Devoted Steward of Hunting Island
March 2021 Issue
by Michele Roldán-Shaw Photography
by Cassidy Dunn Photography
A lush subtropical jungle extends right to the sea, losing itself in tide and time. Pines, palmettos and live oaks succumb to unrelenting forces—sand, salt, wave action—leaving only their sun-bleached “bones” as a testament to where the forest once was, until at last even those bones are swept away. The endless process of our coast being made, unmade and made anew can be witnessed in real-time on Hunting Island, which has undergone drastic changes over the last few decades. This dynamic evolution is natural to barrier islands, which are constantly being either eroded or built up depending on currents and other factors. But human impact has played a role too. For those of us who love Hunting Island and have seen great chunks of it wash away in violent storms, accepting change to this special place is bittersweet.
“Driving into Hunting Island you suddenly enter this magical world that’s almost prehistoric,” said Carol Corbin, President of the Friends of Hunting Island. “I’ll have my radio on, but as soon as I make that left turn into the park I turn it off because all I want to hear are the sounds of the island. It’s a sacred space.”
Carol first visited Hunting Island in 2013, having discovered it through a Google search for “undiscovered beaches on the East Coast.” At the time she was living on an organic farm in North Georgia, which was great, but the sea called. After falling in love with Hunting, she moved to Beaufort to be near it. She doesn’t just enjoy the park in her spare time, though. She puts in 40-hour weeks protecting, supporting and enriching it, as well as ensuring that others can enjoy it, too.
“There’s this feeling right now, particularly with climate change, that we need to take stock of where we are, and what Hunting Island has been through,” says this committed environmentalist and former university professor. “There’s no real way to protect Hunting Island—a barrier island simply moves. But we also have an obligation to reduce carbon fuel use that heats up the planet, because Beaufort County is the number one place in the U.S. projected to be impacted by sea level rise. So in one way we’re advocating for environmental responsibility, but on the other hand, change is inevitable.”
The Friends of Hunting Island are currently putting together a beautiful coffee table book about the park, for which Carol wrote the text and helped collect photographs. Other projects have included renovating the visitor’s center, putting in a laundromat at the campground, building a playground and creating an interactive virtual reality experience of the lighthouse for those who can’t physically climb it. But perhaps the initiative dearest to Carol’s heart is the People’s Park Project, which provides equal access for families who may find the entrance fee prohibitive. During segregation, Carol explains, entrance was free; historic photographs of the Black side of the beach show a 1955 July Fourth celebration that was packed with hundreds of revelers. But when the Civil Rights Act was passed, all the parks closed for a couple years and redid their infrastructure to accommodate integration, then later started charging a fee. Local attendance dropped, even as Hunting Island became the number-one tourist destination in Beaufort County and most visited park in South Carolina.
“When you put up a gate and a barrier, you’ve basically created a gated community,” says Carol, who was shocked to visit Beaufort Elementary School and learn that some of the kids had never seen the ocean. That’s when she got the idea for the People’s Park Project, which has raised funds and done outreach to churches and community organizations throughout Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton Counties. So far they have distributed around 60 invitations for up to 6 people each, and they expect to reach even more families as the season heats up.
“It’s so important to get kids out there,” said Carol, who also supports the state-run Discover Carolina project that facilitates outdoor educational programs on Hunting Island about sea turtles, as well as marsh and barrier island ecologies. “Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, socially and physically, a kid on the beach is a healthier kid. They stop looking at their phones. Wild nature, which is what Hunting Island is, is a sacred place unencumbered by commercial ventures. There are so many of us who feel it’s our sanctuary.”
Hometown: Silver Spring, MD
Career: professor of media studies, cultural studies and environmental communications at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia
Everyday ethos: treading lightly on the land by hanging laundry out to dry, buying used, and making a lot of her own food items to reduce packaging