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grill dinner

Along one of the coral dust and gravel lanes of a campground that’s just a few miles past the seven-mile bridge to the Lower Florida Keys, we pitched our tent. A few feet away was the site’s (number 57) wooden picnic table, and our neighbors’ RVs and “cabana” trailers surrounded us… their canopies strung with party lights shaped of globes, fish and alligators. The mid-March mornings and evenings were still sweater-cool at the Sunshine Key RV Resort & Marina, but in mid-day everyone looked for shade, water or air conditioning.

We were lucky enough to join fishing parties on two of the three long Florida days of our visit… riding out with Captain Bookie Burns in his 23-foot Aquasport. The first day’s trip was to the jostling Atlantic side for a couple hours over a 20-foot bottom where we reeled in mostly Lane Snapper and Yellow Tail while the boat bucked against its anchor and the chum bag made its long line for us to cast into. Besides the catch (which was slow at the start, but just enough to keep things interesting), the floating chum also attracted a steady school of silvery ballyhoo, and then at one point, a cruising 4-5 foot shark. Further out, a hefty sea turtle bobbed up and looked around. When our bait of shrimp ran out, we motored nearer to shore to drop anchor in a calm bay about four-feet deep. The captain wanted to do some snorkeling, see if he could back some spiny lobsters into his mesh sea bag. Soon we’d added a couple of the claw-lacking lobsters to the cooler, and back at the campground that night, Peter Frank sliced a tail for grilling, alongside a whole grunt, with lime.

Sunshine Key 2009

The second fishing day was on the calmer Gulf of Mexico over a grassy, 14-foot bottom where the Jack Crevalle, mackerel, Mangrove Snapper and Lane Snapper kept us busy. We were only at Sunshine four nights/three days, but we got in a Keys groove… after fishing we’d swim from the campground dock in a mud and sand-bottomed wash between the Gulf and the Atlantic. Then we’d shower in the cinder block bath houses and head back to our campsite or someone else’s for cocktails or beer, and plates of hors d’oeuvres… hard boiled eggs, peanuts, crab dip, cocktail weiners on toothpicks, spears of asparagus. And then in the breezy night with coconut trees leaning, we’d sleep well and long on the air mattress with all screens open in the tent… once after a particularly good round of picnic table dominoes.

 – Sandy Lang, March 2009

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Food, Travel, Wild animals and places



Hot talk of summer

The drought continues this summer in South Carolina, particularly in the upstate counties. For the July issue of Charleston Magazine, I wrote a feature piece about the squeeze on the state’s drinking water sources. Other parts of the country are doing more to use water efficiently, and some of the issues other states started dealing with years ago – including interstate water wars – are now coming to South Carolina. The hope is that some of the accumulated wisdom is coming, too – along with efficiency measures and good old low-tech solutions, like rain barrels.  For example, surfer and biololgist Mike Arendt collects thousands of gallons of rainwater each year from his James Island rooftop. Below is an excerpt from the longer feature, including the part about what Mike’s been doing with his rainwater catch.

Drought feature

Quenching the thirst

Water is a fleeting subject in Charleston. One that comes and goes, and mostly goes… while we carelessly wash our hands and fill our tubs and pools, water our zinnias. That is, unless there’s a recurring drought. (Like now.) Or there’s a slowing of the economy and people are watching all expenses more closely, even water bills. (Like now.) Or an interstate “water war” is launched. (Yes, that’s happening now, too.)

“The question of water and its availability and use is really with us now, front and center,” says Henry McMaster, South Carolina’s attorney general. He’s the same man whose office has cracked down on Internet predators, on animal fighting. And lately, the state’s chief criminal prosecutor has gone to bat as an advocate for the state’s fresh water sources, for its rivers. Last year, when his office got word of North Carolina’s plans to allow tens of millions of gallons to be withdrawn each day from the Catawba River before it flows across the state line into South Carolina, McMaster petitioned for the issue to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that process is now underway. “It was a disaster in the making,” McMaster says. “We don’t yet have the water problems like they have out West, and we don’t want them.” …

Catching the rain.

A fisheries biologist and surfer in his early 30s, Mike Arendt had noticed rain barrels and cisterns in even the most remote surf spots in places like Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. He wondered what was possible here, did some research, and hired Ben Hilke and Hilke Development to help design and install a rainwater catch system at his 1990s-built house on James Island.

That was last year. And ever since, it’s been pretty cool to be at Mike’s house after a rain. That’s when he walks around and checks on the amount of rainwater in the twelve 55-gallon drums that he had installed in the elevated crawl space under his house. The rain that hits the roof of his 1,700-square-foot, marsh front home – he says he can catch 1,000 gallons in an inch of rainfall – washes into gutters that lead to filtered drains, where a simple pipe system carries it to the storage drums, or to the 360-gallon cistern hidden under the steps of his back porch. Then, when Mike wants to water his tomato plants, add water to his swimming pool, or do any other landscape watering, he simply flips the switch on a small pump and turns on any of four outdoor spigots.

His savings? Arendt’s paid water use has dropped 50% since 2006. To be fair, there are other factors to consider – an occasional roommate has left, and he’s started to be more conscientious about his indoor water use in the same timeframe. Still, he credits much of the savings to catching and reusing raindrops, instead of turning on the municipal tap to water his plants.

– July 2008, Sandy Lang



Bees’ life

Robert Biggerstaff, 72, looks in complete ease in his wide-billed cap as he leans against his garage wall and points out a cedar bee box a few yards away. A few honeybees buzz in and out, stopping at a plastic jar attached to the box. “See how that looks like a chicken feeder?… we fill that with Dixie Crystals and water to feed the bees while the hive gets going.”

We’ve been talking for awhile this morning at the center of his sideyard beekeeping and honey making operation, under the oak trees that edge a tidal creek off the Stono River on Johns Island, SC. I ask Mr. Biggerstaff if he has an apprentice, someone that he’s teaching these tricks of the trade. “No. I’m afraid beekeeping has become an old man’s game,” he says, particularly in recent decades as smaller farms have disappeared, and as mites, beetles and other pests have disrupted hives in the U.S., making beekeeping ever more challenging. In the 1960s, Mr. Biggerstaff recalls losing maybe 5% of his hives in a year, but these days a 50% annual loss is more common. He’s constantly having to manage for that reality – to bring in new queens, establish new hives. Then he tells me that while his home-based bee operation isn’t officially open for tours, as a former teacher he does enjoy making school presentations from time to time. “Children, when they see bees and learn about them, they get very excited,” he says.

And although he doesn’t put it in words, you get the feeling that he’s hoping that some young people will find the passion for beekeeping like he did, in spite of the challenges. “For years coaching was my life. Now it’s bees.”

R. Biggerstaff

I’m working on a story about Mr. Biggerstaff and his 40-year honey “hobby.” The former high school football coach tends 100-150 hives in 15 or so locations on the Sea Islands south of Charleston, and he and his wife, Jane, sell jars and squeeze bottles of the honey through produce vendors in Charleston and Mount Pleasant, and on Johns and Edisto islands.

– Sandy Lang, May 2008


My piece about the El Yunque rainforest, Bird fights in Puerto Rico, gets cover billing and a nice layout in the current issue of Garden & Gun: 21st Century Southern America (March/April 2008). Photography is by Peter Frank Edwards. We did research for this one last summer, staying in Old San Juan for the first few nights, then renting a Jeep Liberty and going as far up a narrow road on the South side of El Yunque as we could, past roadside bars and roaming chicken flocks to stay in the cinder block-built, aqua green-painted Casa Cubuy that juts out from the mountainside, surrounded by the jungle and ginger flowers. I hope to get back there this year.

– Sandy Lang, March 2008



A red wolf so rare


In research for a story about the native wolf of the South, I spent a couple of afternoons last month watching a spry 14-year-old female who’s lived most of her life in captivity. Her wildness was still there, very much there in her aloof and exceedingly careful jaunt. She kept an eye on me, moved skittishly, and always stayed a healthy 30 yards or more away. Her fear of a human was palpable, and warranted.

Known to be immensely shy and people-wary, the long-legged, long-eared wolf is often marked with a cinnamon-burnished coat. At 50-80 pounds they are smaller than the gray wolves of the North and West, and larger than the seemingly-everywhere coyote. Through hunting and loss of habitat, the population of wild red wolves dropped as low as 17 individuals by the 1970s. Now there are about 120+ in the wild and another 200+ in captivity. My story is an update on restoration efforts, and will be the “soul” feature for an upcoming issue of the magazine Garden & Gun,

– Sandy Lang, November 2007

I’m working on a piece about El Yunque, a mountain rainforest in Puerto Rico. We flew to the island in June and stayed five nights at the amazing La Galleria in Old San Juan, Here are some of Peter Frank’s images and the first few paragraphs of my story…


Two men from the staff at the Luquillo Aviary are talking about “guapo,” and the elder of the two, Don Santos Valdez – who looks scrappy and fit in his neatly tucked U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service uniform – starts shadow boxing. They are laughing now, saying “si, el guapo, el guapo,” and Javet Valet explains the word can mean many things, including “handsome” and “someone who has the guts to fight.”

High up in the mountain rainforest of Puerto Rico, the men are part of team working to restore to the wild one of the most endangered bird species in the world. Between captive and wild birds, the total population stands at about 200, all in the El Yunque rainforest.

This is careful work on the U.S. island territory that’s at once both rough and raw – with pitted dirt roads, legal cockfighting, and betting on the horse races held most afternoons – as well as being stunningly beautiful. Everywhere there are sherbet paint colors on the houses, sweet scents of tropical ginger flowers in the air, and deliciously simple dishes like arroz con pollo, sugary plantains, and whole fried snapper.


More to come… the story will be for a 2008 issue of the new magazine Garden & Gun,

– Sandy Lang, July 2007

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Travel, Wild animals and places



Diving for big bugs

Thought I’d share an excerpt from an upcoming article… had a great day on the water, watching Mike and Lou dive, and then seeing them cook everything. Yes, Lou has his own outdoor pizza oven. The complete story, recipes and images are to be in the July issue of Charleston Magazine,

Mike, Louspiny lobster

Just after dawn on a calm-water Sunday, after cruising about 29 miles out from the Folly River, Luigi Scognamiglio (”Captain Lou”), cuts the engine to a purr. “Oh, it’s good vis Mikey,” he says. “It’s very good vis’.”

The 21-foot, center-console catamaran has made it to the shallower water above an offshore reef. And yes, the visibility is good. The ocean here is a clear, Gulf Stream blue, and the boat is nearing a favorite dive spot that’s known to be teeming with fish. (A mix of experience and GPS coordinates are their guides.)

Two bottlenose dolphins appear, braiding through each other in water that channels off the bow. Everyone thinks this is a good sign, and Michael Scognamiglio, Lou’s son, is on the deck prepping a dive marker, getting it ready to throw. When he tosses the floating buoy, its small anchor sinks to the bottom, pulling a white rope line that’s visible for at least 30 feet below.

“This is going to be a very, very good dive,” Lou predicts. The captain has been watching the surface, and checking the boat’s sonar which is showing schools in the ledges below. “Now let’s get underneath and look for bugs,” he says.


There has already been much talk about lobster on the ride out… with father and son hoping the trip wouldn’t end up being just puffery and old sea stories. They were counting on finding good-sized fish and spiny lobster on this rough patch in the ocean floor. And they brought along fellow diver Rodney Fazilat to see what they could see and catch down below. The Scognamiglios’ confidence level was pretty high… the plan was that some of what they would find 95-110 feet below the surface they’d bring back to cook at a dinner party that night, a gathering that Michael had been calling an “Italian Folly Feast…”

cooked loboven

– Sandy Lang, June 2007

Peter Frank ordered some eggs and turned on the incubator a couple weeks ago, and this week we had a nice hatch of bobwhite quail at the photo studio. I took one little guy home for a couple of days to try out as a pet. Fuzzy and not much bigger than a wine cork, the little peep seemed to enjoy his lamp-warmed box on the kitchen table, and looked up at the sound of our voices. But at night he would call out in that quail way. He didn’t follow our hand around the box. Somehow he’d kept his wild bird-ness. So after two days we put him back in with the others.


– Sandy Lang, February 2007 

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