BRIAN ALBERT BLOOM, The Clarion-Ledger
OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — The sky and trees were mirrored in the dark stained water as Susan Ray began sliding a kayak into Old Fort Bayou in Ocean Springs. Soon, she was slipping through the water and one by one, more paddlers followed.
Ray, of Ocean Springs, said she began canoeing when she was a young girl and started kayaking with her son about 15 years ago. “Kayaking just seemed smoother than canoeing,” said Ray. “Maybe less intrusive than canoeing. You kind of glide more.”
The Mississippi Coast is a paddler’s paradise that offers a variety of water unseen in most states. Endless bayous meander into the Mississippi Sound as do fresh water rivers and streams. Marshes teeming with wildlife dot the coastline and saltwater bays beckon with their protected waters.
Ray says she prefers the easy-going pace that the Coast’s bayous provide and calls Davis Bayou her home water. “In Davis Bayou you have protected water and it is more still and isn’t flowing very quickly,” said Ray. “The farther you get from the bays, the slower the water is.”
In the still inland water, Ray enjoys the sights and smells of nature, many of which can only be found in a coastal environment. “You get to sneak up on nature in the bayous and rivers,” said Ray. “We love to see the white egrets and herons. And of course, alligators and snakes and you hear the frogs.” She added that paddlers sometimes encounter the sounds of traffic in the distance, but said she becomes so focused on what is immediately around her that it disappears.
Even the light itself is a show for Ray. “Catching the light down here at certain times of day is really magical,” and according to Ray, the beauty isn’t limited to daytime. “When the full moon is out, it really reflects on the water.”
Fred Pettersen, 75, of Gautier, was in the group with Ray and said he began paddling canoes and rowboats as a teen. “There weren’t many boat motors around, so if you wanted to go somewhere, you paddled,” said Pettersen.
While Pettersen is no stranger to paddling, he said he only entered the kayaking world about a year and a half ago and found it is a way to enjoy nature at almost any age. “It’s easy to paddle a kayak,” said Pettersen. “I find it quite comfortable to do.”
Pettersen is quite an adventurer and took on a challenge that most only dream about. After retirement, Pettersen said he and his wife sailed around the world.
Nowadays, Pettersen’s interest has turned from the waves of blue water to the calm of backwater. “I have no need to see any more saltwater,” said Pettersen. “What I really like is you get in these backwaters and it is like water skiing in the morning when the water is perfectly flat,” said Pettersen.
Armed with the stealth of a kayak and the ability to go where other watercraft can’t, Pettersen said he gets to see a side of the Coast that many miss. “We’ve been in places as small as Franklin Creek. It’s really cool and clear and there is no way for a powerboat to get in there,” said Petterson. “There is just an enormous amount of beauty in this area.”
Scott Williams of Prentiss said he enjoys kayaking anywhere, but paddling in the Sound is his preference. Given his resume of paddling accomplishments, this comes as no surprise.
Williams said he has kayaked in Canada, down the Mississippi River and hopped from island to island in the Caribbean. Closer to home, Williams has covered countless miles on the Coast while kayaking in both fresh and saltwater. So many miles, he authored the book Exploring Coastal Mississippi.
“The saltwater environment, I like it because of the marine life you see,” said Williams. “You see dolphins, a lot of times they’ll come right alongside the boat.”
While many boaters see dolphins, it is different when you are sitting at water-level. “It’s a lot closer contact,” said Williams. In addition to dolphins, Williams said he sees sharks, stingrays, and coastal birds.
Marine life encounters of the close-up kind aren’t the only reason Williams prefers saltwater. “I also like it because I can go as far as I want,” said Williams. “You can paddle the Coast to Florida if you want.”
Even though that long-distance opportunity is there, Williams more often finds himself destined for one of Mississippi’s Barrier Islands, a trip he said he has made over 30 times since the mid-1980′s.
According to Williams, each of the islands is a little different and he enjoys Horn Island the most. “Horn has a lot of diversity because it has sand dunes and forests,” said Williams. “I end up doing more hiking and exploring than anything, often all alone.”
On his first trip to Horn, Williams said he spent four days on the island without encountering another person. “It is a very unique experience,” he said.
The isolation of Horn Island may very well be a unique experience, but several hours of paddling to get there may not be on everyone’s bucket list. Fortunately, Deer Island is just a hop, skip and jump away by comparison and though it may not be the same as Horn Island, it has its own feel and gives just about any paddler the chance to claim they have paddled to the islands.
With all its rivers, marshes, bayous and estuaries, Lauren Clark of South Coast Paddling Co. said the Mississippi Coast is truly a paddling opportunity that rivals any other, but many are not aware of it. “A lot of people who are not from the area don’t know what we have to offer,” said Clark.
According to Clark, one of the easiest ways to experience coastal paddling begins at their kayak rental headquarters in Ocean Springs adjacent to the popular barbecue restaurant The Shed. “It starts out as freshwater as we leave The Shed then you go to brackish water to saltwater in a single day’s paddle,” said Clark.
Other adventures the business offers are moonlight paddles, island trips when the weather permits and just about any other excursion clients request.
“We want to get people on the water and at as many different places as possible,” said Clark. “There are just so many ways to experience it and it could take years and years to get to it all.”