We meandered out slowly to the island, most of which has been acquired recently by The Nature Conservancy and is being sold to South Carolina DNR. It was low tide, so the mud at the edge of the river was exposed for 20-25 feet beyond the marsh grass. We tied off the boat at the dock and were met by three DNR staffers who had come, bringing the treated crab traps, rebar and zip ties for installation as soon-to-be oyster reef.
One had on waders; from a distance, a second looked like he might have on waders. Up close you realized it was just a coating of brown pluff mud from sinking up to his knees.
At Fenwick Island, marsh grass grows out from the land to where the pluff mud begins. If you haven’t been introduced to pluff mud, it’s that kind of soupy molasses-type mud that will suck your shoes off when you try to take a step. The smell generally reaches your nose just before you catch sight of it. Pat Conroy described it as the smell of the South in heat. There are some who believe you can coat yourself with it to hold off the mosquitoes. Others would rather suffer the bites.
The students piled out of the boat onto the dock, marched up to the island, and then received instructions on how the traps would be installed and a few other details for dealing with pluff mud: Make sure your shoes are tied tightly. If you lift your heel first when you try to lift your foot, it’s easier.
Then they trooped out across the marsh grass and toward the crab traps that needed to be situated and tacked down in place with rebar. When they hit the pluff mud, they sunk up to their knees. Some were more timid than others, but before long, they were all working together, passing crab traps toward the edge of the marsh, placing them on the mud at the edge of the river. Periodically, they fell, laughed, picked themselves up and kept going.
Before they were finished, a line of crab traps, two and three deep and about 30 feet long, lined the shore of the Ashepoo River, waiting for oysters to land and attach and begin to develop. Two students went back to the dock to retrieve their set of miniature wire structures, half plain wire, half coated with a spray concrete mixture. They had tested both in a mixture of salt water, but hadn’t subjected them to the type of treatment the tide provides each day.
They zip-tied the trial boxes to the crab traps, then gathered for a picture. They trooped back through the pluff mud to the dock, not as shy or tentative as before. They tossed their shoes in a bucket, then dangled their feet off the dock, washing as much of the mud as possible back into the river.
As we climbed into the boat and left the dock, the clock started on the experiment. In about six months, another group of CI students, possibly some of the same ones, will return to Fenwick Island and see what has happened. Are the structures covered with oyster shells and developing oysters? Have they rusted away? Is one type working better than the other? Are the shorelines growing out and encompassing the reefs, adding another layer of protection for the fragile ecosystem?
Then they’ll take their newly acquired knowledge and return to Clemson, using that knowledge to try again to take another step in building “a better mousetrap.”