Friday, February 22, 2013

Mill Creek Trail in Mississippi's Homochitto NF

Signs, signs.  Everywhere a sign.  Louisiana Hiking Club members start their hike on the 5.5 mile long Mill Branch Trail in the Homochitto National Forest in southwest Mississippi.  The trail is one of three trails in the 24-mile long Clear Springs Trail complex. 
     Mill Branch Trail is a 5.5 mile long loop trail in the Homochitto National Forest in southwest Mississippi.  The trail is the shortest of three interconnecting loop trails used by both hikers and mountain bikers in the 24-mile long Clear Springs Trail Complex.
     Mill Branch is considered by bikers and hikers to be less strenuous than the 11-mile Tally's Creek Trail or the seven-mile Richardson Creek Trail.  Unlike the other two trails, there are no short, steep lung-busting climbs to reach the rounded ridge tops along the Mill Branch pathway.  Gentle grades transit to elevations ranging from about 400 feet at the highest point to about 260 feet at Richardson Creek.
     Springtime hikers on Mill Branch see forested ridges of tall pines--loblobby mostly-- and at lower elevations, hardwoods leafy and green.  But that is not what the area looked like just 90 years ago, says Dave Chabreck, operations team leader at the Homochitto National Forest District headquarters in Meadville, MS.
     "The lumber companies came in here back then and cut everything they could, leaving nothing standing higher than a knee cap," Chabreck said, referring to the days before the land became a national forest and under the protection of the Department of Agriculture in the 1930's.  "I have seen many photographs where it looks like you could stand on any hill here and see for miles in all directions with nothing to block your view,"  he said.
     So, while the forest hikers enjoy today may look "old," all the virgin timber is gone: the trees seen now are 90 years old or younger, planted after the forest was clear-cut a century ago, Chabreck said.
     Hikers who see blackened bark on the pines along the trail are seeing first-hand traces of one of the tools foresters have to control the risk of a devastating forest fire: fighting fire with fire.  Sections of the forest, on a rotating basis, are burned under controlled conditions to keep the accumulation of dead leaves, pine needles, branches and smaller trees from building to a level that would make it nearly impossible to contain a forest fire should one erupt.  The controlled burn along Mill Branch was about two years ago, Chabreck said.
     Because regular burning removes the under brush, hikers can see long distances, making it easier to spot wildlife and see the trail ahead.
     Getting an accurate count of trail users, both hikers and bikers, is not easy but Chabreck said he thinks the trails are popular.  About a decade ago a forester at Homochitto making an informal count of license plates in the Clear Springs campground estimated that up to 90 percent of the campers were from Louisiana.
     Spring can be a busy time on the trails at Clear Springs.
     "The whole forest is full of dogwoods which will be blooming in three to four weeks.  On a nice April day a lot of people are on the trails," Chabreck said.
     The first recreation trail to be built at Clear Springs, the Tally's Creek Trail, was blazed in the early 1980's.  Underused by the hikers it was designed for, mountain bike riders began to use it and to organize work details supervised by Homochitto NF staffers to keep the trail maintained.  Mill Branch was the second trail to open, providing  a trail easier and shorter than Tally's Creek.  Lastly, Richardson Creek, designed by mountain bike experts, opened.  That seven mile trail is considered one of the most technically challenging mountain bike rides in Mississippi.
     Finding your way on the Mill Branch Trail is fairly easy.  It is not heavily blazed--blazes are not painted on the trees. But the path sees enough use to be distinct from the surrounding forest and can be followed easily if you pay attention.  Also pay attention to where you step.  The trail is strewn with exposed roots and stobs ready to trip the inattentive hiker.
     At the trailhead, hikers can pick up copies of an excellent map showing the trails, each trail a different color.  These colors match with colored trail signs on the trail.  Match the color and the letter on the sign with the color and the letter on the map and you know where you are.  Signs are at trail junctions and when the trail crosses a FS road.  As always, pack a compass, a map, snacks, water and rain gear.  And bug repellent with DEET.  A map of the  Clear Springs Trail Complex can be downloaded free from   For more information call the Homochitto District headquarters at 601-384-5876.
     Day use at Clear Springs is $5 per car.  Camping is $20 per night in the developed (water, electricity) campground and $7 at the primitive sites.  Hot showers but the water in one bath house is reported to be hotter than the other.  Money is collected at an honor box; have the correct change.  Checks are accepted.  A detailed description of the campground, and other NF sites, can be found at  To the left of the opening page, click on national forests and campgrounds.  From the list of all the national forests scroll down to Homochitto.  Clear Springs is the only campground listed.   An important prohibition omitted from the description is that alcohol is NOT permitted in the campground and that sharp-eyed law enforcement officers patrol the recreation area.  The fines are stiff.
     But you knew that.

Okhissa Lake Anniversary

     November 7, 2012 was the fifth anniversary of the opening of Okhissa Lake, a 1075-acre recreation reservoir three miles south of Bude, MS in the Homochitto NF.
     The lake was a long time coming.  There was local support for the construction of a recreation reservoir in the Homochitto NF for decades before the lake project impounding Porter Creek was approved in 1999.  An observation deck was built overlooking the massive construction site so people could see the earthmovers build the impoundment.   Opening day saw long lines of cars and pick-ups towing boat trailers waiting to launch into the new lake stocked with largemouth bass, channel catfish, black crappie, white perch, shad and others.
     Its not just the fishers who enjoy the lake, Chabreck said.  Paddlers in kayaks and canoes explore the many forested coves creasing the lake's 39-mile long shoreline, he said.  The northwestern third of the lake, near the impoundment, is a designated ski area and can be reached launching from the northernmost boat launch.  However, in the rest of the lake, motorized boats are restricted to idle speed.  This is the area most popular with paddlers.  It's where the lake's pool reaches deep into narrow ravines with steep sides covered with pines and prickly underbrush giving paddlers their best chance to spot wildlife.  Launch from the southernmost boat launch for this part of the lake.  The lake closes at 9 p.m.   Overnight parking is not permitted.
     There is an ongoing effort to attract a private sector partner to develop and operate major recreation facilities at the lake such as a lodge, cabins, restaurant, marina, and campgrounds.  The original development plan drew no response from investors.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Deer Island, MS: A wilderness hiding in plain sight.

Sunday morning from overnight to Deer Island in the summer of 2013
A winter sunrise on Deer Island, MS
NOTE:  In late April 2015, the US Corps of Engineers approved construction of a 170-foot pier on the north shore of Deer Island.  With it will be restrooms and a snack bar, both on a barge that can be moved in event of an impending storm.  Construction will begin in the summer of 2015.  Commercial boat shuttles will operate round trip from Biloxi to the island when construction is complete.  See longer post on this topic elsewhere in this blog.
    Camping on Deer Island (MS) can be a bipolar experience.  At one extreme, traffic noise from the thriving casino hotel complexes on the mainland, washing over the island 24/7, stopped cold any fantasy that the island would feel the least bit tranquil and remote.  Not to mention the throb of diesel locomotives and blaring train whistles throughout the night from the L&N (now CSX) mainline just across the open water from our tents.
     Yet, at the other extreme, the skinny 4.5 mile-long island would feel and look like a wilderness were it not for the surrounding clamor.  The squat palmetto fronds, gnarled live oaks, tall pines and grassy salt marsh making up the eastern two-thirds of the island have not hosted humans in over 40 years.  Today a wide variety of bird life and land-based critters, along with two dangerous vertebrates, water moccasins and alligators, have the island all to their creepy-crawly selves.
     Except when a dozen or so kayakers from the Mississippi Kayak Meet-Up group make the short crossing from the mainland to island camp for one night as we did early February this year (2013).   All of the over 700-acre island (except for 15 acres at the western tip that are privately owned) is owned by the state of Mississippi and open for recreation.  There are no facilities but primitive camping is permitted.  The island is managed by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Coastal Preserves Program, based in Biloxi.  No fees or permits are required to visit the island.
     We made camp in the white sand amid clumps of spiky grass at the edge of a wind swept dune-less 200-acre beach restoration project.  Our 18-hour bivouac at the western end of the island, the end closest to the mainland, was a scant quarter mile away from high-rise casinos and their high-rise parking lots. 
     I recently spoke with long-time Coastal Preserves Program Coordinator, Jeff Clark about what campers should and should not do when camping on the island.
      He said in the spring signs will go up warning people not to walk through Least Tern nesting areas and the nesting areas of several other bird species.  People should not camp near the many osprey nests on the island or near an eagles nest if a pair should return to the island.  Doing so could cause the birds to abandon their nests, Clark said.
     "In fact it is not a good idea to camp near any trees as many of them are dead and could fall at any moment," Clark warned.
     Not threatening to life and limb but a serious threat to sanity year around are the many varied flying, stinging insects on the island.  Our group was plagued by biting gnats and it was early February!
     "The gnats seem to be most active between the temperatures of 65 degrees and 80 degrees and when it is calm out there they get really bad," Clark said.  "Above 80 degrees the gnats seem to go away, but then you have the deer flies.  Just bring a repellent with DEET year around," he suggested.
     Another hazard can be seen from the comfort of home viewing Google Earth on a computer.  The satellite view of the island clearly shows a dark trench in the shallows where the sand was pumped to restore the western end of the island and the south shore beaches  Waders on the south shore of the island should be careful that they do not accidentally wade too far from the beach and fall into that trench, which is ten feet deep, Clark said.
     We chatted a bit about litter on the island (there will be a clean-up in the spring) and how the island is popular with those who go there to watch birds.  Then I asked about the island's future.
     He said that he was optimistic on several fronts.  Recently a clutch of over a hundred loggerhead sea turtle eggs were found on a Deer Island beach.  Loggerhead sea turtles are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services threatened species list so the nest was marked off with tape to prevent tampering.  No one saw the hatchlings wiggle/slide from the nest to the murky water (the post-natal trip is usually made in darkness to avoid being spotted by predators) but the 108 empty egg shells left in the nest was proof nearly all of the young turtles made it to the sea, Clark said.
     Deer Island itself is coming back from years of erosion and storm damage.  Restoration projects, such as installing oyster shell jetties on the island's east end to check erosion, are ongoing and aimed at enlarging the island to the size it was in the 1850's.  Viewed from the nearby mainland the dead pine trees near the island's shore make the island look desolate.  But seedlings to replace the dying pines are thriving, assuring a comeback of the marine forest there, Clark said.  And in the interior of the island, where few people go, the survival rate of pine trees is much higher than near the water by maybe 50 percent, Clark said.
     Back at camp on the open beach at the island's west end, those who had been camping on Deer Island before said there were better campsites on the island.  On the south side of the island the noise is not as intrusive and as long as you only look south all you see is water--no casinos.  Going west to east the island angles away from the mainland; the further east you go the greater the distance between camp sites and shore-based cacophony from the coastal highway, they said.
     But because of the dense vegetation on most of the island, crossing it on foot is not an option.  Escaping to the island's more remote and quiet south shore requires paddling around either the eastern or western tip of the island and leaving the relative protection of Biloxi Bay for the often choppy Mississippi Sound.  A piece of cake for experienced yakers in sleek expedition-ready composite boats but a stressful passage for those with weak paddling skills piloting humble sit-on-tops and stubby ten-foot rigid plastic "pool toys".
   The weather, always a major factor in any trip, for this trip was nice.  Temperatures were in the low 70's under partly cloudy skies with a slight breeze when the group launched from near the Kuhn St. boat launch on their three-tenths of a mile transit across the Intracoastal Waterway to the island.  A warm evening with a beautiful sunset yielded to a chilly night with a stiff breeze making the roaring campfire very welcome.  A slight spritz of rain came out of nowhere late that night but that was after everyone had retired to the tents and got all snugly in their sleeping bags, the bright glow from casino row providing an unwelcome night light.
     After sunset the boat hatches were popped and a potluck supper was spread on our "table"--a weathered wooden door found in the sand.  The homemade mac and cheese was to die for!!!
     And, of course, there was lots of liquid refreshment to be had to lubricate the always joyous and revealing conversations sparked by a crackling campfire.  But as they say: "Whatever is said on Deer Island, stays on Deer Island."

Note: The Kuhn St. Boat launch and the parking area next to it is open.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bicycle powered electrical generators touted by alternative energy group in New Orleans

      While riding around the neighborhood doing errands or working out in a Spinning class, a fit exerciser can maintain an output 100 to 200 watts of power.  Have you ever wondered if the great workout you are getting could be put to something useful like generating enough electricity to power a television or laptop?
     Your pedalling power can be used to electrify small appliances, power a boom box or be saved in  batteries to use later when storms leave you in the dark.  All you need is the rear wheel of a bicycle connected to a generator capable of converting your mechanical energy to electricity.
     Using an electric motor from a kid's scooter as the generator, a power inverter, two capacitors, a blocking diode, an adjustable "V" belt, a sturdy bicycle stand and a bicycle from the garage, a generator capable of powering a laptop, light bulb or an electric blender can be built for about $220, said Julia Michaels, education director for the Alliance for Affordable Energy in New Orleans.
     The price for Michaels' unit, while low, is inflated because some of the most expensive parts-- such as a Razor scooter motor, ($26) and a stand from a stationary bicycle exerciser ($64) had to be purchased from eBay or new.  The total cost of your unit could be much less depending on how many of the parts used to build it can be found in your garage or attic, in the neighborhood or scrounded from a landfill.
     Or you could just skip the build-it-your self step and buy a ready-to-use unit.   But expect to pay 50 to 100 percent more than for a home built bicycle generator.   And even the store-bought units require at least some assembly.
      The bicycle for either store-bought or home-built does not have to be completely operational, she said.  All you need is the back half: the rear wheel, the drive train (cranks, chain, rear derailleur, shifter), and a seat that can be adjusted up and down.  The rear wheel does not even need a tire but the rubber rim strip should be there.
     Michaels gave a presentation of a homemade bicycle generator's power to light up a 60 watt light bulb and power a boom box playing Cajun music at The Green Project, a community based organization known for recycling building materials and paint, at 2831 Marais St. in New Orleans. (
     The technology is not new.  In 1831 Michael Faraday discovered that moving a magnet through a coil of copper wire caused a current to flow through the wire-the principal electric motors and generators are based on.  Small portable generators using human power were used in World War II to power radios on the battlefield. 
     There are plenty of Internet sites offering DIY bicycle generator advice and plans.  Among several recommended by Michaels are: and
     While the cost of materials is low, getting a home-built bicycle generator to work reliably may take some time consuming experimentation, she said.  Knowing what you want to power and how much power will be needed before buying motors, power converters and other stuff will lower the frustration level when you begin hooking the stuff up.  Making friends with the neighborhood engineering geek will speed the project along.
      Michaels' bicycle generator is portable enough for the slender educator to haul around to area charter schools to demonstrate how human power can be converted to electricity.  She said the kids are thrilled when they realize they can light a light bulb by pedalling a bicycle--a demonstration very tolerant of the power fluctuations that can occur.  Someone looking for a reliable unit to power their $2,000 laptop should probably pay the extra money and get a ready-to-use generator set-up designed to be powered by a bicycle and maybe a battery to go with it, said Michaels, who will soon be replacing her home-built bicycle generator with a store-bought unit..

Sunday, February 3, 2013

This could happen to you...

     The weather on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the first weekend in February was beautiful; temperatures in the 60's with  bright sunshine, a few clouds and a slight, cool breeze from the southeast.  The sublime weather was a lucky break for the dozen or so kayakers who paddled to the western end of Deer Island--about a quarter of a mile from the casinos on the Biloxi mainland-- to camp on the sandy spit Saturday night.
     Sunday, after lingering over morning coffee, group members folded their tents and paddled back to the mainland, but not before exchanging fond farewells and giving sincere promises to do it again soon.  But I wanted more.  Even if  had to go alone, the weather was just too nice to leave without exploring at least a little more of the five-mile long island.
     Into the murky shallows I launched my yellow, 10-foot kayak, stuffed so solid with camping gear sitting in it was a tight fit.  I paddled east hugging the island's lee shore.  We had camped on a broad, flat windswept plain near the island's western tip.  But just east, there were trees, though most of them were dead or dying pines, drowned by storm-driven sea water from many recent hurricanes, their lifeless and jagged grey trunks stabbing the blue sky.
     A narrow ribbon of white sand pinched between prickly scrub and the water serves as beach.  It widened a bit at the island's halfway point so I got out to stretch my legs.  I pulled the boat partway out of the water and began to explore, looking for a path through the thick undergrowth of shrubs and palms to the broad sandy beach on the island's south shore.
     I had no luck in finding a passage, but as I was returning, horror struck.  I saw my kayak, drifting towards the Mississippi Sound powered by a steady south wind.  A thick pile jacket, sleeping pad, maps and a large red fabric "Coca Cola" cooler piled high on the kayak's deck provided ample "sail" for the wind to push the kayak sideways at a good clip toward the deeper water.
     I had to get that boat and I had to get it now.  It was my only way back to the mainland and was packed with essentials: my paddle, food, water, spare dry clothes, camping gear--and most importantly--my cell phone without which I could not call for help.  There was no time to waste.  In a few seconds it would pass the point wading would catch it.  It would soon be floating in water over my head and moving out of my reach at a rate faster than I can swim.  I had to get that boat now.
     Panicked and about 60 feet from the boat I sprinted into the chilly water, soaking my pants, shoes and socks while trying to forget the stinging rays, partially concealed in the sandy shallows, I had seen on previous visits to the island.  The water was about mid-thigh when I lunged, grabbing the bow handle of the fleeing kayak. The boat stopped, the stern swung around smartly into the wind, and I waded back to the beach, my heart pounding, towing the boat behind me.  The incident, from beginning to end lasted about 40 seconds.
     I think I was lucky.  The wake of a passing motor boat speeding in the distant channel must have lifted the kayak free of the beach just a minute or so before I discovered it drifting away.  In another minute or two the errant kayak, sitting high in the water, pushed by the wind, would have scudded into waters too deep for me to recover it.  I shudder to think what the rest of my day would have been like, starting with me shivering in the breeze flagging down a passing fisherman for a ride back to the mainland.  That would have been a small problem compared to what I would have had to do next: find the kayak, assuming it was still floating.  My car keys and wallet were in the boat and without them I would have been stuck 100 miles from home with no money, no car and no phone to call for help.  And while my life was never in danger, recovering from my mistake would have been costly in both time and treasure.
     Wet and humbled, I retraced my route, again hugging the island's north shore, but paddling faster now, pushing to leave my stupid mistake behind in my wake as quickly as possible.  As I closed in on the island's western tip I turned north, paddling across the Intracoastal Waterway, the channel ruffled by a light wind and glistening in the setting sun.  A few minutes later the yak's bow nosed up on the sand beach near the Kuhn St. Boat Launch.  I sat still for a few seconds, my dripping paddle across my lap, relieved there had been no further incidents and happy that warm, dry clothes, a nice dinner and a relaxing drive home were just moments away.