Jan/Feb 2006Field Trip: Bonneau Ferry by Caroline Foster
Photo by Michael Foster
When the MeadWestvaco Corp. first made the Bonneau Ferry property available for sale in 2002, S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Director John Frampton recognized its value immediately and began making plans to acquire it. The tract encompassed 10,000-plus acres, including 14 miles on the Cooper River, more than 200 acres of ponds, 1,300 acres of historic rice fields, 200 acres of wildlife openings, and 8,000 acres of forest lands, plus a wealth of cultural resources, including an 18th-century plantation house and other structures now in ruins. Frampton and his staff knew that protecting this key property would secure the entire north side of the east branch of the Cooper River and provide important connections to lands already protected within the area called the CAWS Focus Area, land within the boundaries of the Cooper, Ashley, Wando and Stono river watersheds.
With the help of The Conservation Fund and a number of other partners, the DNR began acquiring the property in stages, with the final portion moved into DNR ownership in summer of 2005. The property, now under the protection of the state, provides an oasis not only for wildlife but also for people seeking outdoor activities: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography and natural resource education, among others.
To get to Bonneau Ferry from Columbia, take I-26 to US Highway 17A, toward Moncks Corner. Stay on Highway 17 through Moncks Corner until you cross the bridge over the Tailrace Canal. Take a right at the first light after crossing the bridge. This is a short connector road that will take you to SC Road 402. When the connector road ends, bear right onto Road 402, going east toward Cordesville. Just after crossing Wadboo Creek, turn right onto Dr. Evans Road toward Mepkin Abbey (look for a sign pointing the way to the abbey). Begin looking for the historical marker to Strawberry Chapel, where you will begin your Field Trip.
Travel on Dr. Evans Road 6.5 miles and turn right just after crossing the railroad tracks. Look for Strawberry Chapel nestled among the live oaks a short distance off Dr. Evans Road on your right. Parking is available near the chapel so you can get out and read more about it at the kiosk located nearby.
The chapel served the Childsbury community, which began in 1707. This community was an early frontier settlement inland from the port of Charleston. Along with the chapel, Childsbury also had a tavern-among other structures-and both of these continued to be used into the 1750s. Strawberry Chapel is maintained by Ball and Harrelson family descendents, with three private services per year.
Behind the chapel a short dirt road leads through Childsbury Towne Heritage Preserve to a large commercial dock on the Cooper River, a good place to get a view of the area and look for wading birds and ospreys hunting for fish. There's a gate that prevents driving, but it's only about a five-minute walk to the river, a nice scenic spot for a picnic or just sitting and thinking.
Return to Dr. Evans Road, turn right and park on the roadside near the gate, located .6 mile beyond Strawberry Chapel. You'll want to pack your water, bug spray and any other supplies to take with you, as the rest of the field trip continues at a leisurely pace: on foot or mountain bike.
Enter the property by going around or over the locked gate. It's there to prevent driving in this way, but walking in is fine. Mountain biking is also a good way to travel for this trip, which stays on hard-packed sandy roads the whole distance. Your travels will take you to two additional historical structures: the 18th-century rice mill ruins and the ruins of the Comingtee Plantation house, circa 1738. It's important for visitors to respect these historic sites. Climbing on them can cause further damage to the structures-or hurt the climber-and taking pieces from the sites is both destructive and illegal.
From the gate to the road where you turn right to get to the mill, the distance is about one mile, and .4 mile from the turn off Rice Hope Road to the mill. When you return to Rice Hope Road after visiting the mill, a right turn will take you in .1 mile to the Comingtee ruins.
Home to many generations of humans, this property also provides homes for a variety of animals. Wildlife seeking refuge here find the natural habitat they need, and many species occur on the property, including the endangered short-nosed sturgeon, wood stork, peregrine falcon and red-cockaded woodpecker. Bonneau Ferry also harbors a number of other sensitive species such as the Southern bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite, migratory waterfowl, osprey and various wading birds and many more common wild animals. American alligators, white-tailed deer, bobcats, squirrels, quail, and a variety of snakes may take a peek at visitors passing through the area. Keep a sharp eye out to spot them as they flee into the protection of the surrounding woods.
Many short dirt roads off the main route lead to waterfowl management areas. As the signs indicate, Bonneau Ferry's waterfowl management areas are closed to visitors from November 1 until March 1. This restriction makes the area more hospitable for overwintering or migrating waterfowl, such as wood ducks, ring-necks and teal. Staff work hard to prepare for the arrival of visiting and resident waterfowl, preparing and planting the areas in the spring with waterfowl foods and flooding them in the fall when the plants have grown tall, creating ponds filled with emerging plants: perfect habitat for many types of water-loving wildlife.
Hunters can take advantage of the blinds situated around the approximately 80 acres planted for waterfowl on the property by entering the drawn-hunt lottery system coordinated by the DNR staff who manage the property.
As spring arrives, the naked trees surrounding the impoundments slowly begin to show the telltale signs of the season: red maple seeds on grey-brown branches and then a light brush of green, various blooms on the forest floor and yellow jessamine climbing high into the trees toward the sun. Visitors are welcomed back to the waterfowl impoundments for bird-watching and adult-youth fishing as spring transforms the forests.
Keep an eye out for a small sign directing you off to the right toward the rice mill ruins. Less than a half-mile down this wooded road, the mill stands beside the Cooper River, where owners once used the river's currents to turn the mill wheel. Look on the back side of the brick ruins to see the place where the mill wheel attached to the outside wall. At high tide, water poured in from the Cooper River through the narrow slough behind the structure, entering the reservoir through a device called a trunk, which trapped it there. With the arrival of low tide, managers opened the trunk, allowing the water to leave the impoundment, turning the mill wheel as it rushed back to the river.
As you return to Rice Hope Road and take a right toward the Comingtee ruins, listen for songbirds calling in the bordering forests, their songs telling knowing visitors of the presence of seed-eaters such as tufted titmice, chickadees and cardinals, along with cedar waxwings, who eat berries and insects, often feeding on fruit trees in large flocks.
While watching the wildlife above, walkers should not forget to look down and notice signs of other animals abundant on the property. Evidence of a large population of white-tailed deer comes in the form of deep pointed tracks in the sandy road.
Comingtee ruins appear on your left shortly after returning to Rice Hope Road. The house, built in 1738, once offered a view of the river, but now stands surrounded by forest. It's interesting to note that as recently as the 1940s the house was mostly intact, but now it's just a hollow shell.
Retrace your footsteps back to the entrance down Rice Hope Road, enjoying the kind of solitude only available in special places where the encroaching world of development has been purposefully excluded.
For more information, see the book A Day on Cooper River, by John B. Irving. Also see "On the Way to Calais," SCW, November-December 2005.