I camped on Horn Island underneath the stars. One more check off my bucket list.
I was accompanied by 13 boys and six adults with Scout Troop 302. The weather was perfect and the bugs were not bad at all.
Forty-five years ago as a child I took a day trip to Ship Island. I had not been back to a Mississippi Gulf Coast barrier island since.
The pristine beauty was greater than I had anticipated. It is part of the national seashore and development is banned. The white sand, 30-foot dunes and bright green vegetation were a treat for the eyes. The water was clear as glass, especially on the south shore.
In the middle of the island is a big pond full of redfish, trout and big mullets that never stopped jumping through the air. A big alligator also calls the pond home. We caught several trout and redfish and grilled them over a campfire that night as we told ghost stories to the boys.
As the night grew old, a family of five huge raccoons emerged from some scrub trees atop a 30-foot dune and scrambling down the steep sand to invade our campsite. Paying no attention to the humans around the campfire, they began poking and prodding our stuff looking for something edible. We threw them some bacon, which sent them scurrying back home with their delectable haul.
At night the stars emerged and several of us spotted shooting stars. Horn Island is beautiful in the daylight but it is magical at night. We took a night walk up the dunes and over to a bluff overlooking the big pond. Some ribbed stratus clouds floated just in front of a half moon as a cool breeze blew. Enchantment. This is why you come.
The daylight hours passed so quickly. We hiked, fished, talked, played football in the water. There were some jellyfish stings, a stubbed toe. My son John stepped on a cactus and had some long thorns pulled from his foot with pliers. Nothing serious.
We were a bit nervous about coming out to the islands because of the government shutdown. I suppose you could call our trip an act of civil disobedience. It’s not really practical to shut down an uninhabited island. In any case, there was no problem.
We rented a shrimp boat to haul us and our gear. Looking at our gear, you’d think we were going for two weeks rather than two nights.
Doug Spratley was at the helm. He was a thin, older man with a quick smile. Turns out his family was one of seven families that lived on Horn Island as homesteaders at the turn of the last century.
As Spratley reminisced, bottle-nosed dolphins jumped out of the water just a few yards from the boat, showing off. A collective audible breath of awe sprang from our lips.
Spratley told stories of his family riding out hurricanes. They would tie themselves all together with ropes and floats and ride it out in the water until the flood receded. One family went to the top of the lighthouse during one bad hurricane. The lighthouse toppled and the family drowned.
Spratley is retired now. No more plumbing. Now he fishes, shrimps and hunts deer in the Delta. He eats what he kills.
Shrimping is hit or miss. You can go days with nothing and then hit gold. He told of a day where he caught $8,000 worth of shrimp in an hour. That’s what keeps you coming back.
This year was a good year for catching shrimp. The oil spill has done no lasting damage, as far as Spratley can tell. Shrimp and fish populations are strong. The main problem is cheap imports from Asia. It’s hard to make money. The only people shrimping now are those that just have it in their blood and love it.
The decline in shrimpers has eliminated the need for government restrictions. You can shrimp anytime you want. Lack of profits means fewer shrimpers. Fewer shrimpers mean better catches. At some point there will be a balance.
On board with Spratley was Joe Peterson, who also loves to shrimp. He scoffed at the new reality television show “Big Shrimpin’.” “People don’t realize it, but most shrimpers have all their teeth and aren’t covered with tattoos.”
Peterson is a Pascagoula native. He’s a retired contractor. In the winter he goes to the Bahamas where he works on the crew of a huge privately-owned luxury yacht. It’s a good life with low stress.
The main problem with shrimping is catching various strains of seaweed and jellyfish that gum up your nets. Every month has a different species. Often the only solution is tediously cleaning your nets by hand.
Other than gas, the biggest expense is maintaining the nets. They have five or six nets in various stages of repair. Nets have to be dipped in special chemicals for protection. It’s not cheap. Like all businesses, it’s far more complex than you would imagine.
Northsider Stan Flint was one of the Scout dads. He lives in Belhaven where he works as a lobbyist for environmental causes, among other issues. But he is most at home on Horn Island, where he often comes and camps alone for days on end, dozens of times.
“It takes me three days just to unwind,” Stan told me as we beachcombed, a thick stubble already breaking through his veneer of urbanity. Within a day, this polished lobbyist was transforming into a beach version of Jeremiah Johnson before my very eyes. I could only try to imagine him at 10 days.
It was this same spell that transfixed the famous Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. Anderson spent months at a time on Horn Island, where he found his artistic inspiration. His mesmerizing art is like no other in the world. Anderson will continue to grow in fame.
Stan grew up in Pascagoula and Horn Island is a big part of his life. “It’s the only place you can come and nothing has changed.”
He is still incredibly tight with his 30 or so running buddies from his Pascagoula childhood. They’re a band of brothers, he said.
As we walked along the beach Stan and I talked of politics, economics, religion, physics, fatherhood and everything else under the sun. We couldn’t stop.
At one point, Stan looked south toward the horizon of the Gulf. “They’ll put up drilling rigs here over my dead body. All we ask is that they give us 20 miles. Just don’t put them within eyesight. That’s all we ask.” Stan is ready to mobilize a crusade if they try to ruin his island. And I believe him. In fact, I’ll join him.
I camped on Horn Island underneath the stars. One more check off my bucket list.
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