A fantastic day spent at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge

greenkayak73@gmail.comJune 10, 2013 

The landing gear extended as the flier approached the runway. With seeming effortlessness, he made minor adjustments to the wings, flaps tilted, rudder shifted and he came steadily on. A cross-breeze embraced him and an obstacle appeared but another reflex allowed him to sail over with just a hair's breadth of clearance. With the grace of design and the confidence of a thousand identical landings, he touched down in a perfect landing ... and let out a loud triumphant "honk!"

This skilled aviator was just one of hundreds of wood storks that covered a rookery that seemed to stretch in limitless acres like the snow-touched tops of an alpine forest. It was late spring at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge and the airport was busy.

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a 2,284-acre preserve located about an hour from Bluffton in McIntosh County, Georgia, and is home to unique wildlife and history. In the spring, wood storks, ibis and numerous other wading, water and migratory birds arrive by the thousands filling the forest and freshwater ponds with noisy, purposeful life.

The ponds themselves are home to numerous alligators and fish and all work together to make Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge a fantastic destination for anyone seeking a glimpse of nature at work. What's more, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a rare glimpse into the pas,t as it has been at the crossroads of human history for a millennia. Established in 1962 on land formerly managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is on the site of a World War II Army airfield. Concrete tarmacs and runways still stretch into the distance, and as you drive or bike the nearly 15 miles of path and road, it is not hard to imagine the sound of piston-engined fighters roaring into the sky on training missions or in search of German U-Boats.

I recently toured Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge by bike with a group of friends. The wide runways made excellent avenues for sightseeing, and we were easily able to experience wildlife up close at Woody Pond as alligator and wood stork vied for attention.

We did not see the elusive painted bunting, which is known to frequent the refuge, but songbirds still filled the woods. In the pine straw near an abandoned ammunition bunker a lethargic timber rattler coiled in silence, too chilled or uninterested to strike. A reminder that nature is wonderful to behold in all its forms -- but is often best viewed at a distance.

Whether you plan to spend a day exploring or a few hours on a wildlife-filled detour, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is well worth the visit.

GETTING THERE

From Bluffton, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is an easy hour ride down Interstate 95 below Midway, Ga. -- or for 15 minutes longer, take a leisurely ride down U.S. 17. From I-95 take exit 67 (South Newport) to U.S. 17 south. At 1.5 miles turn left onto Harris Neck Road and drive approximately seven miles to the entrance gate. Hours are dawn to dusk year round. Special activities are offered throughout the year and some portions of the refuge are periodically off-limits to allow for undisturbed nesting and habitat management. The remains of the old airfield are easily visible throughout the park, but take extra care when exploring. Be mindful of insects and weather conditions and bring your own water as there are limited facilities available. We chose to leave the park for lunch to enjoy local barbecue from a roadside vendor, and we were given a tour of the fascinating Old School Diner. Here Chef Jerome invited us back for fresh local seafood. For more information on Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge contact the Savannah Coastal Refuges complex at 843-784-2468.

PROMISED LAND: RACISM AND RECOVERY AT HARRIS NECK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

In ancient times, Native Americans hunted and fished the myriad islands that include the land of Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Their presence gave way to colonial settlement and antebellum plantation life of cotton, indigo and of course. African slavery. After the Civil War the people who had worked the land lived on it as their own raising generations of families and enjoying the fruits of their labor. In 1942 the federal government chose this spot to build an important new air base that would serve a coastal defense network and bring WWII to coastal Georgia. For a few dollars an acre, family land was bought and a way of life changed forever. After the war, attempts were made to convert the fighter base to a civilian airport. Twenty years later the government stepped in again and created Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The rest is history. A movement has begun, however, to change history or at least offer a measure of restoration. The Harris Neck Land Trust formed in 2006 after decades of campaigning to restore the land to the original families. Despite media attention and raised awareness, some progress has been made but a dilemma exists between the fight to preserve the environment and wildlife -- and the cultural heritage of African-American residents. Time will only tell what solutions may be eventually reached.

Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com and search on the username "greenkayak73." He can be reached at greenkayak73@gmail.com.

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