Recently I re-read Ernest Herndon’s classic 2001 travelogue/guidebook, “Canoeing Mississippi,” and it has reignited my interest in paddling.
In his book, Herndon discusses the ins and outs, the pros and cons, of every navigable waterway in the state, complete with a healthy dose of bucolic anecdotes about his experiences on these rivers, creeks and streams.
In his last chapter, he writes about canoeing on lakes and reservoirs in Mississippi, and you know that when you get Ernest on that subject you’re sure to hear a tale or two about Pike County’s very own 500-acre Lake Tangipahoa at Percy Quin State Park.
Herndon describes the north end of Lake Tangipahoa as “a curvaceous avenue into the heart of a swamp ... not plagued by issues of landowners, liability, or access.”
Of course, reading such an auspicious account of such a convenient adventure made me want to experience that lake anew. Fortunately Lake Tangi is only 4-5 miles from my house. I threw my 8-foot sit-in kayak into the truck and headed out!
It was still cool and breezy when I put in at the marina by 8 a.m., and I immediately set out clockwise around the lake past the dam and the emergency spillway.
Usually when I go hiking or paddling I try to have something that I’m looking for — some purpose to my expedition. I’ll try to find a plant that I can’t identify or I’ll look for animal tracks on the banks.
This time I just wanted to experience the lake that Ernest describes in his book.
The bottom of the emergency spillway is usually a good spot to see a fish-kill sample of the occupants of the lake, and it’s not uncommon to see an osprey or bald eagle hanging out eyeballing the fish.
Beyond the spillway the first thing that caught my eye was a profusion of wild hibiscus (also called rose mallow) in full bloom dotting the banks with its large pink and white blossoms.
This part of the lake shore is the overflow for the park’s primitive camping area. I think I recall some old-timers calling this wooded part of the lake front “Coon Holler.”
I have camped here since I was a child. I even remember doing our wilderness survival campout here when I was in the Scouts. It’s not very wilderness-y, but I suppose it is remote enough for an 11-year-old to get a taste of the wild. Even as an adult, it is still my favorite camping spot at Percy Quin State Park.
The next thing I noticed was that the water plants are also in full bloom. The first of these that I saw was the spatterdock, or yellow pond lily. The blossoms erupt out of bulbs that float along with the distinctively-shaped leaves.
The west and north sides of the lake are also positively eaten up with the glossy round leaves and beautiful lavender blossoms of water hyacinth, occasionally piling up several feet high along the banks.
Gliding past wild azalea and Chinese tallow trees hanging out over the water, I noticed a glut of muscadines hanging low over the water — with fully ripe fruits! It is pretty early for ripe fruits on muscadines — they are a end-of-summer fruit — but I guess these vines have a super-abundance of both water and sunlight, so they’re producing early.
As I crossed the inlet between Coon Holler and the group camp (alternately named Camp Beaver or Camp Sunshine), I spotted white egrets and blue herons balanced on logs, fishing. I was very calm and slowly and silently glided towards them, hoping for a good photo or two, but there is only so much that herons will put up with before they flap their way to another fishing spot. I never got within 50 yards of these.
Another common denizen of lakes like Tangipahoa is the magnificent bryozoan (Pectinatella magnifica). These colonies of microscopic organisms float along in clumps of translucent gel, and if you look closely you will see the gel is speckled inside with dark stars or asterisks.
Whenever we come across colonies of magnificent bryozoan, my sons call them “snot monsters” (as did I when I was their age) and my daughters call them “juicy Lucys.”
Toward the north end of the lake, far beyond the domain of the skiers, I discovered a water bird that I’d never seen — or at least if I have seen it before I’ve never put a name to it.
The common gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is the American subspecies of the Old World moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) — also known as swamp chickens. The distinctive features include the red shield over the forehead and beak, and the non-webbed feet. These juveniles lacked the red shield.
I had intended to follow the channel of the river upstream from the northern end of the lake, as Ernest describes in his book, but the north end of the lake is still matted with the spatterdock, hyacinth and marsh grasses that overtook the lake during the dam repairs after hurricane Isaac in 2012 — so much so that I did not feel like dragging my way through it fighting for every foot of advance.
I turned east and came to the bank near the lodge.
The east side of the lake is wholly different from the west side. It is the difference that human development makes.
The west side is wild with water plants clambering onto the banks and thick undergrowth reaching down to the water, whereas the developed east side of the lake is characterized by high red clay banks eroded from wave action and runoff and held together by the roots of grass. Large trees occasionally lean out over the water producing deep patches of cool, delicious shade.
As I paddled my way back toward the marina, pausing in each patch of shade, I saw a third species of water plant in full bloom — American white water lily with its large distinctive flowers. I spent a few minutes photographing it, and when I looked up at the bank I saw another old friend in bloom — elderberry!
I've been camping and fishing and hiking and paddling around Percy Quin State Park for the past 40 years or so, and I don’t think I’ve ever been there without seeing a new-to-me plant or creature. Every trip there is a luxurious nature education. That’s why it has become my favorite place to hike and one of my favorite places for a paddle.