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Monday, March 21, 2022

Paddling the Santee National Wildlife Refuge

Our stop near Santee, South Carolina was supposed to be a stop of convenience, speeding us on our way North toward D.C. where we plan to help find adventures with our grandson on his Spring Break.  However, we had a free day, and the weather was beautiful (mid-70'sF, no wind, sunny).  It turned out that the Santee National Wildlife Refuge was only a few miles away, and our research suggested that we could find an interesting paddle there.

So today we drove over to the Visitor Center to get more information on a paddle we wanted to do from the Cuddo East Unit, around the Plantation Islands Wilderness Area.  Surprise:  when we got there, the Visitor Center was closed indefinitely.  We were walking back to our Jeep when one of the Refuge staff hailed us and asked us if we needed help.  We explained our goal, and he gave us a second piece of bad news -- Cuddo East is closed on Mondays.  This wasn't disclosed on the website, so we had to regroup.  Luckily, the staff member paddles and is familiar with the entire area.  One of his suggestions was to paddle from Pine Island in the Refuge.  We decided to accept his suggestion -- and we were not disappointed!  This paddle was very unique and offered us encounters with dozens (yes, dozens) of osprey.  More on that anon.

Santee National Wildlife Refuge is a 15,000-acre refuge alongside Lake Marion, an impoundment of the Santee River in South Carolina.  The refuge contains the Santee Native American mound, which is the farthest eastern known representation of the Mississippian culture. Later built upon this same mound was the Revolutionary British Fort Watson, which was taken by Francis (the "Swamp Fox") Marion and his Brigade in April 1781.  The refuge is especially important because its many wetlands support migratory birds. Within the refuge, which consists of mixed hardwoods, cypress and pines, marsh, old croplands, impoundments and open water, is a large diversity of wildlife, including bald eagles, and even the peregrine falcon. More common are deer, raccoons, bobcats, alligators, teal, wood ducks, Canada geese, mallards, pintails, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and wild turkeys.

The Refuge has several separate units.  Our paddle was in the Pine Island Unit.  The paddling launch was simple and primitive -- just a beach with a parking area.  The water seemed to lead into a dead end of reeds and cypress:

However, we kept the faith and paddled toward the reeds, hoping that a portal would open before us:

It did!  As we reached the reeds, a small channel through them appeared.  We worked our way through it, into a thick cypress swamp where the water was covered in a mat of vegetation.  We wondered whether we were on the right track, but paddled on:

After a short stretch, we turned right and found ourselves in a channel through the cypress trees:

Our little channel led us into an unnamed bay of Lake Marion, which is the largest lake in South Carolina and one of the 50 larges lakes in the U.S. Referred to as South Carolina's inland sea. It has a 315-mile shoreline and covers 173.7 square miles.  It was created by the damming of the Santee River in the 1940s to supply hydroelectric power as part of the rural electrification efforts initiated under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression.

It wasn't long before we spotted an alligator, as well as several anhinga, many of which, such as this fellow, were perched in trees -- possibly to dry their wings, or search for fishy food, or both:

Most of the wildlife in the refuge is not habituated to human contact and would not let us very close.  As a consequence, we had trouble getting clear close-ups of the critters we spotted.  This blue heron took umbrage to our approach and set out to look for another perch:

We saw a pair Canada Geese, which we did not expect here.  They swam away from us, but eventually decided to fly on to a safer spot:

Our paddling took us from one bay to another along the north shore of Lake Marion.  It appeared to us that the northern shoreline is battered by storm winds coming from the south, because we saw many recently overblown trees -- all falling toward the north -- and much natural and other debris along the northern lakeshore, including this channel marker buoy whose floating days seem to be over:

This was one of the first locations where we paddled through huge numbers of cypress trees that were growing out of the middle of the water and seemingly happy with their situation:

Here, Kathy paddles through the cypress woods, which, to our happy surprise, broke up the waves caused on Lake Marion by the southerly winds and made our paddle much more enjoyable:

We found too many osprey nests -- each with a nesting pair of osprey -- than we can count.  Almost all of the nests were in stunted cypress trees surrounded by water, presumably a situation that promoted the safety of the osprey eggs and young from various predators.  The raptors never let us approach too closely.  In general, as we approached within 50 yards or so, the pair of osprey would abandon the nest, fly to nearby cypress trees, and cry -- presumably, we think, to attract us away from the nest.  We believe most of the nests had unhatched eggs and we think the parents were trying to protect the eggs by distracting us.

We also had the pleasure of watching the osprey fish near us.  In one case, an osprey was lucky enough to catch a big fish, but unlucky enough that the fish was too heavy to carry.  The bird had to drop the fish because it couldn't lift the fish more than a foot or so out of the water.

Most of the osprey, however, were much more successful, and they all seemed to take their catches back to the nest, pursued in flight in each case by two or three grackles who, presumably, felt the osprey owed them a free lunch.

Here, an osprey lands in the nest with a fish:

As soon as the successful fisherman/woman returned with the fish, the mate zoomed over to help consume the newly caught lunch:

In many cases, one osprey was out fishing while the mate was in the nest.  It was this behavior that led us to believe, along with their distracting strategies, that many of the pairs had buns in the oven:

We spotted some pretty moorhens hunting for food in quiet corners of the coves of the bay --

-- and this one, when we got too close, decided to fly off to a quieter area:

Spring is starting to show in this area already.  This cypress was one of the few yet with fresh leaves:

One interesting feature of the waterbound cypress we saw is that the cypress "knees" take on a different look when growing out of the water.  We thought that these knees might better be given different nicknames, but this is a kid-friendly blog, so we won't be more explicit:

Getting over her shock at seeing perverted cypress knees, Kathy headed for open water.  As we paddled back to our point of entry, along Pine Island, the sun obliged us with its glow and the wind died to nothing so that the water surface was glass.  We enjoyed the last part of our paddle through utter silence and the stillness of the water and light:

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