GASP! Gulf Area Sea Paddlers

Cheerful Isles of Dementia -
Paddling Mississippi's Barrier Islands

copyright 1996 by Jackie Fenton

We arrived at Shepard's Park in Gautier (pronounced "Go-sheay"), Mississippi, after spending a couple of days on the road getting there ("there" in reality only being seven hours drive from Houston, but the numerous gear shops and great Cajun food along the way were an unavoidable impedance for an earlier arrival to our final destination). After scouting the area between Ocean Springs and Gautier for the best place to launch and paddle out to one of the many barrier Islands, Bob Myers and I (or maybe that was mostly "I") thought Shepard's Park an excellent launching point, and Ocean Springs an excellent ending point for one of us to hitch-hike back to the car (or was that for "Bob" to hitchhike back to the car... oh well, I *did* saddle myself with the difficult task of devising some kind of plan for retrieving the car).

What we didn't know as we pitched the tent and sorted through gear, was that our first night in Mississippi camped near the marsh and among the tall pines serenaded by night birds and tree frogs would also be filled with the accompanying sounds of the soft whistle of a train moving in the distance, the familiar clickety-clack of the wheels rolling along the trestles. How quaint. At least, so we thought until the sounds came closer and closer, and soon we realized our campsite was located about 150 yards from a well-traveled train track. Well-traveled meaning a train came roaring through about every 20 minutes.... all night long... and the track intersected a nearby road which required each train to declare it's approach with a brain-numbing blow of the horn.

We (err, rather "I") stumbled about the next morning getting ready for the crossing to Horn Island counting on several days of quiet retreat from "civilization." Bob assembled the Khatsalano while I went in search of the nearest fast-food coffee and breakfast to shake the fog-brain symptom of a sleepless night. Assembling boat parts into a reliable, sea-worthy vessel in my present state would most likely have resulted in the contrary. Besides, the Khat had already bitten me once drawing blood in an earlier taming session. This time, I let Bob tackle the critter for a few days of island maneuvering.

When our launching did not take place as early as we had planned (does it ever?), we decided to head for Round Island, which was about half the distance to Horn Island's nearest point. We paddled out the mouth of the Pascagoula River traveling eastward along the Mississippi shore then entered the Mississippi Sound. Bob carried a brand new GPS, and I'd swear he was logging our current location every fifty yards. I know the unit now contains the entire route from Houston to Ocean Springs (yes, there really are maps and highway signs available). I was content with my compass and sighting landmarks. Then again, it's only been since Christmas that I own a portable phone... thanks to Bob, of course. I must admit, however, the GPS was a convenient navigational aid when we headed back to the mainland at the end of our trip with twelve miles to paddle and landmarks difficult to spot. What I hated about the GPS, though, was that due to the currents in the Sound, we were constantly drifting off-track and the GPS was constantly reminding us of this fact. Normally, I would have paddled in a wide curve, blissfully ignorant of the extra distance paddled and the energy wasted as a result. However, we felt compelled to continually correct our course. Seemed we were always pointed in some different direction. Anyhow, on this day when we cleared the mouth of the Pascagoula, Round Island was quite visible with it's tall pine trees and appeared... well... round.

Round Island is home to an abandoned lighthouse, ospreys, terns, sanderlings, skimmers and a variety of other sea birds, and provides a narrow sand bar reaching outward to the west like an outstretched arm upon which rests many pelicans and seagulls. We pitched the tent at the base of the lighthouse some 100 yards or so from the nearest osprey's nest. While checking in at the visitor's center of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Ocean Springs, a park ranger had explained to us that in 1994, no osprey chicks had survived the season. After success in survival rates in 1995, when visitors were restricted from camping near the nests, the program has been extended.

As the sun began to disappear and while thinking we were going to have this small island to ourselves, a boater appeared from the north and landed onshore opposite the lighthouse from us and about 300 yards from our camp. He seemed unaware of our presence as he occasionally glanced at his watch as if expecting company. Fifteen minutes passed and another boat arrived from the west side of the island. What was curious was the fact that the sun had set, the lighting had dimmed, and the boaters were running without any lights. There were two aboard, obviously drunk, and the boat engine repeatedly died. They anchored near shore to the west of us, stepped awkwardly out of the boat mostly falling into the water and stumbled across the sand in our direction looking every bit like two drowned rats. As they approached our camp, each with a beer can in his hand, one of the drowned rats asked if I had a light for his cigarette. I said no. They proceeded up to the lighthouse and entered the open doorway.

Immediately spotting the two new arrivals, the other boater approached our campsite and began to engage Bob and me in small talk as he walked past us, deliberately ignoring the other two who had now exited the lighthouse and began to follow him. He walked towards the west side of the island in the direction of the anchored second boat. When the two drowned rats met up with the first boater, something was passed between the three, and then they immediately parted. The first boater returned to his boat and left the island, the other two boaters stumbled back to their boat and attempted to leave. At first, I thought we were going to be sharing the island with them for the night as they had a difficult time keeping the boat motor running. Finally, the engine co-operated and the drowned rats vanished into the twilight, still without lights.

Seemed a strange contradiction of impressions with the pelicans gliding across the air, inches above the water, the piercing call of the ospreys as they settled into their nests for the night, the soft sound of the delicate surf rolling towards shore. All this interrupted by the "drop" which had just taken place punctuating the abandonment of the Round Island lighthouse, a structure ravaged by decades of storm surges and neglect, littered with beer bottles and cans around its base, graffiti on the wall, debris which included large sections of carpet weighed down and partially buried along the shore by massive deposits of sand. These islands are constantly on the move westward, a huge shifting mound of fine quartz spilling out of the mouth of the Mississippi River carried by the Gulf Stream and fierce storms. Eventually, all the man-made trivia will be removed, re-deposited, re-buried in its continuous journey propelled by the sea.

As night came, so did the biting bugs... vicious and mean biters. We retreated hastily to the tent. The stars were bright against a dark, hazy sky. A cool, light breeze whispered over the island and through the trees, surrounding the tent, gently and playfully raising and lowering the fly against the tent wall. I listened to the night and could hear the faint sound of a train whistle in the distance... miles away. I closed my eyes secure in the knowledge that no train would be blasting any horns only 150 yards away from me on this night.

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