We weren't more than 40 feet across that causeway through the marsh, admiring the blue sky and sea grass stretching off to the horizon, when my husband slammed on the brakes. He threw his hands up in the air and screamed, "Holy God!"
The tires screeched and the kids and I shot forward against our seat belts. My husband jumped out, abandoning the car in the middle of the road, and ran (really, he was almost skipping) to the guard rail. He looked like a little kid.
On a clump of mud in the water, not far off the roadway, was a 12-foot long alligator sunning himself. Surrounding him, their eyes and snouts slowly circling the king of the mud-mound, were another three alligators.
So that explains the sign. Apparently, Alex wasn't the only person to have that reaction.
I got into the driver's seat, finished driving across the marsh and parked the car. As the kids and I walked back down the causeway, the trees in front of us where filled with at least 50 huge white wood storks and blue herons roosted in their branches. It looked like some Dr. Suessian display of enormous, giant-sized Christmas trees, decorated with living, moving ornaments that fluttered and stretched and squawked.
To our left lay Mullet Pond. Along the edge of the pond and causeway are rice trunks. These wooden gates are still used to control the flow of salt water into and out of the mostly freshwater pond. This makes for some wonderfully brackish water that alligators just love. We saw not just Greeny, the Alligator King of Mud Mountain (so named by my husband), but half a dozen others, some swimming just a few feet below us at the rice trunks.
Off to our right, the sun lit up the still water of the tidal inlet into a white blaze that stretches all the way to the horizon. Oystercatchers darted in the thick, black mud. White-as-snow egrets delicately walked around the jagged oyster beds shining in the sunlight.
There are lots of reasons for jaws to drop at Huntington Beach State Park. The wildlife who make it their home are just the beginning.
The visitor's center has a wonderful exhibit complete with touch tanks and live animals to see and pet. And then there's the castle. Yes, the park is home to the spooky, moldering, mysterious, Atalaya Castle. But I'll save that for another day.
Finally, past the lush marshes and dense, low forests that make tunnels in the dunes, we got to the beach. Oh, that beach. So magical in winter.
My favorite time of year at the beach has never been the summer. Now, don't get me wrong, I love floating on the swells of the ocean and diving through the crashing waves. I love the feeling of the water drying on my skin in the sun and the fine caking of salt in my hair and lips.
But when the summer is over, the sand is empty, and when the beach is no longer about the ocean -- this is my favorite time. And there are no better beaches in the winter than South Carolina beaches.
The wet sand at the water's edge was cold in between our bare feet, but the kids didn't seems to notice. The sun and air were warm enough that day, I guess. They plopped right down and began to dig with their hands.
Alex and I walked slowly down the shore. Plovers skittered ahead of us as they followed the waves crashing in and out. Pelicans flew low over the ocean, and occasionally dove in. The sun was hot but the wind and spray off the ocean felt like little pins on my cheek. The waves crashed and crashed and crashed, and I felt hypnotized.
Jimmy came running towards us at full speed, about to crash into his dad. At the last second, Alex pivoted, as he has at least a hundred times in the nine years of Jimmy's life, and Jimmy dove and rolled on the sand, as he has at least a hundred times. Mary Frances followed, twirling and leaping and dancing her way down the beach.
We returned to their giant ditch, and took turns leaping across it for an hour or more. We measured who jumped the farthest, the highest, the fastest. We discussed whose leaps were the most beautiful and most creative.
I don't often play with my kids when we're home. I'm too busy cooking dinner, or folding laundry, or paying bills. And even if I do play a game, to be perfectly honest, I'm usually thinking about doing those other things and feeling guilty about not doing them. But not at the beach. I'm also not looking for rip currents or worried about sunburn or slathering sunscreen or reminding them not to get too far from shore. Not when you go to the beach in winter.
We just completely focused on hurling ourselves through the air and across the water-filled pit. And when we were finally all exhausted, we gathered our shoes and walked slowly back to the car. On the way out, Greeny was no longer on his mound. The birds had left their roosts. Everyone was ready for a warm shower and some hot dinner. Alex and I returned to adulthood, and the kids fell asleep in the car.
Huntington Beach State Park is located at 16148 Ocean Highway in Murrells Inlet.