|Members of the Mississippi Kayak Meetup group take up prime seats on Deer Island awaiting the fireworks show over Biloxi Bay put on by the city of Biloxi.|
At stake was the third year of the Star Spangled Paddle, a social paddle a third of a mile across wind-sheltered Biloxi Bay, to uninhabited and undeveloped Deer Island to get an upfront and personal view of the annual fireworks display. Seeing the fireworks from the island can put viewers almost directly underneath the booming and colorful pyrotechnic display, an awesome experience, said the trip's organizer, Brent Futrell. But the ominous weather, now all around them, could cancel the trip. Nobody would paddle a kayak in a thunderstorm just to get a good place to stand and watch fireworks.
The group waiting at the launch was lucky. The shower was brief and while the gloomy and threatening skies persisted, the rain, lightening and thunder quit. They would launch on time, said Futrell. In the dead air of a windless humid midsummer afternoon the kayakers slid their boats from the sandy beach into the bay, their paddle blades and slender multicolored hulls breaking the water's glassy smooth surface creating dozens of tiny waves as they began the 15-minute paddle to the island.
The crossing from the busy high rise casino strip on the mainland to Deer Island, a low 4.3 mile long sandy spit that broke from the mainland thousands of years ago, is not an epic paddle. Those born and raised in Biloxi remember hearing from their grandparents about when swimming from the mainland to the island was routine summer fun, with little boat traffic to contend with, and just not considered a special athletic accomplishment.
That was then. These days the bay is busy with recreational motorboat traffic most every weekend--especially for the 4th of July holiday weekend--putting kayakers on alert to avoid a collision. The fireworks display draws scores of pleasure boats to the bay, many anchoring hours before the nighttime fireworks show begins at 9 a.m. The goal of the motor boaters is the same as the kayakers: get as close to the fireworks barge anchored at Deer Island as harbor police will allow. It would be folly to think that drinking alcohol, for at least a few of them, is not a centerpiece of their holiday celebration creating a hazard for everyone on the water, not just the hard to see kayakers.
There was some comfort to be had by seeing the flashing blue lights of the ample marine police presence on the water, but you don't have to kayak long before you realize that, when on the water, it is best to put as much distance as possible between you and any boat with a motor as quickly as possible.
Paddlers must cross the bay's busy navigational channel to get to the island, a serious consideration even for kayakers with long experience on the water. To reduce the chance of being run down sight unseen by a much larger, faster vessel, paddlers, in their low profile hard to see kayaks, often sprint across busy boat channels, paddles flailing. But some paddlers in the Meet-up group are novices. Could the beginner paddlers keep up? Yes. A convoy of the small craft formed with fast and slow paddlers hanging tight together making a multicolored mass that was easier for motorized traffic to see. As it happened the little human powered flotilla made the opposite shore quickly without so much as a boat wake to disturb their progress.
The beach is narrow where the little fleet of kayaks landed, much of it "claimed" hours earlier in the afternoon by family groups and friends with motor boats, each group with its own arsenal of fireworks and powerful boat-based sound systems. However, even closer to where the fireworks barge would be anchored, several kayakers from the Meetup group were camped planning to stay overnight. In front of their piece of treeless sandy plateau topped by a sea of slender thigh-high stalks of green beach grass was a narrow beach. We were welcome to share it with them they said..
(There is no development on the uninhabited Deer Island now but the state is in the process of building a dock near the center of the island's north shore. A barge with restrooms and snack bars will also be brought to the dock site. When the dock is finished and the barge is in place, passenger ferry service will begin to the island.)
Food, snacks and adult beverages suddenly appeared as kayak hatches were popped open and boats were unloaded. A row of folding canvas chairs formed a viewing area. Others sat on ponchos on the brown, damp sand or in their boats. Culinary holiday traditions were observed: There were brownies and hot dogs boiled in a pot over a camp stove and served on paper plates with all the fixings. And pickles and cookies and chips and hummus. Cold watermelon slices, pink and green and white were there too, though how someone got a watermelon into the tiny hatch of a kayak no one was telling.
There was loose talk too, a lot of it. People of all ages, from young teenagers to retirees, finding common ground to laugh, overcoming shyness, reaching out to share stories and propose future adventures even before this one has even ended. Holding dripping slices of watermelon, sweating on brown sand in a breathless 2015 summer evening along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, waiting for darkness and an Independence Day fireworks show with people who were strangers just an hour ago, in very, very small ways lives were changed.
As the cloudy darkness deepened anticipation for the pyrotechnic display to come was building. Those who had made the trip with Futrell before whetted the imaginations of noobs with fantastical stories of what to expect.
Every year has had its glitches, Futrell admitted, but none so serious as to prevent planning for another year. Heavy rains one year and another year where tents were singed by glowing fireworks debris, only adds to the adventure, Futrell boasts.
Futrell said this year was the best year of the three. Despite the rain threat, there was no rain during the bay crossings or while on the island for the event. The overcast day kept the temperatures pleasant, for summer in Mississippi at least, and while flying, biting insects, shared the island with the paddlers, gnats and mosquitoes were not abundant.
And then, of course, there were the fireworks themselves. They were spectacular. The fireworks barge was only a few hundred yards from the group, the fireworks mortars heaving the firework payloads almost straight up. There were a lot of exclamations of delight as several times viewers had to crane their necks to see the huge glittering colored domes exploding overhead. The loudest explosions sent shock waves that could be felt by viewers watching the brilliant and loud display high above. (No, there was no flaming debris this time.) A faint smell of gunpowder hung in the still night air over the group.
After the show was over the kayakers made ready to paddle back to the launch. But they don't push off right away. Futrell said the poor visibility that comes with being on the water at night is a safety issue for kayakers, most lit with only flashlights or headlamps if that. Sharing the inky darkness with power boaters, also in a hurry to get back home, adds to the danger. Futrell likes to wait until much of the motor boat traffic clears from the bay.
This year, because there does not seem to be as much motor boat traffic in the bay as in previous years, Futrell says, boat traffic clears quickly. But congestion presents a problem this time on land. From the island the kayakers can see the line of headlights on US 90 near the boat launch. It is not moving.
"Even if we rushed over to the boat launch, we would have to wait for the car traffic to clear before we could cross the highway, get our cars and cross back to get our boats," said Barry Mends, a veteran kayaker and Star Spangled Paddle participant. " So we just stay here a while."
Tired of waiting however, some decide to start paddling back across the now pitch black bay, taking their chances the car traffic will be gone by the time they get back to the launch. They leave Deer Island a boat or two at a time. The kayakers, now spread out, are hard to see, even with lights. But there were only a few motor boats left in the bay anyway and they were anchored or going very slow. The gamble works out and everyone makes it back to the launch safely. Sure enough, the traffic has cleared.
|Beth Frost and her son Brendan Frost, age 13, at the Star Spangled Paddle III, Biloxi to Deer Island, July 4, 2015|
Once off the water, paddlers quickly loaded up, said goodbye to new friends and old and headed to their homes in New Orleans, Covington and elsewhere satisfied with another Fourth of July holiday adventure under their belts.