The dark shape of Vader exerted a powerful force.
No matter how hard the man struggled, he found it difficult to resist the pull on his body. The man dug in his heels as Vader dragged him across the ground. The man finally ceased his exertions and surrendered since he realized that all Vader wanted to do was sniff under a fallen log.
No, this “Vader” was not a character in a “Star Wars” movie. Instead, he was a large chocolate lab mix and he was enjoying a hike in the outdoors with his owner at the Ernest F. Hollings Wildlife Management Area near Edisto Island.
The Hollings area is just an hour and a half from Bluffton and offers much to see and do.
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The federally protected lands of the refuge are comprised of over 11,000 acres of forest and flooded fields that provide a haven for numerous species of wildlife, especially waterfowl. The habitat is favored by migrating ducks including the Northern pintail and other species.
Two things make the Ernest F. Hollings Wildlife Management Area a unique place.
First, it one of the few wildlife refuges in the area that is dog-friendly.
Traditionally, “working dogs” have been allowed during scheduled and managed hunts during the season.
However, if you come to hike or explore the almost seven miles of refuge trails, you can bring your dog. Pets must be kept on a 6-foot leash and be well-behaved but this adds a welcoming element if you want to explore a beautiful Lowcountry destination with your four-legged friend.
The other unique feature of the Hollings area is the presence of the Grove Plantation house.
Built in 1828, the stately white mansion survived the fires of civil war, hurricanes and the passage of time to be a centerpiece of the refuge.
A symbol of rice plantation culture, it fell into disrepair after the war and changed ownership numerous times until a northern businessman purchased it as a winter home and hunting lodge in the early 20th century. In 1992, the house and its game-managed lands were purchased by the federal government and the Hollings area was established as a crowned jewel of the over 300,000 acre ACE Basin Project.
The old house serves as refuge headquarters and you can visit for a tour or simply relax in a rocking chair on the high, shaded porch after a long day of hiking or experiencing the refuge
Today the old rice fields are flooded land surrounded by high earthen dikes with wooden “trunk gates” to control the ebb and flow of the tides. Pine and hardwood uplands are crisscrossed with trails and wildlife observation platforms.
One section of the trail is comprised of the bed of the old “Seaboard Coast Line” railroad. This long straight trail is an enjoyable hike above the level of the surrounding swamp and fields and if it reminds you of the New River Linear Trail in Bluffton, it is because the two utilize the same old rail line.
Recently I visited with a group of friends of the two- and four-legged variety. Bringing a well-behaved, closely leashed dog on the hiking trails was enjoyable and offered a new element to exploring the refuge since keener noses and near-joyous canine enthusiasm make it an excellent experience.
Of course, we were mindful that this is a wildlife refuge and not a park. The animals there are in their habitat and we are guests. Being watchful for residents such as alligators and alert to disturbing the balance of life should be a top priority for any visitor.
Migrating ducks gathered in the flooded fields and scattered across the sky, a reminder of the necessity and benefit of such places.
A day of hiking the trails and a relaxing half hour sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of the old plantation house listening to the Lowcountry breeze stir the live oaks was a reminder that life in the Lowcountry is as near to paradise as one can get.
The Ernest F. Hollings Wildlife Management Area and the refuge headquarters of the Grove Plantation is located just over an hour from Bluffton on State Road S-10-346 in Hollywood, S.C.
From Bluffton take U.S. 17 toward Charleston. Cross the Edisto River at Jacksonboro and turn right on Parker’s Ferry Road. At 3.3 miles, turn left onto Mauss Road and then right onto Sugar Hill Road. At .7 miles turn right onto Willtown Road and then a left on State Road S-10-346. At 2.4 miles, you’ll find the Ernest F. Hollings Wildlife Management Area gate. Parking is outside the gate (which is locked at dusk), but the Grove house and the refuge headquarters are located just a quarter of a mile down a stately “avenue of oaks” and easy to find. The refuge is open year-round and has regularly scheduled hunts, tours and other activities throughout the year. There are restrooms and other basic facilities. But this is a wildlife refuge and when you visit, you should plan and dress according to the season. Calll (843) 889-3084 or visit www.fws.gov/refuge/ace_basin/ for more information.