Keeper of the Inlet

June 2018
Written By: 
Sara Sobota

Christine Vernon’s walking tour weaves history and lore with culture and conservationism

PHOTO: Christine Vernon flawlessly plays up the pirate persona.

It’s a summer evening on the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk, and the scene is picturesque. Marsh grass, seagulls and salty tidal breezes create a carefree beauty that draws crowds to wide open walkways and seafood restaurants with spacious decks. The atmosphere is perfect for families and couples seeking low-key, eco-centric entertainment. However, this pleasant picture doesn’t tell the whole story of Murrells Inlet, and one local artist is on a mission to fill that gap.

With her Miss Chris’ Inlet Walking Tour—Ghosts, Pirates and Legends, Christine Vernon shares not only local history and lore but also principles of culture and conservationism that offer visitors a more rounded view of the area’s identity.

PHOTO: Vernon in action on the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk.

Donning a pirate costume, a cockney accent and a sassy attitude, Vernon leads a group several evenings a week from April through October on a 45-minute walking excursion that runs down the MarshWalk and out the Murrells Inlet Veterans Pier. She’s tuned in to her audience of visitors and curious locals, stressing a sense of fun and keeping her presentation light in nature and long on banter.

“I don’t call myself a historian,” she tells her group. “I also don’t call myself a tour guide. I call myself a storyteller, which means I can say anything I bloody well please.”

The title of the tour, now in its fourth season, promises spooky tales and pirate chronicles, and Vernon delivers in spades, articulating the particulars of the more famed Alice and Gray Man yarns as well as lesser-known stories such as the Sunnyside cottage murders and subsequent haunting. Blackbeard, Calico Jack and Anne Bonny all have their moment in the spotlight, and along the way Vernon debunks popular buccaneer myths such as widespread plank walking and burying of treasure (“They didn’t bury it—they spent it as quickly as they found it!” Vernon claims). The intimacy of the setting and proximity of landmarks such as the Hermitage and Drunken Jack’s Island lend authenticity to Vernon’s narrative.

PHOTO: (left) Vernon with her work inside the Studio at Inlet Cottage; (right) Vernon with her original artwork.

In addition to tales of apparitions and swashbucklers, however, Vernon sprinkles into her script a considerable amount of local perspective on the history and intrinsic value of the marsh. She covers the effects of major hurricanes over the years, conservation efforts like an oyster shell recycling program, the creation and maintenance of Goat Island, traces of native American influences, and tidbits about longstanding area businesses.

“Creek Ratz?” Vernon asks in reference to a nearby restaurant. “You’ll be happy to know there are no rats in the kitchen there. A creek rat is a young person who was raised out here. There used to be a time when you could come out here with a shovel and a bucket and dig up all the clams and oysters you could eat,” she explains.

Vernon’s familiarity with the business owners and regulars on the MarshWalk adds a friendly dimension to the tour, which has been recognized in area publications for Best Tour Guide/Company. As she responds spontaneously to the inevitable exclamations of “Aaaarrrgh!” and “Ahoy, matey!” from passersby, it’s clear her tour is becoming an embedded fixture.

“She does a really good job,” said Al Hitchcock, owner of Drunken Jack’s and a figure Vernon credits as helping her establish her niche. “She’s got a showmanship with this way she tells her stories. She’s a great actress and shows great initiative.”

A native of Philadelphia, Vernon moved to the area in 2005 and formed a quick attachment to its lifestyle and culture. She and her husband, Paul, who are both full-time artists by day, noticed years ago that many visitors to Murrells Inlet were distracted by cell phones or other banal diversions, not fully experiencing its beauty.

“Here they are with this gorgeous view at this wonderful place, and they’re not talking, they’re not conversing, they’re not looking—nothing,” said Vernon. “We kept thinking, they’re really missing out. They have no idea how fabulous this area is. So, we decided to put a tour together.”

PHOTO: Christine and Paul Vernon create, exhibit and teach art at their Studio at Inlet Cottage.

Paul had longstanding involvement in Murrells Inlet conservation efforts as well as a historical perspective, while Christine had an affinity for ghost stories. As her pirate persona developed, she gained more and more historical and cultural knowledge; in fact, her expertise led to her teaching a class titled “History and Legends of Murrells Inlet” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Coastal Carolina University.

“I’ve got hours of stories; I have to pare it down for the tour,” she states.

With her tour growing in popularity each year, Vernon plans to keep walking the marsh telling stories and sharing a more lasting message.

“I just want people to understand what a powerful area this is.”