With 16 of us moving single file to begin a “Bike Tour with a Ranger,” the only sounds breaking the stillness of the hum from rubber rolling on pavement came from a couple of Carolina wrens and someone clicking up gears.
Huntington Beach State Park has begun a flurry of special activities for its “Fun and Fitness in February,” when visitors can bicycle, run and hike with a ranger and experience the park through other means such as yoga, shelling and photography.
J.W. Weatherford, chief ranger, led a band of bicyclists Wednesday morning on a leisurely loop covering all corners of the park in about 4.5 miles under a clear, blue sky. The only breeze came from the whir of pedaling forward in between brief stops to see key park sections and learn some wildlife and history pointers.
A mile and a half into the ride, at the north parking lot, Weatherford spelled out the 3.5 miles of shore from the southern tip of Murrells Inlet to North Litchfield Beach, and how the beach – “a great place to walk, run or bike” at low tide, turns up treasures in shells, especially after storms.
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Looking at the entrance to the “primitive” – without-power – campground used by scouts and other groups, Weatherford also gave credit to “really educated raccoons” that will unclip food containers “in one night.”
At the park’s nature center, a mile southward, Weatherford said the adjacent marsh boardwalk leads to “one of the best birding areas you can find.” He said folks from as far as Vermont and New Hampshire will visit on quests just to see one bird, the painted bunting, a tropical looking, finch-size species that will return in April.
Rounding the corner to pedal west across the causeway, which splits salt and freshwater marshes, Weatherford pointed out a tree where a young bald eagle had been perched recently about 15 feet up. Halfway across the causeway, the salt marsh’s fragrance gave a fresh greeting to the nose.
Gateway to history
Continuing by the park gate, south on a closed-off road by rangers’ residences, Weatherford led the gang to the original gateway of the park, from the 1930s, when its namesakes, Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, made the acreage once known as Magnolia Beach their winter getaway from Connecticut. The road, a straightaway from the former dirt road now called U.S. 17, sits directly across from Brookgreen Gardens, another part of the couple’s property.
As fountain streams flowed around the base of the grand dual horse sculpture outside Brookgreen’s entrance, Weatherford reminded everyone of Anna Huntington’s passion for sculpting art with such anatomical detail. He focused on the tendons in the horses’ legs, throat veins and nostrils, and said the sculptor kept a zoo at Brookgreen and had animals, including bears, brought to her studio in Atalaya, their home at the other, easternmost end of the road, near the ocean, so she could mold art from real life, right beside her eyes.
Most of the cyclists – six of the 15 guests were women – were retirement age. They motored mostly on hybrid bikes, with tires in between road/touring and mountain widths in size, and everyone looked after one another. For instance, because much of tour followed two-lane park roads, riders in the back – especially those with miniature mirrors attached to their helmets – would alert folks of a car approaching, and the word worked its way up front by mouth in a chain.
Besides having reminded everyone to have a helmet and bottle of water on hand, and to ensure properly inflated tires and oiled chains, Weatherford stressed the fun, recreational pace of this tour, with the speed based on the collective pace of the riders, about 8 mph on this trek spread across about two hours.
Connie Racioppa of Middletown, Pa., took a pause by the old park gates with her husband of 43 years, Patrick. She called seeing the park on two wheels “nothing but pure enjoyment.”
Pedaling the alley road toward Atalaya, Patrick Racioppa said seeing a 5-foot-long alligator sunning itself in a side marsh, apparently looking at every passer-by, made his day.
“I love seeing them,” he said, calling Huntington Beach “one of the most beautiful parks.”
Weatherford said with the sunny warmth to start the week, he also had seen some gators in the same area, by what looks like an island, but actually is a drifting mass of accumulated flora, mainly algae. The coots swimming and chattering nearby stayed unfazed by the alligator on Wednesday.
Another traveling couple who also tied the knot 43 years ago, stopped by the same spot. Tom and Mary Jo Beda, arrived Tuesday with their trailer, after leaving home in Omaha, Neb..
“When we left, it was zero,” she said, having checked the thermometer.
With an agenda that will include Southport, N.C., as well as Edisto Beach State Park, southwest of Charleston, and stretch all the way to southwest Florida, the Bedas said as new retirees, they are scoping for other places in which to settle. Camping at Huntington Beach sure whet their appetites to explore the sights and eateries nearby.
“I didn’t realize the park was this big and had this much,” Mary Jo Beda said.
The bonus of seeing an alligator outside in February, in the middle of winter, kept them captivated for a few minutes as they chatted with other bicyclists.
Tom Beda made his point in specific degrees about basking in the warmth of what they agreed was a perfect day.
“Sixty is better than 4,” he said.
In his 18 months on this park job, after working in two other S.C. state parks, Weatherford said he’s turned into a birdwatcher and that he loves pedaling across the park on patrol and giving these tours.
“I have a 2,500-acre office,” he said.