A couple of years ago I took a group of Boy Scouts hiking at Percy Quin State Park. We did the 8-mile Nature Trail all the way around Lake Tangipahoa and had a blast despite lots of wet crossings and bridge and boardwalk damage from Hurricane Isaac.
In fact, several of the Scouts declared it to be their favorite outing ever and demanded that we repeat it – so we named that hike The Swamp Tromp and now we repeat it every Spring.
Recently, we took eight Scouts on our Third Annual Swamp Tromp – some were brand new Scouts and some more experienced. We hiked in from the Quail Hollow golf course parking lot and camped at the primitive campsite on the far side of Lake Tangipahoa. The next day we circumnavigated Lake Tangipahoa on the Nature Trail, taking a couple of detours and ending up doing 10 miles. The third day of our Swamp Tromp we broke camp and hiked back out to the parking lot for a weekend total of 15 miles.
The Friday hike-in was uneventful and we set up camp and cooked and ate as usual, but the night was anything but usual! A few minutes after midnight, we were set upon by a raging thunderstorm with high winds and crashing thunder but we were camped in a fairly protected spot and we had made sure the tents were set properly and staked out securely, so most everyone was high and dry in their tents. The thunderstorm blew past in 30 or 40 minutes and soon everyone was snoozing peaceably again.
The next morning we set out on the Main Event of the Swamp Tromp – hiking the Percy Quin Nature Trail all the way around the lake. The Park literature says that the Nature Trail is an 8-mile loop, but by taking a couple of detours we managed to stretch the lake loop to 10 miles.
Our first detour was to the DeKane cemetery in the woods near the group camp. Previous times that I’d been to the cemetery the path from the football fields was overgrown, but this time it was clean and clear so the side-trek was much less of an adventure.
The DeKane cemetery is a very old burial ground in the woods between the group camp and the football fields. It contains some new burials and someone is obviously maintaining the cemetery, but there are also some graves there that stretch back into the 1700’s. The two graves nearest the Group Camp (east) side of the cemetery belong to 1812 War veteran, Robert McCay (b.1786, d.1849) and his wife, Maria Jane Quin – presumably of the Percy Quin family.
When we got back onto the Nature Trail from our side trek, we found that vast stretches of the corridor, sunken from being trodden on for years, were flooded to between 4 and 12 inches. It was obviously going to be a great Swamp Tromp for the Scouts that like mud. In fact, I’m not really sure whether this part of the trek was more of a hike or a swim.
A mile into our trek, we came to a tributary that had washed out the trail corridor last fall, but someone had put a couple of corrugated culverts in the wash and someone had built debris bridges between the culverts so instead of being impassable it was merely an exciting challenge for the Scouts.
Throughout the length of the trail – but particularly on the west side of the river and lake, there was extensive ice damage from the cold snap in January. The trail was passable but in places in desperate need of brushing and clearing (Any Eagle Scout candidates out there need a service project?)
At the northern boundary of Percy Quin State Park, there is a metal bridge over the Tangipahoa river. Some years back we nicknamed it Spider Bridge because of the time we found a fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus) there the size of my third son’s face.
But that’s a story for another time!
Towards noon as we were nearing Spider Bridge. The Scouts were ranging ahead of the adults, as kids like to do on a hike, and pretty soon one of them said, “You know, I haven’t seen the trail for a while.”
“Yeah, I wonder if we’re still on the trail.”
“Maybe we’re lost!”
When the old heads caught up we discussed what to do about getting un-lost. Some of the Scouts wanted to backtrack the way we came until we found the trail but we showed them on a map where we diverged from the trail and approximately where we must be so we decided that if we just head directly northwest we would have to cut across the trail someplace between Last Bridge (the really narrow one shown below) and Spider Bridge (shown above). So we whipped out a compass and set a direction of travel of northwest and sure enough, in five or ten minutes we were back on the trail.
Not only was this detour a great opportunity to talk to the Scouts about land navigation and to practice getting un-lost, but it turned out to be a trek through a stand of one of my favorite plants – Florida anise.
Florida anise is a spectacular plant in all of its various stages. It enjoys soggy bottoms, so it thrives on the Percy Quin Nature Trail. It is related to the spice used in licorice (though this particular form of anise is inedible) and when trampled it makes the whole area smell sort of like licorice. You can bet that with eight Boy Scouts in charge of the trampling, the swamp was smelling like licorice that day!
When you are traveling the Nature Trail clockwise from the south trailhead at Group Camp, as we were, the narrow bridge (the one we call Last Bridge) is the end of the really remote part of the trail. From that point on, the trail is largely boardwalk and pretty soon you are climbing up the steep hill to the northern trailhead. But before you’re completely done with the Nature Trail, there is one more landmark that has been there since I was a child – the ruined Styrofoam Bridge.
At one time, this segment of the Nature trail floated upon a metal and foam pontoon – I can remember walking on the rocking, bouncy bridge as a child. But this floating bridge was replaced by boardwalk long, long ago and the ruined pontoon was left lying beside the end of the boardwalk.
There is an environmental lesson here. Styrofoam never decays. This has been sitting out in the elements for probably 50 years. Eventually, it does break down into smaller and smaller bits, but that just allows smaller creatures to choke on it. Any Eagle Scout candidates or Hornaday hopefuls out there need a Service Project?
Once you arrive back at the northern trailhead the Nature Trail loop is all roadside hiking all the way back to the Primitive campsites, but we had to take one more detour before we headed back to camp.
On the trail, I’d seen what looked like petals from Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipefera) flowers – but I hadn’t seen any of the trees flowering and I don’t think they’d be easy to miss. Fortunately, I happen to know where there is a handful of large, mature Tulip trees near the north trailhead – so we headed down there to see if the trees were in bloom.
They were not. I’m not sure if the ones in the bottoms of the trail are a bit more protected and that’s why they bloomed earlier, or what – but this spot behind the playground between the pavilions and the waterfront is definitely worth returning to see a time or two soon when this striking tree starts blooming.
The roadside hike is not as interesting as the far side of the lake, so we were making good time headed back to our campsite in the early afternoon when the wind picked up and the temperature started to drop precipitously! In fact, the temperature dropped so fast that we could see our breath as we huffed across the dam at the south end of Lake Tangipahoa.
It seems that most of the scouts were prepared for either rain or cold, but not both – so a night of cold wet camping was definitely a learning experience. One of the nice things about front-country camping at a developed campground is good cell reception and short waits for resupply – so we made a couple of calls and a Scout mom and one of the older Venture Scouts saved the day with a morale-lifting delivery of pizza, chips, and cheese dip!
The last day of the Swamp Tromp was Sunday and since “A Scout is Reverent,” we walked 1.5 miles from the primitive campsites to the Wayside Chapel, where we listened to Scott Thompson, a layman from South McComb Baptist Church, give his testimony about a near-death experience that turned his life and his health around. It was a very captivating and winsome story and a couple of the Scouts commented later on that it was one of the most interesting “church services” they’d ever been to.
When we got back to the parking lot, we debriefed. I asked each Scout what was their favorite part of the Swamp Tromp. Some said the long Saturday hike, some said the camping in the thunderstorm, and some just said the pizza. I know it’s a good outing when nearly every participant says a different part was their favorite – that means there were a lot of great experiences had.
Then I asked them what parts they could have done without and they mostly all agreed the rain or the cold – but that is also an indicator of a great outing because it shows that there were obstacles to be overcome and lessons learned. I bet next time those Scouts will all be prepared for both rain and cold!
I congratulated them on their becoming some of the most experienced Scouts in the Troop whether they were brand new or had been Scouts for years – all because of this Swamp Tromp!
- It’s not every Scout that has tent camped in a raging, apocalyptic thunderstorm and stayed safe and dry!
- It’s not every Scout that has hiked 10 miles through a flooded south Mississippi swamp in a day or that has backpacked 15 miles in a weekend!
- It’s not every Scout that has been surprised by frosty weather after a day of soggy hiking and had to figure out how to build a big fire for warmth!
The Scouts told me that they are already looking forward to bigger, better, and wilder outings in the future, including next year’s Swamp Tromp. I am too, though it’s hard to think of how we’ll beat this year’s Swamp Tromp – it was perfect!