HATTIESBURG — Interest in scuba diving, hiking, camping, motor boating, and paddle sports is increasing in south Mississippi, a region long known for its excellent outdoor recreation opportunities.
“Paddle sports are really starting to pick up,” said Glyn Guidry, outdoor department manager for Big Buck Sports. “A lot of people are interested in that, and there is a paddling club in Hattiesburg now.”
Guidry also sees indications of more hiking activity. The Black Creek Trail has long been popular, and now there is also a new Rails to Trails hiking and biking path that runs from Hattiesburg to Prentiss. Guidry said hiking, biking, and paddle sports are particularly popular among the college crowd in Hattiesburg.
“Canoeing has always been popular, and is still going really strong,” Guidry said. “And kayaking is certainly picking up around here. Scuba diving is also very popular, and is growing every summer.”
Canoe rental operators report that business is on the upswing.
“We seem to get a little busier each year,” said Lisa Robinson, co-owner of Okatoma Canoe Rental in Sanford. “We’ve had a good spring. The river has been running good. The water has been at a good level so you don’t have to do a lot of paddling.”
The Okatoma is popular with people from Louisiana who make up about 50% of the customers for Okatoma Canoe Rental. The Louisiana residents are attracted by the rapids on the Okatoma. Robinson said the rapids are challenging and fun, but not dangerous. People can portage around the rapids if they are concerned about tipping over. And deeper water below the rapids makes ideal swimming holes.
Locals also love the Okatoma, and outings by church and scout groups in particular are popular. On a busy weekend, an average of 1,000 people go down the Okatoma. Most are there just for a day, but some do overnight camping trips.
The Black Creek is a slower canoe trip, and doesn’t see as many visitors. But that’s ideal for people looking to get away from the crowds for a relaxing float.
“Every year interest in canoeing has grown,” said Pat Gibbs, co-owner of Black Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn. “The season is going real good. We’ve had lots of hot, dry weather. The weekends are always full, but our weekday business last year and this year has been a lot better. It is getting to be a sport more in the mainstream. If you watch TV and ads in paper, a lot have canoes in the ads. For example, sport utility vehicle advertisements often show the vehicles with canoes on top of them.”
Gibbs said the best thing about Black Creek is it runs through the DeSoto National Forest. Canoes are more spread out than on the Okatoma, and there are more sandbars for camping. Gibbs said about 70% of their customers come from Louisiana or other states, and most are families. Each year local interest in canoeing increases.
Gibbs said that kayaks are also becoming more popular. Some are the types of kayaks that you sit on top of. Those are particularly popular with women and girls who want to stretch out and get a tan while floating down the creek. While kayaks are generally considered more difficult to master than canoes, Gibbs said the type of kayaks they rent are stable. “You just about have to work to turn them over,” she said.
Kayaking is also becoming more popular on the Coast. Jerry Adkerson, sales manager for Ocean Marine Group in Ocean Springs, said interest in kayaks is increasing all the time. Ocean Marine carries a selection of about a dozen different types of kayaks.
Adkerson said that, in his opinion, motor boating is the number one recreational activity on the Coast whether the boats are used for fishing, waterskiing, visiting the barrier islands and just enjoying being out on the water.
“Fishing boats are the most common sellers, but a lot of people also go to the islands,” Adkerson said. “We’re seeing more demand for the high-end, high-quality products especially in the sport runabouts, and cruisers. We’re seeing a lot of interest there especially from the new people who are moving to the Coast from different places. They seem to be demanding a higher-quality, nicer boat.”
Ocean Marine branched out from its store in Biloxi two years ago to open a store in Ocean Springs because they saw a need for a full-service boat dealership that provided good service and quality boat lines. Adkerson said all the boat lines they carry are upper end lines.
“We felt there would be more demand for the upper-end lines, and that has proven to be true,” he said.