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Photo by Anne Braly / Capt. Benny McCoy, now retired, explains a bit about the river to a group of tourists from Texas and Michigan.

As drivers race along the I-10 bridge spanning the Pascagoula River, the longest unimpeded river in the Lower 48 states, most have no clue what lies beneath. An osprey racing headfirst into the water for a kill; wild hogs rooting through the underbrush along the swamp in search of anything to eat; a fledgling bald eagle testing its wings from its protected nest high in a tall pine in the marshland.

But it's not all a fight for survival. There's a peaceful, beautiful side to the Pascagoula River: Flowers that bloom in spring and summer, painting the swamp with color. A fisherman wetting a line in the warm morning sun. A kayaker out for a paddle.

Arranging for a tour by boat allows nature lovers to get a bird's-eye view of this southern Mississippi paradise.

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

Photo Gallery

Boat tours on Pascagoula River put visitors in the midst of Coastal Mississippi's abundant wildlife

"We always thought we could offer something to tourists to let them 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 upriver. 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 have expansive views of all there is to see. They also offer kayaking and motorboat tours.

"Once people have taken a tour of 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 goes 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 nesting ospreys in spring and summer to dolphins, beautiful plants and trees and all kinds of birds. The list is virtually endless, and all of it is interesting."

Pascagoula's source 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. More than 70,000 acres of land surrounding the river have been preserved for the public.

River tours take you into another time and place through three distinct habitats: the river with its brackish water; the marsh with its tall bull grasses growing from the water; and finally the freshwater swamp that comes alive in spring and summer with colorful blackberry vines, blooming iris, marsh mallows, swamp mallows and spider lilies.

The river is like a chameleon, changing its flow from choppy in the river to smooth in the marsh. In the swamp, the current barely creeps alongside stands of Yaupon holly, bay dwarf palmetto palms and bay trees whose leaves help flavor the culinary bounty of the bayou. As you progress into the different habitats, the water's color shifts 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 hogs.

"Them hogs, they'll eat about anything," says Capt. 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's no snakes here anymore."

Maybe no snakes, but the pelicans and other birds are back after having been decimated by DDT back in the 1940s and '50s. Seeing a mother bald eagle feeding her young in a nest high up in a pine tree or an osprey fishing for a midday meal is a common sight now.

The bayous and other bodies of water are once again teeming with marine life.

"These estuaries are very important for us," says McCoy, who knows the flora and fauna around the river as well as any scientist. "Especially if you like seafood. This is where baby crabs and shrimp is being 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 up this watery path, teaching them about the flora and fauna, as well as local lore and history, such as how it got its nickname.

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

The river holds even more questions as the tour continues. You'll see a white cross in the grasslands of one 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'd come into town about once a month, and I've asked a lot of people whatever happened to him, and no one knows," he says.

Tour operators and others who spend time around these waters say you can hear unexplained sounds — perhaps the song of the Pascagoula Indians — as you travel down the river.

"I've heard the strangest sounds — like somebody moaning," McCoy says. "I ain't never heard a sound like that. And I ain't the only one."

 

AFTER THE CRUISE

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

When the cruise is over, visit the Coastal Mississippi Mardi Gras Museum in its new downtown Biloxi location; the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum on the banks of Biloxi Bay, where you can learn about the importance of the seafood and boating industry along the Gulf Coast; or the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum on Beach Boulevard with its collection of the pottery of George Ohr, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi," and the architecture of famed architect Frank Gehry.

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

 

ACCOMMODATIONS

The main drag through Biloxi is lined with casinos, such as Hard Rock and Harrah's, both with overnight accommodations overlooking the Gulf. There's also almost every chain hotel you can think of. But venture just a bit farther along Coastal Mississippi and experience the grace and charm for which small Southern towns are known, such as Long Beach, Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.

Another that exudes character is Ocean Springs, a charming storybook town in a central location between Biloxi and Pascagoula. Ancient live oaks 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 semifinalist Alex Perry, can be found on the town's main thoroughfare, Washington Street. There are no big chain hotels in the downtown area, only lovely inns, such as The Roost, a boutique hotel; and The Inn at Ocean Springs, a bed-and-breakfast.

 

GETTING THERE

Getting to the Biloxi area and its surroundings is easy. There are several direct flights into Gulfport, Mississippi — just a short drive away 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 drive into Biloxi, which will take about an hour. By 2023, Amtrak will offer a train 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 the east or west, hop on I-10, and it will take you straight into town.

 

TO SCHEDULE A TOUR

For reservations on a tour of the Pascagoula River, call Eco-Tours of South Mississippi at 228-297-8687. Additional information may be found online at ecotoursofsouthmississippi.com.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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