Story Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Laird Bagnall & Luisa Porter
Coffee-colored water eddies between the reeds as if stirred by invisible sprites. Dragonflies flit across the surface, delicate wings painted gold by the drowsy fingers of dawn. Below, the dark deep, an aqueous world teeming with industry. Above, the bright shallows, the hushed reverence of a sanctuary.
In the early morning stillness, a man could lose himself. In the early morning stillness, a man could find himself. Just be prepared — if you kayak once, you may become a convert.
Laird Bagnall, 63, thought the sport would be a good substitute for sailboating. In time, he realized kayaking offers its own wonders, opening portals to a slower, quieter world. Part of the charm of kayaking is its low entry level for beginners. For around $300 and a few hours of time, even landlubbers can get their feet wet, spawning an occasional hobby or a lifetime passion.
Willis Pope became hooked when Bagnall took him to Tibbee Creek. He liked how easy it was to paddle. The center of gravity is lower, so you don’t have to worry as much about rollovers as you do with canoes. Pope liked being at eye level with nature. He liked how he could paddle for hours and not see another soul. He liked how Mississippi’s best-kept secrets — its labyrinths of creeks and sloughs — were right in his backyard.
So where do you begin?
Choose your kayak. Pope purchased his online for $200, but the prices go much higher depending on your needs. The main things to consider are where, what, who and why.
Where will you use it most of the time? Around the Golden Triangle, most of the water is slow-moving, so a recreational kayak — wider and more stable than those for rapids — is appropriate.
What are your physical limitations? People who have difficulty getting into a cockpit-style kayak will find a sit-on kayak more comfortable. The sensation is somewhat like sitting on a surfboard, making it an ideal choice for older, heavier kayakers, but being so exposed can make some people uneasy. You may prefer to be protected by a hull, where the sides surround your body.
Who will go with you? Recreational kayaks can be single, tandem or tri-yak. The only difference is the number of seats. Weight and length are considerations, too, depending on whether you will carry it alone or have a partner to help.
Why do you want to kayak? If you’re planning overnight trips, fishing or duck hunting, you’ll want a kayak with storage compartments, like the one Pope uses (although he admits he often gets distracted by the scenery and forgets to fish.) Bagnall, a photo enthusiast, can often be found with his Nikon D60 in hand.
Choose your paddle. A kayak paddle is a long stick with a paddle on both ends. The lighter, the better, because it will keep you from becoming too tired, especially when you’re just starting out. As you progress, you can choose angled paddles and other types, but a basic $100 paddle will be fine for beginners.
Spend extra on your life preserver. It should fit tightly and not ride up in the back when you lean forward. If the fit is right, you won’t even notice you’re wearing it, and it’s a safety — and legal — requirement.
Pick a day, pick a place, pack a lunch, and have a good time. Both Pope and Bagnall are fans of Tibbee Creek, but both caution beginners to launch from more populated places, carry a cell phone, and keep an eye on water levels. Lots of rain means swollen waters and dangerous conditions.
“There are a lot of beautiful areas here from where the Tombigbee was channelized back in the ’70s, and nobody goes into them,” Bagnall says. “But you can really get into the boonies where nobody has a clue where you are except the alligators and snakes.”
Of course, this is part of the appeal.
“You become an element of nature, instead of just looking at it from the outside,” he explains. “I’m amazed more people aren’t doing it. In 20 years, some of these places are going to be chock full of people doing the same thing.”
He pauses, as if second-guessing his choice to share his secret with the public. “I think I’ll go out tomorrow,” he says slowly, still lost in thought. “If we lived in a more populated area, there wouldn’t be enough parking.”