Nat and I began our eight-mile crossing of Mississippi Sound by kayak in late afternoon sunlight. Our destination—Horn Island, a 12-mile-long barrier island parallel to the Mississippi coast—was somewhere out of sight just beyond the horizon.
I paused a short distance from shore
to adjust our GPS, which was hard to see in its cumbersome waterproof case. But I didn’t want to end the day navigating in the dark, so I gave up fussing with equipment and we kicked into high gear, trusting that the island would soon come into sight and that the compass and large navigational chart folded in Nat’s waterproof map case would provide whatever backup guidance we needed.
In another time—always alone, certainly without GPS, and in a small rowboat less seaworthy than our kayaks—the same crossing was made repeatedly in all seasons and every kind of weather by an artist named Walter Anderson. Using his overturned rowboat for shelter, Anderson spent weeks at a time on the island, where from the early 1940s to his death in 1965 he sought an intimate, ecstatic experience of nature that he captured in thousands of vibrant watercolors made on typing paper. He came to know the island as much on its own terms as he could bear. From his stories in the posthumously published and beautifully illustrated book, The Horn Island Logs of Water Inglis Anderson, he could bear a lot—including his endurance of a hurricane while lashed to a tree.
We had been looking forward to our own intimate encounter with a barrier island from the start of our journey. The string of islands that run parallel to the Mississippi coast about ten miles off shore, managed by the National Park Service as the Gulf Islands National Seashore, offered a highly recommended destination that we had admired from above in our coastal overflight (click here for a photo gallery from an earlier blog post). With our time winding down in bustling New Orleans, we set aside three days for our own barrier island retreat, approached at sea level.
As they have often done in past storms, the Mississippi Sound barrier islands gave some protection to the mainland by absorbing the full brunt of hurricane Katrina. The force of that impact almost obliterated the Chandeleur Islands to our west, which suffered a direct hit, while Horn Island lost extensive stands of trees. This kind of destruction followed by slow regeneration, and the constant erosion and rebuilding of the islands as they’re swept by Gulf currents flowing from east to west, are part of the islands’ dynamic natural cycle. The insult of last year’s sludge from the BP oil spill was not. Also, cottages and condos found lining the beaches on most accessible barrier islands along the Gulf coast usually don’t take into account the dynamic forces of change that are essential to their nature. Common attempts to retain beaches where they happened to be when people built their dwellings are ultimately counterproductive (for more on this subject, see the Living with the Shore book series, edited by coastal authority Orrin Pilkey).
We were happy to find Horn Island beautiful and teaming with life. Osprey were nesting in the bare trees and shore birds, pelicans, and gulls populated beaches that had been scrubbed clean of oil. The dunes had plentiful shrubs, rabbits, and the sea oats and other grasses that make wonderful patterns in the fine-grained, snow-white sands when they’re blown by Gulf breezes. And, as Walter Anderson noted often, when the wind didn’t blow and in sheltered areas there were healthy populations of gnats and some mosquitoes. We didn’t come across the poisonous snakes and alligators he met with frequently.
Click here for a Horn Island photo gallery.
Based on our blissfully quiet three days on Horn Island, I would highly recommend a visit to one of the islands of the National Seashore, which are accessible via excursion boats as well as kayak (the helpful, friendly folks at South Coast Paddling offer guided trips), or rowboat. You should also visit the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs to see what Horn Island inspired in one of the south’s most gifted and sensitive artists.
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