Gulf Island National Seashore - Kayak Trip / Canoe Trip
Extended Trip Report
July 19-24, 2009
Needing an inexpensive summer vacation, I decided to tick the Gulf Islands National Seashore off my 'to visit' list, where it has been for several years now. In actuality, there are far too many islands in the National Seashore to visit in a single trip (of a week), so I limited my travels to several closely spaced islands off the coast of Mississippi. For some time, I have been interested in these islands due initially to the fabulous paintings of Walter Anderson (1903-1965). For many years, he would make the crossing from the mainland to Horn Island in a rowboat, which he would sleep under at night while making paintings on 8-1/2 X 11 sheets of paper during the day.
In any event, I arrived in the general area on a Saturday and scouted around for a good launching point. I found one quickly, in Long Beach, in between the towns of Pass Christian and Gulfport. The Long Beach Marina was especially attractive as they have free but secure parking. I launched on the following day. It was a hot but pretty, as many July days are on the Gulf Coast. I loaded up, and paddled off on an ESE course to the Eastern tip of East Ship Island - a distance of approximately 17 miles (Cat Island, which I would visit later in my trip, is nearer - being due south approximately 8 miles away).
I soon came into a pod of dolphins which escorted me for 15 minutes or so, seemingly showing some interest in me and/or my boat. Otherwise, the crossing was uneventful and somewhat monotonous other than a couple of large commercial craft which I passed approximately halfway. I arrived at East Ship shortly before sunset. I had expected, based on outdated information, that I would arrive at a forested area, but it was really just a sand spit. I knew I would not be staying for more than the night, so rather than set up a tent, I made dinner and crawled into a bivy sack, using my PFD as a pillow. I went to sleep quickly, as quickly as possible given nocturnal seabird cacophony, spotting a brilliantly orange shooting star shortly before drifting off.
The next day, I got up and had breakfast (instant with Ghee [clarified butter that doesn't spoil]), and after a bit of milling around, headed off for Horn Island. The water was clear enough that I could discriminate grass from sand patches in what I would guess to be about 12 feet of water, and also see, at one point, what I believe to have been a bull shark of about 5 feet in length cruising along the bottom. I also saw several squads (groups of 3) of tan-brown rays cruising along the surface. My most exciting sighting was a large (~6 feet) blacktip shark which jumped clear out of the water, twice, approximately 60 feet off my port bow. Apparently, they occasionally do this while shooting from below through a group of bait fish, such that their momentum carries them clear out of the water.
I arrived at Horn Island towards the end of the day, paddling somewhat past the western tip to arrive at a place where the depth profile suggested I would not have to drag my boat across an endless mud flat if I were to later choose a low-tide departure. The next day was basically a beachcombing day. The trees on all of these islands were largely devastated by Hurricane Katrina, 5 years earlier. Mostly, where I had expected to see shaded forest, there were only the trunks of denuded pine trees, projecting maybe 40 or so feet towards the sky. I was told, incredibly, that most of these trees were actually underwater during the height of the storm. I knew that there had previously been alligators and raccoons on these islands. Somehow, some of them apparently survived. At one point, walking along the bay side of the island, I saw funny sort of trail leading from the beaches edge to the interior of the island. I guessed that this might have been made by the tail of an alligator. In fact, the trail led right over a sand berm and into a marsh where I did indeed see what appeared to be a juvenile alligator. During my time on the island, I saw several more trails like this, and also a raccoon.
The following day, I got up early and made some coffee and did a little more exploring. I should note that these islands are really pretty deserted. I had very few interactions with people during the entire trip. I did see a few fishermen (and woman), but mostly you can expect to have the beach to yourself and you can do as you please. In any case, after finishing my coffee, I headed back to East Ship Island, this time to the west end. It was a pleasant paddle. Again, I saw a nice blacktip shark cruising along on the bottom, this time in about 5 feet of water. The shadow of my kayak spooked it off, but with my new polarized sunglasses, was able to follow it for about 50 feet where it slowed down considerably. I followed it and once more got pretty near, pouring on the speed when I was about 15 feet away. Again, the shark appeared startled and accelerated away with blinding speed. Instead of going straight ahead forward, it made a big arc and, to my surprise, ended up behind me and then made a beeline right for my kayak. Now it was my time to be spooked! I tried to turn my kayak around so I could keep my eyes on the shark. As my paddle hit the water however, it seemed to dissuade it from approaching closer. It made another sharp turn and disappeared into the depths.
The following day, I headed for Cat Island (so named because the original European explorers had not seen raccoons before and thought that it must have been some form of a cat), making a 2-hour stop at the only of these island that you are not allowed to wilderness camp on - West Ship Island. A passenger ferry brings people to this island from the mainland to go swimming. There are showers, bathrooms, and I am told a concession stand although I did not see this. You can also visit Fort Massachusetts which was built in the mid-1800's.
In any case, after a short visit, I resumed my paddle to Cat Island. For whatever reason, the trees on Cat Island were relatively spared by Hurricane Katrina. That and the north-south orientation of the eastern end of the island (which altogether, is shaped like a capital T which has fallen on its side) distinguish it from the other barrier islands in this area. On Friday, I headed back to Long Beach, after spending an hour or so exploring by Kayak the north-side of Cat Island. Here, there is a very nice, peaceful, marsh which, had I had more time, I would have loved to explore more. This also looked like a great place to fish. In fact, I did meet a nice gentleman who was doing just that - casting off from the bow of his boat which was moving silently along being propelled by an electric motor.
All in all, this was a very nice trip. The crossing is somewhat long so you really should be prepared for all contingencies - especially weather related. Also, a GPS is highly recommended. Most commonly, I could not see my destination from my departure point (and that was in good weather). Communications gear are also highly recommended, and a solid kayaking skill set a must. I also highly recommend Scott Williams fabulous book "Exploring Coastal Mississippi."
Mainland attractions are somewhat limited, but for some may include the nearby casino's. I was more attracted to the wonderful little town of Ocean Springs, where you can visit the Walter Anderson museum (which I found disappointingly small but still worth a visit) and an unusually high concentration of quality restaurants. I highly recommend Phonecia, which serves upscale Seafood/Mediterranean cuisine in a fairly casual atmosphere and, for a more basic seafood restaurant, McElroy's which is just off the main highway
Resources: Exploring Coastal Mississippi
by Scott B. Williams
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