront properties crowned with spacious villas accompanied my start for a fair distance, until my leisurely coasting board carried me past the oyster coated pillars of a singular bridge standing like a gateway to the serene world of the IOP's pristine estuary beyond.

I glanced back and bid civilization ado.

Ahead, a sprawling carpet of marsh grass dotted by islands of clustered backwater trees, some greyed and gnarled from the merciless southern sun and the passing of time, filled the horizon. I glided forward. My incursion scattered a school of small fish cutting an exiting trail of parting ripples in the surface of the water and a great white heron prowling the shell covered shoreline, warily watched my every move as I passed by—the first of many I would see on my venture. For the residents of this complex ecosystem, I was an uninvited but cautiously tolerated visitor.

The creek was on the backside of the tide. The retreating water exposed some of the estuary’s oyster beds and oozy, dark-brown viscous material southerners call pluff mud--the confluence of decaying spartina grass, fish, crabs, shrimp, and dinoflagellates primarily responsible for the reason why Charleston oysters are the best in the delicacy world of highly prized bivalves. Scanning the horizon to the far edges of the estuary, the rooftops of the Wild Dunes were barely perceivable.

I paddled past a fallen tree laying on a sandy outcropping. Fiddler crabs quickly scurried for cover across the wet sand. I wisely maneuvered around a razor-sharp oyster bed avoiding what could be an otherwise dangerous situation if my board were to become unsteady. As I paddled up the winding ribbon of nutrient rich waters, I bodily savored the warm aura of the estuary and let its nurturing environment caress my soul. Truly, in this place, one can get lost in their thoughts just as easily as one can get lost in the maze of tributaries. Tributaries too shallow for dolphin to navigate, but swarming with other aquatic species.

Some areas so shallow, the fin on my paddleboard could barely clear the bottom. Areas where the water boiled with hundreds of shrimp frantically jumping helter-skelter in all directions trying to escape my intrusion into their space, sliding across the tip of my board and some banging against my legs. I floated over deep water holes where I watched spottail bass streak across the surface of the water in hot pursuit of a smaller prey, wishing I had a fishing rod, but happy I had my cell phone to take pictures of my trek into the fascinating Morgan Creek estuary on the IOP.

Morgan Creek is just one of the many tidal creeks and waterways around Charleston's barrier islands that offer some of the best venues for indulging in watersports. I have paddleboarded the Intracoastal Waterway on the IOP, Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, Folly Creek at Folly Beach, and Morgan Creek on the IOP. Each offer features unique to its waterscape.

The Intracoastal Waterway challenges your paddleboarding skills and it was the only place where I came across an alligator. On Shem Creek, you are likely to see dolphin and if you are fortunate enough, the illusive manatee. In addition, you can grab a beer or burger at one of its numerous waterside restaurants and watering holes. Folly Creek offers wide open waters that are home to pods of dolphin and one of the places I had the rare pleasure of witnessing strand-feeding. You will also paddle past a famous sunken boat. I enjoy them all, but Morgan Creek and Folly Creek are my favorite choices for a day on the water.

If you need to rent a board, Ocean Fitness is right on the marina with a large selection of paddleboards.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Memorable Visit To Cleveland's Near West Side--Ohio City And The Arts District

From time to time, I write about places other than Charleston if I am impressed by what I have seen while on my travels. This is one of those occasions.

On my recent return to Northern Ohio, my daughter took a group of us on a driving tour through the communities of Cleveland immediately west of the Cuyahoga River. It was a side of the city I had not seen, the Near West Side to be exact with Ohio City at its center. Born and raised on the eastern side, over the years I had never really taken the time to explore its old, tree shaded streets or patron the numerous small businesses and celebrated eateries that have come to line its corridors.

Ohio City features the historic and famous European-styled West Side Market, the largest contiguous urban farm in America called Fresh Food Collaborative, and Ohio's oldest microbrewery, the Great Lakes Brewing Company--occupying a building that formerly housed the Market Tavern, a pub frequented by Eliot Ness, and I will add, its brand is also my favorite choice in beer when visiting. Adding to the areas landmark character, it is also home to Ohio's most haunted house, the Gothic Franklin Castle.

For lunch, my daughter chose the open-air, all natural restaurant called TownHall. Located just north of the West Side Market on W 25th Street, it proudly displays a theme of timber and grass throughout with tables made from thick slabs of sawn trees, ceiling and walls lined with wood planking, and outside tables shaded by yellow umbrellas with green grass growing across the middle of the table top for you to irresistibly run you fingers through while you wait for your food, which I blissfully did numerous times. It was a beautiful day for outdoor seating.

TownHall features a NON-GMO menu, top to bottom, loaded with a tempting medley of plates, flats, sides, deserts, and drinks. Perusing the menu, it didn't take me long to spot the dish that would satisfy my brunch craving. Anytime grilled cheese sandwiches are an offering, and I am not talking about the common, everyday version, I am immediately smitten. I reckon it is the kid in me to blame. I chose the Grilled Cheese Bars + Soup. The sandwich was made with roasted roma tomatoes, cheddar, gruyere, and sourdough wheat bread with an add-on of Prosciutto. The soup was a Organic Tomato Bisque with goat cheese and house croutons. The complete offering was $10 plus $2 for the add-on of Prosciutto--magnificent.

My daughter had the Grass-Fed Cheeseburger for $12 consisting of grass-fedbeef, organic white cheddar, onion, oregano vin, shredded romaine, rosemary aioli, and pickle with a side of Fresh Cut Truffle Fries made with White truffle oil, parmesan cheese, and rosemary aioli for $6. This would have been my second choice. Others in our party had the Zucchini Pasta with House cut zucchini pasta noodles, marinara, roasted chicken+fresh veggie primavera, and grana padano for $11. Drinks were beer, wine, and crafted sodas. Completely and utterly satisfied by food and conversation, it was time to move on.

Our next stop was the corner of Detroit Avenue and W 65th Street. Located directly under the Capitol Theatre sign, there is no mistaking what goes on beyond the glass windows of this business establishment, and it has to do with FUN. This is the home of Superelectric Pinball Parlor. A collaboration of five different individuals, their mission is to create a forum where pinball machines and the artwork related to them can be enjoyed and shared with the whole community. Step through its door and you enter a world of flashing lights and a symphony of pings all orchestrated by moving flippers and bouncing steel balls. With over 20 games ranging from the 50's to the latest releases, the parlor is wall to wall pinball games and old memorabilia with some oddities thrown in to leave you smiling.

Nathan, one of the owners, was the host on duty when we visited. He was very inviting and presented a comforting, friendly smile. He handed me a complimentary white paper cup filled with tokens and suggested I start with the Dragon game that had a picture of Elvis hanging on the wall next to it. It had been a long time since I played a pinball game and my reflexes were somewhat out of sink, but after a few plays I started to get into a groove and put up a decent score. Then, I played a game with a Wizard of Oz theme where I got blown away and landed in the Twilight Zone. It was a blast while the tokens lasted.

Superelectric Pinball Parlor has acquired and restored over 80 vintage games and they are dedicated to continue the process of preserving these special pieces of Americana for people to enjoy. There is a monthly Pinball Battle. The space can be rented for parties ranging from a $35 package for 6-10 persons to a $100 package for 20-25 persons. For complete list of packages, click on Party Rental. There is also a Belles and Chimes--Northeast Ohio's first women's pinball club. Refreshments are offered and they are working on getting a liquor license. It is a great pinball venue to patron where persons of all ages can come to unwind and have a great time.

This was my first real exposure to the Near West Side, and I was truly impressed. I would not hesitate to visit again in the future. There is so much going on throughout its old thoroughfares. The Arts District showcases a variety of activities. There is live theatre and film, a growing restaurant and retail presence, and a wealth of cultural institutions. Named the second most walkable neighborhood in Cleveland, it is the complete urban neighborhood. On your next trip to the city on Lake Erie, consider a visit to Ohio City and its surrounding areas.