Monday, October 28, 2013

Black Creek: Brooklyn, MS to Fairley Bridge

     Black Creek, a winding, black water creek bisecting the 501,000 acre De Soto National Forest southeast of Hattiesburg, MS. is considered to be the best canoeing waterway in the state of Mississippi.  This is especially true if canoe camping is your thing.  Widely spaced sandbars punctuate the densely forested clay banks and serve as beaches in summer and cozy primitive campsites for one or more tents year around.
      This "specialness" has not been ignored by the U.S. Congress.  A 20-mile section of the creek (Moody's Landing to Fairley Bridge) is a National Scenic River--the only one in Mississippi--and this stretch flows through the 5,050 acre Black Creek Wilderness, one of only two Wilderness areas in the state.  (The other is the 940 acre Leaf Wilderness, also in the De Soto National Forest.)
          The creek's signature "black" tint is actually more the color of ice tea, the deep clear brown coming from the tannin leached from vegetation along creek's banks.  During dry spells when there is no rain to wash silt into the creek paddlers can peer over the side of a canoe and see three feet to creek's sandy bottom.


      Saturday morning at 9:11 am, October 26, Maarten, a Dutch physical oceanographer working at the Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi, and I pushed my venerable 16 foot tandem off the gravel bar at Brooklyn and into the cola-colored creek to start our two-day 26-mile trip to Fairley Bridge.  The sky was a brilliant blue.  We were glad to be underway after the two-hour drive from New Orleans.
       Launching into the creek in October, we knew the water level would be low.  Less rain falls here in October than in any other month.  There had been a shower or two on the watershed earlier in the week but that had long since drained, via the Pascagoula River, to the Gulf of Mexico.  The "real-time" USGS gage at the bridge in Brooklyn was reading 3.8 feet when we shoved off, about what I expected this this time of year.  Low but "floatable," some might say.
      We didn't find the stretch from Brooklyn down to Moody's Landing that "floatable."  It took only 15 minutes to run hard aground on a dead fall embedded in the shallow and sandy creek bed.  This was the first of many groundings.  Sometimes we would just misread the creek and grind to a halt in the shallow water flowing over a gravel or clay shelf.  Sometimes there was no deeper water to be "read".  At other times it was a submerged log just not submerged enough that grabbed the canoe, stopping it cold. 
       Way too often we had to use our paddles as poles to push the boat, with us in it, to deeper water.  When that didn't work we had to get out of the canoe and drag it over the gravel or hard packed sand to deeper water. Maybe two adults in a lightly loaded canoe with heaps of luck and skill could pass easily through the numerous stump gardens and gravel shallows between Brooklyn and Moody when the gage at Brooklyn reads 3.8 feet. 
       In the "pig boat" we were piloting, we didn't have a chance.  Piled so high with stuff we had to tie it down to keep it from falling into the creek, there was little hope of navigating the labyrinth of obstacles unscathed.  We left a Trail of Teals; dots and scrapes, bits of the blue/green vinyl from the bottom of my boat, all the way down to Moody's.  If faced with this water level on your trip consider putting in at Moody's to avoid this major concentration of stump gardens, or wait for higher water.  A creek level four to six inches higher would have made a big difference.  And made for drier feet too.
       But low water can be a blessing.  Low water means the current is slower and that provides more time to chart a course through the obstacles.  Low water allows even paddling challenged canoers the chance to back up against the current to try a second time to make an intricate maneuver that will get them through a tight space without having to get out of the boat.  Low water can help teach how to steer and read a river with little risk of capsizing and to not measure the success of a canoe trip by how dry you kept your feet.
       To that end, learning the cross draw paddle stroke was a revelation to Maarten, as it was to all of us who can remember learning it all those years ago.  To execute a cross draw from a standard forward stroke, without moving your hand position on the paddle, quickly bring the paddle across the bow of the boat by twisting at the waist and sink the blade immediately deep into the water away from the bow of the canoe.  If you can hold it, and it does take some strength to perform the stroke, the bow is instantly yanked a foot or more sideways, usually just enough to slide by an obstacle.  The more "body english" you put into this stroke, the more effective it is.
        Maarten is an experienced sea kayaker with a bombproof roll and years of experience paddling the unforgiving open water of the Pacific Ocean off  Los Angeles, California.  But a cross draw is not in the stroke repertoire of a sea kayaker.  Learning this new steering stroke so useful in a canoe on moving water, was an epiphany for the Dutch blue water paddler more at home in his Greenland styled kayak.  Soon it seemed like every few minutes I would see him suddenly twist at the waist, swing the paddle across the bow and stab the blade deep into the clear creek and hold it, jerking the bow about two feet to either the right or the left to avoid this or that submerged stump or stob.  That sure made my job as the stern paddler easier.
       As we floated along Maarten's scientific training and eye for detail kicked in.  Fascinated by subtle differences in vegetation and stream bank geology and being a major fan of evergreen trees, he pointed out little changes in the environment we were moving through that I had never noticed in my 30 years of floating the creek. 
       Below Moody's Landing there are more long slow sections and fewer stump gardens than up stream prompting us to try and make up a little of the time we lost navigating the maze of obstacles upstream.  We had hoped to make it past the Janice Landing access and into the Wilderness but by four o'clock we looked at the sinking sun and decided to call it a day. We made camp upstream of Janice at a sandbar with one of the creek's major landmarks; a huge dead grey cypress tree, the one with the fluted, flared trunk stripped of its branches, gracefully tapering to a point stabbing 30 feet into the sky.
       Pulling off the river when we did gave us plenty enough time to pitch camp and gather ample firewood before the sun set.  Temps in the 40's were forecast so we knew a campfire would feel good after dinner.  We finished the last few bites of canned chicken chili with rice and veggies just as the evening sky faded from blue to black.  There were stars everywhere.
       However, dinner pared with wine from a plastic bottle and several hot chocolate's fortified with brandy for dessert on top of a hard day's paddle made a warm sleeping bag more appealing than star gazing.  After a few clumsy attempts at "Shenandoah" on the harmonica it was off to bed at about 9 p.m.
       Up just after dawn on Sunday morning we awoke to a sunny but chilly morning.  We made breakfast and broke camp getting on the creek before 9 a.m.-- record time for me.  At camp we could hear the traffic from the highway bridge at Janice Landing so I knew we could not be more than a few miles upstream from that access.  After punching the buttons on his smart phone Maarten announced we had about 13 miles to paddle.  That sounded good to me as I looked up from my old school topo map and compass.  We shoved off leaving the solemn and majestic cypress hulk alone.
       We soon passed Janice Landing and into the Wilderness Area.  As we floated past Hickory Creek, a major tributary to Black Creek, I remembered one canoe/camping trip years ago when about 30 people camped here.  There was now only room for a much smaller group.  The substantial sandbars that were numerous along the creek are now neither substantial nor numerous.  Those that remain are much smaller, in some cases turned into low flat gravel bars or just altogether gone.  A nice sandbar for a group of six or more can be found but they are not as numerous as they once were. If you are picky you might end up at the take-out before you decide on a place to camp.
       Locals say the flooding rains from Hurricane Isaac, a Category 1 storm in the fall of 2012 shrunk and or erased the sandbars.   Views of the creek on Google Earth dated before September 2012, show sandbars that are not there now.  The bottom line for today's river travelers is; if you see a sandbar you like, stop, because there may not be another one in quite awhile.
      We stopped briefly at Cypress Landing, the downstream end of the five miles of creek flowing through the Wilderness Area, for lunch.  It seemed as if Nature was dropping a hint that we should wrap up our little adventure soon, when blanket of high grey clouds quickly drew across the sky dimming the sun.  Five miles from Fairley Bridge and facing a wide, slow creek and a slight but noticeable head wind from the southeast, we took the hint seriously and began to paddle in earnest.  (The take-out is not actually at the bridge but down stream about half a mile river right.  It is easy to miss so look sharp for the little rock jetty jutting out from the right bank.  There is no sign.)
      At it turned out, we arrived at the take out for our shuttle back to Brooklyn about two hours early. But the effort was not wasted as Brandon from Black Creek Canoe Rentals had arrived early too and was waiting for us.  Soon every thing was loaded up and we were on our way to my vehicle,  a mediocre but filling Tex-Mex dinner at a sit-down restaurant in Gulfport and the drive home to New Orleans.

Black Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn, MS did our shuttle.  See the Black Creek Canoe Rental website for rates.  This time of year he is open but only by appointment.  Don't wait until the last minute to call.  The number is 601-582-8817.  There is also a Facebook page for Black Creek Canoe Rentals.  There may be cell phone reception at Fairley Bridge but don't count on it.  It is less likely there will be cell phone service at Janice Landing.
The telephone for the De Soto Ranger District of the De Soto National Forest is 601-928-4422.  The office is in Wiggins, MS.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vandals shoot vehicle at City Bridge, a Red Creek (MS) access

UPDATE 10-28-2013
      After reading the story below about the vandalism of a vehicle while parked overnight at City Bridge on Red Creek in Stone Co. MS, Jon Bono emailed me this:
      "This is unfortunate...City Bridge has cleaned up a lot but still subject to such as this.  Someone shot my grill on the my sandbar about 7 times with a pistol.  Why I don't know but I sure hate this happened to you guys."

    The weekend of October 19-20, a vehicle parked overnight Saturday night at the small public park at City Bridge, in Stone Co. MS, an access to Red Creek in a rural part of the county, was damaged by a rifle bullet while the owner was leading group of Boy Scouts on a canoe/camping trip on the creek between U.S 49 and City Bridge, the man who owned the vehicle said.
          The damage was discovered when the man finished the canoe trip and drove out of the park.  He quickly noticed a front tire was flat.  While changing the tire he saw a small round hole on the inside sidewall of the tire and wondered what he had run over to cause such damage to the tire. 
          Shortly after that, after arriving at the informal U.S. 49 put-in on Red Creek, six miles north, the vehicle engine quit just as he made the sharp turn off the highway to the creek.  He noticed the engine was overheated but as he was pouring water into the radiator, it was draining out of a bullet-sized hole in the bottom of the radiator.
          He suspects someone used his vehicle for target practice Saturday night, shooting from a vehicle traveling on City Bridge Rd., judging from the trajectory of the bullet that flattened his tire and holed his radiator.  His vehicle had to be towed from the creek to be repaired.
         He said he did not file a police report.
          Several years ago cars parked at City Bridge overnight while a group of paddlers were canoe/camping on the creek were broken into and some items were stolen.  At least one of the thieves was caught later by local police and the stolen items were recovered.
         Red Creek is a popular creek for overnight canoe trips because it is a shallow, easy paddle and there are numerous sandbars on which to camp.  The water in the creek is open to the public but the creek flows through private property except for a few miles upriver and down river from the MS 15 bridge at Ramsey Springs.
          There is no canoe livery servicing the creek so overnighters must park their vehicles at remote and unguarded road right-of-ways or public parks, unless they know a landowner who will permit them to park on private property.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Black Creek: Camp Dantzler to Brooklyn (MS)

  UPDATE--OCTOBER 17, 2013


      Just as the piney woods in the De Soto National Forest south of Hattiesburg, MS were experiencing their first refreshingly, cool dry mornings since spring, it looked like the financial gridlock in Washington D.C. a thousand miles away, would keep hikers and paddlers away from what they most want to do when autumn finally arrives here--hike and paddle.
       Among the recreation areas in De Soto that are closed because no budget means no money for NF employees, are five landings that provide easy access to about 40 miles of Black Creek, Mississippi's only designated National Wild and Scenic River.  Flowing the color of Mississippi sweet tea the slow scenic creek is flanked by a number of broad sandbars perfect for camping and relaxing and is considered to be the best paddling stream in Mississippi.
       The closing of the landings and primitive campgrounds at Big Creek, Moody's, Janice, Cypress Creek and Fairley Bridge is bad news for Brandon Pearce at Big Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn, MS., the largest of two canoe liveries authorized by the USDA to rent canoes and kayaks on Black Creek.
       But, Brandon explains, as we bounce our way along the winding back roads of Forest Co. in his well used shuttle van, budget cuts have not closed the creek.  Black Creek is still open through the national forest.  So is the 41 mile long Black Creek National Recreation Trail, a hiking trail paralleling the creek.  The problem is getting on either of them.  But he has the solution.
       Upstream of the national forest boundaries we reach a put-in off a sand road downstream but within sight of the Churchwell Rd. Bridge, also known as the Camp Dantzler put-in.  Brandon said this sliver of property and its concrete ramp leading to a low and muddy creek bank is his, bought after he was denied access to the creek from the nearby bridge.   From here it is about 10 creek miles to the broad gravel bar at Brooklyn, the only other easy access to the creek open during this partial governmental shutdown.  A nice distance for a day trip allowing plenty of time to just drift.
       There is a pale gray overcast to the sky and a slight breeze as I quickly drop a dry bag, spare paddle and a small cooler into my narrow solo canoe and shove off from the mucky bank into the shallow burbling creek, anxious to leave big city cares behind.  The soothing scenery starts immediately.  Only 20 to 30 feet wide here, and hemmed in by short, vertical banks of black dirt and deep green vegetation, the stream alternates between stretches of quiet, flat water and noisy little chutes.  The water level was reading 4.2 feet at the Brooklyn bridge and could not have been more perfect.  At times the current scoots me bumping along just inches above the fulvous yellow clay and gravel bottom, standing waves slapping my blue canoe.  In still water I drift silently, slowly spinning while peering down at the pied dark green moss carpeting the creek's bottom two feet under my hull.  This creek turns my "bliss knob" to eleven.
       Here, outside the federal forest boundaries, perched on the creek's high left bank there are dozens of second homes, one right after another, a visual intrusion into an otherwise all natural tableau.  But no sound comes from them; it is a weekday and all the noise makers are either at their jobs or at their primary residences elsewhere.  As I drift past all is quiet except for the trill of an occasional song bird, the buzz of a flying insect or the splash of an anxious turtle dropping into the water from a log.
       About two hours into the trip, I pass Big Creek, a major tributary to Black Creek, the sign that I have now entered the national forest.  I round a bend and see two seated sportsmen fishing from a green, square stern canoe, the only people I would see on the creek all day.  Each of the men are in constant motion alternating their rapid casting with grabbing a paddle from across their laps and one-handed paddling when the slight current pushes their canoe toward the brushy banks.  As I pass the stern paddler expertly drops a cast in the shallows under the dense bush line along the bank 25 feet away.  The slender rod tip dips as he yanks it back once.  In seconds he reels in a wriggling bass about a foot long.  A keeper, he told me as I drifted by.
       Taking in the flow from tributaries Big Creek and Granny Creek the stream is wider here.  On the drive to the put-in Brandon said he once met a very old man who remembered when steamboats, starting from Pascagoula on the Gulf of Mexico, would buck the current on Black Creek as far as Brooklyn, then a busy timber town.  Brandon quickly adds that these were not behemoth sternwheelers like those plying the Mississippi River from New Orleans, but much smaller boats capable of negotiating the shallow twisting creek, using steam power to overcome the stream's weak current.  Railroads from the coast reached the area in the late 1890's, eliminating the need for steamboats.
        Brandon also told me of his deep roots in Forest County.  A direct descendant of the area's earliest settlers, he tells of one day hiking an overgrown and faint trail near Cypress Landing and finding a small untended family cemetery of his ancestors with markers dating back to the 19th century.
       My reverie of the past is rudely ended as I suddenly realize I am on a collision course with stump in the middle of the creek.  I have time for a couple of quick evasive strokes but these were not enough to save me and I hit the stump.  Luckily it was a glancing blow, off the canoe's rear quarters, violently rocking it sideways a couple of times but not enough to capsize me.
       My attention refocused on the here and now.  Scanning the shore it is easy to see the devastating effect Hurricane Katrina had on the timber here, knocking down lots of trees and thinning the forest considerably when it roared in from the coast eight years ago.  Removing the canopy of mature trees now floods the forest floor with sunlight resulting in a thicket of dense bushes, brambles and grasses giving the forest along the banks a ragged look.
       I had planned this trip as an overnight but at the last minute decided on a day trip instead.  I am glad I did.  The part of this section that flows through public lands has only a couple of homely looking gravel bars and they are low to the water, small and unappealing.  Between FS boundaries and the take-out in Brooklyn there are a few small sandbars but these are on private property and may be some one's front yard.  Google Earth shows more sandbars in this stretch but they are not there now.  Do this stretch to add miles for a longer trip but plan on camping downriver from Brooklyn.
      It was late afternoon when I finally finished,  pulling out of the current and up onto the broad gravel bar, just upstream from the old abandoned iron bridge crossing the creek in Brooklyn.  By then the gray haze that had tenaciously hung on most of the day had finally burned off leaving the sky pale blue and cloudless.  Low in the sky, a bright setting sun turned the rippling creek's surface to molten silver as I walked across the highway bridge with my paddle to get my truck for the drive back to the city.

         Black Creek Canoe Rental is open year around but by reservation only beginning October 1st.  Services include canoe and kayak rentals and shuttles and private boat shuttles.  Hikers and backpackers can make arrangements for shuttles to and from trailheads on the 41-mile Black Creek National Recreation Trail.  At the Black Creek Canoe Rental website there is a link to the USGS useful in checking real-time creek water levels at the Brooklyn gage.  The business also has a Facebook page.  The phone number of the voicemail at the business is 601.582.8817.  Brooklyn is about 20 miles southeast of Hattiesburg, MS.