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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Paddling Davis Bayou Again

We were last here at Gulf Islands National Seashore, in Ocean Springs, in 2018, when we paddled portions of Davis Bayou the first time.  We weren't entirely happy with the visit, because the tide was low and we didn't have a chance to explore deeply into the estuaries.  We hoped that, this time, we might hit the high tide and paddle up further inland.

We didn't quite get our wish.  We could only get out one of the days we are here, and the tides were not entirely favorable.  We were able to paddle at mid-tide, which let us paddle a little deeper into the bayou.  However, the weather was cooler and the sea breeze was stiff, so we had to deal with the added elements of wind and waves.

Still, the day was beautiful and brilliant.  We worked our way against the wind and waves, out into the deep, outer reaches of Davis Bayou --

-- and then around a point and into the estuarine channels:

Our first stop was a small bridge that we had visited in our 2018 paddle.  It looked just the same:

We couldn't help taking another photo of our passage under the bridge --

-- and of Kathy's sweep back under the bridge back on our way out of the backwater:

But there were new experiences this time.  As we reached the boat ramp dock area, we spotted this fellow pulling in a crab trap.  He had been successful, although the crab was on the small side:

We wanted to get over to the Visitor Center and its fishing piers and boat moorage, so we made our way out into open water.  This cormorant had beat us to the punch, and sat himself on one of the channel signs, looking for signs of his next meal:

Kathy chose another channel marker ("red right returning") so that she would be in the deep channel as we paddled out into the deeper water:

We rounded a point past the Visitor Center and had the Park Service fishing dock and boat moorage in sight, when Kathy spotted this osprey on a large, dead tree, feasting on a fish it had caught:

David was able to get a little closer, but the osprey started to get nervous, so we paddled on without further disturbing its lunch:

We turned to the NPS fishing dock --

-- and the moorage where the Park Service had constructed a breakwater to protect its patrol boats:

We hadn't realized how many boats this NPS unit had until we paddled past the breakwater and spotted all of the boats, large and small, fast and faster, moored under shelter and ready to go:

Thus having satisfied our curiosity about the NPS infrastructure, we turned back.  The wind and waves had picked up, and it was a bit of a challenge to maintain our heading back into calmer water.  As we paddled, we spotted Biloxi and the Biloxi Bay Bridge out across the water, in the background in the photo below:

The Park Service has a boathouse on one of the bayou channels, perched on pilings down a long boardwalk from the Visitor Center building.  We had learned the other day that the boathouse is closed to visitors.  It appeared that the boathouse and its boardwalk access had been damaged by a recent hurricane, and have not had an opportunity to be repaired yet -- thanks to the insufficient funding the National Park Service gets from Congress in these penurious times.  Still, the boathouse looked intact and capable of functioning.  It has beautiful lines:

The Visitor Center, too, is an attractive, low profile building that nestles into a grove of trees on a peninsula of David Bayou.  We spotted it as we paddled past:

We didn't expect to see a lot of wildlife, but did hope for some shorebirds and raptors.  As it turned out, we weren't disappointed.  The whole last half of our paddle was graced by one sighting of birds after another.  This bald eagle soared over our heads as we paddled back out from inspecting the boathouse:

We headed back to the vicinity of our boat ramp, and found a side channel with some pelicans diving and fishing.  We decided to work our way closer to watch them.  While we couldn't get an action photo of these skilled skydivers, we did find one fat and happy pelican catching his siesta on a fence pole by the water:

Our campground is set at the end of one of the arms of the estuary in David Bayou.  We paddled over to see if we could spot our RV perched high above the water.  Kathy finally spotted it, but not before we ran into a Great Blue Heron fishing quietly at the end of the cove:

He really wasn't happy with our approaching him, and before too long, he took flight, squawking in indignation as we got closer:

He didn't fly far, however, and we ran into him again as we worked our way back to our boat ramp.  We got close enough for a photo or two, but assured him that we were not going to approach as closely as we just had.  He accepted that assurance and remained steadily focused on his fishing, with just one eye on the human intruders.

It was a short paddle back to where we put into the water.  As we got to the boat ramp, two other groups of kayakers suddenly appeared and paddled in to debark.  We were surprised they came back this quickly, because they had not set out until we had completed half our paddle.  Perhaps the wind, waves and cooler temperatures were not to their liking.  In any event, all three paddler groups quietly packed up their kayaks and equipment and headed back to the campground -- us to plans for a tasty dinner of chicken, onions and Moroccan carrots.  It warmed us right up after a cool outing.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Hiking Tuxachanie National Recreation Trail

Monday, February 19, 2024

Hi Blog!

After yesterday's hike in the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, we thought we would find a nice bike trail. Not far from where we are camped in Ocean Springs, Mississippi is the DeSoto National Forest. Named for 16th-century Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, the forest is 518,587 acres of pine forests in southern Mississippi. It is one of the most important protected areas for the biological diversity of the Gulf Coast eco-region of North America. It is also home to the Tuxachanie Trail, which runs for 12 miles through the forest. The trail was listed as a bike trail on All Trails, but when we arrived at the trailhead, we learned Tuxachanie Trail is a National Recreation Trail open to foot traffic only. So, our bike ride turned into a hiking adventure.

There are several trailheads for the Tuxachanie Trail. We chose to start at Airey Lake. The Airey Camp is a primitive camping ground. There are no numbered sites, but several picnic tables are available. When we arrived, there was only one person camping. His homemade trailer is one of the more unique RVs we have encountered.

As today was the Presidents Day Holiday, we were not surprised to find several fishermen trying their luck on the small lake. As we made our way around the lake, we asked one fisherman how he did and he said he had just caught at 5 pound bass!

What the lake lacked in size, it more than made up in beauty.

The lake is almost in the middle of the hiking trail between miles 5 and 6. We could either hike east or west from here. We decided to first go east in search of Copeland Springs.

The De Soto National Forest was created in 1934. The main job of the Forest Service in Mississippi was to replant trees that had been heavily removed by logging in the early 1900s. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the Airey Work Center in 1935 as a base for its work in replanting the forest. The lake and campground were part of the original camp. 

The name Tuxachanie is a name derived from the Choctaw language meaning "fragments of hominy-boiling pots are lying there." We didn't see any hominy-boiling pots, but we did see several mile-markers along the trail.

We are still a little early for spring, but we did notice a few flowers starting to bloom.

The exact location of Copeland Spring is not noted on the forest map. However, Google Maps does show a location. There had originally been a side boardwalk leading to the spring, but it has since been destroyed:

 Huricane Katrina hit this area hard. Despite the ruined boardwalk, we discovered a side trail to the spring.
It is reported that the Copeland gang would come to water their horses and rest enroute from their hideout on the Pearl River in Hancock County to the Black Creek on the boundary of Stone County. Besides James Copeland, among other members of the gang were said to be two men named Wages and McGrath, who posed, respectively, as an evangelistic preacher and singer.  While they engaged a community in a religious revival, they stole their horses. They were later caught and hanged.

The spring itself was several feet deep. The water was crystal clear and cold!

After finding the spring, we decided to head back toward the lake and hike in the other direction.

Pine forests need fire to stay healthy. If the fire gets too hot, the bark can burn through. Sap will rise to the surface to protect it.

Back at Airey Lake, we noticed this bird box on the lake shore.

We decided to hike around the far side of the lake. We weren't sure if we could make it through the wetlands. 

We were pleased to see several boardwalks over the wet spots.

The westernmost five miles of trail follows an old abandoned railroad bed which once served the sawmill of Dantzler Lumber Company at Howison, MS. Our trailhead at the lake was at the eastern end of the five mile rail bed.

Once we started hiking on the old rail bed, we were hoping to see some of the old railroad trestles, but at each stream crossing they seemed to be missing.

This crossing had a boardwalk.

The next crossing had brick patio pavers piled high enough to walk across the stream.

No sooner does the Forest Service repair a trestle then the next hurricane dislodges it.

We decided to make this ruined bridge/trestle our turnaround. It was almost a straight shot back to the trailhead. If the weather warms up, we hope to get out and paddle tomorrow. Stay turned.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Blues, Brunch & Bayou - Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR

After two days of rain here in Ocean Springs, just across from Biloxi, Mississippi, we were eager to get outside today; but the weather is cold today after the fronts collided yesterday.  "Cold and sunny" usually means a hike, so we looked for a hike nearby.  Unfortunately, this Gulf Coast area is short on really interesting, longer hikes, so we decided to pair a lunch with an afternoon hike, taking advantage of the warmer, sunnier afternoon for our outing.

A little more consideration produced the idea of a brunch with Blues music.  "Is there such a thing nearby?"  A little research turned up Ground Zero Blues Club in adjoining Biloxi, which, providentially, features a Sunday brunch with music.  Perfect!

Today, the venue featured Buddy Leach, a noted blues saxophone side man, and Marty Loper, a well-known local singer, performing as "Side Pocket":

We dropped over at 10am and enjoyed a scrumptious Gulf Coast style brunch while listening to this duo perform recognizable Blues standards.  It was exactly what we hoped to find.

With tummies filled and ready to hike, we headed out to nearby Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, which is only a few miles from our campground:

The Refuge was established in 1975 under authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the critically endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes and their unique, and itself endangered, wet pine savanna habitat. The crane population, at that time was only 30-35 birds, is currently at approximately 130 birds. Through captive rearing and reintroduction to the area as well as wild birds nesting in the savannas, the crane population continues to grow. The refuge also protects and restores the last large expanses of wet pine savanna, primarily through the use of prescribed fire. The wet pine savanna is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the U.S. with more than 30 plants found in a square meter of land.

The Refuge encompasses a variety of ecological zones, from bayou, to wetlands, to marsh, to pinewood flatlands.  Toward the beginning of our hike, we had a chance to enjoy the environment along Davis Bayou, which is part of the same water system that borders our campground at the Davis Bayou section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore:

The Refuge offers hiking trails, but they are not very lengthy.  Two trails, blazed in red and green, total about 1.9 miles altogether, which was not as long as we wanted -- so, although the trails form a figure eight loop, we decided to hike around them, and then back again, for an almost-four-mile hike.

The trails are well maintained and marked.  Where the going is wet, some sort of boardwalk if provided:

There are a number of benches for resting along the trail:

We chose the outermost trail sections around the loop, so we continued along the waterway during the first part of our hike:

At one of the observation decks alongside Davis Bayou, we scared up a great white egret, who took off into the trees almost faster than we could photograph it -- although we got a snapshot of it as it fled:

At another spot, we could look downstream toward a boat ramp and a highway bridge across the waterway --

-- and were treated to this view of some pelicans flying their way upstream, looking for some easy fishing:

The observation decks were numerous enough to give us several opportunities to look for wildlife:

None were to be seen, but the natural scenery was beautiful:

Turning in from the bayou, we worked our way through the wetland section, crossing several bodies of water.  The water below is called a "bayhead."  A bayhead is a freshwater swamp, which can occur near salty or brackish water. but is isolated from them.  In contrast to a marsh, which mainly fosters grasses, a swamp features mainly trees.  This bayhead, as well as the other swampy areas in the Refuge, contains gum trees, bay trees and maples, in contrast to the pines and palms of other ecosystems in the Refuge.

This whole section of the Refuge provided us with water crossings.  Some had bridges, some boarwalks, some had rocks -- and this one boasted a row of stumps stuck in the water.  Although the stumps wobbled as we crossed, Kathy conquered them like a veteran:

Then again, some water crossings required hopping from fallen log to branchy perch to wobbly log:

Kathy was alert enough to realize that the bayhead ecosystems might contain pitcher plants -- those carnivorous plants that sneakily lure bugs into their parlors.  She was right.  Once we looked, we found a goodly number of pitcher plants, this being the prettiest:

As we left the bayhead zone, we noticed a number of trees were tagged with pink flags.  One, Kathy noticed, also had a metal label stating that it was a Red Bay:

The Red Bay tree is a small, evergreen tree in the laurel family, native to the southeastern United States. The plant is not widely used now for medicinal purposes, however members of the Seminole tribe formerly used it as an emetic to induce vomiting. The dried-up leaves can be used as a condiment.  While it is related to the bay laurel, from which we get the bay leaves that are used as herbs in cooking, its leaves are not the same.  The wood is hard and strong and can be used to build boats, cabinets and for lining the interior of structures. 

And that, dear students, is the end of our nature lesson for today.  Only know that we got great exercise along with our learning!