Thursday, April 18, 2013

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.


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