Seven shorn sheep, nearly identical in size and coloring, move in a tight pack around the manicured lawn. Their eyes are wide and alert, their bodies jostling together as they hasten to a brisk trot. Along a makeshift fence, the audience is rapt, their eyes on the small black-and-white border collie at their heels. The handler stands near the fenceline, composed and casual—with only an occasional murmur of direction or tweet of his whistle.
For the past thirty-five years, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition has, for one weekend in February, filled downtown Charleston with all things wild and wonderful. In the three decades of SEWE, annual attendees have swelled to nearly forty thousand. The weekend is made up of endless fine art exhibits, conservation seminars, sporting demonstrations, and soirees—all a tribute to wildlife and nature conservation.
But for the first time ever, SEWE and the Kiawah Island Club have partnered to bring the wildlife expo to Kiawah Island. “The idea had been discussed for some time between John Powell, our executive director, and the Kiawah Island Club team,” says Mary Roberts, SEWE marketing director. “Exposing SEWE to the demographic of the Club was a no brainer. When they were open to it, things just collided.”
So on this warm Sunday in mid-October, conservationists, sportsmen, and enthusiasts alike have gathered in Ocean Park for the inaugural SEWE by the Sea. The Marsh House is bustling with attendees—there are tasting tables, mint juleps, and cooking demos. There is even an aproned duo meandering through the crowd, shucking oysters on the fly. Later in the afternoon, Tom Colicchio will make a special appearance in a live interview.
Down on the lawn, artists and artisans display everything from paintings to purses under a cavernous white tent. The Bluestone Ramblers, a frequent headliner at SEWE, tune guitars and banjos on a makeshift stage. “The natural setting at Kiawah couldn’t be more fitting for a SEWE event. The natural progression of events and exhibitors, from the park to the Marsh House, created the perfect atmosphere for everything that we try to showcase,” says Powell. And indeed the atmosphere is wonderfully pleasant, more so for the unseasonably warm weather and the breeze coming off the ocean. “It’s insane,” laughs Roberts. “It’s gorgeous here, the views are spectacular!”
A wide path through the trees leads to another expansive lawn. The herding demonstrations and an enormous vinyl pool, the portable tank for the DockDogs® competition. DockDogs® is a main event at SEWE proper, drawing a crowd of thousands to Brittlebank Park every February. “Kiawah Island Club wanted us to bring one of the most popular, highest energy events. Bringing in a few regional and local pro teams was a great way to help beginners learn the ropes,” adds Powell.
For the next few hours, both DockDogs® pros and novice pups alike are invited to practice in the pool. Later in the afternoon, local competitors will contend in the three trademark events: Big Air, Extreme Vertical, and Speed Retrieve. There are dogs of all breeds milling about in the midday sun. A wheat-colored poodle is draped around the shoulders of one man, a black lab lays asleep at the feet of a picnicking family, and a nervous Chesapeake Bay retriever whines on the leash, pulling towards the sheep across the lawn.
Back at the Marsh House, Kathryn Mapes Turner, SEWE’s 2018 Featured Artist, paints by the pool. She is the belle of the ball, the sneak peek of SEWE 2018. A native of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Turner is enthralled by the Lowcountry. “Earlier today we walked along Captain Sams Spit,” she recounts excitedly. “We went all the way to the end, and we saw dolphins. You don’t know how thrilling it was for me. So I jumped in. That’s why I have this big, big smile!” Her smile is infectious. “I didn’t understand what the Lowcountry was until I came out here,” she says, gazing out at the marsh.
Turner’s work is something to be seen, emblematic of the wildlife art that defines SEWE as an organization. Her paintings of bears and horses, birds and elk, all have a characteristic grace, a certain dignity and inexplicable mystery. “Kathryn was an easy choice for our 2018 Featured Artist, as her work exudes beauty and captures the essence of the wildlife and landscapes she paints. It is a great joy to honor her,” says Natalie Henderson, SEWE Artist Curator. And that’s what makes SEWE so successful, so special—this emphasis on authenticity and a foundational devotion to wildlife and conservation.
Feedback from a microphone hushes the crowd that has gathered around the pool. Tom Colicchio takes the stage, sitting easily in a wicker chair and chatting about his life as a celebrity chef, his relationship to Kiawah and the Club, and his family. The audience is encouraged to ask questions and most want to know about this or that Top Chef contestant. “Quote from Tom here about coming to Kiawah for so many years, what he loves about it.” He cuts the interview with a smile and a wave, announcing that he has to leave because he promised his son to go fishing for crawdads.
As the fall sunshine fades into the afternoon, the DockDogs® competition heats up. Jump after lofty jump, the dogs soar through the air. Some jump for height—snapping towards a rubber decoy suspended over the pool. Others leap vertically—well over ten feet across the water. The wheat-colored poodle from earlier in the day wins the Extreme Vertical at over seventeen feet. Kathryn Turner, who has abandoned her canvas and paints, stands at the edge of the vinyl tank, whooping and clapping as the dogs hit the water.
“SEWE hopes to stay engaged with the Kiawah Island Club,” adds Powell. “It’s a special place that brings people from all over the world, and we want to continue to show them our little piece of SEWE in Charleston.”