Reclaiming a cherished river
June 1, 2001
You know those scary, even dangerous occurrences that happen in the outdoors that when looked back upon are funny? Often they result from doing something stupid. The snafu teaches us better than any other learning approach not to repeat the mistake.
One happened to my friend Sonny Chisolm and me down on the Chickasawhay River a long time ago. We had set out lines for catfish. We were using Chis' boat and outboard motor to run back upriver after floating downstream to check hooks. When the motor ran dry of fuel, I, being in the back of the boat, poured more into the tank. Some readers may have been around when outboard motors had integral tanks that were encased under the motor cover along with all the other motor components.
Pouring gasoline into a 2-inch hole while standing in a shaky jonboat floating backwards downstream is not an exercise in precision. I therefore spilled about as much gas onto the motor and into the boat as I managed to direct into the tank opening. It pained me to waste so much of the gas. It cost 20 cents a gallon. But, as we were soon to learn, matters could get worse.
Our position was about the center of the largest and deepest "hole" in that stretch of the Chickasawhay. How deep I do not know, for when the water level gets much above my knees I consider it deep and I don't explore the bottom. But this was known to be a swimming hole and I am certain a small train station would have been lost forever should it somehow have become submerged there.
It was right after I sat the gas can down and reached to pull the start rope that things got interesting that hot day down on the Chickasawhay. This misadventure can be better appreciated if one realizes that in those days few life preservers were available to adventurous Mississippi boys. I don't recall that I had ever seen one at the time. Anyway, when I pulled the start rope, part of the electrical charge intended for the spark plug lost its way and ignited the gasoline vapor from the spill and the liquid puddles as well. The result was a conflagration in the form of an explosion.
This in itself was not and is not funny. It was the speed with which the two of us reacted to the crisis What I remember is that it seemed to take me over into the next millennium to run to the other end of the boat – an actual lapsed time of about 2 milliseconds. But before I made the first step, I saw a sight that I'll never forget. It was the bottom of my friend's bare feet as they disappeared over the bow, following his rather long body into the water, thus completing an Olympic caliber headfirst dive.
I followed Chis into the water with much less style and nowhere near the speed. Before the motor could explode, I climbed back aboard and smothered the growing flames with a wet blanket. Had we not survived, the incident would not be so funny.
The Chickasawhay was a beautiful river that many enjoyed in those days. Besides fishing, the river was perfect for swimming, camping and float trips. The latter was probably the recreation most engaged in. Now the river is clogged with stumps and debris from frequent flooding. A lengthy float trip is next to impossible. If you could navigate the long stretches of the river, you would see more and more debris, a distraction from the beautiful woodlands, clear pools, rapids and cutbanks of bygone days.
This deplorable condition has been observed by many. One who decided to do something about it is Aubrey Rozzell of Quitman. A retired director of Mississippi's parks, he has a keen interest in seeing that a once beautiful and valuable stream is restored to its potential. He is seeking public funds through various agencies to get the work of cleaning out the river channel done so outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy the river once again. Mayor Tommy Blackburn of Quitman is a staunch supporter of the project. Mayors and other public officials along the full length of the Chickasawhay support the clean-up proposal.
What is needed is strong public support for the river to be restored to its original beauty and utility. Individuals, groups or businesses interested in helping with this cause, or those who have questions about it should contact Mr. Rozzell at (601) 776-3029 or 776-3448. Or contact Mayor Blackburn at (601) 776-3728.