29 March 2014

Mississippi

I could tell she was excited, but I could still hear the hesitation and fear in her voice. It quavered slightly as we discussed our plans, and a pang of pain went through my spine. Was I making her uncomfortable? Was I forcing her to do something she didn't want to do?

"I'm just a little scared," she explained as we looked at the map. "I've never been backpacking before."

I smiled, and told her I had tried to account for everything, but that what we were doing was going to be an adventure. Luckily for me, her desire to explore and to go camping overwhelmed her fears and hesitation, and it was not long before we were off to southern Mississippi.

Though not far from where I lived in Louisiana for so many years, Mississippi was a place I had seldom ventured. I had been just over the border to places such as Clark Creek and once to the Homochitto National Forest, but otherwise, it was just an area I ignored. Many areas of the state have poor birding coverage, with many 'blank spaces' on the eBird coverage maps, and some of Mississippi's counties are among the least birded in the country. As Caroline lives to close to Mississippi, I always enjoy traveling there, and when I discovered that one of the largest wilderness areas on the Gulf Coast was in the De Soto National Forest, it seemed obvious what we should do for the first part of our trip.

And so, not long after I arrived in Louisiana, I found myself departing to the east with Caroline, and we set off on our Mississippi adventure.

Our first stop was the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. A bird that most people don't know, the critically endangered Mississippi Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pulla) is largely restricted to two small patches of wet pine savanna in southeastern Mississippi. Needless to say, it was a bird I really wanted to see! However, luck was not with us during our visit. We had a great bird list, but crane was not on it. We did, however, enjoy a beautiful walk through the pines together. Caroline pointed out some carnivorous plants to me, and we walked amicably through the broad, open woodland listening to Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers.

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge
Wet pine savanna in Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. This endangered ecosystem was once much more widespread along the gulf coast.

Sarracenia alata
A Pale Pitcherplant (Sarracenia alata) in the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. These carnivorous plants are local but widespread in the American south.

After exploring the wildlife refuge, Caroline and I headed north into the heart of De Soto National Forest. There, we proceeded to enter Caroline's first ever roadless area: the Black Creek Wilderness.

Black Creek Wilderness

After crossing the Black Creek Wilderness boundary, we found ourselves in a fascinating mix of Longleaf Pine and deciduous trees. Northern Parulas sang from the dense Magnolias, and Carolina Chickadees called along the trail. There were several sections within the forest that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the damage was still evident, and other areas where recent treefalls had blocked the trails. Thankfully, I had my machete with me, and was able to clear a new trail through the undergrowth.

We camped approximately 3 miles from the car within the forest, and were awoken the next morning by the sounds of spring. A very vocal and territorial Louisiana Waterthrush acted as our alarm clock, and a distant Prothonotary Warbler chimed in as well. As we hiked out, we enjoyed great views of a Swallow-tailed Kite as well. We plucked the occasional ticks off of our clothes, but, for the most part, it was near impossible to see Caroline without a smile.

We returned to the car and reloaded up our gear, and Caroline mentioned that she looked forward to backpacking again. I smiled, and realized it had been a very successful trip.

I'll cover the rest of my spring break in the south soon. To be continued!

Black Creek Wilderness, De Soto National Forest
The trail in Black Creek Wilderness, Mississippi.

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