Every so often the past eight months, Richard Guffey and fiancée Pat Doller drove to the entrance to Hunting Island State Park just to look.
The Lady’s Island residents visited Hunting Island several times a week before Hurricane Matthew. After the storm, they continued to come back, hoping they might happen upon a special occasion and be waved past the guardhouse.
But each time orange blockades greeted them.
They returned Friday for the first time since Matthew to visit as the public park, the largest beach in South Carolina to be left completely undeveloped, reopened. Despite the rain, and many swampy areas remaining off limits, visitors just wanted to walk inside the gate.
“She comes out and walks the beach and all is right with the world,” Guffey said as he watched Doller on North Beach near the lighthouse. He shrugged off the overcast conditions and sprinkle of rain as “liquid sunshine.”
Heavy rains the final week of May kept the park from opening in time for Memorial Day weekend, and parts of the park remain underwater and cordoned off by yellow caution tape.
The rain picked up Friday morning, and the handful of people walking the beach headed for cover.
Josh Van Rossem, 15, tied his orange hammock to the picnic shelter to avoid the rain and waited for his parents to return from a walk. The family is vacationing on St. Helena from their home in Atlanta and have visited Hunting Island in past years.
They like to climb the trees littering the beach, Van Rossem said.
State Rep. Shannon Erickson was one of the few out early Friday morning. She watched volunteers find the 25th sea turtle nest of the season and saw a family swimming in the ocean, despite the weather.
“Just letting people in to be able to see it makes them feel a lot better,” Erickson said.
The park has a different look – with dunes and pine trees erased by the hurricane. Many more pine trees killed by saltwater will eventually be removed.
A planned beach re-nourishment is funded and scheduled for the winter, Erickson said, and there will be talks about where to build new cabins in the middle of the island.
Guffey, for now, bemoaned the loss of an osprey nest he had seen for years in a tree along the beach.
He said he and Doller tried every beach around, but Hunting Island is unique.
“To us, this is paradise,” he said.