Huntington Beach State Park rebuilds nature center four years after tragedy
In the early morning hours of July 20, 2016, Huntington Beach State Park interpretive ranger Mike Walker was awakened by a loud banging on his front door.
"I saw I had more than 20 missed calls on my phone so I knew something was wrong," Walker recalled from the tragic day. "I just didn't know how bad it was."
For a man like Walker, who has dedicated his life to nature conservation, the news couldn't have been much worse. Lightning had struck the state park's nature center, the one that brought him to Huntington Beach when it debuted in 2002. The nature center and the animals that called it home were a total loss.
"I called them my co-workers because that's how I felt about them," said Walker, who listed fish, turtles, a small alligator and his personal pet corn snake Cornelius among the approximately 20 animals that perished in the overnight fire. "I worked alongside them every day so you really do get attached to them."
The fire was particularly painful for longtime park visitors who frequented the nature center. Jenny Altman, who grew up on the adjoining Brookgreen Gardens property and treated the future park lands as her personal playground, was devastated to learn that tragedy had struck one of her family's favorite places.
"That was my old stomping grounds as a kid so I loved taking my children there," said Altman, whose daughter, Katie, worked at the nature center for a short period. "On our way to and from the north beach they would always want to stop by the nature center. It was heart-breaking to hear about it burning down."
Remaking Man-Made Habitat
Although little could have been done to save the old wooden structure and the animals inside, the S.C. State Parks Department has done the next best thing by reviving it. Nearly four years later, after the charred remains served as a painful daily reminder, a new nature center has arisen from the ashes of the old.
Rebuilt on the original site overlooking the salt marsh, the new and improved nature center is in the final stages and expected to open in time for summer. Construction crews and equipment are moving out while park rangers and new exhibits are moving in to create the right environment for humans and animals.
After losing his office and "co-workers" in the horrific blaze, Walker and fellow staffers were forced to relocate to a tiny office at the beach pavilion. The close quarters, which include tanks and cages of turtles, snakes and other native species, has made Walker miss the spacious old nature center even more.
"It took a long time before I could even go back to the site without thinking about it, but watching the new one go up, I'm getting excited about it," Walker said. "It hasn't stopped us as far as our programs go, but not having that one location where visitors can go and experience nature has been sorely missed."
Especially for regulars like Altman, who miss the hands-on educational experience and the first-class hospitality that the old nature center provided.
"It was a great local place to visit," she said. "The staff was so nice. They would take the animals out and tell you about them. I'm glad it's re-opening."
Anyone who knows anything about government funding, well, let's just say the wheels of progress turn slowly. But once ground was broken on the previous site nearly three years after the fire, the $1.2 million project has quickly risen above the live oaks, salt marsh and pluff mud that surround the nature center.
The rebuilding effort also received a financial boost, thanks to a little help from some "friends." The Friends of Huntington Beach State Park, an organization that supports the park and its mission, has raised and donated more than $100,000 to the new nature center for costs not covered by the state.
"Our fundraisers like (Christmas With Friends) and 3-for-1 Day (a celebration of park namesakes Arthur and Anna Huntington) go toward the new nature center," said Karen Korszeniewski, vice president of the Friends of Huntington Beach State Park. "It has taken some time, but everyone is so happy to see it re-open."
So are the thousands of people who visit the park annually. While the 2,500-acre jewel is loaded with scenic Lowcountry beauty, the nature center was the place where Walker and his staff could educate guests about the diverse habitat of ocean, beach, woodlands, wetlands and its unique plants and animals.
For nature-lovers anxiously awaiting the grand opening, you may be relieved to know that the new nature center will look a lot like the old one. Featuring the same basic size, layout and design, the new nature center will serve as an updated version of its predecessor. According to Walker, that's a good thing.
"There's no reason for us to try to reinvent the wheel because the old nature center was pretty much perfect for what we needed it for," Walker said of the 4,500-square-foot facility. "We're going to update some of the exhibits and bring in a few new things, but it's going to be very similar to the old one."
The new center will feature the same displays that highlight the diverse flora and fauna of the South Carolina Lowcountry. A classroom will host educational programs, an observation deck will provide shutterbugs a birds'-eye view of the marsh, and the adjoining boardwalk will give visitors spectacular vistas.
Perhaps the most anticipated display is a new state-of-the-art touch tank filled with native fish, stingrays and crabs. Unlike traditional tanks, guests are encouraged to touch and learn about the different aquatic species found in local waters. The interactive touch tank may be the last exhibit to open.
"If you've ever seen those shows where they build a new aquarium, install it and fill it with fish in just a few days? Well, that's what they call TV magic," Walker said of Animal Planet's Tanked and other similar spinoffs. "It takes a long time to get the water ready before you can introduce the animals."
Walker and his crew will relocate the state park's current cast of critters to the new facility, as well as round up other new roommates for the nature center. A planned garden on the ground floor will attract other animals, such as butterflies, hummingbirds and, perhaps most importantly, human visitors.
The new nature center has one feature that Walker might like best of all—a lightning suppression system designed to avoid a repeat of the tragic fire. Four years after that fateful knock at his door, Walker is ready to start welcoming visitors and "co-workers" to the new nature center this summer.
"We still have a lot of work to do to get it up and running," said Walker, hoping the coronavirus outbreak doesn't set back the schedule, "but the closer we get, the more excited we are. We're looking forward to giving our visitors the kind of unique experience you can only get from the nature center."