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.


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