Monday, April 25, 2016

Kayak Around Deer Island - Biloxi,Mississippi

Deer Island, just off the coast of Biloxi and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, offers a great beginner's exposure to kayaking in the Mississippi Sound and Biloxi Bay, provided conditions are right. First off, no paddling in the Mississippi Sound should be taken lightly. ALWAYS check the forecast. But, what makes Deer Island a good first island trip is that the water remains very shallow all around the island, and the island's northwestern tip is very, very near the main coast. In fact, from the beach at Ocean Springs, Deer Island looks like a sliver of land extending off of Biloxi Beach.  
Since most of the mainland coast here is beach, you can launch from any number of places, depending on how long you want your crossing out to the island to be. But because of the amount of boat traffic moving back and forth across Biloxi Bay, I'm only going to describe one option here--the "beginner friendly" option, which has a very short crossing. and uses the public boat launch at the end of Kuhn St. The total distance is just over 10 miles. 
General notes about Deer Island: 
As I mentioned, it's very near the mainland at one end, and the beach has a very gradual slope, especially on the south side,  so you can stay in very shallow water. Even if you did encounter trouble, you'd have very little trouble landing on the island to wait out a storm or to wait for help. But, that shallow water will turn very bouncy if the wind kicks up too much. And, you should expect no cover or shelter on the island, so a nasty afternoon thunderstorm could really spoil your day if you aren't prepared. Some parts of the island are wooded, and some parts are pretty bare. 
***Summer of 2023 update: 
After paddling around Deer Island a few more times since I first posted this, I do think it's worth qualifying "beginner friendly" as it relates to that shallow water that I refer to (This is the voice in the back of my head that makes me afraid that someone will read my post and take a family paddle to the island):

For many yards out from the visible beach on the south side of Deer Island, the water is 5' or less deep. Since the floor of the MS Sound is uneven, the depth varies, and because the coast is curved, your "straight" path will take you through the full range of 1'-5' deep water. 
Any incoming waves (from the south or west) will start to swell and break in different ways as they encounter that long, shallow, uneven, underwater coastline. AND, winds coming from the south or west (or in between, of course), will have decent fetch, so don't underestimate their impact. 5-10mph S, W, or SW winds can create enough energy to slosh you around. If you're in a small boat, it can slosh you around a lot, and you can end up soaked. This can be a lot of fun, if that's what you're ready for. 
Staying close to the beach is a give-and-take: you're in very shallow water where you can just put a foot down and get control if you need to; but the waves will be bouncier in that shallow water, and you'll be working harder in shallow water (I'll skip the science, but water shallower than the length of your boat will be slower, and certainly in 2 or 3 feet of water, you will feel slower - the water feels "thicker").
So, if this is a fun, beach paddle kind of trip for you, just accept getting wet, do your homework, and have fun. And please, don't assume  young children will be comfortable or capable out here on a windy day. Steering the boat gets harder in the wrong bounce, so you'll get more tired than you might expect.
If you're a reasonably experienced paddler, comfortable a little further from land (judge yourself wisely), you can go out several hundred feet, where the water will level out and the deeper water will be easier to paddle through. The bounce becomes more of a roll in the deeper water.

Final(I think) note about winds from the south-to-west: The crossing to the island, on the north side, will be sheltered from south and southwest winds. So do not assume a calm crossing means a calm paddle. You'll be able to tell as you approach or go through the opening in the breakwater - if you see a big change in the energy as you get to that opening, and you aren't sure about your skills or boat, or your companions' skills and boats, just go land on the north side and have an Island Day. Just keep an eye on the weather, and watch the traffic when you cross back.
So this takes be back to the original post before that update:
I won't try to define "normal" conditions, but let's say very calm days, or mild winds from the north and/or east (across land and the smaller Biloxi Bay), which is what I've experienced probably 6 of the 8 or so times I've done this trip. Those are the "Normal" conditions I look for when I plan this trip with my GF, who isn't as comfortable in bouncy water. In those normal conditions, you should expect typical "beach conditions", with waves washing ashore, across the beam of your kayak (from one side to the other), so without a skeg or rudder, you can expect to have to fight your kayak's urge to weathercock and take you away from shore. 

Our route:
When I do this trip, I'm actually hoping for a little wave action to get  a small taste of "the ocean", but the first two times I did it were even calmer than  the forecast and the water was very calm. Those were very relaxing paddling trips, with an interesting taste of open water, open sky, and what feels like a deserted island. So far, the biggest waves I've encountered on the Mississippi Sound (south) side of this trip have been 1'-3' "rolling" waves. Nothing serious--just enough to make you have to pay attention a little bit. But again, a summer thunderstorm can change this quickly.
(Note my 2023 update earlier - I have had a couple trips in 2023, in my surfski, that did make me work to manage the waves. Sure, a surfski is may be tippier than a sea kayak, but these conditions would probably have been even more challenging for 9'-12' boat)
Most of this post is based on one of those very calm days:

We used the public launch at the end of Kuhn St, right on the beach, and did a very easy crossing over to the island. We headed west, and at the end of the island, we followed the breakwater until we came to a gap that we could cut through and turn east.,-88.8724673,65m/data=!3m1!1e3

We did this in a counter-clockwise loop. 

kayak deer island
Once you're on the southern, or Mississippi Sound, side of the island, you get a taste of open water paddling. On a day as calm as ours was, you don't get the feel of "big water", but you do get the experience of just you, the water, and the sky. To your south, probably beyond your eyesight, are  the barrier islands further out: Ship Island, which is disappearing and is now two separate islands, and Horn Island, which is more substantial and has some great camping spots.  You will probably see a breakwater to your south, which at first I thought was one of the islands. 

It was her first time using the new rudder on that boat, and on this day she barely needed it.

kayak deer island
The eastern tip of the island was covered by pelicans(and swarming with horseflies, or something equally nasty):
kayak deer island

Rounding the eastern tip of Deer Island 

kayak deer island

An important note about the eastern tip of Deer Island: If you look at the picture below, you'll see the large trench that runs parallel to the southern beach of the island. At high tide, the opening to this trench, at the eastern tip of the island, is pretty large and it feels like you're rounding the edge of the island. I've seen it at a particularly large high tide, and this opening was quite large.I've been told you can paddle into this trench and that it eventually has a small channel that snakes out to the bay side of the island. I've also been told it's easy to bottom out on very shallow spots. So, this could be a fun place to explore, but check the tides so you don't get stuck if the tide is going back out. For this route, paddle past it. Here's a picture of this:

paddle deer island

Then we returned on the bay side. Shortly after rounding the eastern tip and in Biloxi Bay, you'll come upon a small cove that looks pretty inviting for a break, but the horseflies and gulls are often too thick here. I have actually done one trip in August where we were not bothered by the bugs at all. There are lots of options for lunch breaks, so we just pick a relatively bug free spot and relax a bit. It was on the bay side that we had a little excitement when this appeared next to us on our first trip:

Just a dolphin

Sometime in 2016, the City of Biloxi built this pier on the island:

We followed the northern shore of the island until we got close enough to the launch spot to make an easy crossing across the bay back to the mainland. 

Using the Biloxi casinos as our targets as we paddle back towards our launch/take out. 

As you're returning along the northern side of the island, going east to west, there's a marina that blocks your view of the Kuhn St launch. Look for the large white Biloxi Yacht Club and the metallic sides of the O'Keefe Museum, both of which are on other side of the beach highway, but are very visible landmarks for your crossing. You may not see the parking lot with your vehicle until you're most of the way back across.

Here's a nice article from my friend, Jack Curry, about camping on Deer Island:


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  2. Any where else you have seen dolphins? Would love to know.

    1. I've seen them in the Mississippi Sound going to Horn Island, and friend see them out there often also.

  3. Seen them on dauphin island Alabama area kayak about a mile off on the Bayside