Enjoy family fun on Mississippi's free-flowing Pascagoula River

By JENNI FRANKENBERG VEAL - Published on November 13, 2016

I wasn't expecting to lose my heart in Mississippi. However, on a recent trip with my family, I was entirely surprised by the outdoor adventure to be experienced along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

One of the destinations that charmed me was the Pascagoula River, the largest and last free-flowing river in the Lower 48. The Pascagoula forms at the confluence of the Leaf and Chicasawhay rivers near Merrill, Mississippi, and flows 81 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. More than 70,000 acres of land surrounding the river have been preserved for the public.

We visited the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, a beautifully constructed nature center that serves as a gateway to the river. The center offers educational programs, exhibits and information about the Pascagoula River Basin. They also rent kayaks and schedule boat excursions with McCoy’s River and Marsh Tours.

McCoy's River and Marsh Tours offers two-hour tours on the Pascagoula River. (Photo: Pascagoula River Audubon Center)

We met Capt. Benny McCoy, owner of McCoy’s River and Marsh Tours, one sunny morning. McCoy grew up boating and fishing on the river with his brother and talks about the Pascagoula like an old friend. We walked with him down to the dock to begin our boat tour of the river and its tidal marshes and swamps.

Touring the Pascagoula is an escape to the natural world. More than 300 species of birds either live or pass through the Pascagoula River Basin.

Within the first 30 minutes, we spotted a bald eagle in a snag and several osprey and osprey nests. Throughout the trip, we enjoyed watching American coots swimming alongside us and tricolored herons and egrets hunting for fish.

McCoy is a master of the river and can easily identify different species of birds, fish, turtles, plants and trees. He pulled over to point out an alligator nest where a mother alligator had settled on eggs this summer. He pointed our gaze to the top of a tree in the middle of the river where bees were hovering at the entrance to their hive. We felt the sharp needlelike point of the common black needle rush in the marshes, watched a raccoon swimming in the river to shore and spotted a giant splash indicating we had startled an alligator back into the water.

More than 70,000 acres surrounding the Pascagoula River have been preserved for the public. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

He introduced us to the wax myrtle tree, also called the bayberry, and all of its uses. When boiled, the berries of the tree yield a wax that was once used to make candles.

Later that day, my daughters were inspired to experiment with the berries by placing them in hot water in a coffee mug. We were excited to see and feel the wax for ourselves—and imagined how many berries (and how much work) would be required to make one candle.

There is so much more to the Pascagoula that we didn’t see, but that makes it special. The river is home to more than 22 threatened and endangered species and more than 300 plant species. One section of the river is bordered by a national wildlife refuge that is home to endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes; and river otters, beavers, wild boars and black bears make their home along its banks.

Explore the Pascagoula River along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

Our hearts were filled by the Pascagoula River and all that resides there. After our boat tour, we stopped in the town of Pascagoula at Bozo's, a popular seafood eatery, and then toured the charming Round Island Lighthouse before heading back to the Gulf Hills Hotel in nearby Ocean Springs.

To learn more about Pascagoula River tours, visit the Pascagoula River Audubon Center and the Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast website.

Jenni Veal enjoys exploring and adventuring in the great outdoors. Visit her travel website www.YourOutdoorFamily.com to learn more about outdoor family travel adventures in the United States. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.