This story package is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now.

By Keith Benoist

Photo: Robert Zaleski

Photo: Robert Zaleski

Ordinarily, St. Catherine’s Creek is a dry wash that circumscribes the limits of Natchez, the oldest city on the Mississippi. The spring of 2011, however, was no ordinary time on the river.

Two weeks after the crest passed Natchez, at 6 p.m. on June 1, I lifted my surfski into the tannic waters of St. Catherine’s Creek, a mile from my house, and set off upstream for whatever was about. The floodwaters had transformed the intermittent trace of a stream into a broad, though placid, zone of riparian ecstasy. I paddled alone into this fleeting, unfamiliar world, seeking harmony and solitude. Seldom have I been the beneficiary of such great wildlife watching plunder.

I turned east to paddle inland for three miles, though I hadn’t gone so much as a quarter the distance when my paddle struck a medium-sized alligator, just beneath the surface.

It is the habit, when startled, for adult alligators to turn themselves inside-out; to bend their torso into the shape of a horseshoe, lashing with their tails in quick retirement, showering their surroundings with boiling geysers of silvered foam. The judicious habit of humans, under such circumstances, is to place great distance between the two parties. Onward I stroked.

I was besieged with countless green herons and belted kingfishers, crosshatching the creek amid squawks and chirrs of annoyance at my interruption. At one mile, just below the crossing of U.S. 61, an enormous great horned owl pitched from its exposed ledge on the right bank and took four pumps of the wing to clear the open air. Silent flight at its finest.

Shortly thereafter a dark streak shot across the creek, just beneath the surface, moving so fast it seemed as likely to be a torpedo as an otter, though no detonation followed.

Moments later, I disturbed the willowed secrecy of a pair of woodies, his-and-her models, then glimpsed a scarlet tanager and orchard oriole vying for the same weathered snag at water’s edge. All across the surface of the creek, fish were breaking, breaching, leaping—a scene utterly unimaginable on the roiling tumult of the flooded Mississippi, a scant four miles behind me. Surface spiders skittered about, beneficiaries of the zero gravity born of surface tension.

By the time I turned around, I had counted more than half a dozen belted kingfishers, which had been all but absent a month earlier. I noted two prothonotary warblers, countless chickadees, snowy egrets. A mid-sized cottonmouth cruised the shore of a gravel bar, head erect, unaware of my presence. When finally it noticed me, it stopped dead still for an emboldened stare-down. No other serpent possesses such willingness for malevolence. A beaver, middle-aged, trailed a gnawed willow branch directly across my bow, unconcerned.

I’d timed things to make my return before nightfall and the ensuing onslaught of biting gnats and mosquitoes. Though birds, insects, arthropods, and reptilians of various swimming attitudes continued to haunt my passage, it was a surprise beyond any I could have imagined when, in the distance, some activity I could not readily identify disturbed the surface trailing a V from river-left to -right at a place where the creek is a broad bath of perhaps 50 feet. As I drew closer, the creature, which I took at first to be another alligator, began to show familiar markings—a canebrake rattlesnake, quietly cruising from shore to opposing shore. He never took note of me, keeping a stern vigil: gazing, coiling, studying his approach to the beachhead, as would any Navy SEAL or Recon Marine before committing to a potentially hostile landfall. His rattles, six or more, swam silently beneath the surface. I was close enough to see a tongue flick.

I moved onward, into the gaining twilight.

—Keith Benoist, founder of Kayak Mississippi and the Phatwater Kayak Challenge, lives and paddles in Natchez, Miss., where the city is studying a proposal to re-water St. Catherine’s Creek with a series of engineered weirs.

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