Sunday, May 12, 2013

Paddling the Salt Marshes of western Bay St. Louis (MS)

Jan Stammeyer, Maarten Buijsman and Lee Quave, relax with beer and crawfish on the deck of the Harbor House restaurant after exploring the salt marshes Catfish Bayou south of Diamondhead (MS) in their kayaks recently.


     Spending two or three hours kayaking through the salt marshes of Cutoff Lake and Catfish Bayou at the mouth of the Jourdan River in southeast Mississippi is normally not my idea of a good time. The scenery of a salt marsh, endless stands of head-high cordgrass, is not motivating enough for me to load up a kayak and gear and make the 120 mile round trip from New Orleans to this wetland south of Diamondhead, MS.
    Salt marshes are not a unique environment along the Gulf coast of Mississippi and Louisiana.  If you live here you don't have to go far to see one, certainly not 60 miles. And despite their importance to the food chain, a jaded thrill seeker might rightly complain, once you've seen one salt marsh, you've seen them all.
     Please don't misunderstand me.  Some people, mostly naturalists or birders, are in rapture drifting in the morning quiet amid thick clumps of head-high saw grass rooted in mud flats as far as the eye can see, watching for a spindly shore bird to spread their wide wings and launch majestically into a cloudless blue sky.  Or, the inspiring beauty of seeing dawn awaken these fertile wetlands as an orange sun slowly brightens the scene.  A Kodak moment.  I get it.  Been there, done that.  Once was enough. 
      What moved me to make this trip was the opportunity to share this fairly mediocre scenery with a diverse group of kayakers passionate about the sport and the outdoors.  It was the group that made the trip a pleasure and worth the effort.  The nearly dozen yakers in the Mississippi Kayak Meetup Group that gathered at the Diamondhead launch ($5 launch fee) represented a broad spectrum of those attracted to the sport.  Conversations among the boaters bobbing in the murky waters of the treeless wetland centered more on what boat we were paddling and less about where we were paddling.
     The weather was warm enough for t-shirts and it was breezy.  Not whitecap breezy but you knew the wind was blowing when you paddled into it.  High thin clouds hung around for most of the day earning the weather a few demerits for what would have been a nearly perfect weather.
     There was a  young couple paddling his-and-hers fully outfitted SOT fishing yaks.  (He caught a keeper red fish that was dinner for the pair that night.)  There was a winning kayak racer and two padders with shiny new boats on their maiden, or near-maiden, voyages.  Two boaters brought small dogs who spent the voyage curled quietly in the laps of their paddling captains.  There was a long, sleek and shiny wooden kayak, hand built by its owner, a composite sea kayak and a paddler lounging in a comfortable and well used ten-foot rec-yak.  Lots of yaks to yak about.
     The trip was a loop, a leisurely 10 miles, linking Cutoff Bayou, the Jourdan River and the western end of St. Louis Bay.  These waterways can have heavy speedboat traffic but we did not see much of that the day we paddled and most of the boats we did see slowed down for our group.
      A small sand beach appearing on a Google Earth satellite view, did not appear in reality so the group had lunch under the high haze in their boats, sheltered from the breeze by a small island of stiff cordgrass.  There were no gnats, mosquitoes, black flies or deer flies which seemed to me unusual considering we were in a salt marsh in warm weather.
     After lunch we left the sheltered marsh waterways for a more exposed run of about a mile WNW across the shallow western end of St. Louis Bay to Cutoff Bayou.  Small wavelets slapped at hulls but there were no white caps. 
     After returning to the launch, most everyone loaded up, said their goodbyes went their separate ways.  But four paddlers decided to "hang" at the restaurant next to the launch for some beers and food.  Before taking out, trip leader Maarten Buijsman displayed his skills at rolling a kayak in the placid marina waters before an appreciative audience of diners watching from their perch along the railing of the restaurant's upstairs gallery.
     The Harbor House restaurant there at the launch was a good choice.  We dined upstairs on the open deck overlooking the marina, and the salt marsh through which we had just paddled.  The service was outstanding and so was the food.  The down-scale ground level had a three-piece cover band, hot dogs and crawfish.  (The band and the crawfish are there most Sundays in crawfish season.)  This was just the second encounter with the succulent mudbugs for Buijsman, a native of the Netherlands.  Soon he was going bug for bug with his crawfish eating mentor Lee Quave, a native of the area.  The service staff was happy to freight upstairs platters heaped with the orange boiled crustaceans for our enjoyment.  The mood of the crawfish was not recorded.

THE HARBOR HOUSE-Diamondhead, MS.  From New Orleans, take I-10 east.  Exit south at the Diamondhead exit (Exit 16).  Or motor your boat to the dock in front of the restaurant. Visit their Facebook page: Harbor House of Diamondhead..



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