Charleston & Savannah

The Majestic Oak

The Majestic Oak

Our first big trip of the year was to the Lowcountry in Georgia and South Carolina. We took this trip to scout out new areas for a potential tour for 2018, and to get away from the cold weather of New England. We planned to spend 6 days revisiting some past favorite locations, to explore some new ones, and to meet up with previous students. And we accomplished all of that – except instead of 6 days, we spent 9 days since our flights home were cancelled due to winter storm Stella, and the weather down south was not warm!

Allie shooting inside the Sheldon Church ruins at night.

Allie shooting inside the Sheldon Church ruins at night.

On our first day, we arrived at the airport in Charleston in the afternoon, picked up our car rental and quickly found that much of the area was closed indefinitely due to a hurricane from last October. Ace Basin and the Boneyard Beach on Edisto island were closed, and would stay closed. Instead, we found a private plantation on a back road near Ace Basin that was just as suitable for our first shoot. And of course, we couldn’t help ourselves and made another quick stop before the sun went down – Sheldon Church. It was funny, actually, the lights illuminating the ruins shut off just as we were about to enter the gates. And, they went back on just as we were leaving. Not our night, I guess. We made our drive to Jekyll Island, Georgia in preparation for the next day. 

Allie's shot

Paul's shot

It turned out that Jekyll Island would be one of our favorite spots of the trip. We began the day at sunrise at Driftwood Beach, another ‘boneyard’ for Live Oak trees stranded on the coast. It was amazing! The photographic potential of this spot is endless given the right conditions. Despite the gnats (which were nasty) and the resulting gnat bites, we made some great material here. We’ll make sure to have any tour-goers get some Skin-so-Soft, a mineral oil that keeps the bugs away. After our morning shoot, we drove around the island and found an osprey circling its nest. We pulled over and discovered it was bringing Spanish Moss back to the nest as nesting material. Cool moment!

After lunch, we rented bikes from an area campground. We spent almost the rest of the day riding bikes all around the island. I would say it was a highlight of the trip. 

The night portrait

After nightfall and making dinner, we thought we’d try our hand at some night portraiture on the beach. The driftwood oaks make for some great compositions. We struggled a bit finding our footing but here’s the shot we came out with:

On Friday, we rose early to capture the sun shining through the Majestic Oak, one of the oldest trees in Savannah. We spent a good amount of time here, shooting both still images and lots of video. This is some of Paul’s favorite material of the week.

Afterward we met up with David Long, a photographer friend (and future BlueHour instructor!) who winters in neighboring Florida. We walked a trail in the Savannah Wildlife Refuge and spotted lots of alligators and birds (and lots of moss, too). From there, we made a visit to Bonaventure Cemetery, the largest and oldest of Savannah’s municipal cemeteries. 


And to end the day, we photographed the incredible Wormsloe Oak Avenue, which can be a challenge given so many people walking or driving in and out of the plantation. This spot is just so grandiose and extravagant there’s really nothing else like it. Despite this, the plantation itself wasn’t much in comparison. It did have some neat ruins but can’t compare to other plantations in the area.

Forsyth Park

Forsyth Park

By this time, David was on his way home for dinner, and we made an evening stop at Forsyth Park.  The park was bustling with people, and dogs, lots and lots of dogs. We got to play with some of them! And made some cool fountain shots, too. The park was ripe for people-watching; actually, we would say even more-so than in Boston. 

Controlled burn

Controlled burn

In the morning, we returned back north to South Carolina and did our re-do of Tomotley Plantation and Old Sheldon Church. With some exploring, we found a gem: Donnelley Wildlife Management Area. Here, we found black water swamps, river otters, lots of alligators – like at least maybe 40 of them in one place, active controlled burns, and the Boynton House. We had made some great ‘art student’ work there. 

We were very surprised to find the house in the condition it was in; up north, it definitely would have been vandalized and covered in graffiti and be filled with trash. Here, it was so strange how it seemingly was just left alone to decay. No gates, nothing; which is also weird since everything is gated. 

And this is where things got cold. Up until this point, the weather was just what you’d expect it to be – warm and sunny. This day was nearly unbearable. It must have been in the 30s with gusting winds blowing sand everywhere and into our faces and camera lenses.  We were at the Folly Beach pier and the county park. It was just brutal. But the important thing is it made for some cool long exposures and post-apocalyptic-looking images.

Paul taking 'the shot'

The shot

Boone Hall

Allie & Ann behind the Gates at Boone Hall

Allie & Ann behind the Gates at Boone Hall

After warming up, we met up with a BlueHour alumna, Ann Watson, a South Carolina resident for some good ‘ol times. We visited Boone Hall, which was the educational highlight of our time here. The site of course sported a massive and stately plantation house and gates, but “Slave Street” was really what was unique. Boone Hall has a collection of the last remaining, intact slave houses, and are set up so that each house represents a part of the history of slavery in America. They do a good job taking you chronologically through time by displaying and explaining archaeological finds from the site. Somehow, it felt different and much more impactful learning about this in the center of where it all happened. It made us realize how much of this history was missing from our childhood education in the northeast.   

Up next in the morning was a stop at the Angel Oak, an enormous Live Oak that dominates the landscape. Some say it is 5-600 years old; Wikipedia says 1,200. Who knows.  Its longest branch is 187 feet long. This is a site where it’s better to just put the camera away; it’s so difficult to photograph because it is so large, but also because of the many signs put purposely around it to help preserve it.

From here, our plan was to visit Beidler Forest, a blackwater creek, but it turns out is closed on Mondays. So we were off to Magnolia Plantation instead. 

We were lucky the Azaleas bloomed early this year

We were lucky the Azaleas bloomed early this year

And though we only visited the gardens, it was incredible. The sheer size and maintenance of the gardens are something to behold. You could spend an entire day traipsing through the windy paths of azaleas, oaks, bridges and more. Magnolia is one of the oldest plantations in the south and is particularly unique as its garden is considered a “romantic garden,” a garden where the plants and paths are left to overgrow and blend into nature, rather than being perfectly manicured like with other plantations. Magnolia is the oldest unrestored garden in the U.S. and one of the last of the large romantic gardens. We also got close-up with the animals on site, especially this peacock.

And given the rain, we weren’t going to do our walk through Charleston. We were about ready to go home. Until storm Stella was forecasted back home and our flights out were cancelled. We figured being put on hold forever with the airline in hopes to rebook ourselves would be best done at the Bay St. Biergarten over some craft beers. And that we did. And we finally got through. And we found out how long our delay would be: three days. Three whole extra days. If we had known we would be down here for so long, we would have planned differently. Maybe we would have visited David in St. Augustine. This complicated things; we had to switch out rental cars, go grocery shopping again, and ration our gas stove. But it wasn’t the worst thing. We did get to miss the storm.

With the extra time, we headed up north, to Congaree National Park. Congaree is the largest tract of old growth bottomland forest left in the U.S. But first, we had to get some work done, let everyone know when we would make it home, and get some coffee. This proved difficult.

On our drive, we thought we would be good patrons and visit a local coffee café. We walked inside with our laptops ready to go, and immediately were told there was a “no laptop policy.” ??? So, that was a no. Off to Starbucks, we said. But we couldn’t find a Starbucks. We searched Google maps and found a listing for Starbucks Coffee – easy enough right? NO. We drove out maybe 15 minutes to where Google told us to, only to find out the listing for Starbucks was actually for a Starbucks chiller inside a grocery store in the checkout line…..Why is this so hard? We skipped the coffee. 

Tupelos & Cypress Trees

And of course, an experience like that wasn’t our last. We also did some searching for a grocery store so we could make lunch before doing a 6.5 mile hike around Congaree. This was also difficult. We drove at least 20 minutes out of the way to what looked like a promising store, according to Google, called “Mr. Bunky’s.” The name was weird, but it looked like they would have what we needed. It turned out, they had everything but what we needed. Literally. This store is just not something you would see in Massachusetts; we’re pretty sure it wouldn’t be allowed, actually. We walked in and saw that they were selling live crickets (this was the first thing we saw, by the way) and in a little further were a few half-empty aisles of canned foods, and a deli. They had more aisles of hardware than anything else. If you’re a tradesmen this is your one-stop shop – any bolt or pipe-fitting you ever needed is right here. Or, if you needed some really weird, used odds and ends like a purple costume jacket or even a used leg cast, get it while it’s hot at Mr. Bunky’s. Seriously. Canned tuna for lunch it is.

So finally, after all of that, we did our walk and spent our whole day at Congaree. You could see the evidence of the hurricane here too, with many trees downed over the trails. The Cypress were huge. We had some fun with them, maybe too much fun. 

Best image of the trip

And then we had even MORE trouble finding the “right” thing we wanted – this time with our motel. We booked a motel in Columbia since that was the closest civilization; turns out there are three different Day’s Inns in Columbia and two of them in Fort Jackson where we were staying. Of course, we drove to the wrong one, which had a line of people out the door waiting for this poor woman who was working the desk all alone, only for us to find out we were at the wrong place. The trials and tribulations of South Carolina strike again.

And now that we had nothing else to do, we walked around Charleston, the most charming little city in the south. It definitely felt like France. There were so many nooks and crannies to explore! 

Cannon Row

Cannon Row

With a stop at Shem Creek for the evening, we had done it all. There was nothing left (that was free, anyway). We scoured Google maps to find anything interesting to do for our last day. We checked out Lake Marion (it was very cold and windy!) and Wee Tee Wildlife Management Area. Wee Tee was nothing like Donnelley and certainly was a place only local hunters and fisherman visit. We spent the rest of the afternoon at Fort Moultrie (part of the Fort Sumter National Monument) learning about civil war and World War I era weaponry and fortifications. 
We’ll definitely make some historical and educational stops on our future tour here.

While we have taught a workshop down in Charleston before, we realize now how much we didn't know about the place, and what we left out the last time, like the historical education offered by a visit to Boone Hall, the rugged and gritty experiences within Donnelley, and all the amazing sites and activities just an hour further south in Savannah and Jekyll Island. With what we've learned on this scout, you can expect that we'll have a much bigger and fully featured photo tour the next time around.  Maybe even in 2018! 

And with that, we’re on to the next. We’re driving out to Arizona in just a week from now. It’s never boring.