Boat tours on the Pascagoula River immerse visitors in the heart of the abundant wildlife of the Mississippi Coast

As drivers race along the I-10 bridge spanning the Pascagoula River, the longest unimpeded river in the lower 48 states, most have no idea what lies below. An osprey diving headfirst into the water to kill; feral pigs rummaging through the undergrowth along the swamp in search of food; a young bald eagle testing its wings from its protected nest high in a tall pine tree in the swamp.

But not everything is a fight for survival. There is a peaceful and beautiful side to the Pascagoula River: flowers that bloom in spring and summer, painting the marsh in color. A fisherman wetting a line in the hot morning sun. A kayaker for a paddle.

Organizing a boat tour gives nature lovers a bird’s eye view of this southern Mississippi paradise.

Captain Kathy Wilkinson, owner of Eco-Tours of South Mississippi, has always lived on or near the water. After marrying a local boy from Moss Point, Mississippi, in 1975, the two spent all their free time plying the native waters. In 2006, she and her husband Jeff began offering tours of the Pasacagoula River, a waterway they knew so well.

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Boat tours on the Pascagoula River put visitors amidst the abundant wildlife of the Mississippi Coast

“We always thought we could offer something to tourists to allow them to commune a little more closely with our beautiful river,” says Wilkinson, known to passengers as Capt. Kathy.

The Wilkinsons offer a variety of tours, from two to eight hours upstream. Their boat, 24 feet long with a flat bottom ideal for navigating around stumps, sea grass and other obstacles found around the swamp and river, is only partially covered so tourists can get a view impregnable on all that there is to see. They also offer kayak and motor boat tours.

“Once people go around the Pascagoula River, they know they’ve done something special,” Wilkinson says.

Although she knows the river like the back of her hand, Wilkinson says she sees something different every time she steps out on the water. And while she can’t guarantee perfect weather, “We always tell people that the only thing we can guarantee is beautiful scenery – from spring and summer nesting ospreys to dolphins, beautiful plants and trees and all kinds of birds. The list is practically endless, and it’s all interesting.”

The Pascagoula Spring is at the confluence of the Leaf and Chickasawhay Rivers in Mississippi’s DeSoto National Forest, where it then meanders about 80 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Over 70,000 acres of land surrounding the river have been preserved for the public.

The river circuits take you to another time and another place through three distinct habitats: the river with its brackish water; the marsh with its tall bull grass growing from the water; and finally the freshwater marsh which comes alive in spring and summer with vines of colorful blackberries, flowering irises, marshmallows, swamp mallows and water lilies.

The river is like a chameleon, changing its flow from choppy in the river to smooth in the swamp. In the swamp, the current barely glides along the stands of Yaupon holly, dwarf palms and laurels whose leaves help to flavor the culinary richness of the bayou. As you progress through the different habitats, the water color changes from blue to brown to black. Earthy smells speak to your soul and heighten your senses along the way through a series of sights and sounds including white-tailed deer, alligators and wild pigs.

“These pigs, they eat just about anything,” says Captain Benny McCoy, who spent 20 years leading tours of the Pascagoula in a flat-bottomed riverboat before retiring during the pandemic. “That’s why there are no more snakes here.”

Maybe not snakes, but pelicans and other birds are back after being decimated by DDT in the 1940s and 1950s. Watch a mother bald eagle feed her young in a nest high in a pine or tree. osprey fishing for lunch is now commonplace.

Bayous and other bodies of water teem with marine life.

“These estuaries are very important to us,” says McCoy, who knows the flora and fauna around the river as well as any scientist. “Especially if you like seafood. It’s where baby crabs and shrimp are raised – and the fish that like to eat them too.”

THE SINGING RIVER

It’s a mysterious thing, this river. The Wilkinsons’ Eco-Tours two-hour cruise takes people 22 miles down this watery path, teaching them about flora and fauna, as well as local traditions and history, as it is nicknamed.

Locals know it as the Singing River. According to legend, the Pascagoula Indian tribe lived and prospered along the river, but walked the river to the death, singing as they went, rather than surrendering to the invading Biloxi Indians.

The river raises even more questions as the tour continues. You will see a white cross in the meadows of a bayou marking the spot where two fishermen died. No one knows how or why.

McCoy remembers an old man who lived alone on a river island. “He came into town about once a month, and I asked a lot of people what happened to him, and nobody knows,” he says.

Tour operators and others who spend time around these waters say you can hear unexplained sounds – possibly the singing of the Pascagoula Indians – as you cruise down the river.

“I heard the weirdest sounds – like someone moaning,” McCoy says. “I’ve never heard such a noise. And I’m not the only one.”

AFTER THE CRUISE

Although there is a beautiful beach stretching 26 miles along the Mississippi coast between Biloxi and Pass Christian, Anna Roy, public relations/media manager for Coastal Mississippi, says the area not only presents itself as a beach destination, but also as an area that offers just as much to do on land.

After the cruise is over, visit the Coastal Mississippi Mardi Gras Museum in its new downtown Biloxi location; the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum on the shores of Biloxi Bay, where you can learn about the importance of the seafood industry and boating along the coast from the gulf; or the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum on Beach Boulevard with its collection of pottery by George Ohr, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi”, and architecture by famed architect Frank Gehry.

And don’t forget the food. Of note is White Pillars, where award-winning chef and James Beard semi-finalist Austin Sumrall transforms local foods into memorable meals. At Harrah’s Magnolia House, chef Kelly English, who also owns two restaurants in Memphis, brings the flavors of the bayou to the table; and at Le Bakery, Sue Nguyen-Torjusen makes mouth-watering pastries, Vietnamese po’boys and other treats.

ACCOMMODATION

Biloxi’s main thoroughfare is lined with casinos, such as Hard Rock and Harrah’s, both offering accommodations overlooking the gulf. There are also almost every chain hotel you can think of. But venture a little further along the Mississippi Coast and discover the grace and charm that small southern towns are known for, such as Long Beach, Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.

Another that oozes character is Ocean Springs, a charming storybook town in a central location between Biloxi and Pascagoula. Ancient live oak trees with Spanish moss dripping like tendrils line the streets. Colorful shops, cafes and award-winning restaurants, such as Maison de Lu and Vestige, the latter owned by James Beard semi-finalist Alex Perry, can be found on the city’s main thoroughfare, Washington Street. There are no big chain hotels in the city center, only nice hostels, like The Roost, a boutique hotel; and The Inn at Ocean Springs, a bed-and-breakfast.

GETTING THERE

Getting to and around the Biloxi area is easy. There are several direct flights to Gulfport, Mississippi – a short drive from Pascagoula – from several southern cities, including Atlanta and Nashville.

Amtrak operates trains from Atlanta and Birmingham to New Orleans, where you can rent a car and make the leisurely journey to Biloxi, which will take around an hour. By 2023, Amtrak will offer a rail route from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, with stops along the way, including Biloxi.

If you choose to drive, the road is easy. From the north, I-65 takes you to Mobile, about an hour from the Mississippi line. From east or west, hop on I-10, and it will take you straight into town.

TO PLAN A VISIT

To book a Pascagoula River tour, call Eco-Tours of South Mississippi at 228-297-8687. Additional information can be found online at ecotoursofsouthmississippi.com.

Email Anne Braly at [email protected]

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