Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Sun Herald's Review of Paddling the Pascagoula

Posted in the Biloxi Sun Herald on Sun, Jan. 15, 2006

Unfettered, a river flows... Canoe, kayak and characters


Paddling The Pascagoula; By Ernest Herndon and Scott B. Williams; University Press of Mississippi; ISBN 1-57806-714-6; $20

When I mentioned I was reviewing this book to a representative of the publisher, she commented that release of the book was untimely considering all that has happened on the Coast. I told her I disagreed completely.

As we all work to reclaim and protect what we had pre-Katrina, it is easy to overlook our natural resources. They, too, were altered, as was the Pascagoula River basin. Our man-made structures, roads, buildings, bridges and casinos, as important as they are, have almost exclusive claim to the spotlight.

In "Paddling The Pascagoula," Herndon and Williams traveled the entire length of the Pascagoula River in canoe and kayak. Herndon began on the Leaf tributary, Williams on the Chickasawhay, and they met where the tributaries join the Pascagoula River and floated together to the Gulf of Mexico. Each authored separate sections of the book.

Many characters were encountered along the way, occasionally the two-legged variety. Williams ran across a Cottonmouth snake 5- to 6-feet long and "as big around as a man's leg." Soon afterward, a huge alligator snapping turtle was spotted, a "loggerhead" to the locals, and then a wild turkey, "a bearded gobbler."

Herndon comes across an ancient fishweir on the Leaf River. A fishweir, illegal in Mississippi as of 1922, is "a V-shaped dam with an opening for a trap at the downstream apex of the V." The Fishtrap Bluff Fishweir is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Though both writers floated days without seeing another human, Herndon did face questioning over why he chose a particular sandbar for overnight camp from a man with "a gentleman-farmer look: straw derby hat, white hair, spectacles, pale blue shirt buttoned to the throat and tucked into pleated khaki pants, brown loafers... He launched into a string of polite but unrelenting questions."

This was Federal Judge Charles Pickering, owner of the sandbar and the land surrounding. Satisfied the overnight stay was legitimate, Pickering warmed into an explanation of "grabbing, hand grabbing, and noodling." He was not referring to the antics of plaintiff attorneys in his courtroom, but rather the trapping and retrieving of fish from hollow logs or holes in the bank. Pickering recounted how as a child he "retrieved a 48-pound catfish out of that hollow log." He is a principled federal judge, and we must believe him about the weight of the fish.

Herndon, a journalist, writes in a style close to his profession. He declaims early on, "If you see an adjective, kill it!" His description of flora and fauna are undoubtedly accurate, but at times I wanted to ask, "but how did all of this untouched beauty make you feel?"

Williams, on the other hand, is more conversational and anecdotal.
Neither writing style is more appropriate than the other. It is simply a matter of personal preference.

In their separate reports, a good-natured ribbing brings a few smiles to the tale of this journey, unusual for a travelogue in nature, but a pleasant addition to this narrative. Herndon on Williams' choice of a kayak: "why would anyone would bring an Eskimo hunting vessel to float a Deep South river, unless Southern customs aren't good enough for them maybe?" Williams on Herndon's use of a canoe: "Ernest, on the other hand, like some less-adaptable and long-extinct offshoot branch of early man, has shown no reason to change or evolve in his boating pursuits."

The Pascagoula River is the last major river in the continental United States essentially unaltered by humans. It belongs to us here in Mississippi. In December 2005, Governor Barbour recognized the need to protect our marine resources on the Coast, including the Pascagoula River, with the introduction of a $7.5 billion Mississippi Coast Environmental Restoration Initiative. "Paddling The Pascagoula" is a strong argument for the legislation and an enjoyable and enlightening read.

Scott Naugle is a free-lance writer living in Pass Christian. He is also owner of Pass Christian Books.