Thursday, April 25, 2013

Longleaf Trace: Mississippi's Premier Rails to Trails


Map of the Longleaf Trace, at 40 miles, one of the longest rails to trails in the South.


     The Longleaf Trace is a 40.25-mile long paved multi-purpose recreational trail running from Hattiesburg, MS to Prentiss, MS. through the piney woods of southwest Mississippi.  One of the longest rails to trails in the South, since opening in 2000 it has drawn users from across the nation and around the world, earning it a place in the Rails to Trails Conservancy's  Hall of Fame.
       In the early 20th century this was a busy rail corridor with steam engines huffing and puffing hauling long freight trains carrying lumber and turpentine, all day and long into the night.  By the time all the trees were cut in the early 1920's, rail service that had supported up to four passenger trains a day from Natchez, MS to Mobile, AL, dropped to a trickle, then stopped.
      Today it's the trail users doing the huffing and puffing as they bicycle, run, jog, power walk and skate through the second-growth stands of longleaf and loblolly pine that flank the trail's smooth asphalt.  There is also a 22-mile equestrian trail parallel to the trail. 
     Massive steam engines hauling heavily loaded trains of lumber needed easy, flat grades through the low rolling hills.  But the Longleaf Trace is not flat.  At least not flat from end to end, like the Tammany Trace in Louisiana.  Heading northwest from Hattiesburg, the trail takes its time--about 35 miles-to climb 300 feet to the trail's "summit" Carson-- 519 feet above sea level.  From there the trail gradually drops in steps to the bridge at Jaybird Creek before it makes the gentle rise to Prentiss, the most noticeable uphill on the trail.  Not a lung-busting, sweat-fest but you may have to shift down a gear to keep momentum up for a couple of stretches.
     Also, unlike the mostly arrow-straight 28-mile long Tammany Trace, the Mississippi trace has curves.  Not sharp curves but long turns that gradually, a degree or two at a time, gracefully carve shallow arcs through the patchwork of farmland and forest.
      Near Hattiesburg, the state's fourth largest city, the trail feels like a skinny city park, its broad asphalt and groomed shoulders crowded with runners, cyclists, families with strollers, people out for a stroll, university students and seniors. (Because of first-class medical care, Hattiesburg is one of the state's most popular retirement destinations).  Be wary of the kids, dogs and other trail users not aware of speeding cyclists on this stretch of the Trace and save the 20 mph pace lines for the remote sections of the Trace west of Sumrall. 
     But crowds thin the more away from the city you ride.  The scenery becomes more rural with farms and large homesteads becoming the dominant feature.  Shade from tall pines covers much of the trail.  There are rest stops and "rain stops" (rest stops with a roof) along the trail, each sponsored by a local business, service club or individual.  Public support for the trail began even before the trail was built when, at the request of the residents of the counties through which the trail would pass, the Mississippi legislature created a special recreational district and a small property tax millage to pay for the maintenance of the trail.
    Six trail heads offer parking, restrooms and drinks.  The small market towns of Sumrall and Bassfield can be explored on foot.  The A.F. Carraway Store in Bassfield is an old-time hardware store with everything and Lau-Tori's Fine Foods, within sight of the Trace in Sumrall has an extensive menu of Southern favorites and lots of ice cream treats.  Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
     A two-mile spur along Ed Parkman Rd. leads to a small campground in a wooded grove on the shore of Jeff Davis Fishing Lake, a unit in the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.  The lake and camping are closed now but will reopen May 22, 2013, a Wednesday, when re-construction work on the lake is complete.  The campground offers hookups for water and electricity and hot showers.  A fee for camping is charged.  There is a free primitive camping site for trail users at Carson Station.
     Just east of Prentiss perched on high ground on the right is the site of the Prentiss Institute, a private black high school founded in 1907.  The academically rigorous boarding school graduated as many as 200 a year before closing in 1989.
     There is a livery and riding stable in Bassfield that also offers RV camping and tent camping.  Another livery in Sumrall offers horse rentals.     
     From New Orleans the easiest access to the trail is the eastern terminus at the Gateway on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg. (See directions below.)  Here, those without bikes can rent them--geared comfort bikes are popular--get a soft drink, pick up a map of the trail, buy Trace T-shirts and caps.  Park where the signs designate Longleaf Trace parking.  The row of  parking spaces closest to the high rise dorm is for Trace users only and is under camera surveillance.
     Plans call for extending the trail 3.4 miles east from the Gateway at USM to the railroad station in downtown Hattiesburg but no one knows when that will be.  Mileage markers on the Trace are calculated from the railroad station.  Maps of the Trace mark 0.0 at the Gateway at USM, 3.4 miles west of the downtown station.
     The Amtrak train the Crescent stops daily at the station on its way to and from Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York, to take on and let off passengers; northbound in the morning, southbound in the afternoon.  However the station has no baggage service--carry on luggage only--so no bicycles can be put on or taken off the train there.  There are baggage stops in New Orleans and Meridian, MS.
Milepost 10 of the Longleaf Trace
       From New Orleans the trail's eastern terminus at USM is about a two-hour drive.  Take I-10, then I-59.  At Hattiesburg exit east at the Hardy St. exit (towards downtown).  With USM on your left, turn left at U.S. 49.  Follow the signs to Fourth St. West and the parking lot for the Gateway at USM.
     Coming from the south,  at Hattiesburg I-59 signs direct Trace-bound traffic to the Jackson Rd. Station trail head, 4.1 miles west of the Gateway at USM.  Turn right at Hardy St. to go to W. 4th St. and the Gateway at USM.

Gateway, Southern Mississippi University, 2895 W. 4th St., Hattiesburg, MS.   Phone 601.450.BIKE.
Moore's Bike Shop, 1607-C Hardy St., Hattiesburg, MS.  Phone; 601.544.1978.  Bike sales,accessories, repairs.
Lau-Tori's Fine Foods, Highway 42, Sumrall, MS. Phone; 601.758.3586.
4K Stables, Bassfield, MS  601.943.5003 or
Circle S Riding Stables, Sumrall, MS.  601.270.9243 or

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and a 60-pound weight loss on Bayou St. John

   Saturday (4-20-2013), members of the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club spent a sunny spring day mixing the business of getting others passionate about paddling with the pleasure of sharing the fine weather with good friends.   The occasion was an outdoor camping and paddling "outreach" near the Magnolia Bridge along Bayou St. John in New Orleans.
Veteran paddler Martina Ellis

evaluates a vintage Dagger Sojourn 
      About a dozen members from the nearly 40-year-old outdoor club participated, proudly explaining to passers-by how the boats, tents and stuff from their private gear stashes worked and showing nascent outdoor explorers where to experience wilderness in the New Orleans area.
     The curious were invited to take a paddle on the historic bayou in one of the many canoes (most of them solo) and one sea kayak brought by the members from their own "fleets."
     Next to the Haystackers, a display of more than a dozen sit on top (SOT) kayaks, some of them specially outfitted for fishing, drew considerable interest.  Several paddle boards were also on hand for a trial voyage.
     Chad Almquist, of Massey's in New Orleans, said demand for fishing kayaks and the gear to go with them is very strong in the New Orleans area.
     "A kayak outfitted for fishing can go where a guy in a $30,000 bass boat can't get to.  And the kayaks are a lot cheaper to own and operate," said a newly slender and fit Almquist.
     And the 60-pound weight loss?  "Marry a nutritionist," Almquist said.

Canoes and a kayak wait for paddlers at a outdoor "outreach" held on Bayou St. John, Saturday, April 20, 2013


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Underpass at Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and lakefront bike path opens ending dangerous situation

Jefferson Parish Bike Path along Lake Pontchartain could be finished by end of 2013


More than 35 years after it was built, the paved path along Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish now has a safe way to cross Causeway Blvd.

       The underpass at the south end of the Causeway Bridge, part of a complete redesign of the Causeway approach, is now finished allowing cyclists, walkers, skaters, runners and others on the paved path along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish to cross under Causeway Blvd., avoiding the heavy traffic it carries.
     By the end of this year (2013), the entire length of the 10-mile trail, from Bucktown, near the Orleans Parish line to the canal at the St. Charles Parish line will be open, said Fran Campbell, executive director of the East Jefferson Levee District.
     About seven miles of the aphalt path is complete, and it looks to be smooth enough for wheelchair use.  However to connect the trail at the Bonnabel pumping station where the bridge is in the construction zone and closed, trail users have to cross the levee and detour around the pumping station using streets in the adjacent neighborhood.  A detour using Bonnabel Blvd., Poplar and Metairie Court adds about a mile to the trip making a ride connecting the completed sections of the trail--from the eastern trail terminus at Bucktown to Laketown in Kenner-- about eight miles long, including the detour.  Bikes have to be pushed through the grass over a steep levee at Metairie Ct.
     Near the western end of the path, the trail bridge at the Duncan Canal, west of the Laketown recreation park on the lake in Kenner, is also closed because of construction to the pumping station there.  Campbell said construction at both pumping stations will finish before the end of the year and the bridges will reopen.
     Part of a 2.4 mile section of the path, west of the Duncan canal to the St. Charles Parish line, was repaired by Jefferson Parish work crews after Hurricane Katrina but is not accessible now because of the closed bridge at the Duncan Canal, Campbell said.
     Bridges at the Elmwood and Suburban pumping stations are open.

 Over the years the trail has been a work in-progress.  When first opened the path ran at the edge of the lake most of its length.  It now runs on higher ground yards from the lake through what used to be a scrub forest of hackberry, tallow, black willow, elderberry, live oak and cypress trees.  This environment along with its understory of weeds and grasses, supported a wildlife population of racoons, marsh rabits, mice, snakes and rats along with numerous song birds and other birdlife.
     When the path was first paved, in the mid 1970's, it was considered complete despite having no bridges crossing the four pumping station outfall canals on its route, requiring trail users to detour through adjacent neighborhoods to complete the trail from end to end.
The path's paving abruptly ended at Chickasaw St. forcing riders to walk over the levee and continue east on Old Hammond Highway to avoid the rough and sometimes muddy unmarked path at the levee's toe. The path's informal eastern terminus was the 17th Street Canal and a pedestrian bridge over it--about where the Army Corps of Engineers pumping station is now. It was not until after hurricane Katrina--almost 30 years after the trail was constructed--that the trail was completed to Bucktown.
       More seriously, trail users faced a dangerous situation where the trail crossed the Causeway approach to the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway at the bridge's south end. With no underpass, overpass or traffic control devices allowing trail users to avoid the heavy Causeway traffic, trail users wanting to connect the east and west sections of the popular path usually dashed across the six lanes of traffic dodging the traffic while pushing or carrying their bicycles. Other trail users would try to cross Causeway at a cross street but the lack of pedestrian crossings made this crossing just as risky as crossing at the levee.
     Some path sections now have a parallel path for walkers and joggers.  There are no shaded rest stops along the trail now, just a few benches.  Drinking water is available at the playground at the Bonnabel boat launch and at Laketown.  There is parking at Laketown, the Bonnabel boat launch and at Bucktown.  Paved access paths zig-zag cross the high levee connecting the trail with adjoining neighborhoods but there is no parking there.
     The current levee in Jefferson Parish along Lake Pontchartrain was built in 1947 after a ferocious hurricane caused extensive property damage in the parish.
     From a window in his office in a nearby highrise, Ken Hollis, former state senator from District 9, saw a mother pushing a baby carriage on the trail, try to cross the six lanes of traffic at the Causeway approach.  The danger she faced so alarmed him that he began to look for a way to fix the lack of a safe crossing for users of the bike path at the south Causeway approach.
     In March of 1997 a loop under the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway was built between the levee and the lake.  Because there was little rise to the Causeway coming off the levee, to allow headroom for trail users, the loop had to be built at about the level of the water in the lake.  The loop was protected from flooding by a rock wall.  However the loop had to be closed frequently because it was often flooded with either lake water or rain water.   A pump was installed to pump out the water but after several attempts to get it to work it continued failing to keep the path dry enough to use.  Finally the loop was closed permanently and path users were back to dodging traffic on Causeway.
Cyclists and pedestrians no longer have to contend with crossing six lanes of traffic thanks to this Causeway Blvd. overpass completed a year ago.



Okatoma Creek: Mississippi White Water Paddling

Map of Okatoma Creek, Mississippi.  Not to scale 

     Many consider Okatoma Creek, a two-hour drive northeast of New Orleans, to be the best canoeing day trip in Mississippi.  Known by many for its "whitewater," the creek is also a beautiful float through a wooded forest largely devoid of signs of civilization.  That is, if you don't paddle it on a busy summer weekend when hundreds of canoes full of boisterous paddlers noisily beat and bang their way downstream.
     Serious paddlers argue endlessly over Okatoma's "whitewater" reputation.   They scoff that the creek's three low, hard clay drops and several bouncy and noisy shoals are rated Class II, the most benign challenge on the six class whitewater rating scale.  They rant that any stream that, on a busy weekend, sees everybody and their grandma whooping and hollering in the froth does not deserve a rating above a beginners rating of Class I.
    But there is no argument about the stream's popularity.  When the temperatures are warm, two large canoe liveries launch hundreds of paddlers in canoes and kayaks into the most floated section of the stream, the 13-miles from Seminary (MS highway 590) to Sanford (MS highway 598).
     Three other access points serviced by one or the other canoe livery, offer other trip options.  The creek is considered runnable beginning at the community of Kola, southeast of Collins, one mile east of U.S. 49.  The eight miles to Seminary is often a serene float, seldom disturbed by other paddlers, through a leafy forest shading the creek.  There are no drops to negotiate but there may be a pull over or two at low water. 
     At the other end, six miles downstream from Sanford is Lux, the last take-out with shuttle service.  The creek is broad and slow in this stretch with only one low waterfall.  But it is a very pretty and relaxing trip especially for fishermen who will find fishing for the creek's population of bass and bluegill much better than on the crowded upstream sections.
     Most people paddle the Okatoma for the exciting stuff.  And the "good" stuff is in the first eight miles downstream of Seminary.  Here a skilled paddler can "surf" (riding the upstream face of a standing wave) or practice eddy turns.  Those who just want to paddle the creek's whitewater can take out at Fairchild Landing, a private access point.  This cuts five miles, and about two hours, off the Seminary to Sanford trip.  Okatoma Outdoor Post customers take out river right just downstream from Okatoma Falls, the last big falls.  Call Okatoma Outdoor Post to be picked up here.  Seminary Canoe customers take out river- left  just a few yards farther downstream.
     The slower sections between the lively water gives paddlers a chance to appreciate how lovely Okatoma Creek really is.  The winding creek flows through a dense hardwood forest of red maple, magnolia and river birch trees crowding the dark, squat vertical banks that flank most of the creek.  There are sandbars but there are not many and most of those are small.  Shuttle services offer overnight options but all the land along the creek is private and the paucity of easily accessible camping makes day tripping the most popular option for paddling the creek.
     In addition to its re known for exciting paddling and superb scenery, Okatoma Creek is almost as well known for strict enforcement of Covington County's no alcohol laws.  Since the first canoe rental business began operation in the early 1980's officers with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks have routinely checked boaters for alcohol, glass containers and proper safety equipment.  Violators receive tickets and stiff fines.  Privately, canoe livery staffers say enforcers will leave you alone if you have canned beer encased in a coozie and are not raising a ruckus, but do you really want to take that chance?
    On a recent mild and partly cloudy spring morning, a small fleet of nine paddle craft, mostly kayaks piloted by members of the New Orleans Outdoor Meetup group pushed off from the sandy bank in the shadow of the Seminary Bridge into a muddy and running Okatoma Creek.  Rain on the watershed two days before brought the narrow stream to 8.6 feet on the Sanford gage, a level well within the floatable range of between seven and 10 feet given by canoe liveries, and a level considered by experienced paddlers to be the perfect height.
     Bobbing in the current that morning was diverse group of paddling veterans and newbies, big city professionals and blue collar workers.  They quickly became friends.  Those who had stories of past paddles shared them while first-timers listened for clues of what would be in store for them downstream. The likelihood of going for a swim at one of the creeks infamous falls created a sense of anticipation that was palpable.
     "Was that it, the first one?" shouted a beginner after a run through a short, choppy shoal splashed a drop or two on her kayak's deck.
      "No.  The waves at the falls are much bigger than that," came the reply.
      Quickly enough the group entered a long pool of slow moving water, a sign the first drop was just ahead.  The noise of the flowing water over the claystone outcropping, at first faint, grew louder as the group drifted closer.  Then, after quickly scanning the horizon and picking a line, one by one they dropped into the froth.
     No swims.  All smiles.
     And that is the way it went for the remaining two named drops, the Chute and Okatoma Falls.  The Chute is famous for its foaming river-left dogleg chute requiring quick steering strokes to avoid going for a swim.   But the water level was high enough this day for even a tandem canoe to slide sideways over the ledge parallel to the chute, the adroit strokes of bow and stern paddlers keeping it and its cargo of two four-year-olds stable and upright as it plopped into the churning slot.
     On a normal warm weekend day in the the summer there would have been a crowd gathered on the hard clay bank to watch the misadventures of dozens of paddlers as they attempt to negotiate the tricky drop.  But not today.  With temps in the upper 70's it was too cool to swim so the peanut gallery was empty.  The joy of a preseason Okatoma Creek paddle.
     Okatoma Falls, at three feet the deepest drop on the trip, was a piece of cake for most in the group as each member accessed their inner Natty Bumppo to slice through the haystacks downstream for a few seconds of thrilling paddling.
     After Okatoma Falls, the creek calms down considerably for the last five miles to the take-out just down river from the Sanford highway bridge.
    At the shoal just downriver from Okatoma Falls, the group had a chance to help a couple who had capsized their tandem canoe in the fast, deep water.  Members of the meetup group righted the overturned boat and then retrieved a frightened female standing on a shallow spot near the center of the stream.  She said later she could not swim.  The group then scoured the banks for the couple's paddles and gear.  The two cell phones and car keys, kept in flimsy ziplock bags and not tied to the boat, were lost.  But the paddles and a soggy video camera were recovered.
     The couple made it to the takeout without another capsize and were apparently in good spirits, meetup members reported, joking as they walked up the takeout ramp, looking forward to getting a spare set of keys for the 'Benz to make the drive home.
     For our group, home was a nearby primitive campsite, a drive of just a few miles.  Each camper made their own dinner and shared the bounty around a roaring campfire to the beat of a very good boom box.  As the flames shrank to glowing embers, tired paddlers and their tired children gradually drifted off to snuggle in warm sleeping bags under the twinkling stars of a clear, chilly spring night.    

     The two liveries listed below offer similar services but shuttle overlapping stretches of Okatoma Creek.  In addition to canoe and kayak rentals and shuttle services both offer camping, primitive and RV, and cabins.  Reservations should be made well in advance, especially if your plans include summer paddling or camping.  Tandem canoes rent for about $35.  Kayaks about $30.  Both liveries shuttle a private boat for $20.
     Be sure to make prior arrangements for shuttles outside regular canoe livery stops and confirm the day of the float.
     Shoes (sneakers or a disposable pair of jogging shoes) will be appreciated for the long walks from the takeouts to the parking lots and while walking on the gravel and hard clay on the creek banks.  Capsize is likely so leave your car keys with the livery operator as they ask.  Everything else that cannot get wet should be sealed well in a dry bag, NOT GARBAGE BAGS OR ZIPLOCKS! and tied to the boat.  Glass containers are not allowed on the creek.  Eye glasses and sunglasses should have retainers.  Sunscreen, hats, long sleeved cotton shirts are a good idea especially for the sun sensitive.  The well prepared will bring a windbreaker or rain gear to avoid a case of the shivers after a sudden and cold summer thunderstorm.

Okatoma Outdoor Post and Canoe Rental, 1.888.OKATOMA.  Shuttles from Seminary to Lux.
Seminary Canoe, 1.866.OKATOMA.  Shuttles from Kola to Fairchild Landing.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bayou St. John (NO) venue for kayak demos (April 20) and Earth Day Regatta and Festival (April 21)

     This Saturday, April 20, members of several outdoor clubs in the New Orleans area will join with a local kayak retailer for a kayak demo day and informal outdoor expo on the south bank of Bayou St. John along Moss St. across from Cabrini High School near the Magnolia pedestrian bridge.
     The event starts at 10 am and ends at 3 pm.  Club members from the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club,  Kayakitiyak, Bayou Coast Kayak Fishing Club and the New Orleans Outdoor Meetup group, will be on hand to answer questions about where to go kayaking, canoeing and hiking within a few hours drive of  New Orleans and will demonstrate how some of the gear they use to explore the wild areas near New Orleans works.  Massey's Outdoor Outfitters will have kayaks in the water to try out.
     The next day, April 21, the Earth Day and Green Business Expo will be held on the bayou between Orleans Ave. and the end of the bayou.  Music, food and many displays will be featured during festival hours 9 am to 7:30 pm.  The music starts at 10 am.
     The Bayou Kayaks Earth Day Regatta, an event for boats made of duct tape and at least 80 percent recyclables, will be held that morning beginning with registration at 9 am.  A float test will be held at 10 am and at 11 am a short race on the Bayou will be staged.  Prizes will be given to the first place boat and the boat with the best design.  There are lots of rules and restrictions placed on materials that can be used to build the boat, which will be recycled after the event, so be sure to check for details.  Registration is $20 the day of the event, $15 if you register before race day.
UPDATE: April 22, 2013
     There was only one entry at the Earth Day Regatta.  It failed to complete the course.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Orleans Bike to Work Day draws over 700 riders

Bicycle commuters pause to chit chat and down a free smoothie at Duncan Plaza across from New Orleans City Hall.  The riders participated in Bike to Work Day in New Orleans, April 9, 2013.  Over 700 riders signed up for the event.
     Bike to Work Day in New Orleans was held April 9 this year (2013) and over 700 riders signed up for the event, said Jamie Wine, executive director of Bike Easy, a non-profit bike advocacy group organizing the event.
      Using social media sites to locate meet-up spots near their homes, bicycle commuters singly and in groups converged on  Duncan Plaza across from City Hall in the CBD.  There bikers were offered free smoothies and the chance to visit a few information booths before heading off to their workplaces.
     Wine said over three thousand people in New Orleans use their bicycles to commute to work.
     "The ride was definitely a success.  One of the coolest things about this year's ride was all of the publicity," Wine said.

     Passenger and car ferries crossing the Mississippi River, connecting the West Bank to New Orleans--a vital public transit link for bicycle commuters-- may cease operation in June, said two riders seeking support to keep the ferries running.
     Fay Faron, president of Friends of the Ferry, bicycled from Algiers to Duncan Plaza with Connie Burks, to gain attention to their fight to keep the ferries: Canal St./Algiers, Chalmette/Algiers and Canal St./Gretna, running.  Unless the current operators of the ferry, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and other interested parties come up with a plan to fund the 186-year old ferry service, June could be the last month they cross the Mississippi, the women said.
     Ceasing ferry service, which cyclists and pedestrians use for free, will strand bicyclists on both banks as bicycles are not allowed on the Crescent City Connection, the bridge crossing the river at New Orleans.  RTA buses that cross the bridge to service both the east and west banks have bike racks but the racks have room for only two bicycles.  The detour using the bridge is 18 miles.
      Operation of the ferries was funded with tolls from the Crescent City Connection bridge but the tolls are no longer collected.  The $1 fee from cars using ferry pay a very small portion of the costs to operate the ferry.
     But closing the ferry "is just not going to happen," Faron vowed as Burks agreed saying, "over my dead body."