Sweet Southern Living: Santee, Waccamaw, and Harris Neck NWRs
By: Dan Shahar and Amelia Liberatore
After getting a taste of the south at Bon Secour NWR in Gulf Shores, Alabama, we arrived at Santee NWR in South Carolina feeling prepared to be residents of this region for the next few months. Santee NWR was founded as protection and feeding grounds for ducks, geese, neo-tropical migratory birds, and more. People from the area, as well as travelers along I-95, primarily come to the refuge for bird watching, hiking, and seeing alligators.
Historically this area was occupied by the Santee Native Americans until colonial times, and a ceremonial mound still stands on the eastern edge of Lake Marion. During the Revolutionary War, the mound site became Fort Watson, a strategic holding for the British army between Charleston and other outposts further inland. In the spring of 1781, US General Francis Marion (known as the Swamp Fox) and his militia took over the fort in one night by constructing a tower taller than the walls of the fort to give themselves the ability to fire on British troops from above. We had the unique opportunity to attend a commemoration ceremony for this event, organized by the Sons of the American Revolution, during our time at Santee. After telling the story of the siege of Fort Watson, the event culminated with the firing of a memorial cannon into Lake Marion. The costumed cannon master was excited to hear that Dan was from Philadelphia, and let him fire the cannon after the ceremonies had ended.
Living with us at Santee was the refuge biologist, who happened to be a licensed pilot. After a long day of sampling on Dan’s birthday, we had the opportunity to fly in a four-seater Piper plane down to Beaufort, SC for a nice birthday dinner. We felt like the birds that we often observe from the ground. On one of our days off we went to the capital of South Carolina, Columbia. There we toured the capitol building and learned some interesting history of the state. Afterwards we biked around the university campus until nightfall when we got to go into the observatory and gaze upon the Orion Nebula.
Another notable experience was being at Santee around Easter. A lot of our neighbors were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelicals, and Baptists. At the same time, we started celebrating Passover with Chabad communities in both Columbia and Charleston. Even though we were followers of different faiths, it was easy to see that our holidays and the migrations of wild animals speak to the liberation of springtime.
After Santee, we moved east to Waccamaw NWR which is not too far from Myrtle Beach, SC and right next to Coastal Carolina University. Founded in 1997 for the protection and management of coastal river habitat, Waccamaw NWR is a large non-contiguous collection of units with recreation opportunities. We lived in a hunting cabin in the middle of the woods next to a swamp, which offered us an immersive experience with the wildlife. Every night frogs would congregate on our windows to feast upon the flies that were attracted to the lights. Our neighbors were white tailed deer, nesting yellow-belly slider turtles, snakes, egrets, skinks, and many insects to defy the imagination.
From our first day to our last we were cared for by resident volunteers and their pug Gator. They helped us with their knowledge of visitation and trails and we were entertained by their stories and good humor. On our days off we were able to explore Myrtle Beach and Georgetown. Highlights of these trips include a labyrinthine gift shop on the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach and a visit to the Maritime Museum followed by a taco feast on the bay in Georgetown.
Our next refuge was Harris Neck NWR in Townsend, Georgia. This refuge was established to serve as nesting, foraging, and wintering habitat for many species of wildlife including wood storks, alligators, and armadillos (Amelia’s favorite). Prior to becoming a wildlife refuge this property was owned by an African-American community of farmers whose land was purchased by the US military during World War II to serve as an airfield and pilot training facility. Most of the runways are still visible even as the vegetation grows through the asphalt. The runways currently serve as a network of hiking and biking trails and a wildlife drive. We would often talk to visitors whose ancestors owned parts of the land that is now Harris Neck NWR, and they still live in the neighborhood. They are very proud of their heritage and many often visit the refuge to fish, crab, and explore the area.
While staying at Harris Neck we helped with a project doing inventory of all refuge signs. We had the opportunity to continue this project on another refuge nearby, Blackbeard Island NWR. We were driven around in a UTV by a volunteer named Mike through the dense live oak forest featuring Palmettos and Spanish Moss. Historically this island was used during a Yellow Fever outbreak as a place for the sick to recover while remaining quarantined. The only remaining structure from that time is the crematorium located on the northern tip of the island. Experienced refuge maintenance man, Daryl, regaled the storm that separated the southern tip of the island from the rest and created Blackbeard Island II. He shared with us his knowledge of the ever-changing dunes and sandbars, as well as his expertise in recognizing tides and currents for navigating the dynamic waters.
Here we’ve met some of the nicest people on our trip. On our first day we were invited to dinner by two bird and butterfly observers. They served crab cakes made from blue crabs caught earlier that season from the river behind their home. On Memorial Day, our last day of sampling, a group of visitors from Jacksonville, Florida invited us to join their barbecue and low country boil. The hospitality we received in Georgia was overwhelmingly gracious and we are thankful to have met such kind and generous people. A favorite establishment of ours that embodied southern hospitality was the Old School Diner, where portions are extreme, the food is unparalleled, and chef Jerome refers to everyone as family (even transients like us).
Off-refuge adventures included day trips to Savannah, Amelia Island, and Jekyll Island. In Savannah we toured the temple of the oldest southern Jewish congregation (third oldest in the country) as well as the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Afterward, we moseyed along River Street and into several shops and galleries. For Amelia’s birthday, we rode bikes around Amelia Island, spent time at the beach, and went out to dinner at a lovely patio restaurant. On Jekyll Island, after wading in the suspiciously muddy ocean and climbing trees on Driftwood Beach, we walked around the area where wealthy Industrial Era families built magnificent beach cottages with stunning views of the bay and sunset.
These three refuges forged our understanding of the ecosystems and culture of the deep south. We have tasted food and visited art galleries that have all been influenced by the surrounding ecosystems. In the coming weeks we will keep exploring the south and contrast our experiences with our final refuge up north.