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.


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