|Members of the Mississippi Kayak Meetup group take up prime seats on Deer Island awaiting the fireworks show over Biloxi Bay put on by the city of Biloxi.|
But the weather is not looking good for a launch. All around them are dark skies filled with piles of gloomy grey clouds, their bottom edges a jagged blue/black. Lightening flashed in the distance, for a split second brightening the moody mass followed by muted thunder. As they take their kayaks from vehicle roof racks and pile brightly colored gear bags on the blacktop, it begins to rain. Some duck back into their cars.
At stake was the third year of the Star Spangled Paddle, a social paddle of only a third of a mile across the placid bay. The trip was open to any paddle craft; kayak, canoe or paddleboard. To make the trip required little skill and even less physical ability-- just imagination enough to see adventure in even a paddle of a few minutes. And a life vest.
The goal of the group was to get a patch of beach on the island as close to the fireworks barge as the harbor police would allow. Standing on the western end of the skinny 4.3 mile long island, almost directly under the booming and colorful pyrotechnic display, offers an upfront and personal view that is an awesome experience, said the trip's organizer, Brent Futrell. But the ominous weather all around them could force the trip to be cancelled. Nobody would paddle a kayak in a thunderstorm just to get a good place to stand and watch fireworks.
The group standing by their kayaks at the launch was lucky. The shower was brief and while the gloomy and threatening skies persisted, the rain, lightening and thunder quit. Safe enough to shove off, decided Futrell. In the hot, humid and windless late afternoon the kayakers slid their boats from the sandy beach into the dark olive bay, their paddle blades and slender multicolored hulls barely breaking the water's smooth surface to create strings of tiny waves as they began the 15-minute paddle to the island.
The crossing from the mainland to Deer Island is not an epic paddle. Those born and raised in Biloxi remember hearing from their grandparents about when swimming from the mainland to the island was routine summer fun and not considered a special athletic accomplishment.
That was then. These days the bay is busy with recreational motorboat traffic most every weekend. It is especially crowded for the 4th of July holiday weekend as the fireworks display draws scores of pleasure boats to the bay, many anchoring hours before the nighttime fireworks show begins at 9 a.m. The goal of the motor boaters is the same as the kayakers from the boat launch: get as close to the fireworks barge anchored at Deer Island as harbor police will allow. Low in the water and hard to see, kayakers must be wary of the occasional motorboat where too much alcohol consumption by the captain, crew and passengers could be creating a hazard for everyone on the water.
The flashing blue lights of the ample marine police presence on the water gave some comfort to vulnerable kayakers but you don't have to kayak long before realizing that, when on the water, it is best to quickly as possible put as much distance between a kayak and any boat with a motor.
Paddlers must cross the bay's busy navigational channel to get to the island, a serious consideration even for kayakers with long experience on the water. To reduce the chance of being run down sight unseen by a much larger, faster vessel, paddlers, in their low profile hard to see kayaks often sprint across the busy boat channel, paddles flailing. But some paddlers in the Meet-up group are novices. Could the beginner paddlers keep up? Yes. A convoy of the small craft formed with fast and slow paddlers hanging tight together making a multicolored mass that was easier for motorized traffic to see in the fading light. As it happened the little human powered flotilla made the opposite shore quickly without so much as a boat wake to disturb their progress.
The beach on Deer Island is narrow. A few yards back from the water a sea of slender thigh-high stalks of green beach grass nearly covers the western tip of the island. There are no trees yet, (pine saplings have been planted but it will be years before they grow to any size) and only a smattering of shrubs. Where the little fleet of kayaks landed, much of the beach was "claimed" hours earlier in the afternoon by family groups and friends with motor boats, each group with its own arsenal of fireworks and powerful boat-based sound systems.
The kayakers were lucky a second time. Earlier in the afternoon several kayakers from the Meetup group had paddled to the island to establish campsites as they intended to stay on the island after the fireworks. It was their little bivouac that was the closest to the fireworks barge and it was there that the latest arriving paddlers were welcomed.
(There is no development on the uninhabited Deer Island now but the state is in the process of building a dock near the center of the island's north shore. A barge with restrooms and snack bars will also be brought to the dock site. When the dock is finished and the barge is in place, passenger ferry service will begin to the island.)
Food, snacks and adult beverages suddenly appeared as kayak hatches were popped open and boats were unloaded. A row of folding canvas chairs formed a viewing area. Others sat on ponchos on the brown, damp sand or in their boats. Culinary holiday traditions were observed: There were brownies and hot dogs boiled in a pot over a camp stove and served on paper plates with all the fixings. And pickles and cookies and chips and hummus. Cold watermelon slices, pink and green and white were there too, though how someone got a watermelon into the tiny hatch of a kayak no one was telling.
There was loose talk too, a lot of it. A diverse group, from young teenagers to retirees, an hour ago strangers now finding common ground to laugh, overcoming shyness to reach out sharing stories and proposing future adventures even before this one has even ended. Lives were changed in very, very small ways there, standing on the brown sand sweating in the windless evening heat of a Mississippi Gulf Coast summer twilight. waiting for darkness and the Independence Day fireworks to begin overhead, holding dripping slices of watermelon.
As the cloudy darkness deepened anticipation for the pyrotechnic display to come was building. Those who had made the trip with Futrell before whetted the imaginations of noobs with fantastical stories of what to expect.
Every year his trips have their glitches, Futrell admitted, but none so serious as to prevent planning for another year. Heavy rains one year and another year where tents were singed by glowing fireworks debris, only adds to the adventure, Futrell boasts.
Futrell said this year was the best year of the three. Despite the rain threat, there was no rain during the bay crossings or while on the island for the event. The overcast day kept the temperatures pleasant, for summer in Mississippi at least, and while flying, biting insects, shared the island with the paddlers, gnats and mosquitoes were not abundant.
And then, of course, there were the fireworks themselves. They were spectacular. Firework mortars heaved their exploding payloads of Roman candles and bursting stars almost straight up from a fireworks barge anchored only a few hundred yards from the group. Those watching could feel the shock waves from the loudest explosions in the popping and rumbling display high above. There was "oohing and awing" and spontaneous applause from viewers looking straight up as domes of bright sparkling glitter lit up the sky. (No, there was no flaming debris this time, at least none that reached the ground that we could tell.) A faint smell of gunpowder hung in the still night air over the group.
After the show was over the kayakers made ready to paddle back to the launch. But they don't push off right away. Futrell said being on the water at night in a kayak, lighted with only flashlights or headlamps, if even that, is dangerous enough not even considering sharing the inky darkness with impatient and maybe inebriated power boaters in a hurry to get back to the dock. Futrell advised the group to wait until much of the motor boat traffic had cleared from the bay.
This year, because there does not seem to be as much motor boat traffic in the bay as in previous years, Futrell says, boat traffic clears quickly. But congestion still presents a problem: this time on the mainland. From the island the kayakers can see the line of headlights on US 90 near the boat launch. It is not moving.
"Even if we rushed over to the boat launch, we would have to wait for the car traffic to clear before we could cross the highway, get our cars and cross back to get our boats," said Barry Mends, a veteran kayaker and Star Spangled Paddle participant. " So we just stay here a while."
But it is past 10 pm now and some start paddling back across the pitch black bay, tired of waiting, deciding to take their chances the car traffic will be gone by the time they get back to the launch. They leave Deer Island a boat or two at a time. The kayakers, now spread out on the water, are hard to see, even those with lights. But there were only a few motor boats left in the bay anyway and these were anchored or going very slow. The gamble works out and all the kayakers make it back to the launch safely. Sure enough they find, the traffic has cleared.
|Beth Frost and her son Brendan Frost, age 13, at the Star Spangled Paddle III, Biloxi to Deer Island, July 4, 2015|
Once off the water, paddlers quickly loaded up, said goodbye to new friends and old and headed to their homes in New Orleans, Covington and elsewhere satisfied with another Fourth of July holiday adventure under their belts.