Monday, January 16, 2012

Charleston County’s Caw Caw Interpretive Center on Highway 17, SC

Caw Caw Interpretive Center is one of those interesting places in South Carolina I’ve long intended to visit, but have never taken the time. The unusual name alone gives it appeal …. It’s located in Ravenel, on the west side of Highway 17, about fifteen miles south of Charleston.

Highway 17, or the Savannah Highway, as it’s also known, is a wonderful alternative to the I-95 superhighway. It takes a little longer, but it offers far more interesting natural and social scenery along the way. Last month I finally got a chance to visit Caw Caw. While camping at Edisto Beach State Park for a few days.

Now, Caw Caw Interpretive Center is operated by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. So, I assumed it was just a normal county park, and allocated only two hours for the visit. Well! That was a mistake!

02 Park MapThe Caw Caw experience begins as soon as the visitor turns into the gate. See the red arrow above. A well tended gravel-surfaced road meanders about a half-mile through Caw Caw’s forest to the Interpretive Center buildings and parking lots.

The speed limit here is 15 MPH, but I drove along much more slowly. Looking right and left at the remarkable trees and undergrowth characteristic of this part of South Carolina. Well, characteristic when it’s allowed to grow naturally. Watch out for deer, hikers, and other critters along the way. They’re all unpredictable. Especially the hikers!

At the road end’s loop you’ll see two buildings. The one on your right is the Visitors and Exhibit Center.

The one on the left houses classrooms, like the one you see above. Click the photo and have a look at the exhibits along the walls.

There’s even a laboratory room equipped with microscopes. Quite a few school groups from around the State visit Caw Caw on field trips. It doesn’t cost the schools much at all, and as you’ll hear Center Manager Thornton explain in the next post, there are plenty of educational programs here for them. 

But the real treat, at least for me, was in the Exhibit area of the building on the right. Admission is only a dollar per person, if memory serves. After paying your fee, take plenty of time to look through the exhibits.

They don’t have a lot of space here. But somehow they’ve managed to pack in all sorts of interesting information about this part of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

There are even a few exhibits designed for the younger set!

The thing that caught my fancy, though, was the detailed explanation of rice cultivation in this part of South Carolina. Come to find out, most of the 600-some acres now occupied by the Caw Caw Center was used to grow rice in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

After going through this exhibit, I now understand the system of irrigation used for rice cultivation here and at nearby Botany Bay. It’s not easily explained. Whoever created this Caw Caw rice exhibit has managed to do it with a combination of visuals and clear, simple text. It must have been an interdisciplinary project.

Once you’ve absorbed all of the information you can about this area’s geography, history, flora and fauna, step out for a walk along the Center’s trails. Note the concrete walkways in the photo above. Most of the trails here, of course, are more naturally surfaced.

But there’s plenty to see at Caw Caw even if you’re dependent upon wheeled transport. Places too in the parking lot to get in and out of cars and vans.

This is only the beginning, though. The trails here are marvelous.

Here’s a list of them, and a useful map.

These photos simply can’t do justice to what you’ll see here. You just have to visit!

Over near the marsh, I came across this unusual construct. Note the wheels! No one was around. So I meandered over and climbed aboard.

Oh my. A viewing seat for bird watchers. Had to be that! I sat for a while and looked at the bird life in the marsh, with little idea of what I was seeing. Suddenly, some distance out, a huge bird began an acrobatic display. It had a white head and white tail. A bald eagle. Even I can recognize them! Too far out to take a photo, but close enough to see clearly. He – or she – soon was joined by several colleagues. What a treat!

I had time only to walk less than a quarter of Caw Caw’s beautiful trails during this visit. It was nearly closing time when I got back to the car and reluctantly drove out the gate to Highway 17. I surely hope to return – allocating an appropriate amount of time! – during my next visit to the Coast. Caw Caw Interpretive Center is a must-visit destination in South Carolina.

Oh, while visiting the Exhibit Hall, I met Center Manager, Thomas Thornton. Mr. Thornton kindly agreed to a recorded interview for CarolinaConsidered. I told him it would take only five minutes, or so. Well … the “ … or so …” stretched into about 20 minutes. Thanks for your patience, Mr. Thornton.

Click here to access the Interview with Center Manager, Thomas Thornton.

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