Last week, Boy Scout Troop No. 124 of McComb embarked upon a five-day, 50-mile canoe-packing trek along Black Creek from the bridge at Dantzler Camp to the Highway 26 bridge outside Wiggins through the Black Creek Wilderness.
Black Creek is named from the tannin-stained water and is described as some of the best canoeing in the South.
It seems to me that whenever we go on any prolonged trek like five days on Black Creek, there is this frantic feeling at the last moment. I run in circles wondering what I’ve forgotten, what I need to be prepared. Even if we’ve been planning and preparing for months, there’s still that feeling of doubt just before the start.
After you leave the house, there is a stab of fear when you remember that one thing you forgot. It’s too late to turn around, but you can still stop by the store to pick up that last thing.
But then there is the actual moment when you step off the edge. When you push off into the river there’s no going back, only forward. Amazingly the feeling of dread falls off when you can only go forward.
Recently I watched a BBC documentary titled “Ray Mears’ Bushcraft” in which the bushcraft expert was talking about long canoe voyages such as Canadian fur traders used to make. He hints that old-timey canoeists experienced this same preparatory dread, and that they developed ways to counteract it.
Mears says, “On a good day’s paddling I expect to cover many miles, but the fur traders would always start their journeys with a short day. They would make camp only a few miles into their journey. That way, they’d have the opportunity to use most of the kit that they’d be taking with them. If anything was missing, it wouldn’t be too far to go back and get it. It was known as ‘The Hudson’s Bay Start.’ ”
This particular route on Black Creek has its own built-in Hudson’s Bay start. Starting at Dantzler Camp, it is only about eight miles (four hours) to Big Creek Landing, so we planned to stop there the first night. We didn’t expect to hike back for anything we’d forgotten, but there would be good road access at Big Creek so our ground crew could bring us any missing items (like insect repellent).
The guidebooks and the pros tell me that the current is faster-moving and requires more technical canoe skills between Dantzler Camp and Big Creek. That seems correct.
About five minutes below Dantzler, just after we rounded the corner out of view of our departing ground crew, we ran into a huge pine tree that had fallen completely across the river. It was a formidable obstacle for the more novice canoeists in the group, but we took our time and worked together, and soon we had finished pulling the canoes over the tree and were on our way.
We passed the Little Black Creek confluence soon after that. It was dumping a lot of water into Black Creek, and the boost in current was thrilling for a few moments.
There were only one or two more obstructions between Dantzler Camp and Big Creek Landing, but one of them clothes-lined me clean out of the boat, and Elise jumped in to keep me from capsizing. We still shipped a lot of water and had to swim the canoe a couple hundred yards till we were able to beach it on a gravel bar and bail out.
Along the way, lots of little springs squeeze themselves out of tall clay banks, adding themselves to the flow of Black Creek. There is even a spring of cold, clear water erupting from between the concrete slabs of the boat ramp at Big Creek Landing.
Dragonflies and damselflies hitched rides on our gear, and horseflies made me wish I’d brought my baseball bat — I think I may have just been able to knock a few out of the air.
There were mosquitoes by the millions. It has rained a lot lately and the Forest Service has apparently not been able to mow the campground regularly, so the mosquitoes had some additional habitat in the tall grass.
Ray Mears also mentions mosquitoes in his BBC documentary. “Black flies and mosquitoes plague every warm-blooded creature around here. In the 1950s, the Canadian government carried out tests and discovered that an exposed forearm could be bitten 280 times in just one minute! So my bug jacket may make things hot and sweaty, but it is an essential item of clothing.”
We saw hummingbirds flitting about in the top of a large mimosa tree and we saw red velvet ants (actually a kind of wasp), both winged males and wingless females.
Around nightfall, our phones started blowing up with emergency alerts and messages from our ever-vigilant ground crew, warning us that Tropical Storm Cindy was going to be an issue.
The clear, starry night gave lie to the weather reports. It was simply unbelievable that after such a perfect day that there would be a tropical storm to wreck our outing.
But we made sure everything was secure, prepared ourselves for a deluge and spent a sticky-hot, mosquito-miserable night waiting for the rain.
The rain never came because apparently Cindy was hanging out in the Gulf gathering her strength before making a run inland. I thought we probably could have made the float from Big Creek to Moody’s Landing before the storm arrived, but my sense of adventure gave way to caution.
Canoeing Black Creek while a tropical storm is spinning up might have been a grand adventure for skilled adults with knowledge of the river, but I figured the Scout moms would have deposed me from my job as Scoutmaster if I’d dragged their children another 11 miles down that river toward the Black Creek Wilderness.
As it was, we loaded our canoes up and skedaddled, and made it home (barely) before a single drop of rain fell on us. Everyone was safe and sound and able to canoe another day, but sadly we were only one-fifth as dirty and stinky as we should have been by the end of this adventure.
Article previously published in the Enterprise-Journal
Photo by Elise D. Parker