One Gator, Two Gator, Three Gators, Four …

IMG_9025Some places are more of a surprise than others.  When we headed south in the fall, we stayed at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina based on rave reviews by several RV bloggers.  Not surprisingly, we loved it.

Six months later, now heading north in the almost-spring, we stayed at another South Carolina coast state park with a similar name–Huntington Beach State Park.  We had no blogger recommendations for this park, and knew little about it, but it looked interesting.  It was … and more–a very nice surprise.

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To start with, it had alligators–huge armored grandfather gators, adorable smiling-like baby gators, and everything in between.  And there were lots of them, very close, swimming and sunning. IMG_8837

This is a "how many gators can you spot in this picture" puzzle.

This is a “How many gators can you spot in this picture?” puzzle.

I count five in the picture above, but you have to look really closely at the foreground.  Here is a close up, with three baby gators.

I counted five in the picture above, but you have to look really closely at the foreground to see the babies. Here is a close up, with three baby gators.

It was a gatorpalooza.  Throw in miles of empty beach and more birds than you can throw a stick at and you have one of my favorite campgrounds in our travels.

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IMG_8653The park is right off a main road leading to the highly commercialized Myrtle Beach, which battles with the Panama City, Florida area for the title of Redneck Riviera.  So it was a surprise to find an oasis of alligators and birds, left alone in relative peace.

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There is a causeway leading to the campground, with cars randomly stopped while their occupants take pictures of alligators sunning on a little island a few yards away.

Causeway.

Causeway.

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This fellow was right at the edge of the causeway, about three yards from the road.

This fellow was right at the edge of the causeway, about three yards from the road.

Birders with spotting scopes lined the road, trying to catch site of the eaglets in a nearby nest or photographing the birds fishing, sparring, and courting in the oyster beds and marshes.IMG_9067IMG_9328IMG_9069

The campground was a mix of wooded and open spots with two pathways directly out to a beautiful dog-friendly beach.  IMG_9058

The park was established as a bird and wildlife preserve by Archer and Anna Huntington, a wealthy and somewhat eccentric couple who first came to the island seeking ease for Anna’s tuberculosis.  She was a successful sculptor and he had various interests, including a love of all things Spanish.  The house they built in the 1930s, Atalaya, is open to the public, but is in pretty bad shape.  IMG_8879The park puts on an interesting tour, but the house itself was ugly, dark, damp, and cold.  I couldn’t wait to emerge into the sun again.  IMG_8880The land around Atalaya, however, is lovely and, thanks to the Huntingtons, isn’t covered in water slides and Ruby Tuesdays.

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I spent a lot of time watching alligators and birds.  Their eyes,

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and wings,IMG_8598IMG_8954IMG_9097

Check out the reflection of the bird in the middle.

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and signs of spring.IMG_9004IMG_9009IMG_8483IMG_8622IMG_8969IMG_8607

Oddities

IMG_5288The theme of the week here on St. Simons is COLD.  We have had cold with rain, cold with drizzle, cold with a wee bit of sun, and cold with wind.  After more than twenty years of living in Alaska, you think I’d be used to it.  But the cold here is the raw, wet, kind that makes you feel as if you are wrapped in a freezing, wet towel.  And we don’t have a crackling wood stove or fireplace to warm our extremities, so my fingers and toes feel like permanent ice cubes.

The birds are hunkered down, with their feathers highly inflated.

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IMG_5082Rental bikes are sitting idle, but the local BBQ is going strong, adding a wintry hardwood smoke aroma to the neighborhood.

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The skies have been mostly a gun-metal gray, making color even more welcome than usual.

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Rare sunny day

IMG_5320Even the less colorful birds are a welcome sight.

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This merganser blends in with the reed, except for that big white target on its head.

This merganser blends in with the reeds, except for that big white target on its head.

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IMG_5236IMG_5263Amazing plumage.

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And a wood stork’s reflection.

IMG_5219The cold weather seems to bring out the cats–they are everywhere, both feral and house cats.  This cat brought my walk to a screeching halt because, at first, I could not believe my eyes.

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It was the size of a small lynx, or a plump Brittany Spaniel.  I actually thought it was a dog at first, then concluded that it must be a lawn ornament.  But when I moved, its face followed me.  An enormous face with little foldy ears.  I don’t imagine its owners have to worry about rodents–it looked large enough hunt raccoons.  I have never seen a anything like it.  Does anyone know what it is?  A Scottish Fold maybe?  It was HUGE.

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The gray weather seems to highlight oddities, such as fungus, bark, and fishing lines.

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IMG_5115IMG_5186Not to mention tree faces and the backside of a local restaurant.

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IMG_5286IMG_4783If these buds are any indication, some warmer weather (and sun) should be coming soon and we will be able get out and explore without freezing our buns off.

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Zoe’s ready.

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Last Weekend of the Year

IMG_4559George’s shoulder is healing nicely, his throat is better, and we are just starting to explore the area around St. Simons.  On Friday, the sun finally emerged after an extended period of cold, wet weather.  As is often the case here, airplane contrails made for interesting sky designs that evening.

20141225_16302520141225_164507And for some nice puddle reflections.

20141225_164430On Saturday, we ventured off island to Darien, a small town on the mainland across from St. Simons. It has a beautiful river and marsh setting, a fleet of shrimpers, and Skippers Fish Camp, where we lunched on local shrimp, crabcakes, and collards and Q (that would be barbequed pulled pork for the uninitiated) that we ate outside while soaking up the sun and watching the river.

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Darien was founded by Scottish Highlanders in the 1700’s and lies in McIntosh County, named for one of those early settlers.   The shell-based tabby foundations of the old river warehouses are still standing.
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McIntosh County achieved notoriety through Melissa Fay Greene’s 1991 book “Praying For Sheetrock”–one of the best book titles ever (you’ll have to read it to find out what the title means). The book is a fascinating account of the complicated racial and political dynamics in this small rural county during the 1970s and 80s, with a largely black population and a larger-than-life white sheriff.

IMG_4294I have no idea how the county has progressed since, although, aside from shrimping, it looks pretty economically depressed. There does appear to be a dependable revenue source in speeding tickets, however. In our brief visit, the most notable thing was the number of police cars pulling people over. The local police cars were tricked out with video-game-like pulsating sequences of blue lights on the tops, bottoms, and sides. They were pretty freaky, actually, and I would hate to have one light up behind me while driving down a dark highway. In any case, I recommend obeying the speed limit if you are driving through southern Georgia on I-95.

IMG_4296On Sunday the hordes descended on the St. Simons beach. It’s relatively quiet here in December and most days on my beach walks I only encounter a handful of people. But on this weekend, the last of the year and the hump between the holidays, the island was full of vacationers. They tailgated, clogged the restaurants, and headed to the beach. I sound like a local.

What struck me on Sunday was that the island was overflowing with life–lots of people for sure, and birds in exotic variety,

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IMG_4321IMG_4160IMG_4446banana blossoms and trees packed with fruit,

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IMG_4640surfing and paddleboarding,

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Pausing to watch the surfing

Pausing to watch the surfing

and, of course, dogs.

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Aside from the dogs, this photo looks like a scene from the Walking Dead 

He was thirsty after his first day at the beach

He was thirsty after his first day at the beach

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This bad boy with a clueless owner was chasing a cormorant

This bad boy (with a clueless owner) was chasing a cormorant

and got pretty close

and got pretty close.

The cormorant took off

The cormorant took off

with the dog in frenzied pursuit

with the dog in frenzied pursuit

It’s been a good year for us. Retirement is sweet. We’re looking forward to next year.

Happy New Year to all of you.

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