“What was that? Look!”
My husband, Tom, quietly but excitedly pointed upstream to a large ripple on the canal. Then, a bobbing head pierced the water’s surface.
“It’s an otter!” we both whispered in unison.
It was indeed an otter and as it surfaced, it swallowed its meal, most likely a fish, we later learned.
To our delight, we found what we were looking for! Not that we went to the Old Santee Canal Park last week with the goal of seeing otters. That goal didn’t materialize until we arrived and met Laura along the trail. A local resident who visits the park several times a week, Laura told us that the otters returned to the park in late fall.
We later learned from park Education Coordinator Kristin Threet, via a Zoom seminar available on the park’s Facebook page, that the otters at the park are North American river otters. Threet explained that for the last several years an otter family turns up in the park in the fall. They don’t migrate, she explained, but they do follow the food.
“They are super cool, very cute, and people really love them,” she said.
We concur! We were mesmerized as we watched the otter dive, swim and pop above the waterline, swallowing food each time it resurfaced, exposing its tiny ears and dog-like nose. Threet explained that 80-90% of an otter’s diet is fish.
Threet shared some otter facts. They have short legs and long bodies. Their tail is one third of their body length, making it an ideal tool for swimming and steering. They have clawed webbed feet and 36 sharp teeth. Their long whiskers help them detect prey.
With the temperatures dipping into the 30s this week, there is no need to worry about the otters getting cold as they are well-insulated. “Their fur is so dense that in a one square inch they can have over 300,000 hairs,” noted Threet.
Although we only saw the one otter on our visit, Threet explained that otters are incredibly social and are usually seen in family groups.
If you want to increase your chances of seeing an otter at the park, now is a great time to visit. They are most active at dawn and dusk, although we saw “our” otter around 2 p.m. at the boardwalk where Biggin Creek connects with the old canal. Look for big ripples, much larger than that caused by a jumping fish, and for heads bobbing up and down.
WHERE, WHEN, HOW MUCH
Old Santee Canal Park is located at 900 Stony Landing Drive in Moncks Corner. Consider taking Highway 41 North through the Francis Marion National Forest. It’s a beautiful drive.
Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Due to COVID-19, some park buildings, including the Interpretive Center, Stony Landing Plantation house, and restrooms are closed. As a result, park admission is currently free (normally $5 per person, $3 for senior citizens, free for children under 6). Canoe rentals are not available at this time. Picnicking is encouraged, although tables have been removed. The park is owned and managed by Santee Cooper.
ESPECIALLY FOR KIDS
We chatted with one young mother who told us she brings her kids to the park nearly every day. And with good reason. In addition to the trails, the park features a playground and a “yellow brick road” that includes Dr. Seuss-inspired educational placards about the trees of the park, and a person-sized bird house.
HIKING AND EXERCISE
There are three miles of hiking/walking trails in the park that meander around Biggin Creek. The trails are easy with little to no elevation gain. Several of the trails branch off to observation decks that overlook the creek and are excellent points to observe animal and plant life. Canal Trail parallels and offers excellent views of the Tailrace Canal, which connects Lake Moultrie to the Cooper River.
There is also an exercise trail featuring stations for balance, step ups, push-ups and other exercises. As an added benefit, swings are situated near most exercise stations for those who would rather watch!
Although bikes are not allowed on the trails, the Biggin Creek Bike Trail is located adjacent to the park. This is a dirt mountain bike trail and is rated intermediate. It is a 4.8 mile loop accessed from Rembert C Dennis Blvd in Moncks Corner.
BIRDING & NATURE
Many plant and animal species call the park home. Park Director Brad Sale said, “There is always something unique and beautiful to see at the park throughout the year.”
The creek, canal and park grounds are a delight for bird watchers as its ecosystem supports osprey, egret, prothonotary warblers, heron, hawks, eagles, ducks and more. Sale noted that in the spring, “Migrating birds are passing through on their way north, and it’s not uncommon to see or hear a black-throated blue in the swamp!” The fall is a great time to see birds migrating south and Sale said that dragonfly and butterfly are also abundant at that time.
While otters are visible in the fall and winter, yellow-bellied slider turtles, alligators, lizards, snakes, wood ducks, deer, wild turkey, frogs, squirrels and many kinds of fish are visible year-round or with warmer weather. And, in the summer, dragonflies abound around the swamp.
Cypress trees and their tell-tale “knees” are evident throughout the marsh, as are wax myrtles, live oak, pine and other species. “In the spring, there are wildflowers in bloom, such as bloodroot, trilliums and the gorgeous swamp rose,” Sale said
The park currently has several free Nature Walk Fridays scheduled in January. Space is limited, masks are required, as is pre-registration (call 843-899-5200). These one hour walks are scheduled at 9 a.m. as follows: Friday, Jan. 15- Bird Edition; Friday, Jan. 22 –
Tree Edition; and Friday, Jan. 29 – Otter Edition.
The park offers several unique ways to experience history. You can learn the history of the canal itself, the first canal built in the country (George Washington was an investor), via historical placards situated along the trails. The Santee Canal connected the Santee River system to the Cooper River system and was used to transport goods until railroads made it obsolete. For a more detailed history of the canal, read this article from The Daniel Island News archives: thedanielislandnews.com/opinions/old-santee-canal-park-3.
Additionally, the Berkeley County Museum is open and has several displays covering 12,000 years of human occupancy of Berkeley County. I was surprised to learn that there were 28 different actions/campaigns in Berkeley County during the Revolutionary War.
One unexpected highlight of the museum was a small reproduction of a Daniel Island cabin that was built in 1882 and moved to Daniel Island in 1956. It was donated to the museum by Cainhoy resident MaeRe Skinner, whose family owned the cabin and lived on
Daniel Island prior to the current development.
There is also a replica of the Little David, a torpedo boat that delivered the first successful torpedo-boat attack in naval warfare history on Oct. 5, 1863, off the Charleston coast.
Hand in glove with exploring nature is photographing it. In addition to providing great views and nature for the photographer, the park has also embarked on a Community Art Project featuring photography of the swamp from one particular vantage. You can find the photo station along the Osprey Loop Trail, across from the canoes, take a landscape photo and email it to email@example.com
“We will use your pictures to create a visual timeline of the seasonal changes in our beautiful swamp,” Sale explained. “We will be creating a slideshow video at the end of 2021 to demonstrate the changes of the swamp through the year. We will also be showcasing visitors’ photos periodically on our social media platforms.”
The museum is currently open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 1-4 p.m. Face masks are required.