By M. Scott Morris
IUKA – These are the slow times at J.P. Coleman State Park, and that probably won’t change until March.
“We have three weeks of spring breaks in March – Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama,” said Ruth Watson, park manager. “That’s when it starts.”
The place was all but deserted during the recent cold snap, when the temperature reached minus 6 degrees.
But the views of Pickwick Lake that keep the place hopping in the spring, summer and fall are still there in winter.
“In November and December, we have a lot of people from Florida,” Watson said. “They stay in the motel because of the view. They usually come on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and go home on Sunday. They just have a ball.”
Businesses hold their Christmas parties at the park’s meeting room, which has giant picture windows overlooking the water. The room is also a winter wedding spot.
“Most of the weddings, if it’s in the summer, are outside,” Watson said. “They have the reception indoors.”
When a park ranger was married at J.P. Coleman, he and his new bride left the park in a boat.
And boating is a prime attraction during the busy season. There are three docks for boat owners that rent slips from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks for long-term use.
About a year ago, the park added a transient dock for visitors who didn’t want to have to take their boats in and out of the water numerous times during their stay.
“We have water skiing, jet skiing, pontoon boats and really high-dollar fishing boats and house boats,” Watson said.
Pickwick Lake offers 47,500 acres of water, and comes complete with crappie, bream, catfish, sauger, walleye and bass. The park will host a fishing tournament on Saturday, Feb. 15.
“They’ll come in on the Thursday before, then leave out early in the morning to do their preliminary scouting,” Watson said. “They’re serious about it.”
The park offers a motel with balcony views of the water. There also are cabins, as well as cottages that were once used by Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
“They have become popular because they are two-bedroom cottages,” Watson said.
Full hookups are available for recreational vehicles, and there are primitive tent sites.
Reservations can be made two years in advance, and that makes getting a room at the height of the busy season a tough prospect.
“A lot of them, as soon as they finish their stay, they’ll make a reservation for two years out,” she said.
Out and about
The park has a pool that’s open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A 19-hole miniature golf course is part of 680 developed acres.
A trail goes to the former location of a steel bridge. That’s the same area where people hook up a rope and swing into the water, though Watson doesn’t endorse that practice.
“The whole park is sheets of rock and it goes out into the water. They have to jump out past it,” Watson said. “It’s pretty dangerous.”
Another water feature is far less dangerous, but it’s not technically a part of the park. A creek runs along the entrance and actually flows across the drive.
“You have a lot of kids who like to go walking in the creek, especially in June and July, when it’s hot. They love that creek,” Watson said. “They’ll see a car coming and you’ll see them line up on each side of the creek where it crosses the road because they want to be splashed.”
Hikers also are invited to trek out to Mansell Spring.
“Boy Scouts built a trail. It’s about half a mile long,” she said. “It’s a spring, and the water is absolutely delicious. It’s really cold now, but it’s usually cold, even in the summer.”
Rest and relax
Bald eagles make yearly appearances. Watson saw one hover in the air just off from the meeting room, then it flew over to the marina.
“They were early this time. We started seeing them toward the end of September,” she said. “Normally, it’s the second or third week of October. It’s three or so. They just soar around.”
A flock of geese returns each year, too.
“They are nice,” she said. “If you don’t feed them, it’s good, but if you feed them, you’ll be out with a pressure washer having to clean things.”
The winter months are a time for the park’s eight employees to catch up on repairs. There’s not a lot of action out on the lake, except for commercial fishermen who hunt for catfish each morning.
During the busy season, though, things can get stressful for the staff.
“You know you’ve got a lot of work to be doing and you wish you were out on the water, so it does cause stress for your heart and mind,” Watson said.
Luckily for them, the park offers a built-in remedy.
“It is very peaceful after a long day in the summer when it’s been busy,” Watson said. “I’ll go right behind the motel and sit on the rocks and have a book and I’ll read. A lot of times, I’ll jot things down, things I’ve seen. It’s restful after a long day.”