Welcome Back Old Friend

I remember walking into to Hunting Island on Monday, October 10th with Regional Chief Ray Stevens and Park Manager Daniel Gambrell. It was as early as we could return to the park after Hurricane Matthew. We knew the island and the surrounding area had been hard hit, but we had no idea what to expect as we put on our hip waders to see the damage firsthand.  We started at the park entrance and waded through murky waters, over downed trees and past the unforgettable “smells” of the storm. The journey down the road I had traveled so many times before was unrecognizable and impassable. We made our way to the beach in hopes of seeing our beacon of hope, the historic lighthouse. This was without question the right path, although it had its challenges- high tide and new washouts made the normal walk on the beach an adventure.  Finally, there she was. Smiles came across each of our faces simultaneously as if cued by a movie director. It had taken us an unbelievable four hours to reach our destination but the lighthouse, our beacon of hope, had survived.  Over the next two days, we would inspect and assess the damage and start the process of recovery. 

Fast forward to summer 2017. With great expectations, we set a target date of Memorial Day Weekend- the unofficial start of summer.  Excitement was in the air the week before opening and the park had taken on a new look- different, but one that we knew visitors would appreciate and welcome.  The excitement was quickly dampened as torrential rains flooded roads, parking lots and plans for re-opening.  Mother Nature had once again reminded us who was in charge. Our spirits were dampened but not broken, and Hunting Island is preparing to welcome visitors once again after almost eight months of closure. The journey to get here has been frustrating, challenging and yet so rewarding.  I cannot express the pride I have in our team at Hunting Island. Any adjectives and superlatives seem inadequate. Simply put, they have been amazing. Beyond the park staff, the entire team at PRT has stepped up and made a difference. In addition, the Friends of Hunting Island have become more than just friends; they are family, providing support at every level and never leaving our side. Thank you all. 

I have spent the last few weeks at Hunting Island assisting where I could on the recovery efforts and planning for the re-opening of this iconic state treasure.  I have walked through the park so many times during the past months asking myself and others what is needed to re-open, what we are missing, are we ready? The list was long. First were the obvious: dying trees from the salt intrusion and stress from the storm that continue to keep us busy.  We have lost a few buildings and other facilities have been completely renovated. We have lost parking spaces roads and hundreds of picnic tables.  The list is long, however in the last few weeks we have made remarkable strides toward addressing each of the challenges as well as the goal of re-opening. Yet something is still missing. It was on a “managers’ walk” with Park Manager Gambrell a couple of weeks ago when his words reminded me of what exactly that is.  As we walked from the lighthouse down to the beach discussing all of the potential issues and challenges ahead, we took time to look back at the lighthouse. Its presence is hard to explain. We pondered for a moment, no words exchanged. As we traveled back down the beach, Daniel said, “I miss the people; they’re what make a park.” Since then I cannot stop thinking about what he said- people are what makes it a park.  It’s time to add the critical ingredient to this remarkable journey we have been on the last eight months.  The ingredient that makes a park, well, a park. The ingredient that brings life to a special resource.  The ingredient that allows a park to do something magical and transcend generations and time.  The most important ingredient of a park: people, visitors, you! We can’t wait to have you back to the beach! To see your park, to make new memories and reconnect to old ones.  I can’t wait to replace the sounds of chainsaws and hammers with the laughter and voices of park visitors.  

On your next trip to the park you may notice a few changes. If you have never been to Hunting Island upon arrival you will say, “WOW what an amazing place! It’s beautiful!”  And if you have been to Hunting Island before, you will gasp when you first see the ocean. Not that the ocean looks different, but you will see it sooner than on your last visit as the views to the ocean are now open due to the loss of thousands of tall pines. Once you are over the initial shock, look closer. The beach is still beautiful; the palmetto trees have survived and are now the prominent tree along the coastline.  The park resource is still intact, the beauty still unmatched, the facilities repaired and ready for the final and most important ingredient of the making of a park… YOU! 
Welcome back old friend! 


See you in the parks!
Phil