Thursday, November 1, 2012

Two paddling trails in MS and FL to launch

     Two paddling trails suitable for kayaking and canoeing will open this month (November 2012).  Both are in the Gulf Islands National Seashore; one is in the park's Mississippi unit near Ocean Springs, MS and the other is along the park's Perdido Key unit and Big Lagoon west of Pensacola.
     In Mississippi the opening of the Davis Bayou Blueway is November 10 (Saturday) at 10 a.m. at the Davis Bayou boat launch.  Paddlers are encouraged to bring their canoes or kayaks to participate in a group paddle through the marsh and piney upland that surround the launch.  The regular launch fee to use the ramp will be waived for those launching canoes and kayaks that morning  A few kayaks, supplied by a friend of the park, will be available free to those without a boat on a first-come-first serve basis.  The blueway is several short out and back loops from the launch. (As of March16, 2013, the three routes have not yet been signed.  A map is still in the works.)
     A 5.5 mile blueway trail for canoes and kayaks at Perdido Key (FL) will be dedicated Nov. 17, 2012, beginning at 10 a.m.  After a ribbon is cut there will be a two-hour ranger led paddle.  Paddlers will launch from the canoe launch north of Johnson Beach.  This is a BYOK (Bring Your Own Kayak) event; there will be no public kayaks or canoes available.  There is normally an $8 fee to enter the park.
     The blueway stretches 5.5 miles from the canoe launch east along sand dunes of Perdido Key to Ft. McRee overlooking Pensacola Inlet.  Distances on this blueway from the canoe launch are marked with two mile posts; one at three miles and one at five miles, said Mike Aymond, one of several park rangers with the Gulf Islands National Seashore who also kayak in the waters they protect.
      Both the Mississippi and Florida blueways are official recognition of paddling venues locals have been using for years.  The blueway in Mississippi, protected, shallow, narrow waterways snaking through the brackish marshes east of Ocean Springs, have long attracted birders expanding their "life lists" with sightings of graceful shorebirds strutting the mudflats and migrating ducks and geese squawking overhead.  A grinning but ominous alligator can often be spotted sunning on a half-sunken log.
     Looking at the birds, fishes and other creatures in the wild is a fun way to utilize the Florida blueway along Perdido Key and a fine way to pass the time.  But it is the opportunity to kayak/camp, to wake up to the rhythmic lapping of the waves on your own little stretch of white sand beach, a golden sunrise warming you as your sip your coffee watching a pod of dolphins just off shore that makes the Perdido Key blueway important to some paddlers.
     With the freedom to sleep and play on this largely remote and fragile federal preserve comes the responsibility to protect it.  There are several rules about camping on Perdido Key that apply to kayakers and everyone else who wants to camp at Perdido Key.  Camp only to the east of a north/south line that begins one half miles east of the end of the pavement.  But you say 'I am in a kayak.  How in the heck am I going to know where that is?'  Well, it is about three miles east of the canoe launch.  If you look sharp you will see a skinny, vertical brown marker about five inches wide and four feet tall on the Big Lagoon side of Perdido Key.  Camp to the east of that marker.  You are welcome to camp on the Big Lagoon side of Perdido Key as well as the gulf side, as long as you are past that sign.  But do not camp on the vegetation and do not camp on the dunes.  These are serious violations with penalties to match.
     You must pack in everything you will need, including water, for the time you are in the camping area.  And you must pack everything out.  Yes, EVERYTHING.  Ask the rangers if you do not understand what everything is.
     Before you camp you will need to get a permit, available at the entrance station.  The camping permit is free but driving into the park will cost $8 (Nov. 2012).  Save the receipt.  It is good for entry for eight days.  You will hear the rangers say "Six o'clock" a lot.  That is the time the gates close to the park.  If you are in after that time you can get out but if you are out you cannot get in after 6 o'clock.
     Camping is also available at the campground at Fort Pickens across the inlet to the east on Santa Rosa Island.  This large campground offers sites with water and electricity and there are bath houses with hot showers.  These sites are $20 per night and most likely need to be reserved in advance.
     North of Perdido Key and across Big Lagoon is Big Lagoon State Park.  Full service camping is available here at a large campground for a fee and reservations are required in most cases.  Fees are charged for using the boat launch and for overnight parking but a kayak launch is free (after paying to enter the park.) 
     The state park is the western terminus of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, a 1,600 mile water trail from the FL/GA border to Big Lagoon ( .)  At the state park a free primitive camping site, near the water and the kayak launch, is available to kayakers but only for one night and only if reserved in advance.
     Big Lagoon is not considered "open water paddling."  But a strong wind can whip up a pretty good chop.  Kayakers with sit-in kayaks should aways have a spray skirt handy not only if the wind is strong but to keep water out from the wake from boats, speedboats and barges on the busy Intracoastal Canal running through the lagoon.
     In warmer weather, the beaches around Ft. McRee become party boat central.  This might be an area you want to avoid if you want solitude.  But the reality is that solitude can be a hard vibe to summon at any time when camping on Perdido Key.  The north shore of Big Lagoon, about a mile from the gulf,  has more than a few few high rise condos that are always in your vision unless you are facing the gulf.  Camping on the gulf side of Perdido Key is still close enough to the north shore to hear traffic noise and motorcycles shifting through the gears.  And the Intracoastal Waterway is a busy place.  Treasure the minutes you are not hearing the throb of diesel powered barges or a plethora of noisy cabin cruisers and speed boats.  Pensacola Naval Air Station is across Big Lagoon from Perdido Key.  Consider yourself lucky if there is not much jet pilot training the days and nights you are on the beach.
     Be sure to anchor your tent against strong breezes so it will not blow into the gulf when you are away exploring the island.  And ask about the biting black flies.  The park rangers say they have yet to find a repellent that works against them.  DEET apparently has no effect, said one ranger.
     For more information about either event call (850) 934-2600. 


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