Passing The Bar | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Passing The Bar

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There's a day in your life when staring at a rope swing hanging from a tree limb, you are content just to watch others fling themselves with glee off the bank and into the cool creek below.

I realized a few weeks ago that I'm on the other side of that day.

It was a windy, overcast Saturday, and the scouts on our annual early May canoe trip hadn't shown much interest in swimming in the cool waters of Black Creek.

We had chosen Black Creek for our Boy Scout troop's annual paddling trip for a number of reasons. It is one of the Southeast's paddling gems. Winding through the DeSoto National Forest south of Hattiesburg, Miss., it is the state's only federally designated Wild and Scenic River.

It's called Black Creek because its waters are steeped a dark, brownish red from the tannin of the leaves on its banks. The dark creek makes its broad, white sandbars that much more striking.

A little more than two hours' drive south of Jackson on U.S. 49, it is a great river for a day trip or an overnight float. Black Creek outfitters can rent boats or help shuttle vehicles. Or if you have your own boat, you might get in touch with other paddlers through the Mississippi Canoe and Kayak Club.

We had planned to camp on one of these sandbars overnight, but the forecast of heavy overnight showers—and the thought of constantly watching for rising water creeping toward our boats and tents—convinced us to camp at nearby Paul B. Johnson State Park.

All but one campground in the DeSoto National Forest remain closed due to Hurricane Katrina. The river shows signs of the storm, especially banks high above, but fallen trees do not block passage, as I had feared.

We had put in at Big Creek campground and were floating down to Brooklyn—a three-to-four-hour float. Shortly after a lunch break, we floated around a bend and spotted a modest rope swing beckoning from the bank, hanging silently over a dark, deep pool.

The siren song of a rope swing—irresistible to boys. "Can we try that?"

Ed Sivak, our scoutmaster, and I paddled our canoe around and dutifully prodded with paddles for obstacles and depth. The boys, meanwhile, began pulling their boats ashore and scrambling up the steep bank.

Stephen, the oldest of the boys on this trek, grabbed hold first, leaned out and suddenly was suspended in midair—if not time itself—a few feet out from the bank and about five feet over the river.

Release. Splash down. Resurface.

His wide eyes said it all as he bobbed to the surface. The younger boys followed, straining to reach as high as they could on the rope as they launched out over the creek.

Now, the scouting movement is blanketed with safety rules—swimming tests, lifeguards, etc. These scouts had to wear life vests and shoes, and they had to jump feet first rather than diving off the swing. (Diving head first into dark water is a fast pass to a life-changing spinal-cord injury).

But even with our safety restrictions, and the relatively modest height of this particular swing, the guys were engaged. Pretty quickly, "Mr. Ed," as the boys call him, announced, "I'm going to give it a shot." Ed is 31 years old. As he scrambled up the bank, I realized that it wasn't too long ago that—even as a so-called "adult"—I would have felt my blood pressure ratchet up with anticipation at the sight of rope dangling over a creek.

But on this day, I had no such desire. Perhaps it is the wear and tear of age or fatherhood—or of the shoulder surgery I endured two years ago after a whitewater kayaking mishap—that has changed my perspective.

Just paddling this beautiful stream and watching others play in its waters and on its sandbars was everything I was looking for.

It is fitting that my first column be inspired by a day on Black Creek when I realized that my relationship with the wilderness continues to evolve. My father brought us down this river dozens of times, taking the time to load that heavy canoe onto our old Ford Galaxy 500, throw a massive canvas tent into the trunk and head up here on various weekends in the spring and summer. I spent hours as a boy running up and then charging back down these steep sandbars, splashing into this creek.

I know I don't want to run down those sandbars anymore or swing from the ropes. But I know I want my kids to. And I want to be there.

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