Dipping a Paddle into Mississippi's WatersWednesday, July 06, 2016
By Jim Beaugez
For all paddlers, Mississippi-which translates to "big river" in
indigenous Ojibwe or to "father of waters" in other Native
American languages - certainly lives up to its name.
From the Delta's flatlands to the rolling hills of Central
Mississippi, the marsh-lined Gulf Coast and its namesake river,
Mississippi abounds with a wide variety of public waters accessible
for canoeing and kayaking.
"Mississippi is like an undiscovered gem for
adventure paddlers," said Kelly McGinnis, himself an avid paddler
from the central part of the state and a nationally registered and
If anyone, he would know. McGinnis spends most of
his summers as a master guide on the popular whitewater the Ocoee
River in Tennessee, but when he is home he can be found paddling
the nooks, channels and creeks that feed Pelahatchie Bay on the
Ross Barnett Reservoir.
When McGinnis started looking closely at
Mississippi's waterways for places to paddle during the winters, he
quickly realized the abundance of hot spots in Mississippi. These
discoveries by him and others led to the formation of an impromptu
group that eventually grew to more than 400 people who call
themselves the Central Mississippi Paddling Mafia, a
Facebook-organized and open group of boating aficionados in the
"Our group is really just
beginning to explore the upper Pearl River, from Leake County
down," said McGinnis. "Pelahatchie Creek is a beautiful
paddle-I've probably gone six or seven miles up the creek and it's
gorgeous. Even the bay itself is a great place to
In these and other waters, canoeists and kayakers
throughout the state often get a close-up and different look at
native wildlife, which often includes creatures such as raccoons,
beaver, and otter but can also mean waterfowl, alligators, deer,
and turkeys. While a whitewater experience is not what these waters
are known for, the abundance of rural and wilderness areas in the
state, as well as the relatively small numbers of paddlers, makes
trips up the many creeks, rivers and sloughs a solitary
"We've got a nesting
pair of eagles on the very eastern side of Pelahatchie Bay," said
McGinnis. "Another unique thing about Pelahatchie Bay is that there
are a couple of islands out there and years ago people put goats on
them to help keep the vegetation down, and these goats still live
on the islands."
"The Pearl River is
a beautiful paddle right through the middle of Jackson- from the
reservoir spillway down to Mayes Lake is probably the most paddled
Although he occasionally leads excursions at dusk
and into the evening, McGinnis doesn't fear the creatures that go
"bump" in the night.
"When the weather
really warms up, we do a lot of night paddling, and we often see
gators with their red eyes. We've had a couple of them bump the
boat when they start to surface, which is a little unsettling, but
we never feel threatened by them. We make sure to leave them alone
and we know that in the spring, when they've got the new hatch, we
give them a lot wider berth."
MDWFP and other groups are also taking an
interest in the sport by investing in infrastructure to support
the growing movement. While paddlers on the Barnett
Reservoir such as McGinnis often launch at the Pelahatchie Bay
Trading Post on Hwy. 471, a timely recreational trails grant from
MDWFP funded a new floating pier for launching kayaks at the nearby
Turtle Point Nature Area.
In the Delta, Sky Lake (Sky Lake Wildlife Management
Area) attracts many nature lovers for its astonishing bald cypress
trees, which provide shelter for species as diverse as wood ducks
and sometimes even Louisiana black bears. This ancient abandoned
channel of the Mississippi River and its surrounding wetlands and
forests are replenished with nutrients through natural flooding.
Annual flooding provides fertile environs for its 1,000-year-old
cypress trees, the largest of which measures nearly 47 feet in
circumference and stands 70 feet tall.
Paddlers have a unique (and best possible) way to experience
Sky Lake's natural majesty-a dedicated paddling trail that leads
canoers and kayakers through a maze of its flora. The 2.6-mile
trail is segmented into four separate loops, and the best
experiences are had in late summer and autumn, when water levels
are at their highest.
Not surprisingly, the Mississippi River-the longest
river in North America-offers the most options for multi-day trips
in the state. Despite its swift currents and river traffic, the
sheer size of the river, its mythical status, and its abundance of
islands and sandbars, make it a popular choice for weekenders and
campers. In recent years, recreational paddling races have become
popular on the Mississippi, including the Bluz Cruz in Vicksburg
and the Phat Water, a 42-mile race from Port Gibson to Natchez.
Lauderdale County and the Meridian area also
attract paddlers to streams like the Chunky River- which flows
from Newton County through Lauderdale and into Clarke County, where
it joins with Okatibbee Creek to form the Chickasawhay River-as
well as the dammed Okatibbee Reservoir upstream near Collinsville,
and Bonita Lakes in Meridian.
Curt Skipper, an instructor at East Central
Community College and advisor for its outdoor-minded
Environmental Club, helps organize canoeing and camping trips for
area students, many of whom are first-time paddlers.
"Paddling the Chunky
River, there's beautiful limestone cuts in the bank from the river
and several places where you'll see gorgeous, 30-foot cliffs," said
Skipper. "There's a great diversity of plant life and wildlife
along the river. A lot of times you'll see ducks and other birds,
and there are big cypress trees that make it very scenic. It's one
of the hidden gems we have in this part of the
Although it is generally a shallow river-Skipper
recommends checking the water levels before taking a trip, as it
can vary from season to season-there are deeper spots where
paddlers will find rope swings and swimming holes. Situated on one
of the bluffs is Dunn's Falls, site of a gristmill where Stetson
hats were once made.
South of Hattiesburg near the Brooklyn community
flows Black Creek. Like the Chickasawhay, Black Creek is a
tributary of the Pascagoula River, Mississippi's only designated
National Wild and Scenic River. Black Creek itself courses through
a 21-mile stretch of Black Creek Wilderness in the DeSoto National
Forest, which protects upland longleaf pine forests and lowland
hardwoods. Like many smaller creeks in South Mississippi, Black
Creek is known for is tannin-stained caramel color, plentiful sand
bars and wildlife diversity.
Located just north of Hattiesburg near Seminary and
also part of the Pascagoula River watershed, Okatoma Creek
provides paddlers with something very unique in Mississippi-a
series of Class I whitewater rapids and chutes-along with rope
swings and rocky pullouts ideal for picnicking.
The coastal counties are home to vast stretches of
winding bayous and rivers that feed into the Mississippi Sound.
Fort Bayou near Ocean Springs, the lower Pascagoula River and Gulf
Islands National Seashore offer miles of secluded paddles through
a labyrinth of coastal wetlands and marsh grasses, as well as
offshore excursions to the uninhabited Horn Island, best known as
a favorite subject of artist Walter Anderson.
From the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi is
full of discoveries for canoers and kayakers. Visit www.mdwfp.com to learn about many
of the public paddling opportunities in the state.