Monday, May 26, 2014

Paddling conditions for Black Creek on May 24-25, 2014

A small shady sandbar between Moody's Landing and Janice Landing on Black Creek in the De Soto National Forest, in southeast Mississippi.  Decaying vegetation in the stream bed tint the stream with tannin, giving the water the color of  dark, Mississippi sweet tea.    

          For 42 miles on its run from its source in the piney uplands south of Hattiesburg, MS to its confluence with the wetlands surrounding the Pascagoula River near the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Black Creek winds through the De Soto National Forest.  This stretch of the mostly shallow slow-flowing, winding "blackwater" stream flanked by numerous sandbars and a deep forest mostly devoid of signs of permanent human intrusion is considered by many to be the best canoe/camping trip in the Magnolia State.
       Between Moody's Landing and Fairley Bridge Landing, about 21 miles, has been designated a Wild and Scenic Stream by the U.S. Congress.  About six miles of that stretch flows through the 5051-acre Black Creek Wilderness Area.  Wilderness Areas, a federal designation, are road-less preserves where use of motorized devices of any sort and wheeled vehicles (including bicycles) are prohibited. 
         Getting on the creek is easy for both paddlecraft owners and non-paddlecraft owners.  The largest of two canoe liveries servicing the creek is about 110-miles northeast of New Orleans, in Brooklyn, MS. A second, much smaller livery with a small campground, RV park and cabins-- Red Wolf Adventures--on MS 29 north of Wiggins, MS, is about a mile south of Janice Landing.  Both will run a shuttle for you if you have your own canoe or kayak.
       The best craft for floating the creek, either for the day or weekend, is a canoe or short, sit-on-top kayak.  The necessity of having to steer through stump gardens in the stream channel and the probability of having to get out of the boat to drag it over the shallows several times makes using a long, narrow "sea" kayak more trouble than it is worth.  Consider too: Where would you put an ice chest on a sea kayak?  Floating the creek with your butt wedged in a truck tire inner tube is permitted but is rarely seen.  Neither of the two liveries rent tubes to float the creek. 
        The forest service maintains concrete boat ramps along the creek at five primitive Recreation Areas (campgrounds): Big Creek, Moody's Landing, Janice Landing, Cypress Creek Landing, and Fairley Bridge Landing. Not on national forest property is the most popular put-in, a gravel bar in Brooklyn, MS, near the canoe livery there.     
       In the summer and particularly on warm weather holidays, the two canoe liveries are kept busy running shuttles and renting, canoes and kayaks.  If you are a hermit all of this activity can make the creek appear noisy and crowded, having all the charm of the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island.
       But crowds are spread out along the creek so even on busy weekends you can probably find a sandbar to call your own, away from the noises of others, if you begin looking early enough.  No permits, reservations or permissions needed to camp along the stream.  Note that there are a few small parcels of land along the creek that are privately held.  These in holdings are often posted and paddlers should respect the rights of private landowners along the creek.
        Excluding stopping time, experienced and sober paddlers can plan on a pace of about three miles an hour.  That's constant paddling.  Daydreamers, and inexperienced or inebriated paddlers, will need more time. (Alcohol is permitted while on the creek but is not permitted in the FS recreation areas (campgrounds.)
       Be sure to bring a garbage bag to corral cans and trash. No glass containers are permitted on the creek and Styrofoam coolers are strongly discouraged.   Styrofoam coolers break up easily when dumped into the creek during a capsize, littering the creek with its contents.  And Styrofoam cooler pieces never sink littering the creek for years.
      There must be a life vest for each person in the boat but adults do not have to wear them.  Kids do.
       Distances marked on maps and provided by outfitters are approximate and useful in plotting your progress on the creek.  However the distance from the Brooklyn put-in to Moody's Landing, said to be five miles, is closer to seven miles.  Try to bring a compass and have a map showing major side creeks to help answer the inevitable question: "How much farther till we can stop?"
      No map?   One trick to determine your location is to follow the bends in the creek while you paddle.  While the creek flows mostly east and south and sometimes north, there are a few sections, miles apart, that flow west or southwest.  If you find yourself heading south or southwest you can usually find that stretch on a map and from that determine your approximate location.
       A water level of four feet on the USGS Brooklyn gage means a tandem canoe loaded with a weekend's worth of gear will clear broad tan gravel and sand shallows by a mere inch or two.   When water levels drop in summer and late fall, as they often do, expect to run aground at least once or twice. 
       Hint: Flip-flops will not keep gravel from wedging uncomfortably between your foot and the sole.  To protect your feet when out of the canoe, wear a pair of old sneakers you are willing to sacrifice.
       Obstacles in the creek, such as blow downs and stumps will require some steering to avoid, but the current is benign at lower water levels so there is plenty of time to develop a strategy to avoid smacking into something.
       Know the weather forecast before launching.  If the weather becomes threatening--you hear thunder or see lightening--get off the creek and get a weather forecast update.  Cell phone service is spotty with some carriers especially near Janice Landing so pack a weather radio just in case.  Heavy rain on the creek's watershed, miles away from where you are, can raise water levels in the creek eight to 10 inches an hour. Always drag your boat well up from the water when spending the night on a sandbar, even when no rain is forecast.  This is a good habit to acquire.  It can be quite a shock in the morning to realize your canoe floated away during the night.  What would you do? 
       Click on the "Water Level" link in the Black Creek Canoe Rental website for real-time water levels and for water level readings for the past six months.
       There are a number of sandbars, of varying suitability for camping, between Brooklyn and Janice Landing but they get a little sparse as you approach Janice Landing.  In the six miles between Janice Landing and Cypress Creek Landing there are only a few sand and gravel bars and they are low to the water so should be considered only as a last resort.  There is one exception:  about an hour downstream from Janice Landing there is a sandbar steeply rising Gibraltar-like from a deep pool, river right.  The top is flat but it is small-- room for two tents at most. Off-loading gear and dragging boats six to ten feet up the steep bank to the top is a chore but the reward is a remote, private and secure home for the night.
       The large bar that was at the confluence of Black Creek and Beaverdam Creek is gone.
       Getting off the creek can be tedious and time consuming because of the crush of paddlers at the takeouts at Janice and Cypress Creek.  The concrete boat ramp is narrow and there are no beaches to park and unload.  So canoes have to be unloaded one or two at a time at the bottom of the ramp and a weekend's worth of gear marched up the ramp and deposited at the top of the ramp before the next canoe can offload.  Pack light.
         Moody's Landing and Janice Landing are primitive campgrounds (recreation areas) with drinking water, picnic tables, and at Janice, a flush toilet.  No fees are charged.   The only FS recreation area/campground charging a fee is Cypress Creek Landing. The fee is the same for day use or overnight camping: $7 per day.  It offers only primitive camping basics: water, picnic tables and a flush toilet (no RV hookups).  But it has a tepid to cold water shower stall.  The fee is collected at an honor box at the campground entrance.  Have correct change.  The hard to find campground can be busy on holiday weekends and generators are permitted.  There is no campground host.  The boat launch is outside the fee area so you can park there for free as long as you do not pass the gate into the fee area.  Parking can get crowded; park where you will not be blocked in by those parking after you.

Search "Black Creek" in this blog for more posts about paddling Black Creek.
Big groups need  big sandbars.  A group from 13 paddlers from the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club (BHPC) and the Lafayette Paddling Club relax around a campfire after pitching their tents on a sandy bar along Black Creek about two miles downstream from Moody's Landing in the De Soto National Forest, MS.  The BHPC makes a three-day, two-night paddling trip on the creek every year for Memorial Day.   

Friday, May 9, 2014

A paddle on Shell Bank Bayou in the Manchac Swamp WMA, Louisiana

Shell Bank Bayou in the Maurepas WMA about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA.
       Dense, free-floating mats of water hyacinths and salvinia often clog Shell Bank Bayou, a shallow, narrow watercourse through the grown-over remains of what was a majestic baldcypress and tupelo gum swamp about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA.  Penetrating the noxious growth is next to impossible in a canoe or kayak most of the time.  But not this year.
       The winter of 2013-2014 was harsh winter, at least harsh to us in the warm sunny South, and several nights of sustained below freezing temperatures killed the two invasive species in the bayou.  For now at least, Shell Bank Bayou is open it's entire length, from the put-in off old highway US 51, to Lake Maurepas; about 2.5 miles.
        The dieback allows greater access to the swamp, a swamp biologists say saltwater intrusion will turn into open marsh within a generation.  It is a change that is well underway and can be seen after just a 30-minute paddle west from the launch off old US 51 near Laplace, LA.
       Casual paddlers can easily reach the thin stand of large dead and dying baldcypress trees their branches trailing beards of Spanish moss, the tree's smooth, barkless trunks flaring at waterlevel surrounded by a crowd of spindly cypress knees poking up through the still, black surface.  The tattered grey trunks are all that remain of a dense wetland forest that once flourished here, spread across all or part of nine Louisiana parishes and clearcut over a 40 year period beginning in 1892.
      Baldcypress grow for centuries before reaching maturity.  Seeing the few scattered cypress trees now growing, (considered small and immature even at 120-years old), it is difficult to imagine the dense virgin wetland forest of towering cypress 12 stories tall, supported by trunks nearly 10 feet in diameter that once stood here.
        Not every cypress was logged. Trees that were diseased, assessed not valuable enough to cut or too difficult to take were spared. These often hollow and blackened trunks are likely to be the only old growth trees from the virgin forest today's paddlers see. Of these surviving trees sprinkled across wetlands of the Pontchartrain Basin, some have been measured to be more than 2,000 years old.  Of those harvested some trees may have been the oldest living plants in eastern North America.


        Maurepas Swamp was virtually an undisturbed wilderness when logging of the valuable baldcypress began in earnest i the late 19th century. leaving a watery wasteland of stumps, man-made canals and open marsh, says Robert Hastings, retired professor of biological sciences from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA and former director of the university's Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station in the Manchac Wildlife Management Area on Pass Manchac, a few miles from Shell Bank Bayou.
        In his book, "The Lakes of Pontchartrain: Their History and Environments," published by the University Press of Mississippi, 2009, Hastings tells of the demise of the massive and beautiful swamp and why its restoration is a long shot.
         Cypress trees are valuable timber.  Natural preservatives in cypress wood prevents rot making it valuable for housing in damp and humid environments.  To meet the demand for timber, a sawmill was built right at the edge of the swamp, one of the largest sawmills in Louisiana at the time.  Soon a town, called Ruddock, was built to house the workers that worked in the mill, shipping the logs and sawed cypress timber on long steam trains heading north and south.
        By 1907 over 700 people lived in Ruddock. Now nobody does.  The town is gone, like the forest of baldcypress that was clearcut to support it.  A series of fires and hurricanes ravaged Ruddock in the early 20th century so after the hurricane in 1912  nobody wanted to live there.  The townsite was abandoned.  By that time clearcutting had decimated the baldcypress forest anyway, eliminating the need for a sawmill and the town.  The taking of the cypress in Manchac swamp would continue until the 1950's, at a greatly reduced rate, but for the town of Ruddock it was over.  Only a few wooden foundations, hidden by mats of dense vines and weeds, remain.   Now Ruddock exists only in memory and in the name of an I-55 off-ramp to nowhere.


       Thinking nature would regrow the ravished forest without help, loggers of the time never replanted the baldcypress they had harvested, adding insult to injury, said Hastings who recently retired as director of the Alabama Natural Heritage Program.  Hastings was interviewed by telephone at his home in Alabama.
        Industrialized logging devastated the swamp century ago, but a variety of present day causes make reforestation of the swamp unlikely in the future, said Hastings. 
       "The major threats are subsidence, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion," Hastings said.

      The award winning educator explained that global warming has raised the water level in Lake Pontchartrain slightly and made the lake slightly more salty.  At the same time the swamp is subsiding.  Storms--or even just strong, sustained east winds--blow the saltier water from the lake into the sinking swamp leaving it under water for longer periods of time.  The slightly salty water inundating cypress seedlings stunts their growth and kills them if submerged long enough. 
       For eons, storms have pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain--not really a lake but an estuary of the Gulf of Mexico--into the freshwater wetlands surrounding it.  But each spring the Mississippi River would overflow inundating the swamp with freshwater and cleansing it, flushing saltwater residue back into the lake.  A bonus of the annual flooding was that sediment and nutrients in river water would be deposited in the swamp, slowing the natural compacting and sinking of the swamp's porous muck.
       (Connected to Mississippi Sound in the east and taking the flow of freshwater rivers to the north and west, the saline gradient of Lake Pontchartrain varies from very low salinity levels to freshwater.  However water in a flooding storm surge can be considerably more salty than normal lake salinity levels.)
       Completion of the river's levee system in the 1930s, a project that was began nearly 200 years ago, stopped the flooding, stopped the freshwater from cleansing the salt residue from the swamp and stopped the accretion of nutrients and sediment rebuilding swampland, Hastings wrote.
       Making matters worse, a labyrinth of ditches and canals dug by loggers to remove cut cypress logs, serve as a conduit for saltwater into freshwater areas, killing cypress seedlings, increasing the erosion of the swamp's banks, Hastings said.
       The conversion of cypress swamp to open marsh is progressing at different rates around the Pontchartrain Basin.  Cypress appear to be coming back at Shell Bank Bayou, albeit slowly, Hastings said.
       The National Audubon Society, tracking environmental conditions in the Maurepas Swamp notes that no tupelo tree regeneration has been observed in the last 15 years and many of the tops of existing tupelo trees have been broken off, a sign of trees stress from saltwater intrusion.  The group predicts that about 50% of remaining marsh will convert to open marsh by the year 2050.


        The first step to save and restore the wetland forest is to restore the hydrology of the swamp, said Jillian Day, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries office in Hammond, LA.  There is a plan to divert Mississippi River water into western Lake Maurepas, via the Blind River to restore some of the natural flow of nutrients and sediment into the swamp, she said.
        Engineers close to the project, which has been a plan on paper for more than a decade, say there was no funding for it in the past but that now they are optimistic that is about the change.
        There is no time to waste, said Hastings. Rising sea levels and rapid erosion of the land in the swamp are compounding the salinity problem with salt water intrusion pushing into areas that were fresh 10-20 years ago.
       "We have to re-nourish the swamps around Maurepas or they will not survive another 10-20 years," Hastings warned.


       Despite the swamp's tragic back story, paddling the black-water bayou can be delightful, especially for those interested in the natural history of a swamp. Shallow and loaded with stumps just below the water's surface, the bayou is seldom visited by power boats. If only the noise of the traffic from the nearby elevated I-55 did not intrude.
        Maurepas Swamp has been tagged an "Important Bird Area" (IBA) by the National Audubon Society.   It takes just a few minutes of watching to see why. White ibis, great blue heron, great egret, little blue heron, tri colored heron and snowy egret, can be seen among the bulltongue and alligator weed at the bayou's edges.  The Audubon Society says the little yellow prothonotary warbler, an annual warm weather visitor from Central America,  have an "extremely dense" breeding population in the swamp (   The year the IBA was designated, 2007, over a dozen active bald eagle nests were counted in the black water swamp surrounding Lake Maurepas.
      "Black water swamp" is a bit of a misnomer.  The water looks black only from a distance. The open tree canopy allows sunshine to pierce deep into the bayou revealing it to be actually tinted reddish brown, a byproduct of the decaying vegetation in it.  Looking over the gunwales of a canoe and down into the bayou the water is clear enough to see two feet to the bottom. Through this sepia lens you might see a turtle the size of a bicycle helmet swimming, a school of minnows or even an alligator gar scoot by. Bright dead leaves on the bayou's dark bottom shimmer a warm, pale crimson as if lit by the flickering coals of a dying fire.
       Closer to the water's surface long strands of pond weed sway in the slight current.  (Currents can come from either direction and are caused by wind or Lake Maurepas filling with runoff and draining through the bayou.)
      In the spring bright purple blooms topping the tall stalks of Louisiana iris punctuate the many shades of green along the banks. Other wildflowers also briefly bloom in the spring.  In th fall there are fields of yellow bur-merigolds covering the semi-solid marshy areas.


        Nighttime appears to be the most popular time for tourists to visit the swamp. With only the light of the moon to guide them, paddlers in tandem canoes led by a concessionaire based in New Orleans, scan the banks and floating logs with flashlights hoping to catch the red reflection of an alligator's unblinking eyes and hear a bull gators frightening bellow. Kids are warned to keep an eye out for Loup-garou, the Cajun werewolf, said to be a resident of the dark swamp.
         Veterans of sweltering summer moonlight excursions say mating frogs croak so loudly that paddlers have to shout to be heard over the din. Packing bug repellent is a good idea when venturing into the swamp day or night any season of the year. Mosquitoes can be active and hungry for a blood meal at any temperature above 56 degrees F.


        Shell Bank Bayou is at the eastern edge of the 120,470 acre Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The first parcel of land for the WMA was acquired in 2001.
Access to the state-owned WMA wetlands, one of the largest continuous tracts of wetland forest remaining in the lower Mississippi alluvial valley, is almost exclusively by boat.
       Launch into Shell Bank Bayou from old highway US 51.  There is no sign on the highway at the launching area, one of many breaks in the lush vegetation just beyond the highway shoulder.  The narrow oxbow lake on the east side of the highway and the tandem pipeline crossing it, serve as a landmarks.  A good hint you are at the right place are vehicles with canoe or kayak racks or a canoe trailer or two parked along the highway shoulder.
        At the put-in there are no facilities of any sort, just a wide gravel and dirt bank sloping to the water.   Before shoving off, show respect to the fishers that are always fishing from the bank and ask if where you are parking is OK. Trailered motorboats are also launched from here and drivers need room to back close to the water.
        Once in the water, head due west under the elevated I-55 to the broad mouth of the bayou. Paddle past a straight narrow canal on the left.  There are few opportunities to become lost.   The few options there are to leave the main bayou channel are obviously overgrown and impassable.
      No license or permit is required for recreational boating--paddling or otherwise--within the boundaries of Manchac Swamp WMA as long as you stay on the water.  Licenses are needed only if you hunt or fish in a WMA or step on to WMA land. The launch site at Shell Bank Bayou is outside WMA boundaries, so no license, stamp or permit is needed to paddle Shell Bank Bayou. 


       The only hiking trail into the Maurepas Swamp WMA is on old US 51 just south of the Shell Bank Bayou put-in.  To use this out and back half-mile long trail you will be on WMA property so you must have a hunting or fishing license.  Don't want to hunt of fish?  Get the Wild Louisiana Stamp.  Available at just about any big box store with a sporting goods department, the annual stamp is $9.50.  Licenses/stamps are good for one year and expire at the end of June.
         All visitors hiking in WMAs must have a WMA Self-Clearing Permit (SCP).  The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries uses SCPs to keep track of the number of people who visit WMAs and what they do there when they visit.  Kiosks with SCPs can be found at many WMA launches and trailheads or can downloaded from the LDWF website.  Again, SCPs are not required for recreational boating in Shell Bank Bayou because the launch off old US 51 is not on WMA property and you will not be stepping out onto WMA land.   But you will need a SCP and a valid license/stamp if hiking in the WMA.  Visit the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website for SCP details.
     If you want to bring a school group to explore the hiking trail, call the LDWF.  They are anxious to show off WMAs and will streamline the permitting process to accommodate educational groups.
       (The nearby Joyce WMA, a few miles north offers a hike on a 1,000 foot long boardwalk trail extending east from a shell parking lot on old US 51 through the swamp to a deck overlooking a marsh.  The boardwalk and parking area are closed now for reconstruction of the boardwalk which was damaged in Hurricane Isaac in 2012.)
     Also, even though you do not have to have a Self-Clearing Permit (SCP) to paddle in the swamp, stop by the kiosk at the hiking trail trail head and fill one out.  This lets WMA managers know you were in the refuge to paddle.   When decisions are made on how to allocate funding, WMA managers who see lots and lots of these permits from paddlers may be more inclined to invest in facilities for them.  Write on the SCP the refuge you visited and mark through BOATING and print canoe or kayak.

Massey's Professional Outfitters, 800.754.7467.  Canoe and kayak rental.  No delivery or pickup.
Canoe and Trail Adventures, call or text, 504.233.0686.  Guided canoe trips for groups into Manchac Swamp.  Monthly moonlight trips.
Louisiana Lost Lands Environmental Tours, kayak tours with tour guide. By appointment;
LDWF, Hammond Office, (985)543-4777 or  For WMA rules and regulations click on hunting regulations.
Field checked April 20, 2014.