Gulf Islands National Seashore Report
(Cat Island)

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Report By:  gbailey    Date: 4/3/2006 
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Gulfport's beaches out into the Gulf of Mexico to Cat Island (part 1 of 2 - long story warning)

My Report:

by Greg Bailey

As I drive along Highway 90 just west of Biloxi Iím anxious to see the beaches, to know about the sea conditions. Our group has an 8.5-mile crossing of the northern Gulf of Mexico to get out to the barrier island that was to be our base for the next 4 days. We always hope for calm seas, never seem to get Ďem, but nevertheless that first look always generates goose bumps for me. As it turns out, the wind is blowing white caps onto the beach as the sun is bursting through the thin clouds. Itís 9 am and time to hit the beach.

After what seems like hours all 11 sea kayaks are taken to the waterís edge, loaded with four days of provisions and hatches tightly secured. As our team leader, Cy Tandy, provided safety instructions to us all I was quickly applying some spf 30 ultra waterproof sunscreen. I should have done that an hour ago but as usual I was too excited and anxious to get down to the water. Cy explained to everyone that we were in for a challenging effort as we first had to make our way out through the breaking 2-foot whitecaps to get into deeper water. The winds seemed to be a steady 12-15 mph and forecasts called for 3-foot seas offshore. We would have the wind directly in our face the entire trip out, at least until we could approach the leeward side of the island. Taking my usual optimistic view of the situation, I was thinking that the worst would come early and conditions would improve the longer we paddled.

Soon we were in the water and moving swiftly through the choppy waters, feeling the cold spray of every other wave. Within a short time a nice rhythm developed and the group was making progress in its attempt to pull away from the coast. The largest waves seemed to come in pairs and were probably 3 footers, the first lifting my Cape Horn up and then back down into the closely following second wave. It is what one might call a wet ride.

It took us approximately 3.5 hours to make the crossing, with the last hour much more pleasant as we were somewhat shielded from the winds by the island itself. Several of us looked for a place to go ashore for a break and to eat lunch and it was not difficult finding a nice spot. The island was ringed with white sands, scrub pines and almost any place would do for now. The cool waters were refreshing as was the chance to stretch the legs and consume a chewy fruit and nut nature bar.

Soon we were back in the kayaks, paddling easily in calm waters as we approached the western tip of the island. It then became obvious to us all that the winds behind the island were still very strong out of the south. Consequently, we decided to go ashore and scout for campsites. This part of the island was very pretty and windswept with large overturned tree trunks scattered about. Salt palmettos, small scrub oak and dying pines provided cover over lots of pure white sand. The islandís end narrowed to a sharp point which allowed us to set the tents up with waterfront views on two sides and a very steady breeze blowing. The air temperature was mid 70s, water mid 60s, all in all very comfortable. Some folks gathered firewood while others walked the shallow waters with fishing rod in hand. I unpacked my new folding chair (steel frame with arm rests and a drink holder) for itís initial evaluation. It passes with flying colors and I immediately make a note that once I get home I should store my old sit-on-the-ground type chair in the attic forever.

Just after the sun disappeared the campfire comes to life and soon we all form a semi circle around it. It wasnít long before we noticed a pair of small dark subjects strolling the beach headed in our direction. The pair of raccoons walked within twenty feet of our human ring around the fire before reversing course. Must have been nearsighted, deaf or both. Each of us seemed to be in various stages of recovery from the outgoing paddle but nonetheless plans are being made for the next day. After the campfire burned down and the hot coals were deemed ready for the cooking grill out came the marinating chicken, pork, while others were content with Ramien noodles. My pre-baked potato, already wrapped in foil, was placed directly on the coals. Good food seems to be a nice reward for the effort we put forth to get out here. Someone also referred to it as fuel for the inner fire that propels the paddles. The winds continued throughout the night and made for very pleasant sleeping conditions. The bruising paddle out also helped in that regard.

The next day some of us packed lunch and proceeded to head east to explore the 7-mile north shore. Others followed the renowned Dr. Thomas Fink around the south side on a walkabout. I found out later that Dr. Finkís group paraded through waist-deep marshes in search of marine Ďtreasuresí and in fact found many. One interesting find just off the island point was a very large alligator swimming in the salty water. I didnít see it but those that did described it as being a very large one, maybe 12-14 feet long. The group that paddled with me enjoyed a leisurely seven-hour trip through narrow marshes and natural channel cuts that twisted and turned into the islandís interior. One of the passages narrowed such that only one kayak at a time could squeeze through. In addition we encountered several 90-degree turns that were an interesting challenge for 17 and 18-foot sea kayaks. But we could see larger pools of water ahead so we pushed on. It was around mid-day when we happened upon what I considered to be the tripís highlight event. I noticed a single bald eagle fly up ahead and soon saw another much larger (female?) one perched nearby. Then, just a couple of trees away from that female we saw an incredibly large nest. It appeared to be almost eight feet deep (top to bottom) and maybe just as wide. Perched on the nestís edge was a juvenile eagle. It looked to be possibly 1/4 the size of the smallest adult so it was no small chick. We sat there quietly for about 45 minutes, trying to remain motionless yet the juvenile moved only once and that was to slightly turn its head to one side. The adult eagles were perched on nearby trees and would chirp occasionally as well as fly around to let us (and their youngster) know they were still watching. My binoculars indicated that the young eagle was completely black with a small gray/white patch on its chest. I took some photos but with a waterproof, underwater camera donít expect much detail from them when they are developed.

Some in our group exited the marsh and were again skirting the white sandy beaches. Others and I continued on, admiring the thick Spanish moss draped along some of the coastal oaks. Since the waters were so salty I didnít expect to see any alligators and was surprised when a small one, 5-6 feet long, spring from the marsh grass not 30 feet to my left. Fortunately, it seemed non-confrontational as most gators are and scampered away. We worried not. I was expecting to have to reverse course eventually and paddle back out the way we came in until I saw what appeared to be paddle blades not too far ahead. Within a few moments the marsh opened up and we met up again with the others in our group and began to paddle through what appeared to me a man-made canal. As we made one last turn we could see several very large home/camps with the owners out sitting on their boat docks. These camp houses were very large, over 3000 sf, plus outside porches on three sides. Although this island is now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore a small portion will remain in private hands. No electricity or fresh water is available here so they have to bring everything in with them when they visit. I could hear a gasoline generator running out back and see their porch ceiling fans spinning so they were not hurting too much for comforts. I noticed a freestanding deer feeder near a cluster of large oaks across the canal from the camps. The islanders indicated that both white tail and axis deer are abundant here, although they are smaller than their mainland brethren.

As we exited the canal and reentered the open Gulf it was approaching 4 PM and we decided it was time to head back to camp. As we took one last moment to survey the scene appearing overhead and moving swiftly were two Swallow-tail Kites, gliding easily along the shoreline, their split tail providing almost immediate identification. Looking back west we were unable to see anything but sand, trees and the bright sun making itís way toward the horizon. No sign of the campsites, which were possibly four or five miles away. We adjusted our sunglasses and hats and decided to pick up the pace a little. The paddling conditions were very nice with the winds still blocked by the island and calm seas. Within the hour we had drawn closer to the western end and could see some of our fellow campers walking the shoreline, gathering firewood. Soon it would be dinnertime again and I was already starved. While others utilized the grill top again my homemade spaghetti and meatballs needed only a few minutes to heat atop the Apex stove. Our after-dinner discussion centered on the possibility that we may have to cut the trip short by one day. Sundayís forecast called for 15-20 knot winds and 6-foot seas. Six foot following seas is something we would want to avoid, if at all possible. But yet the current conditions were almost perfect and the winds seemed to be dying out. The group decided to check in again with the weather band the next morning and if the forecasted conditions didnít improve we would pack up and head back.

During the night the winds conditioned to diminish and a few clouds brought a very brief rain shower. The next morning started with high clouds, very little wind but something else had now arrived. Knats! It seemed the strong winds had kept them grounded and now they were making up for lost time. Our options were limited: administer the deet defense or get in a kayak and out into the water. So I grabbed my fishing rod, hopped in my boat and sprinted away from the shore. Soon I was out of range of those pesky things but still had to contend with the ones coating my legs - so out came the bug spray.

Earlier the day before we had noticed a sunken fishing vessel on the south side of the island so I paddled around the point to investigate. It appeared to be a recently ill-stricken shrimp boat, maybe 50 feet in length, lying on its side in possibly 6 feet of water. Probably was wrecked or abandoned elsewhere and drifted to its present location. After taking a few photos I commenced to drift with the wind back to the islandís south side, not 200 yards away.

After rounding the islandís tip I noticed some excited fish jumping in schools ahead so I hurriedly tied a casting lure onto the end of my line. Although I realized that a wire leader would be nice I had decided not to bring any on this trip. Within a few moments I would regret not doing so. The first strong strike was from a Spanish Mackerel and it cut my line rather quickly. That was my favorite lure and I really hated loosing it! So I selected another one from my miniature tackle box, tied it on and gave it a toss. Although it was not a favorite I still felt badly a short while later when it also was cut loose by a toothy fish of some type. At this rate I knew I would soon have no lures left along with no fish so I put the fishing gear away. The dolphins and small schooling fish continued to play chase in the waters not more than a couple hundred yards offshore from the camps and I thoroughly enjoyed the scene for a while. However, I could see the other campers were beginning to break down their tents and decided it was time to do the same.

Once again the knats made doing anything more difficult. However, they did provide lots of motivation to get the tents packed and the boats loaded quickly. It wasnít long before all of us were back in the water with loaded kayaks, checking compasses, PFDs and GPSs. In our haste to escape the biting knats no one took time to eat lunch so a few of us decided to do so as we sat facing the island that was home for the past three days. A cold turkey sub was just what the doctor ordered and along with some chocolate miniature candies I was soon feeling fueled for the return trip. Slowly and somewhat reluctantly we turned our bows north and turned our backs to Cat.

... end Part 1 of 2

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Location Data:

Distance (miles): 19
Fees/Costs $: n/a

Photos from Cat Island:    (Click image to view full size)

Cat Island No Comm
Cat Island

Satellite Photo of Cat Island

Cat Island No Comm
Cat Island

Gulfport's beaches to Cat Island

Special Interests and Comments:

Special InterestsGulf Islands National Seashore

Post Date: 2/28/2009

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