Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hunting season tips for hikers

This sign, at the trailhead in Clear Springs Recreation Area, is good advice during hunting seasons which generally stretch from September though February.  White-tailed deer began in October and will end by January 31, 2014 in the Homochitto National Forest and February 15, 2014 in De Soto National Forest..

        Hikers here in the South look forward to the late fall and winter when the weather turns crisp and cool.  So do hunters, their seasons for taking, birds, small game and white-tailed deer coinciding with the days hikers and mountain bikers favor for their recreational pursuits on public lands.
       Is there a risk to those who want to bike and hike on a trail surrounded by hunters?  That is a tough call based on national statistics gleaned from the Internet recently, mostly from sites that do not support hunting.  It looks like each year there are about 1,000 hunting injuries and from that about 100 fatalities.  Most of those were hunters themselves and mostly younger.
        As tragic as these numbers are, it appears that hunting or being in an area with hunters, is statistically much safer than the drive to and from a hunt/hike/mountain bike ride.  In the U.S. more people die in one year in automobile crashes than the total number of deaths from yellow fever in the history of New Orleans.
        What level of risk these stats present to you as a hiker or bicyclist out and about in public lands during hunting season is for you to determine.  Those unfamiliar with hunting would do well to follow these suggestions found in the "Mississippi Outdoor Digest 2013-2014", a free publication from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.  Following these tips may lower your risk of becoming a hunting accident statistic when hiking or bicycling on public lands that permit hunting, such as national Forests, national wildlife refuges and state wildlife management areas.  Taking these precautions also shows respect for the hunters sharing this precious outdoor resource with you.
        Trail users should know the local hunting seasons by the type of game hunted and the weapon used.  Birds and small game are usually hunted with shot guns or small bore rifles. These weapons are often used to shoot relatively short distances, their muzzles pointed up when hunting birds and arboreal mammals.  White-tail deer, on the other hand, are hunted with rifles shooting a much larger caliber bullet capable of traveling much farther before it hits something. Visit for specific hunting season information.
       Wear a hunter orange hat and vest.  And a hunter orange pack cover if backpacking.  There are hunter orange shirts, socks, hoodies, polypropylene skivvies and fleece jackets--all kinds of clothing in bright orange--if you want to augment the basic hat and vest.  Also, it may be obvious, but don't dress like a deer.  Avoid a brown hat topped with a white pompon or other white and brown clothing during deer season or red or blue during turkey seasons.
       Make sure you are heard before you are seen by whistling, singing, talking (to yourself if you have to) while on the trail.
       Avoid peak hunting times such as the opening day of a particular hunting season or early mornings/late afternoons or during holiday periods.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Spotlight shines on long ignored Potkopinu Trail in southwest Mississippi

Hikers on the Potkopinu Trail near the Natchez Trace Parkway.  The south trailhead and parking area is south of Cole Creek picnic area at mile post 16.8.

       A hike on the Potkopinu Trail in southwest Mississippi is a walk in the footsteps of history.  The three-mile fragment of the original 450-mile Natchez Trace, the major transportation and communication corridor through the "howling wilderness" that was the Old Southwest, is in about the same condition it was in the early 1800's when thousands walked the historic dirt path from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN.
       That is to say it is beautiful and scenic but, in places, a rough walk.  Potkopinu is the longest stretch of "sunken" historic Trace remaining, say historians with the Natchez Trace Parkway, a unit of the National Park Service managing both the trail and the nearby 444-mile greenway with a two-lane highway in the middle.  "Sunken" in this case means the deep ravines worn into the soft loess soil by the labored plodding of thousands of travelers returning to the Ohio Valley by foot or horseback after trading expeditions to New Orleans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
        Some sunken sections are narrow with nearly vertical walls rising 20 feet above the heads of walkers picking their way along the rutted gully floor.  Others are wider, like miniature valleys, the floor strewn with clay boulders and shallow ledges that challenge even surefooted hikers.  Beards of dark green moss cover the walls in some places.  In others the tawny loess soil is exposed, the smooth surface rudely defaced by a gnarled tree root jutting from the wall or even a whole tree trunk angling skyward, punching its branches at the sun.
        The elevation change from sandy wash to ridge top is about 150 feet at maximum but most ups and downs are less than that and gradual.  That does not mean modern day Trace travelers will not be hearing the sound of their own heavy breathing a time or two.
        One sound hikers will not hear is the noise of traffic intruding from the near by Parkway.  None of it penetrates the dense woods surrounding the trail.
        Sometimes the trail climbs to forested ridgelines or drops through hardwood groves to cross broad, sandy, shallow streams, the clear trickling waters etching a braided path across the tan sands. To maintain historical correctness there are no bridges at stream crossings.  True enough, the water in the creek can rise high enough to require wadding across but only after heavy rains or periods of wet weather.
       The Natchez Trace began as a trail blazed by Indian tribes to facilitate trade among Indian nations living along it--the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw.  Later European explorers in the 17th century found the rugged path was easier to walk back north than fight going upstream against the strong currents of the Mississippi River in dugout canoes.
       The Trace experienced a boom of traffic after about 1790.  Raucous boatmen, aka, "Kaintucks," would float the great rivers to New Orleans in keel boats or flat boats loaded with lucrative cargo from the Ohio Valley, then, after arriving in the city, sell everything and walk home on the Trace.  The trip took weeks.  A teenaged Abraham Lincoln is said to have made the trip twice.
      The Trace was important during the War of 1812.   Andrew Jackson led his Tennessee Volunteers home on the Trace after beating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815, the most victorious of his several trips on the Trace.
        Postal service began on the Trace in 1800, post riders braving the elements and outlaws to make up to three deliveries a week until the service was discontinued in the 1830's.  The silhouette of a brave post rider on horseback adorns NPS signs along the parkway. 
       Traffic on the Trace quickly tapered to a trickle after steamboats began regular runs from New Orleans to as far north as Pittsburgh beginning in the early 1820's.  The one-way up river trip from New Orleans to Cincinnati took 16 days in the early days of steamboats compared to up to two months of walking or riding horseback on the Trace.  As steamboat technology improved travel times on the river quickened, attracting more and more passengers.  By 1840 the Trace was all but abandoned.
      You can be forgiven if you have never heard of such a beautiful and historically significant trail. Until recently there were no signs on the parkway or MS 553 pointing out the path's trail heads or parking lots and it was not drawn on the Parkway map distributed to visitors.
       If you knew about it at all, the information probably came from an entry in the book "Hiking Mississippi: a Guide to Trails and Natural Areas," by Helen McGinnis, published in 1994.  McGinnis considered the trail to be the wildest trail along the Natchez Trace Parkway.
       It was from McGinnis' book that Al Troy, a retired engineer and veteran hiker now living in St. Francisville, LA learned of Potkopinu, then known as the Old Trace Trail.
       At first, Troy found hiking Potkopinu a rough row to hoe.  There was little if any reason to maintain the Trace for 190 years and it showed.  Over the years, numerous trees had fallen across the trail making hiking through the sunken portions especially difficult.  Crossed by a tangle of ATV trails and walking paths used by locals, the trail was hard to follow when not tracking one of the sunken sections.  About 20 years ago, a Boy Scout troop blazed the trail by nailing tin can lids painted orange to trees but these did not last long.
Al Troy
       Troy became Potkopinu's unofficial champion in Louisiana.  For 20 years, he has worked to publicize the trail beginning with leading Sierra Club members from south Louisiana through the trail in 1993, drawing his own maps of the route.
      Troy was not alone in wanting to see Potkopinu rehabbed for visitors.  About 10 years ago, Greg Smith, scenic resources coordinator for the Natchez Trace Parkway, began pushing to make "the most pristine section of the historic Trace," ready for prime time.
        In 1983, five unconnected sections making a total of 60 walkable miles of the historic Trace, including Potkopinu, were designated as a National Scenic Trail by Congress.  A map of Potkopinu is available at the NPS Natchez Trace Parkway website--navigate through "Things to Do" then "Hiking."

       Apparently the days of neglect are over for Potkopinu.   Last spring big brown signs went up on the parkway pointing the way to the south trail head and its small parking lot and on highway MS 553 denoting the north trailhead's parking area, Smith said.
       Recently youth with the Southwest Conservation Corps spent two weeks clearing Potkopinu of large mature trees that had fallen, blocking the sunken trail.  Crews with chain saws cut the logs, some more than two feet in diameter, into chunks and pushed them to the side clearing the path.   Numerous trail markers, flat brown slats about four feet high with arrows pointing out the way, now make it almost impossible to lose the trail.
        But that is about as far as improvements are going to go, Troy said he has been told by Parkway officials.  He said he frequently talks to Natchez Trace Parkway management about the trail and said the trail, except for maintenance and the trail markers, will be left as untouched as possible to preserve it as it looked and felt 200 years ago.
       Smith said the historic Trace between the Potkopinu and Mount Locust, a restored historic inn about a mile to the south, is in federal hands but there are no plans now to extend the trail to the inn.
       Midday one warm and partly cloudy Saturday in mid-November, Troy is standing in the parking lot at Cole's Creek picnic area of the Natchez Trace Parkway greeting stragglers from the Louisiana Hiking Club's annual trek to Potkopinu.  It is the first time he has seen the trail since the clearing work was done and the trail markers were installed.  He is clearly pleased his fellow club members have enjoyed the hike.
        "I love this trail.  It is a beautiful trail and I love showing it to people.  I don't know why the park service ignored it for so long," Troy said.

If You Go:

       Coles Creek Picnic Area on the Natchez Trace at mile post 17.5 is 181 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA      
       The headquarters for the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tupelo, MS can be reached by calling 662-680-4027 or 1-800-305-7417.  For computer users, is the web site for the Natchez Trace Parkway and www.nps,gov/natt is the website for the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail.
       The marauding bands of bad people robbing, stealing and sometimes murdering Trace travelers 200 years ago are gone but hiking Potkopinu still has its hazards.  The onus is on you to be careful.  Remember that the goal of the National Park Service is to keep the trail conditions as close to the conditions faced by travelers on the Trace two centuries ago.  So it is a rough trail in places.  The trail is rutted and uneven, especially in the "sunken" ravines.  You must step over debris on the trail there and be prepared to lean forward and "ape walk" up some of the steeper sections.  Sturdy footwear is recommended.  No bicycles or horses allowed on trail.
       There are no bridges over the streams.  These streams may swell after a day or more of rain requiring some wading but normally they can be walked across with little risk of wet feet.
      The trail is flanked by private property open for in-season hunting.  White-tailed deer season runs from October thru the end of January.  If hiking during hunting season wear copious amounts of bright hunter orange, don't hike the trail early mornings and late evenings.  Do sing lustily or make other loud human noises when on the trail so hunters hear you before they see you.  Or wait until hunting seasons are over in the spring.
     Hiking the trail in summer exposes you to a world of biting and stinging insects, the most common of which are chiggers, ticks and mosquitoes.  There is beaucoup poison ivy.  Poisonous snakes-rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths--rarely are found along the Trace but just the same watch where you put you hands. There is no water at either trailhead.  Get drinking water at Coles Creek picnic area where there is a restroom too.  The parking area at the south trailhead, off a gravel road leading north from Geoghegan Rd., is too small for an RV.  Park at Coles Creek and walk due east.  Turn right at the gravel road and walk south to the trail head.  Or begin your hike at the north trailhead 1.3 miles east of the parkway on MS 553.
       Fit hikers will want to make the trail a six-mile out and back trip, stopping for lunch along the way.  Figure taking less than three hours to hike it round-trip, more if you take breaks.  Stay in the area after the hike to explore exhibits sprinkled along the Parkway explaining the history and geology of the historic Trace.  Don't miss Mount Locust, a restored home used as a "stand" (crude 19th century inn) built in the 1780's.  Or with the rest of the day, mosey on in to the city of Natchez to check out the opulent plantation homes there.  Or visit the Natchez Historical Park Visitor Center.  There is a gift shop there.   
       Hungry and on a budget?  Stop by Pig Out Inn Barbeque, 116 Canal St. for some fine and sloppy barbecue.  Sandwich, two sides and a drink, $10 plus tax. Phone 601-442-8050.
       Camping?  The closest public camping is Natchez State Park.  This is another park that takes the "primitive" part of "primitive camping" seriously.  The site is shady and has a few sturdy picnic tables but there are no numbered sites, tent pads, fire rings or bathrooms.  Get potable water from the developed campsite bathrooms.  $13 per tent.  The park is "dry" (no alcohol) as all Mississippi State Parks are--at least on paper.  The park also offers modern cabins, some with fireplaces, (no TV) and developed camping.  The vibe in the park is low key, kind of quiet.  The large lake is for fishing; swimming is not allowed.  Also there is not much for young children to do in the park so you won't see, or hear, a lot of them in the campgrounds.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Richardson Creek Trail in Homochitto NF

Looking at a waterfall on Richardson Creek from the Richardson Creek Trail in the Homochitto National Forest.

 The Clear Springs Trail Complex      

       Rangers in the Homochitto National Forest, in southwest Mississippi, report that most of the visitors to the Clear Springs Recreation Area and its small campground are from Louisiana.
       Not a surprise, really.  Hikers and mountain bikers from the flat lands of south Louisiana are drawn to the 25 miles of rugged paths through the wilderness there.   Elevation changes of 120 feet or more take hikers up and down steep root-strewn trails carved into the sides of heavily wooded ravines; a challenging terrain often compared to the foothills of the Smoky mountains in Eastern Tennessee or the Ozark mountains in Arkansas.
       Fall is a favorite time for the cult of the self propelled to visit Clear Springs.  Just a forecast of brisk weather is promise enough for hikers and bikers in the New Orleans area--dreaming of a chilly evening around a glowing campfire sipping a steaming mug of hot chocolate--to pack their boots or bikes for the 150-mile drive to the campgrounds (both primitive and developed) at the recreation area.
       The 10.8 mile Talley's Creek Trail, the first trail in what is now known as the Clear Springs Trail Complex, was completed in the late 1980's.  But it was little used by the hikers it was built for.  As luck would have it, the sport of mountain biking was just becoming popular across the U.S. and Talley's became ground-zero for off-road bicyclists from south Louisiana.  The only really hilly trail within a reasonable drive of New Orleans, riders quickly became buddy-buddy with Homochitto management, helping with trail maintenance, (which benefited both hikers and bikers) and organizing races.  Now more than 20 years later the trail is still one of the top rated mountain bike trails in the Southeastern U.S.
       Two newer loop trails-- the 5.6-mile long Mill Branch Trail and the 7.4 mile long Richardson Creek Trail--share a trail head, parking lot and bike wash with Talley's.  A one-mile long easy trail loops around the 12 acre lake, the centerpiece of the recreation area developed as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project in the 1930's. 
        (Everything you do in Homochitto costs something so be sure to visit the honor box before hiking, biking or camping there.  Day use is $5 per day.  Camping is $7 for primitive and $20 for a developed site with water and electricity by the 12 acre lake.  Parking areas are monitored by park staff so be sure to have that pink tag hanging from your rear view mirror before you leave your vehicle to hike or bike.)
     The trails can be combined to make loop trails of various lengths and all are open to mountain bicyclists and hikers.  Horses and motorized vehicles are prohibited.   All-weather forest service roads crisscross the trails providing a bailout option if necessary.  Opinions differ on each trail's level of difficulty.  All three are physically challenging and distinctions among them would be hard for hikers to discern.  For most trail users, the trail's length determines its difficulty.
       Homochitto is also popular with hunters who enjoy hunting seasons for one animal or another from October through May.  Trail users should take full precautions when on the trails during any hunting season.  Wearing lots of hunter orange is a must.  In the 2013-2014 hunting season, white-tailed deer are hunted in the Homochitto N F between October 1 and January 31, 2014.  For more information about hunting seasons in Mississippi and non-resident license and permit requirements, track down a copy of the "Mississippi Outdoor Digest" a glossy, full color free publication by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.    
       In most cases hikers can expect a challenging and dry hike.  Bridges span named creeks and intermittent creeks.  Stepping stones dot low, damp sections so wet feet are only a problem after periods of heavy rain.  Each trail tracks through a variety of environments from piney ridge tops to hardwood forests flanking sandy creek bottoms.  Frequently trails descend into shady "coves" with ferns clinging to vertical clay banks sheltering little creeks splashing over logs and ledges.
       The elevation change can be 140-150 feet in the extreme.  While the ups and downs are usually more moderate than that, they are constant. There is very little level ground on any of the trails so even the very fit will be challenged hiking here.  Figure a pace of about two miles an hour without stops for an average person in good physical condition on a day hike for exercise.
        From the trails hikers can view deep into the forest as undergrowth is sparse; the Forest Service maintains a periodic proscribed burning schedule in Homochitto.  Look for the charred pine tree trunks as evidence.   Short sections of high grass and bushes apparently not touched by the protective fires appear occasionally.
       The scenery is fall-like but not spectacular.  Hikers expecting the intense color of an autumnal tableaux in New England will be very disappointed.   The leaves of most of the deciduous trees in Homochitto just turn brown, usually by the end of November.  However windy days in Clear Springs can bring the sound of rustling dried leaves in the tree crowns.  A constant but sparse fluttering of leaves from the high branches carpet the trails with yellow and brown and, every now and then, a splotch of crimson.  That, with the crisp kiss of frosty air on bare cheeks, makes a hike in this southern forest a pretty good time.
       All good times need good food.  When hanging out at Clear Springs, the closest, dependable sources of good food are a busy grocery store and small country restaurant at the "T" intersection between Meadville and Bude on highway US 98.  Both were open the Sunday I was there.  This intersection is about five miles from the turn off from US 98/84 to Clear Springs Rd.  A service station/small truck stop on  Meadville's west side on highway US 84/98, a divided highway is a source for snacks and fried chicken.  There is a "meat and three" restaurant serving dinner (the mid-day meal) only, near the courthouse in Meadville, the county seat of Franklin County.  There may be other feeding options the day you visit so ask around.  But the food service biz is probably tough in a town of less than 600 people, so it may be best to leave New Orleans with everything you intend to eat on the trip. 
        There are soft drink machines in front of the bathrooms in Clear Springs.  

Richardson Creek Trail

Finding your way

        A fine map of the Clear Springs Trail Complex is sometimes available at the trail head just ahead of the honor fee box at the entrance to Clear Springs Campground.  The map is also available on line.  I met a guy on the trail who was following the Richardson Creek Trail on his smart phone.
       On the map, each of the four trails is marked a different color: Talley's Trail, yellow; Mill Branch Trail, navy blue; Richardson Creek Trail, red and Clear Springs Lake Trail, purple. 
       The trails are not blazed the traditional way with strips painted on trees.  Here, triangular signs at trail intersections match the colors on the map.  Each triangle also has a different letter of the alphabet.  Match the color and letter on the trail sign with the color and letter on the map and you know where you are.
       Between junctions there is little to guide you but the trail itself.   Occasionally a red, blue, yellow or purple diamond-shaped blaze, will be nailed to a tree but these are few and are not that helpful as they do not mark direction changes.  But most of the trail is worn into the forest floor from hiking boot and lugged mountain bike tire traffic so it is not that difficult to find your way if you pay attention.

Measuring the distance

        The Richardson Creek Trail, by itself is 7.2 miles long.  But a portion of two trails, the Talley's Creek Trail and the Mill Branch Trail, must be used to complete the loop with the trail head.  The total distance is ten miles.  Same way with Mill Branch.  The Mill Branch loop is 3.8 miles but to connect it to the trail head requires an additional 1.8 mile out and back walk making the total hike 5.6 miles.
       Sometimes diamond shaped blazes nailed to the trees along the trail identify these connecting trails by just their name, sometimes by just the root trail name--in this case, Richardson Creek and sometimes with both names.  The signage is most confusing when following the Richardson Creek Trail on its Mills Branch section.  When hiking the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, at the Richardson Creek Trail/ Mills Branch Trail junction, turn LEFT.  After you walk for a while you will see a confirming red Richardson Creek blaze nailed to a tree.
       Also look to the left to rejoin the Mills Branch Trail when crossing FS 187 and look to the LEFT again when crossing FS 187 a second time, when traveling the loop in a counter-clockwise direction.

Map Error

    Talley's Creek Trail is shown on the Clear Springs Trail Complex Trail Identification and Distance Map as passing north of FS 104E where the primitive campground is.  Talley's Creek Trail actually passes just south of the primitive campground on its way west to Richardson Creek.  It is much easier to start the Richardson Creek Trail from the trail head than try to find it from the primitive campground.

 "And up from the ground come a' bubblin' crude"    
           The primitive camping at Clear Springs ($7 per night), is nice but...primitive.  Sites are strung out along FS 104E nestled in a grove of big pine trees.  Each site is numbered and each has a large fire pit/grill.  Again..primitive is taken seriously here.  The closest toilets are in the developed campground about a half mile away.  The showers have hot water and the bathrooms are heated.  And while you are there be sure to replenish your drinking water supply.  There is no drinking water at the primitive campground.  The one picnic table that was there in March is now gone.
        On the plus side, there is access to Talley's Creek Trail, from the campground's western most camping sites and if you have a good sense of direction you can connect with Richardson Creek and see the little waterfall on the creek.  This is a short, family hike but you pretty much have to find your own way.
        The worst thing about the primitive camping has nothing to do with the campground or even the national forest.  It is the noise from the pumpjack (nodding donkey) about a mile southwest of the campground.  Much of the national forest sits on an active oil field and there are many other pumpjacks in these woods.  I didn't notice the low rumbling noise of the pump jack  when I set up camp that afternoon but all that night and the next night I could hear it.  It sounds like someone in a vehicle stuck in the mud or deep gravel spinning their wheels trying to rock themselves out of the hole.  Every two seconds.  But they never make it.  Ever.
       There are about two dozen developed camping sites with water and electricity near the lake that are $20 per night.  This is a very beautiful, small campground and usually fills up on holidays and weekend, when the weather is nice and weekends during hunting season.  There are no reservations: first come, first serve.  No alcohol is permitted in the campgrounds (sometimes law enforcement will drive through checking for scofflaws) and pets must be leashed. 
       In the summer the 12-acre lake opens to swimmers.  But it's fall now, bringing cool temperatures, crackling campfires for warmth and a chance for a fine hike without dissolving into a sweaty puddle.  Enjoy it while you can.
Richardson Creek Trail is shown in red.  To complete a loop hikers must also walk a portion of the Mills Branch Trail and the Talley's Creek Trail which become de facto extensions of the Richardson Creek Trail.

 How to get to Clear Springs from New Orleans

     From New Orleans, take I-10 west to I-55.  Drive to Summit, MS (just north of McComb) and turn west on US 98, a two-lane.  As you near Meadville, turn left (the sign says Meadville) at the "T" intersection on US 98, then left again right after crossing the overpass over US 98/84, a divided highway to head west on US 98/84.  Drive west about four and a half miles and turn south on Clear Springs Rd.  Look sharp for this intersection and its left turn lane!  There is a sign but it is not big.
     Clear Springs Rd. dead ends at Clear Springs Recreation Area after about four miles.
     For more information telephone the Homochitto National Forest at (601) 384-5876.  On the internet visit:  If visiting the national forest on a weekday during business hours stop in at the headquarters at 1200 Hwy 184 East in Meadville, MS 39653 to get the latest information on the trails in Clear Springs.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ramsey Springs access to Red Creek (MS) now open

Red Creek (MS) between City Bridge and Ramsey Springs

Paddlers again have access to Red Creek at Ramsey Springs.  A concrete ramp to the shallow but broad Mississippi stream tinted the color of caramel and redolent with large white sandbars, has been built upstream, river-right off MS 15 about 25 miles north of Biloxi.  Red Creek was tagged "one of the premiere canoe camping streams in the Southeast," by the authors of  the book "Canoe Trails of the Deep South" published over 20 years ago.
       The creek is considered floatable beginning at the MS 26 highway bridge west of Wiggins, MS.  From there the access points and distances are: MS 26 to U.S 49, 9.5 miles; U.S. 49 to City Bridge, 6 miles; City Bridge to Ramsey Springs (MS 15), 15 miles; Ramsey Springs to Vestry, 15 miles; Vestry to MS 57, 5 miles.  From MS 57 to the Pascagoula River, the creek joins with Black Creek to flow through the Pascagoula swamp, a delightful stretch when flowing out of its banks "provided you have a compass and machete," claims Ernest Herndon in "Canoeing Mississippi,"  a guide book to paddling the creeks, bayous, rivers and swamps of the Magnolia State.
       The creek has a surprising wilderness feel considering it is flanked by private property most of its canoeable length.  The creek passes through about three miles of the De Soto National Forest on either side of the MS 15 bridge at Ramsey Springs but other than that, step out of a canoe or kayak on solid ground and you are, in most cases, stepping on private property.
       A portion of the creek also passes through the 90,000 acre Red Creek Wildlife Management Area. The state legislature designated Red Creek as one of Mississippi's Scenic Streams.  
       With the help of the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain (LTMCP), a 56-acre parcel of land on river-right upstream of the MS 15 highway bridge is now owned by the state and managed by the Stone County Board of Supervisors and the LTMCP.  The ramp and access to the creek from the property on the south side of the river was closed to the public about 15 years ago when erosion of the creek bank under a concrete boat ramp rendered the ramp un-useable.  The property, then privately owned, was closed to the public. 
       "I grew up fishing Red Creek with my grandfather and we would launch at the old ramp," said Jon Bond, the engineer for Stone County, said in a telephone interview recently.  "I have been working on getting access to Red Creek at Ramsey Springs since 2001."
       A new ramp, this time with stone armoring flanking the ramp, has been built exactly where the old one was, Bond said.
       While the ramp to the creek is now the only improvement to the property, before the end of the year, the dirt road to the ramp will get an all-weather surface and a parking area will be surfaced.  Picnic tables and signage directing highway users to the small park will be installed too, Bond said.  A fence will be erected separating the small park from adjacent private property.
      "We already have the materials," Bond said.
      To market the scenic stream to paddlers, a 30 mile stretch between MS 26 and Ramsey Springs has been named by the LTMCP as the Red Creek Blueway.  A small brochure about the blueway, and other streams named by the LTMCP as blueways, is available at  The organization has erected about a half a dozen mileage markers along Red Creek's banks in this section.  The miles are measured from headwaters of Red Creek in Lamar Co.
        One part-time operation, South Mississippi Canoe Rental,,, will supply up to eight tandem canoes (the minimum rental is three) for day or overnight trips on Red Creek.  Reservations must be made in advance.  No private boat shuttle is offered.
       Those with their own boats must do their own shuttle or try to bargain a local into running a vehicle shuttle.


       Despite flowing through a remote and scenic stretch of Stone Co., paddlers have been scarce on the 15-mile stretch of Red Creek between City Bridge and Ramsey Springs since the access at Ramsey Springs was closed.  Paddlers could get to the creek from national forest property on the north side of the creek at Ramsey Springs but the carry to the creek was long and part of it up (or down) a steep incline.
       With the new ramp providing easy access to the creek again, it was time to revisit the City Bridge to Ramsey Springs section of Red Creek.  Four of us, from New Orleans, Covington and Slidell, made the 115-mile drive in late October to the creek.
       Spirits were high that chilly fall morning as we pushed off in two solo canoes and two kayaks from the concrete boat ramp at City Bridge into the shallow creek under a clear and bright blue sky.  Right away we were introduced to the pattern of a shallow and sandy creek bottom alternating with an even more shallow and sandy creek bottom.  The USGS gage at Vestry measured 4.5 feet that day, a common level for the creek when it has not rained recently.
        Floating inches above broad, flat sandy shoals the size of a tennis court was like "flying" a canoe at low altitude, the water was so clear.  Despite having to use paddles more as poles we only had to get out and drag the boats to the deeper water a couple of times.   In the deeper water fish and turtles could be easily seen.
       There are slightly swifter sections with blow downs and some "stump gardens" to navigate though most of these are closer to Ramsey Springs.  At higher water levels these could require some skill to make it through without capsizing.  One large blow down spans the creek requiring paddlers to shrink down in their boats to pass under it.  At a higher water level it would need to be portaged around.
        Sandbars are most numerous two to three miles upstream of Ramsey Springs.  Here the stream flows through about three miles of the De Soto National Forest and should be your destination if camping.  Sandbars are also frequent close to City Bridge but are least frequent in the middle third of this stretch when the creek flows slowly through a low flood plain with little elevation change.
       The stream is never narrow but there are some stretches where the deeply forested banks shade the stream.
       There is an emergency take-out at Cable Bridge Rd.  Pilings from the long, gone bridge will alert paddlers to the access on the river's right bank but the take-out is rough because the road stops well short of the creek and paddlers will have to scramble up to muddy bank to access the road.
       It took us about five and a half hours to complete the trip.  The shuttle, which uses Wire Rd. and City Bridge Rd. is fairly direct.  There is a paved parking area at City Bridge.  Isolated incidents of vandalism have been reported at City Bridge.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Black Creek: Brooklyn, MS to Fairley Bridge

     Black Creek, a winding, black water creek bisecting the 501,000 acre De Soto National Forest southeast of Hattiesburg, MS. is considered to be the best canoeing waterway in the state of Mississippi.  This is especially true if canoe camping is your thing.  Widely spaced sandbars punctuate the densely forested clay banks and serve as beaches in summer and cozy primitive campsites for one or more tents year around.
      This "specialness" has not been ignored by the U.S. Congress.  A 20-mile section of the creek (Moody's Landing to Fairley Bridge) is a National Scenic River--the only one in Mississippi--and this stretch flows through the 5,050 acre Black Creek Wilderness, one of only two Wilderness areas in the state.  (The other is the 940 acre Leaf Wilderness, also in the De Soto National Forest.)
          The creek's signature "black" tint is actually more the color of ice tea, the deep clear brown coming from the tannin leached from vegetation along creek's banks.  During dry spells when there is no rain to wash silt into the creek paddlers can peer over the side of a canoe and see three feet to creek's sandy bottom.


      Saturday morning at 9:11 am, October 26, Maarten, a Dutch physical oceanographer working at the Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi, and I pushed my venerable 16 foot tandem off the gravel bar at Brooklyn and into the cola-colored creek to start our two-day 26-mile trip to Fairley Bridge.  The sky was a brilliant blue.  We were glad to be underway after the two-hour drive from New Orleans.
       Launching into the creek in October, we knew the water level would be low.  Less rain falls here in October than in any other month.  There had been a shower or two on the watershed earlier in the week but that had long since drained, via the Pascagoula River, to the Gulf of Mexico.  The "real-time" USGS gage at the bridge in Brooklyn was reading 3.8 feet when we shoved off, about what I expected this this time of year.  Low but "floatable," some might say.
      We didn't find the stretch from Brooklyn down to Moody's Landing that "floatable."  It took only 15 minutes to run hard aground on a dead fall embedded in the shallow and sandy creek bed.  This was the first of many groundings.  Sometimes we would just misread the creek and grind to a halt in the shallow water flowing over a gravel or clay shelf.  Sometimes there was no deeper water to be "read".  At other times it was a submerged log just not submerged enough that grabbed the canoe, stopping it cold. 
       Way too often we had to use our paddles as poles to push the boat, with us in it, to deeper water.  When that didn't work we had to get out of the canoe and drag it over the gravel or hard packed sand to deeper water. Maybe two adults in a lightly loaded canoe with heaps of luck and skill could pass easily through the numerous stump gardens and gravel shallows between Brooklyn and Moody when the gage at Brooklyn reads 3.8 feet. 
       In the "pig boat" we were piloting, we didn't have a chance.  Piled so high with stuff we had to tie it down to keep it from falling into the creek, there was little hope of navigating the labyrinth of obstacles unscathed.  We left a Trail of Teals; dots and scrapes, bits of the blue/green vinyl from the bottom of my boat, all the way down to Moody's.  If faced with this water level on your trip consider putting in at Moody's to avoid this major concentration of stump gardens, or wait for higher water.  A creek level four to six inches higher would have made a big difference.  And made for drier feet too.
       But low water can be a blessing.  Low water means the current is slower and that provides more time to chart a course through the obstacles.  Low water allows even paddling challenged canoers the chance to back up against the current to try a second time to make an intricate maneuver that will get them through a tight space without having to get out of the boat.  Low water can help teach how to steer and read a river with little risk of capsizing and to not measure the success of a canoe trip by how dry you kept your feet.
       To that end, learning the cross draw paddle stroke was a revelation to Maarten, as it was to all of us who can remember learning it all those years ago.  To execute a cross draw from a standard forward stroke, without moving your hand position on the paddle, quickly bring the paddle across the bow of the boat by twisting at the waist and sink the blade immediately deep into the water away from the bow of the canoe.  If you can hold it, and it does take some strength to perform the stroke, the bow is instantly yanked a foot or more sideways, usually just enough to slide by an obstacle.  The more "body english" you put into this stroke, the more effective it is.
        Maarten is an experienced sea kayaker with a bombproof roll and years of experience paddling the unforgiving open water of the Pacific Ocean off  Los Angeles, California.  But a cross draw is not in the stroke repertoire of a sea kayaker.  Learning this new steering stroke so useful in a canoe on moving water, was an epiphany for the Dutch blue water paddler more at home in his Greenland styled kayak.  Soon it seemed like every few minutes I would see him suddenly twist at the waist, swing the paddle across the bow and stab the blade deep into the clear creek and hold it, jerking the bow about two feet to either the right or the left to avoid this or that submerged stump or stob.  That sure made my job as the stern paddler easier.
       As we floated along Maarten's scientific training and eye for detail kicked in.  Fascinated by subtle differences in vegetation and stream bank geology and being a major fan of evergreen trees, he pointed out little changes in the environment we were moving through that I had never noticed in my 30 years of floating the creek. 
       Below Moody's Landing there are more long slow sections and fewer stump gardens than up stream prompting us to try and make up a little of the time we lost navigating the maze of obstacles upstream.  We had hoped to make it past the Janice Landing access and into the Wilderness but by four o'clock we looked at the sinking sun and decided to call it a day. We made camp upstream of Janice at a sandbar with one of the creek's major landmarks; a huge dead grey cypress tree, the one with the fluted, flared trunk stripped of its branches, gracefully tapering to a point stabbing 30 feet into the sky.
       Pulling off the river when we did gave us plenty enough time to pitch camp and gather ample firewood before the sun set.  Temps in the 40's were forecast so we knew a campfire would feel good after dinner.  We finished the last few bites of canned chicken chili with rice and veggies just as the evening sky faded from blue to black.  There were stars everywhere.
       However, dinner pared with wine from a plastic bottle and several hot chocolate's fortified with brandy for dessert on top of a hard day's paddle made a warm sleeping bag more appealing than star gazing.  After a few clumsy attempts at "Shenandoah" on the harmonica it was off to bed at about 9 p.m.
       Up just after dawn on Sunday morning we awoke to a sunny but chilly morning.  We made breakfast and broke camp getting on the creek before 9 a.m.-- record time for me.  At camp we could hear the traffic from the highway bridge at Janice Landing so I knew we could not be more than a few miles upstream from that access.  After punching the buttons on his smart phone Maarten announced we had about 13 miles to paddle.  That sounded good to me as I looked up from my old school topo map and compass.  We shoved off leaving the solemn and majestic cypress hulk alone.
       We soon passed Janice Landing and into the Wilderness Area.  As we floated past Hickory Creek, a major tributary to Black Creek, I remembered one canoe/camping trip years ago when about 30 people camped here.  There was now only room for a much smaller group.  The substantial sandbars that were numerous along the creek are now neither substantial nor numerous.  Those that remain are much smaller, in some cases turned into low flat gravel bars or just altogether gone.  A nice sandbar for a group of six or more can be found but they are not as numerous as they once were. If you are picky you might end up at the take-out before you decide on a place to camp.
       Locals say the flooding rains from Hurricane Isaac, a Category 1 storm in the fall of 2012 shrunk and or erased the sandbars.   Views of the creek on Google Earth dated before September 2012, show sandbars that are not there now.  The bottom line for today's river travelers is; if you see a sandbar you like, stop, because there may not be another one in quite awhile.
      We stopped briefly at Cypress Landing, the downstream end of the five miles of creek flowing through the Wilderness Area, for lunch.  It seemed as if Nature was dropping a hint that we should wrap up our little adventure soon, when blanket of high grey clouds quickly drew across the sky dimming the sun.  Five miles from Fairley Bridge and facing a wide, slow creek and a slight but noticeable head wind from the southeast, we took the hint seriously and began to paddle in earnest.  (The take-out is not actually at the bridge but down stream about half a mile river right.  It is easy to miss so look sharp for the little rock jetty jutting out from the right bank.  There is no sign.)
      At it turned out, we arrived at the take out for our shuttle back to Brooklyn about two hours early. But the effort was not wasted as Brandon from Black Creek Canoe Rentals had arrived early too and was waiting for us.  Soon every thing was loaded up and we were on our way to my vehicle,  a mediocre but filling Tex-Mex dinner at a sit-down restaurant in Gulfport and the drive home to New Orleans.

Black Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn, MS did our shuttle.  See the Black Creek Canoe Rental website for rates.  This time of year he is open but only by appointment.  Don't wait until the last minute to call.  The number is 601-582-8817.  There is also a Facebook page for Black Creek Canoe Rentals.  There may be cell phone reception at Fairley Bridge but don't count on it.  It is less likely there will be cell phone service at Janice Landing.
The telephone for the De Soto Ranger District of the De Soto National Forest is 601-928-4422.  The office is in Wiggins, MS.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vandals shoot vehicle at City Bridge, a Red Creek (MS) access

UPDATE 10-28-2013
      After reading the story below about the vandalism of a vehicle while parked overnight at City Bridge on Red Creek in Stone Co. MS, Jon Bono emailed me this:
      "This is unfortunate...City Bridge has cleaned up a lot but still subject to such as this.  Someone shot my grill on the my sandbar about 7 times with a pistol.  Why I don't know but I sure hate this happened to you guys."

    The weekend of October 19-20, a vehicle parked overnight Saturday night at the small public park at City Bridge, in Stone Co. MS, an access to Red Creek in a rural part of the county, was damaged by a rifle bullet while the owner was leading group of Boy Scouts on a canoe/camping trip on the creek between U.S 49 and City Bridge, the man who owned the vehicle said.
          The damage was discovered when the man finished the canoe trip and drove out of the park.  He quickly noticed a front tire was flat.  While changing the tire he saw a small round hole on the inside sidewall of the tire and wondered what he had run over to cause such damage to the tire. 
          Shortly after that, after arriving at the informal U.S. 49 put-in on Red Creek, six miles north, the vehicle engine quit just as he made the sharp turn off the highway to the creek.  He noticed the engine was overheated but as he was pouring water into the radiator, it was draining out of a bullet-sized hole in the bottom of the radiator.
          He suspects someone used his vehicle for target practice Saturday night, shooting from a vehicle traveling on City Bridge Rd., judging from the trajectory of the bullet that flattened his tire and holed his radiator.  His vehicle had to be towed from the creek to be repaired.
         He said he did not file a police report.
          Several years ago cars parked at City Bridge overnight while a group of paddlers were canoe/camping on the creek were broken into and some items were stolen.  At least one of the thieves was caught later by local police and the stolen items were recovered.
         Red Creek is a popular creek for overnight canoe trips because it is a shallow, easy paddle and there are numerous sandbars on which to camp.  The water in the creek is open to the public but the creek flows through private property except for a few miles upriver and down river from the MS 15 bridge at Ramsey Springs.
          There is no canoe livery servicing the creek so overnighters must park their vehicles at remote and unguarded road right-of-ways or public parks, unless they know a landowner who will permit them to park on private property.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Black Creek: Camp Dantzler to Brooklyn (MS)

  UPDATE--OCTOBER 17, 2013


      Just as the piney woods in the De Soto National Forest south of Hattiesburg, MS were experiencing their first refreshingly, cool dry mornings since spring, it looked like the financial gridlock in Washington D.C. a thousand miles away, would keep hikers and paddlers away from what they most want to do when autumn finally arrives here--hike and paddle.
       Among the recreation areas in De Soto that are closed because no budget means no money for NF employees, are five landings that provide easy access to about 40 miles of Black Creek, Mississippi's only designated National Wild and Scenic River.  Flowing the color of Mississippi sweet tea the slow scenic creek is flanked by a number of broad sandbars perfect for camping and relaxing and is considered to be the best paddling stream in Mississippi.
       The closing of the landings and primitive campgrounds at Big Creek, Moody's, Janice, Cypress Creek and Fairley Bridge is bad news for Brandon Pearce at Big Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn, MS., the largest of two canoe liveries authorized by the USDA to rent canoes and kayaks on Black Creek.
       But, Brandon explains, as we bounce our way along the winding back roads of Forest Co. in his well used shuttle van, budget cuts have not closed the creek.  Black Creek is still open through the national forest.  So is the 41 mile long Black Creek National Recreation Trail, a hiking trail paralleling the creek.  The problem is getting on either of them.  But he has the solution.
       Upstream of the national forest boundaries we reach a put-in off a sand road downstream but within sight of the Churchwell Rd. Bridge, also known as the Camp Dantzler put-in.  Brandon said this sliver of property and its concrete ramp leading to a low and muddy creek bank is his, bought after he was denied access to the creek from the nearby bridge.   From here it is about 10 creek miles to the broad gravel bar at Brooklyn, the only other easy access to the creek open during this partial governmental shutdown.  A nice distance for a day trip allowing plenty of time to just drift.
       There is a pale gray overcast to the sky and a slight breeze as I quickly drop a dry bag, spare paddle and a small cooler into my narrow solo canoe and shove off from the mucky bank into the shallow burbling creek, anxious to leave big city cares behind.  The soothing scenery starts immediately.  Only 20 to 30 feet wide here, and hemmed in by short, vertical banks of black dirt and deep green vegetation, the stream alternates between stretches of quiet, flat water and noisy little chutes.  The water level was reading 4.2 feet at the Brooklyn bridge and could not have been more perfect.  At times the current scoots me bumping along just inches above the fulvous yellow clay and gravel bottom, standing waves slapping my blue canoe.  In still water I drift silently, slowly spinning while peering down at the pied dark green moss carpeting the creek's bottom two feet under my hull.  This creek turns my "bliss knob" to eleven.
       Here, outside the federal forest boundaries, perched on the creek's high left bank there are dozens of second homes, one right after another, a visual intrusion into an otherwise all natural tableau.  But no sound comes from them; it is a weekday and all the noise makers are either at their jobs or at their primary residences elsewhere.  As I drift past all is quiet except for the trill of an occasional song bird, the buzz of a flying insect or the splash of an anxious turtle dropping into the water from a log.
       About two hours into the trip, I pass Big Creek, a major tributary to Black Creek, the sign that I have now entered the national forest.  I round a bend and see two seated sportsmen fishing from a green, square stern canoe, the only people I would see on the creek all day.  Each of the men are in constant motion alternating their rapid casting with grabbing a paddle from across their laps and one-handed paddling when the slight current pushes their canoe toward the brushy banks.  As I pass the stern paddler expertly drops a cast in the shallows under the dense bush line along the bank 25 feet away.  The slender rod tip dips as he yanks it back once.  In seconds he reels in a wriggling bass about a foot long.  A keeper, he told me as I drifted by.
       Taking in the flow from tributaries Big Creek and Granny Creek the stream is wider here.  On the drive to the put-in Brandon said he once met a very old man who remembered when steamboats, starting from Pascagoula on the Gulf of Mexico, would buck the current on Black Creek as far as Brooklyn, then a busy timber town.  Brandon quickly adds that these were not behemoth sternwheelers like those plying the Mississippi River from New Orleans, but much smaller boats capable of negotiating the shallow twisting creek, using steam power to overcome the stream's weak current.  Railroads from the coast reached the area in the late 1890's, eliminating the need for steamboats.
        Brandon also told me of his deep roots in Forest County.  A direct descendant of the area's earliest settlers, he tells of one day hiking an overgrown and faint trail near Cypress Landing and finding a small untended family cemetery of his ancestors with markers dating back to the 19th century.
       My reverie of the past is rudely ended as I suddenly realize I am on a collision course with stump in the middle of the creek.  I have time for a couple of quick evasive strokes but these were not enough to save me and I hit the stump.  Luckily it was a glancing blow, off the canoe's rear quarters, violently rocking it sideways a couple of times but not enough to capsize me.
       My attention refocused on the here and now.  Scanning the shore it is easy to see the devastating effect Hurricane Katrina had on the timber here, knocking down lots of trees and thinning the forest considerably when it roared in from the coast eight years ago.  Removing the canopy of mature trees now floods the forest floor with sunlight resulting in a thicket of dense bushes, brambles and grasses giving the forest along the banks a ragged look.
       I had planned this trip as an overnight but at the last minute decided on a day trip instead.  I am glad I did.  The part of this section that flows through public lands has only a couple of homely looking gravel bars and they are low to the water, small and unappealing.  Between FS boundaries and the take-out in Brooklyn there are a few small sandbars but these are on private property and may be some one's front yard.  Google Earth shows more sandbars in this stretch but they are not there now.  Do this stretch to add miles for a longer trip but plan on camping downriver from Brooklyn.
      It was late afternoon when I finally finished,  pulling out of the current and up onto the broad gravel bar, just upstream from the old abandoned iron bridge crossing the creek in Brooklyn.  By then the gray haze that had tenaciously hung on most of the day had finally burned off leaving the sky pale blue and cloudless.  Low in the sky, a bright setting sun turned the rippling creek's surface to molten silver as I walked across the highway bridge with my paddle to get my truck for the drive back to the city.

         Black Creek Canoe Rental is open year around but by reservation only beginning October 1st.  Services include canoe and kayak rentals and shuttles and private boat shuttles.  Hikers and backpackers can make arrangements for shuttles to and from trailheads on the 41-mile Black Creek National Recreation Trail.  At the Black Creek Canoe Rental website there is a link to the USGS useful in checking real-time creek water levels at the Brooklyn gage.  The business also has a Facebook page.  The phone number of the voicemail at the business is 601.582.8817.  Brooklyn is about 20 miles southeast of Hattiesburg, MS.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Big group of volunteers spruce up USFWS visitor center in Lacombe, LA

Volunteers "making hay" at the fall work and play day at the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges headquarters in Lacombe, LA, pause for a picture.


       About 60 volunteers, most but not all recruited from area universities and high schools, spent the morning of September 28, 2013, pulling weeds and noxious vines from the shrubbery at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Louisiana Refuges Bayou Lacombe Centre in Lacombe, LA.
      The visitor center grounds were being spruced up in preparation for the "Wild Things" open house to be held at the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges headquarters off LA 434 in Lacombe,  Saturday, October 12, 2013 from 10 am to 4 pm.  "Wild Things" open house events are presented at USFWS refuges across the country in October and the one in Lacombe is one of the largest.
       The free event, presented by the USFWS, Southeast Louisiana and the Friends of Louisiana Wild Life Refuges, offers canoeing on Bayou Lacombe, tours of Big Branch Marsh along with dozens of display booths and exhibits from both public agencies and private vendors.  Expect a large crowd if the weather is nice.  There will be music and food will be sold on the grounds.
       The volunteers, sprinkled with about a half-dozen knowledgeable "geezers" who travel the U.S. and help maintain USFWS lands in return for a place to park their RV's, were rewarded with delicious lunch and a chance to go canoeing through the wetlands surrounding the preserve.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

National Park in Ocean Springs, MS delights Louisiana hikers

    The smallish and cozy for a national park, Mississippi District of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, packs a lot of opportunity for outdoor recreation despite its size.  The park, bordering artsy-craftsy  Ocean Springs, offers a small developed campground, a fishing pier, biking, a concrete boat launch, a short paddling trail and group camping all offered in a footprint of about 400 acres.
       However it was the chance to hike through the park's compact coastal forest and walk the edge of a saltwater marsh that drew nearly 30 members of the Louisiana Hiking Club to the federal preserve, Saturday September 14, 2013.
       Gulf Islands National Seashore was formed in 1971 to include beaches in the Pensacola, FL area, several barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico and the Davis Bayou District (MS).   Locals show their love for the park by keeping it clean and quiet despite heavy usage of the shelters for reunions, picnics and just general socializing.  Runners, walkers and cyclists from adjacent subdivisions and packs of kids on afternoon training runs from nearby schools take advantage of the park-like setting of the former state park to get in aerobic workouts throughout the day. 
       Partly cloudy skies and warm weather greeted the LHC group as they trooped through the short and shady Nature's Way Loop trail and the out-and-back CCC Spur Trail.  The group took a breather at the William M. Colmer Visitor Center, where some watched a film about the seashore or ambled off to the nearby fishing pier for a snack.  Total distance for the out-and-back trek from pavilion #2 to the visitor center and back, including the two side trails, was about four miles.  Except for the two side trails the hike follows the road shoulders in the park.
     Some hikers bivouacked in the grassy and shady group camping area the Friday night before the hike and Saturday after the hike.  After the hike Saturday, campers forsook the joys of making dinner in camp choosing instead to sample the restaurant scene in nearby bustling Biloxi or upscale, casino-free Ocean Springs.  Back at the campsite, bugs were surprisingly scarce for a September evening but the raccoons, though few, were not shy.  Freight trains with blaring whistles rumbled on tracks about a mile away adding rhythm and harmony to the buzzing insects as the group hit the sack.
       Veteran hiker and LHC member Tom Rogers led the affair, making all of the arrangements for the primitive camping ($20 per night, reservations required, must be group of 10 or more) and guiding the group. 
      Campsites in the 51 pad campground (water, electric, hot showers) are $22 per site.  The campground does not take reservations (reservations are mandatory for the group camp) and the busy season is from January through March.  For more information about the camping call 228.875.3962.
      Three short water trails winding through the adjoining salt marshes radiate from the boat launch.  The three bayous, Stark, Halstead and Davis were designated the Davis Island Blueway in 2012.  It takes about an hour and a half to paddle all three in one trip.  More than 300 species of birds have been identified in the park (which includes a much larger unit in Florida and several barrier islands), and there are of course, alligators.
        Paddle craft can be launched through the marsh grass bordering the unpaved overflow parking area but the sharp-edged oyster shells carpeting the path and the shallows are tough on fragile paddle-craft hulls.  The stiff marsh grass makes it difficult to launch a canoe or kayak parallel to the shore so paddlers must float the boat perpendicular to the shore and board from shin-deep shallows.  There is a $3 fee to use the boat launch.
       Water levels in the bayous are affected by tides.  There may not be enough water to float some of the Blueway at low tide in winter.   Be sure to pick up a copy of the Mississippi Tide Tables from the visitor center when picking up the map showing the Blueway.  (The bayou trails are not signed but navigation is easy because of the landmarks in sight on high ground surrounding the basin.)
       Because of federal funding cutbacks, the visitor center is closed on Wednesday and Thursday but the park and its boat ramps and picnic areas, are open.  The campground is closed Thursday and Friday but you can camp the closed days, paying when the campground office re-opens.
     The park is at the eastern end of the Live Oaks Bicycle Route, (15.5 miles round-trip) winding through the park and the Ocean Springs arts and entertainment district. The route utilizes existing streets and is marked with green and white bike route signs.  Part of the route is a paved path along Ocean Springs Beach and runs by the site where some say Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, in the spring of 1699, built Fort Maurepas, the first capital of the French colony of Louisiana.  (New Orleans was named the capital of the colony in 1722.)  Roads in the park, all two lane, have recently been resurfaced and are a little wider than before.  The park connects to Ocean Springs via a short pedestrian/bicycles only path extending Brumbaugh Rd. to Shelter #2.  From the other end, bikers turn off Halstead Rd. on to Brumbaugh Rd.  A sign alerts riders to the turn but can be seen only if approaching from the south.
      For more information about the park call 228.230.4100.  When the Davis Bayou unit is closed (Wednesday and Thursday) call the Florida Unit at 850.934.2600. or visit

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sea Kayaker Magazine's "More Deep Trouble" is a warning to kayakers who do not make safety the most important thing for every outing

       No one launches a kayak hoping to be fighting for their lives against the forces of nature a few hours later.  But sometimes it happens that way and when it does sometimes nature wins.  Sea Kayaker Magazine's, "More Deep Trouble," a collection of 29 true-life kayak tragedies and near tragedies, tracks from put-in to rescue or recovery how quickly a life and death situation can develop when kayaking on open water.
        Each story begins with a narrative of the event including all the details that would impact the outcome:  What training and experience did the kayakers have?  Did their skills match the weather and sea conditions they were expecting?  Did they have proper safety or survival gear and had they practiced using them?  Were they prepared for a change in the weather?
       Facts were gleaned from survivors, witnesses on the shore, first responders and locals who participated in rescues.  The narrative is followed by a point-by-point critique by kayaking experts who describe in detail what measures could have been taken to prevent the circumstances that led to each life-threatening situation.
         Numerous sidebars provide valuable context. Explained are how rough water rescues are supposed to work, the economics of decision making, how to avoid being trapped in an overturned kayak cockpit and  how to select and operate EPIRB emergency signaling units, PLB's and VHF marine radios.  Several of these side stories address situations when the kayaker becomes the rescuer in crowded water when boaters, swimmers and kite boarders get in trouble.
       Its all there; the shock of hitting freezing water in a capsize, the rescue flares no one sees, the helplessness felt when arms, hands and fingers are too cold to move, and for the lucky, the feeling of relief when plucked from a stormy sea or lake by a rescue helicopter or heroic citizen boater.
       Each fail had a different genesis, such as grossly over estimating paddling speed when planning an 86-mile crossing of Lake Michigan or failing to study the latest weather forecast.  Small errors in planning (i.e. failing to put fresh batteries in electronic gear) compounded what would have been a minor problem on land into a major emergency on open water.  Failure to leave a detailed float plan with someone on shore delayed a rescue response for many hours in one story.  At least one kayaker discovered, almost too late, that cell phones are not waterproof.
       But in the end it was not being properly dressed for extended periods of immersion in cold water that killed.   Knowing and practicing self-rescue (getting back into a righted sit-in kayak cockpit and pumping out the water) would have saved some.  However the best defense against hypothermia is leaving the launch wearing clothing that insulates against the cold of an unexpected cold water immersion; wet suits or expensive dry suits.
       Just learning to paddle proved to be fatal in one case.  In Maine, a 51-year old male practicing a low brace during a six-hour sea kayaking course for beginning paddlers, capsized and drowned.  Suddenly dunked into 58 degree water he panicked, leaving him unable to remove his fabric spray deck and exit the overturned cockpit.   In the seconds it took for rescuers to reach him he swallowed a fatal amount of sea water gasping for air underwater.  The group had practiced removing spray skirts on land just hours earlier.
       Knowing what to do offered no immunity to disaster in some cases.  Those with safety gear--pumps, paddle floats, flares, VHF radios--often had these safety essentials sealed in a hatch and not accessible to them when they needed them the most.  Beginners not dressed for immersion in 50 degree water never got a second chance.  (Some VHF radios that fit in a PFD pocket are now waterproof and will float.)
        Many tempted fate and lost by not checking batteries in emergency signaling devices before launching or who waiting until capsized in freezing water before donning life vests.  But perhaps most frightening are the stories of cautious, veteran sea kayakers with years of experience and several bombproof self-rescue techniques and possessing essential safety gear suddenly seeing their life depend on somebody rescuing them, and quickly.  In a chilling first-person account, a surviving kayaker details the horror of seeing his partner capsizing into a 34 degree ocean with 20 foot waves off Greenland's rocky cliffs while he was prevented from reaching her by howling winds and big waves as she repeatedly screamed for his help.
         Local yakers can feel a shred of comfort from the fact most of the incidents involve kayakers in waters foreign to us here on the Gulf Coast.  The gray whale that chopped a kayak in half, "In Awe, In Trouble" is not likely to show up in Mississippi Sound.  Deer Island has snakes and alligators but no grizzly bears as in "Attacked by a Bear in the Middle of Nowhere."
        Here in the sunny south there are no dangerous tidal rips to suck us out to sea and there are no rocky cliffs preventing us from getting off the water in an emergency.  Unlike kayak Meccas in the Pacific Northwest, Maine, Canada and the Great Lakes where the water is cold year around and paddlers protect themselves from hypothermia by wearing wet suits even in summer, waters we paddle in are above 70 degrees three seasons of the year.  T-shirts and shorts are our summer paddling togs.
     But that does not mean we can ignore the lessons these paddlers learned the hard way.  Experts recommend paddlers know how to brace confidently before venturing on water with waves over one foot, a common sea condition in the shallow bays, sounds and lakes here.  Even on a calm day, boat wakes of two feet and higher are not uncommon.  Hypothermia, a theme in almost every incident in "More Deep Trouble," from Alaska to Costa Rica, can be experienced here in winter and even late fall and early spring.  And you can never be reminded enough how quickly a change in the weather or wind direction can turn a cruise to a white-knuckled passage for the unprepared or unskilled kayaker.
      Many of the "More Deep Trouble" tragedies had their roots in bad decisions we all can make.   Faulty reasoning combined with an outright arrogance of the power of nature are human failings not limited to the northern latitudes.  To err is to be human. 
     The book's vivid and efficient telling of these tragic events adds to their drama; there is no need for embellishment to drive the terror home.  This exchange in "Life and Death off Baffin Island", makes the point.  Near the Arctic Circle, as a novice kayaker is rapidly being blown into ever higher and steeper freezing seas by an off shore wind.  She shouts for help.  When told to keep calm,  she said that she was calm but didn't know what to do.  The response?  "Keep upright," she was told.  The body of the 43-year old globe-trotting management specialist was never found. 
        In many ways the stories in "More Deep Trouble," read like the classic tragic short story, "To Build a Fire," by Jack London. In London's 1904 tale of man vs. nature, a greenhorn is walking back alone to his buddies in camp on a bitterly cold winter's day (spittle freezes solid before it hits the snow) in Alaska's Yukon Territory.  As the story unfolds it is revealed that while nature will not go out of its way to help or hinder man, nature does not care if man survives or not.  A good thought to keep if going to sea in a small boat.
       "More Deep Trouble"is the second collection of narratives about good trips gone bad from the pages of Sea Kayaker Magazine.  "Deep Trouble--True Stories and their Lessons," was published in 1997 and became a best seller according to its publisher McGraw-Hill.  "More Deep Trouble" covers accidents from the late 1990's through 2011.  The stories in both books were edited by Christopher Cunningham, editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine.
       Two copies are available at the Barnes and Noble in Metairie, LA. and is available from Amazon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A 2014 South Coast Summer Fest in doubt

Sunday morning coffee on Deer Island during the South Coast Summer Fest held late June 2013
      Amid the muted slap of small waves on the sand at the public beach in Ocean Springs, MS, five paddlers landed their kayaks on the gently sloping shore.  Their arrival on the beach after finishing a two-mile crossing of Biloxi Bay that humid Sunday morning, after a night of camping, s'mores, shish kebabs and a campfire on Deer Island, brought to a close the last scheduled event of South Coast Summer Fest: ten days and nights that attempted to turn the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Bay St. Louis to Pascagoula into Planet Kayak with dozens of kayak themed events on the beach and in the water.
      All types of kayaking were promoted in the late June festival.  The variety of events included kayak trips to secluded natural sites, kayaking instruction, kayak fishing demonstrations, kayak rides for children, twilight group paddles and races.  Each day of the fest, award winning film shorts about paddling the world over were screened in Biloxi.
     But this year may have been the last for the two-year old festival.
     While successful at building a "kayak community" and promoting safety on the water, the fest was not successful financially, putting a Summer Fest for 2014 in doubt, said Cynthia Ramseur, who along with Leah Bray, owns Natural Capital Development, an environmental consulting and project management company based in Ocean Springs, MS.  The firm organizes and underwrites the South Coast Summer Fest to promote eco-tourism along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
      About 40 volunteers help with event.
Leah Bray
      Communities hosting festival events were enthusiastic but over all attendance to the five free community celebrations was disappointing, Ramseur said.   Paddle trips, most of them requiring a fee and appealing to eco-tourists wanting to go birding and see wildlife in the fragile environments near the coast, attracted about as many people this year as last.  Overall about 2,000 people, most of them from the local area, attended at least one of this year's events, she said.
     A final accounting of festival revenues has not yet been made but it looks like the festival raised about $2,000 to donate to the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, Ramseur said.
     The festival's fate could be decided late this summer when stake-holders in this year's fest meet to review the 2013 event, said Ramseur.
     Getting the green light for a 2014 Summer Fest is in part "up to the kayak community and if they want to support it," said Ramseur, one of three partners in South Coast Paddling Company, a kayak rental and eco-tourism business based in Ocean Springs, MS.
      However, more public money for production and publicity is the key to having a festival in 2014, Ramseur said.
     "We did not have the investment in local advertising.  We did not have paid marketing.  You have to have good financial support to run a festival this size," Ramseur said.
      Interest in kayaking along the Mississippi Gulf coast appears to be strong.  The Mississippi Kayak Meetup group, an informal Internet social network of area paddlers, has nearly 300 members in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.  Many of those members volunteered for Summer Fest, leading trips, offering kayak instruction and free kayak rides for children.
     Several kayak touring companies along the coast cater to eco-tourists who want to see the wetlands of the area and an alligator or two.  Kayak rentals are available in Bay St. Louis, Biloxi and near Ocean Springs.
      One of the highlights of the Festival was the twilight kayak parade in Pascagoula.  Ramseur said about 70 kayaks, some of them tandems, participated while 350-400 watched from shore as the group, many of them in lighted kayaks, paddled past Lighthouse Park.
     At the other end of the coast, a short paddle of the dark waters of the upper Jourdan River near Kiln, MS, a joint effort of the Mississippi Kayak Meetup group and the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club from Louisiana, attracted dozens of paddlers in canoes and kayaks.
     Unfortunately, the festival climax day, the 4th Annual Ocean Springs Kayak Festival, MS fizzled after a powerful lightning storm moved through the area the night before knocking out power in some areas.  Attendance may also have been dampened by Saturday's weather forecast: on and off thundershowers all day.
     "We had more than 3,500 in Ocean Springs last year but I think the storm the night before and the threat of storms all day Saturday keep people off the beach this year," Ramseur said.  That morning's Strawberry Moon Duathlon went off as scheduled with nearly 80 participants but other events were either canceled or went on with just a few participants as there were few in the sparse crowd sprinkled on the beach that even knew there was a festival going on. 
     Optimistic about the role a well-funded Summer Fest would play in promoting environmental tourism along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Ramseur said the festival is a great way to highlight the beauty and diversity of scenery and culture along the coast.
     "There is so much diversity in such a short coastline.  The kind of culture we have, the many's a lot like New Orleans," she said.