Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, MS:
October 22, 2016
Cypress Grove Boardwalk, Webster Memorial Trail and Overlook, Beaver Dam Trail, Bluff Lake Boardwalk
Distance: 2.8 miles
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More than six years since my last visit, I finally had the opportunity to return to Noxubee, now named after a former regional director and conservationist, Sam D. Hamilton. This time, it became a “Robin and Sam Adventure Date”, and one of my favorite of all the adventures we've had, as she'd finally get to see just why I have such an affinity for the place. They'd added several new trails since 2010, and I knew we wouldn't be able to see all of them, but I wanted to give her a sort of highlights tour, and sneak in some new sights for me along the way.
With Noxubee now a fee area, we stopped by the visitor's center to figure where to pay the nominal $5, and then browsed the small museum. I'd forgotten about “Big Al”, or his skull, rather. It would have been amazing to have seen him but we did spot two decent sized gators on the drive in, and made plans to stop to photograph in between hikes. After the typical trinket treasure hunt at the Friends of Noxubee Refuge store, we wandered out to the deck and gazed a while at Bluff Lake, using both the camera and some binoculars to spot the far off herons, egrets and a few turtles. The new Cypress Grove Boardwalk was visible through the distant bronze and red-orange foliage, as was the old Bluff Lake Boardwalk at the far end of the lake. The newly installed rookery camera was also visible from here, though it's not quite hooked up for viewing just yet. Deciding to start off with the new boardwalk, we parked just past Doyle Arm, arguably the most picturesque of the easily accessible cypress groves at the refuge. All along the steep bank the midday sun cast great shadows through the long trunks, the golden orange foliage flashing against the baby blue sky. With the current drought, the low water levels left the thick buttress roots exposed, and allowed us to explore a small portion of the dry swamp where coneflower and horse nettle were in bloom. Large patches of lilypads were flourishing in the shallow water, almost carpet-like, with a handful of the larger pads hidden in the shade of the trees. While I photographed them, Robin collected cypress knees chopped off likely from mowers. Some ten years ago I collected my one and only cypress knee at Noxubee, and now we had a few more to add to that collection.
The new Cypress Grove Boardwalk extended out through the young section of cypress that grew very thick next to the south side of Bluff Lake. Never have I seen this section dry, and one could walk nearly all the way to the edge of the grove before the land turned muddy. There was no off trail exploration today, and sticking with the boardwalk, it wound it's way out through more mature trees. I stopped to photograph some of the tall dead trunks, and what appeared to be roots systems of the trees spreading through the water. I can only speculate the little sections sticking above the surface, though young, are the beginnings of new cypress knees here. As the boardwalk turned inward toward a little hollow, Robin picked up on the sounds of some woodpeckers, and I finally spotted a red headed woodpecker in one of the tall dead trees. The trail ended at a nice covered area that offered some relief from a warmer than unusual October day. Catching movement, Robin pointed out a great blue heron hiding behind one of the cypress trees next to two lilypads that were amazingly still in bloom. We watched as he fished, and searched the trees for the bald eagles that nest here but saw none. A short drive back to the visitor's center, we parked and walked a little of the Native Plant Garden “trail”. Ten years ago this was one of my first forays into volunteer work, as I helped plant it to fulfill part of the hours requirements for Mississippi Master Gardener certification. Due to school and work at the time, I never completed that certification, but those experiences became a kind of stepping stone for what I've done since. The garden links to the Webster Memorial Oak Grove and Overlook across the road, a short walk out to a small boardwalk and two story observation tower overlooking Loakfoma Lake. With the drought, the lake was pretty abnormally dry, with cypress trees standing in short fields of grass instead of several feet of water. In the distance though, lily pads, both small and the giant ones filled the lake as I remembered they had years ago. With the lake as low as it was, we decided to skip the prairie trail on the other side of the lake, and attempt to find the gators we passed earlier. Just past the spillway the two gators were still hanging around. Both easily 8-10' in length, they were a safe enough distance from shore to stand and photograph them. Another great blue heron was hiding a bit in the weeds nearby.
Right across the road began my favorite trail here, the Beaver Dam Trail, home to the largest cypress tree I know of at Noxubee. I had actually postponed coming to Noxubee for a year or two because the bridge had been washed out from a flood and the area inaccessible. I was glad to see someone had constructed steps down the steep embankment, much easier on the knees than the usual scamper it took to reach the road again. I marveled at the lack of understory on the north side of the trail here, and then realized they'd completely taken out the bamboo that once grew so thick from the road all the way to the bridge. Also surprising was just how dry Oktoc Creek was, reduced to a standing pool under the old metal bridge. The last flood must have taken out the railings, as they were all of new construction. I took the opportunity to get down into the dry sandy bed and wander around for a bit, as these kind of chances don't happen very often. The trail was much as I remembered it, an easy flat walk with the occasional trail spur. The first spur led to a cypress with a large buttress root, and a little island helped formed by the knees catching sediment. Raccoon tracks were all around the water, and I eyeballed a fallen log to the island, but I wasn't going to leave Robin behind here. She had little interest in messing around near muddy water that alligators liked to play in either.
After a short walk, I noticed another little side trail down to the water, and was surprised to find the old busted swinging bridge still hanging on, much in the same shape it was in ten years ago. I never figured out where this old bridge led, but regardless, the view of Oktoc Creek was pretty nice and cypress knees fun to look at, being almost eye level. The trail continued on rounding several bends, and I was trying to find a specific one to take Robin out through as it led to a number of nice cypress trees, but I never spotted it. We did find a few rather large pine trees, which also caught the interest of some people out on a group hike whom we passed as they stopped to look at another. Passing the next bend brought significant storm damage from much earlier in the year, as well as one of my favorite views of the creek. All along, we spotted some deer tracks, and I was hoping we'd see some wildlife here as it was starting to get late in the afternoon, but nothing more than squirrels a few high hidden songbirds made an appearance. I've always loved how the light tends to fall on the water here, perennially muddy, but scenic to me. Ahead on the left was an area that seemed to have been cleared for some reason, but we really didn't have the time to explore to see what was going on with it, so we continued on. The next bend brought a high bank, but this time with a mud bar on the far side much larger than I've ever seen. Some of this is definitely the drought at play, but it was also quite noticeable of how much the high bank was being undercut, which will soon threaten part of the trail. With Robin's knees tiring, I made a deal that we would go just a little bit farther to see if we could find the big tree, as there was at least another mile of trail and I was really unsure of exactly where it was. The fall colors through here finally made some small appearance, as most leaves seem to have succumbed a bit to the drought. A mother and her daughter passed us, and we chatted about the trail. She asked if I knew of a spot where the bamboo was so large you could walk out into the water on it, but I've never heard of such. She mentioned a fallen tree to watch out for just ahead, and also a very large cypress tree. I was elated to hear that, and she asked about why a chunk had been cut from it. I explained that the tree is hollow and at one time housed a bat colony, though I'm unsure if it still does. After we parted ways, we soon found the “Big Tree of Noxubee”, which unfortunately is seeing a lot of folks carving their names into it now. A severe loss of brush in front of it that once protected it from view is now completely gone, though I suspect a lot of this was privet removal. I'm deeply attached to this old tree, and it was very special for me to share it with Robin. She noticed cooler air coming from the tree where the square panel cut on the tree is, and I leaned around to see that the creekside section of the trunk is beginning to cave in now. This old tree once held a bat colony, though I'm not certain if that still holds true or not. Thanks again to the drought, I was able to get down farther than I've ever been on the bank beside it and take photos of the canopy, as well as pose next to cypress knees that were every bit of eight feet tall! In the distance Robin spotted what was probably an indian marker tree, but I was eager for us to see one other spot at Noxubee. As we made it back to the trailhead, we met a very disgruntled conservation officer wanting to know who owned two specific vehicles. The group of college kids were coming out at the same time, and they were still getting an earful for not paying the day use fee. Our green spaces are so strapped for cash that I still don't understand not paying. Split between them all it would have been less than $1 each to enjoy this wonderful space.
The light was beginning to fade a bit as we made it to the final spot we explored, the Bluff Lake Boardwalk. In addition to what folks call the “golden hour” early in the morning where the lighting is near perfect, there is also a period of time before sunset where photos, especially with fall colors, take on an almost painting like appearance to me in the forest. We found this light at the right moment on the boardwalk, with both deciduous and cypress trees alive with color. At the sheltered viewing area, we didn't see any of the typical ibris or egrets, though a few herons were moving way off toward the tree line. In more abundance were the gnats more typical of summer, so thick it caused issues with the autofocus on the cameras even. We sat for a long while and stared out over Bluff Lake, watching for gators, and watching the lilypads blow in the wind. After staying long enough to watch the sun begin to set, we made our way back to the car and readied for the long ride home.