My 'sneak' peek at Crystal Lake not so sneaky

Posted by JEFF KIDD on November 6, 2013 

Public can see new park, too

— Nothing said "Keep Out," but a sign did warn those who tread along the new boardwalk to beware of alligators. Trees lay across portions of a trail cut around the 7-acre lake. And save a ratty, old couch on the other side of a fence line that I presume runs along a property line, it looked like no one but my wife, the warblers and me had been to the far corner of Crystal Lake on Lady’s Island in some time.

So I bravely hiked my way through, believing my scofflaw ways would result in a gallery of sneak-peek photos for Untamed Lowcounty readers.

Turns out, I'm not that brave, and we weren't trespassing.

"We'd like visitors to go check out the boardwalk and see what's going on out there," Beaufort county spokeswoman Joy Nelson informed me when I called to get an update on progress of a work-in-progress passive park that is part of the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program.

A boardwalk that still smells of fresh-cut wood leads through a bog, to higher ground, then to a 24-foot-by-24-foot observation deck that looks out over the lake — a former borrow pit that now is the centerpiece of a passive park. But Crystal Lake is still a bit untamed, for work there is not complete.

When last we wrote about the park, the first phase, which cost $155,000, was to be completed by December. Work seems to be a bit ahead of schedule, since the first section of boardwalk -- the most conspicuous part of the first phase -- is open to foot traffic. There has been no big, public grand opening, however, and my vehicle was the only one parked behind the old Butler Marine building, near the trail head, when my wife and I visited this past Sunday. In fact, we didn’t hear or see anyone else during our hourlong visit.

I’ve lived in Beaufort County since 1992 and have driven past almost every day for the past eight years, but I but had never actually seen the lake until this trip. I’ve been awaiting the park’s opening, however, because it promises a trove of wildlife. Migratory-bird rookeries, alligators, otters and numerous other species — including the occasional bald eagle — should come into view.

I was mildly disappointed that my wife and I saw none of these species on Sunday, but the place is just crawling with yellow-rumped warblers right now, and woodpeckers abound — we saw several pileated woodpeckers, red-breasted woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I also spied a belted kingfisher, and there also seems to be quite a bit of aquatic life in the pond. We also saw the remnants of an active rookery.

So although I wound up with a less-than-stunning photo gallery for Untamed Lowcountry readers, I’m confident there will be great things to shoot there for years to come.

The 26-acre site is off Lady’s Island Drive between Carolyn Drive and Rue Du Bois. O'Quinn Marine built the boardwalk, and Nelson said the current plan is to extend it all the way around the lake in the third phase of the park’s development.

First, however, the county wants to expand parking and convert the old Butler Marine building to a facility that can house boats for those who want to use them in the pond. No contractor has been selected or time table set for this second phase of work, Nelson said.

Nonetheless, the progress made thus far is worth noting. The Stewart Family Trust donated the lake to the county in 2006, and the county bought the remaining acreage using $3.2 million in Rural and Critical Lands money. Volunteers with Friends of Crystal Lake, formed in 2011, has spent hundreds of hours over the past year clearing brush and removing invasive species and generally nursing the park to fruition.

The group’s co-chairwoman, Peggy Allard, said she is optimistic plans to renovate the Butler Marine building could be approved by the end of the year. Nelson said there are no firm plans for the design or start of work for the project’s second phase, however, she added that Beaufort County’s director of planning and development, Tony Criscetello, believes the entire project can be completed within two years.

For those interested in a bird's-eye view:

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