UPDATE--OCTOBER 17, 2013THE NATIONAL FOREST RECREATION AREAS THAT WERE CLOSED WHEN THIS STORY WAS POSTED SHOULD OPEN TODAY. A BUDGET BILL WAS PASSED BY CONGRESS LAST NIGHT AND SIGNED BY THE PRESIDENT THIS MORNING DIRECTING ALL FEDERAL AGENCIES TO OPEN.
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.