|Members of the Mississippi Kayak Meetup group take up prime seats on Deer Island awaiting the fireworks show over Biloxi Bay put on by the city of Biloxi.|
At stake was the third year of the Star Spangled Paddle, a social paddle about a third of a mile across wind-sheltered Biloxi Bay, to uninhabited and undeveloped Deer Island to get an upfront and personal view of the annual fireworks display. Seeing the fireworks from the island can put viewers almost directly underneath the booming and colorful pyrotechnic display, an awesome experience, said the trip's organizer, Brent Futrell. But the ominous weather could cancel the trip. Nobody would risk being in a thunderstorm on open water in an open boat for just a good place to stand to watch fireworks.
The group waiting at the launch was lucky. The shower was brief and while the gloomy and threatening skies persisted, the rain, lightening and thunder quit. They would launch on time, said Futrell. In the dead air of a windless humid midsummer afternoon the kayakers slid their boats from the sandy beach into the bay, their paddle blades and slender multicolored hulls breaking the bay's glass smooth surface creating dozens of tiny waves as they began the 15-minute paddle to the island.
The crossing from the mainland, with its high rise casinos hard by the bay and noisy highways, to Deer Island, a low sandy spit once connected to the mainland thousands of years ago and now studded with the skeletons of dead pine trees, is not an epic paddle. Those born and raised in Biloxi remember hearing from their grandparents about routinely swimming from the mainland to the island and that years ago swimming that far to the island was nothing special.
The growth of recreational motor boating has made Biloxi Bay much more crowded with boats since "back in the day," increasing the danger of a kayak/motorboat collision. The bay is normally crowded with boats on summer weekends. The attraction of holiday fireworks made it more so. The fireworks display is a big deal and has attracted scores of pleasure boats piloted by people with the same aim as the kayakers themselves: to get as close to the fireworks barge anchored at Deer Island as harbor police will allow. Some have been partying all day creating a hazard for everyone on the water, not just the hard to see kayakers.
There was some comfort to be had by seeing the flashing blue lights of the ample marine police presence on the water, but you don't have to kayak long before you realize that, when on the water, it is best to put as much distance as possible between you and any boat with a motor as quickly as possible.
To get to the island, paddlers must cross the bay's busy navigational channel, a serious consideration even for kayakers with long experience on the water. To reduce the chance of being run down sight unseen by a much larger, faster vessel, paddlers, in their low profile hard to see kayaks, often sprint across busy boat channels, paddles flailing. But some paddlers in the Meet-up group are novices. Could the beginner paddlers keep up? Yes. A convoy of the small craft formed with fast and slow paddlers hanging tight together making a multicolored mass that was easier for motorized traffic to see. As it happened the little human powered flotilla made the opposite shore quickly without so much as a boat wake to disturb their progress.
When the little fleet of kayaks arrived at the north shore of Deer Island much of the narrow sandy beach had been "claimed" hours ago by family groups and friends with motor boats, each group with its own arsenal of fireworks and powerful boat-based sound systems. But several kayakers with the Meetup group were camping overnight on the undeveloped island, tenting on a piece of treeless sandy plateau topped by a sea of slender thigh-high stalks of green beach grass. The new arrivals were welcome to the narrow brown sand beach in front, they said.
(There is no development on the uninhabited Deer Island now but the state is in the process of building a dock on the island's north shore more toward the center. There will also be a barge with restrooms and snack bars. When the dock is finished and the barge in place, passenger ferry service will begin to the island.)
Food, snacks and adult beverages suddenly appeared as kayak hatches were popped open and boats were unloaded. A row of folding canvas chairs formed a viewing area. Others sat on ponchos on the brown, damp sand or in their boats. Culinary holiday traditions were observed: There were brownies and hot dogs boiled in a pot over a camp stove served with all the fixings. And pickles and cookies. And chips and hummus. Cold watermelon slices, pink and green and white. There was loose talk too, a lot of it. People of all ages, from young teenagers to retirees, finding common ground to laugh, overcoming shyness, reaching out to share stories and propose future adventures even before this one has even ended. Holding a dripping slice of watermelon and sweating on brown sand on a breathless summer evening along the Mississippi Gulf coast in 2015, waiting for darkness and an Independence Day fireworks show with people who were strangers just an hour ago, in very, very small ways lives were changed.
As the cloudy darkness deepened anticipation for the pyrotechnic display to come was building, those who had seen it before whetting the appetite of noobs.
For the best views, Futrell said, the goal is to get as close to the barge shooting the fireworks as the harbor police will let you.
Every year has had its glitches, Futrell admitted, but none so serious as to prevent planning for another year. Heavy rains one year and another year where tents were singed by glowing fireworks debris, only adds to the adventure, Futrell boasts.
Futrell said this year was the best so far. Despite the rain threat, there was no rain during the bay crossings or while on the island for the event. The overcast day kept the temperatures pleasant, for summer in Mississippi at least, and while flying, biting insects, shared the island with the paddlers, gnats and mosquitoes were not abundant.
And then, of course, there were the fireworks themselves. They were spectacular. There were a lot of exclamations of delight as several times viewers craned their necks to look straight up at overhead explosions creating huge glittering colored domes over the group. Spectators in the group could feel in their bodies the compression as each fireworks payload exploded they were so close. (No, there was no flaming debris this time.)
After the show was over the kayakers made ready to paddle back to the launch. But they don't push off right away. Futrell said the poor visibility that comes with being on the water at night is a safety issue for kayakers, most lit with only flashlights or headlamps if that. Sharing the inky darkness with power boaters, also in a hurry to get back home, adds to the danger. Futrell likes to wait until much of the motor boat traffic clears from the bay.
This year, because there does not seem to be as much motor boat traffic in the bay as in previous years, Futrell says, boat traffic clears quickly. But congestion presents a problem this time on land. From the island the kayakers can see the line of headlights on US 90 near the boat launch. It is not moving.
"Even if we rushed over to the boat launch, we would have to wait for the car traffic to clear before we could cross the highway, get our cars and cross back to get our boats," said Barry Mends, a veteran kayaker and Star Spangled Paddle participant. " So we just stay here a while."
Tired of waiting however, some decide to start paddling back across the now pitch black bay, taking their chances the car traffic will be gone by the time they get back to the launch. They leave Deer Island a boat or two at a time. The kayakers, now spread out, are hard to see, even with lights. But there were only a few motor boats left in the bay anyway and they were anchored or going very slow. The gamble works out and everyone makes it back to the launch safely. Sure enough, the traffic has cleared.
|Beth Frost and her son Brendan Frost, age 13, at the Star Spangled Paddle III, Biloxi to Deer Island, July 4, 2015|
Once off the water, paddlers quickly loaded up, said goodbye to new friends and old and headed to their homes in New Orleans, Covington and elsewhere satisfied with another Fourth of July holiday adventure under their belts.