Collecting Seashells on North Island

By:Kerry Egan

Date:11/30/2013

You know those moments when you wish your children would never grow older, when you wish time would stop, when you wish your life would be just like this forever? Those moments that somehow combine complete peace with a joy that makes you feel like you'll burst?

How much rarer and more precious it is when that feeling strikes not just for a fleeting moment but for a lingering afternoon. Collecting shells on North Island, an undeveloped and uninhabited barrier beach island in Winya​h Bay, was one of those rare days.

Glowing clouds stretched across the blue sky, sea water sparkled in the ripples and grooves that the outgoing tide etched across the sand, my children were old enough to run by themselves down the beach, but not so old that they didn't run back to ask me to catch up. We had nothing to do but look for shells.

We got out to the island on Cap'n Rod's Shell Island​ Tour, out of lovely Georgetown ​Harbor. The hour-long boat ride took us past coastal fields once planted with rice. Old plantation houses peeked out from behind trees. A dozen bald eagles perched in trees. Cap'n Rod shared his extensive and fascinating knowledge of the history, flora and fauna of the places we sailed by.

Once on the island, the white beach stretched out in front of us. Huge trees -- not branches, but whole trees -- lay thrown across the sand. The bark and soil had been scoured from their sun-bleached limbs and roots, turning them silver. It looked like the set for a pirate movie, or a sci-fi film. It doesn’t look real, yet there it was.

They were like magnets for the children. The kids were on the trunks and in the roots and branches, swinging, leaping, balancing, shouting. Running from tree to water, back into the next of the reclining trees that stretched all the way down the beach.

The outgoing tide left a glassy sheen of water over the sand, and created half a dozen sandbar "islands" that the children ran out to in the ankle deep water to claim as their own. There were several failed attempts by my daughter, Mary Frances, to drag a tree out to "Mary Island" to protect it from her marauding brother.

Halfway down the beach, the white sand met thick black mud of former grasslands that were washing away. Water streaming from pools in the mud carved rivulets through the grass and sand and tree limbs. "Awesome," my son, Jimmy, shouted. "I'm going to stop the water," he said with the confidence of nine years old. "Help me, Mom."

Mary Frances and my husband, Alex, continued to walk down the beach, pulled by the hope for even bigger and more perfect shells to be found. Jimmy and I knelt in the sand, building walls of wet sand and thick mud. The water circled around the wall; we extended it. The sides began to crumble; we reinforced them. Such concentration.

Finally we figured out how to build a dam to hold back all the water. Thirty seconds later, the water crested our barricade. He fell back on his heels and laughed.

We walked down the beach to meet the other two. Mary Frances skipped towards us. Alex followed. His pockets were so full of scallop, clam, and conch shells that he jingled as he walked. We'd forgotten a bag to collect the kids' treasures; luckily he was wearing cargo shorts with giant pockets.

The children ran off to explore the tidal pools around the big rocks of a jetty. Alex and I sat on the sand and watched the waves crash. And then, somehow, the our hour and a half was up. I could have stayed all day.

Cap'n Rod's Shell Island Tour lasts for four hours. The trips run Monday through Saturday. Call for reservations and times (843) 477-0287. Adult tickets are $32, and $27 for children.

Insider Tip: Remember to bring a bag to carry your shells! Also, bring a book or game for the kids for the boat trip over.

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