Mike Blackwell of McHenry Ms. , a passionate advocate for Red Creek, passed away on May first after emergency heart surgery. In his 7 decades of time on earth he explored and fished on Red Creek for more than 50 years. In his retirement, he lived in his camp on the Creek in Jackson County and split his time among trot-line fishing for flathead catfish, helping renovate creek camps for his friends and family, and organizing his neighbors to petition the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to identify and remedy the sediment problem on Red Creek that comes from incompatible land uses and wetland destruction caused by an upstream recreation business. Mike lived more than 10 miles downstream from the source of sediment and runoff, but expressed to me more than once that the layers of mud that now coat the sandbars on the Creek down near his camp were new and unprecedented. He and his neighbors traced the muck on the sandbars to runoff from unregulated land use upstream. It was clear that for a Creek veteran like himself, this condition was both heartbreaking and unacceptable.
I began speaking with Mike by phone last summer and encouraged him to document the sediment runoff to the Creek when it rained and to start a petition of like-minded neighbors. He dutifully did both of these things, and in March of this year, he presented a 150 signature petition to MDEQ at a meeting with the agency’s Executive Director in Jackson. Mike’s photos, petition and advocacy made an impression on the state agency staff and MDEQ has undertaken an effort to document the sediment runoff problem on Red Creek and, if a violation is identified by standard sampling, to take regulatory action. Gulf Restoration Network and Mississippi Wildlife Federation accompanied him to the meeting in Jackson, but Mike didn’t really need the backup. He was a force of nature at the MDEQ office.
When a passionate person, who uses and loves a creek, river or other waterway, watches it become degraded by things people callously and willfully do to it, he can either resign himself to accept its ruin or he can act. From what I saw of Mike, from his compression socks and leather tennis shoes to the top of his full head of untamable white curls, there was no resignation. He began a spirited fight to help Red Creek that will be carried on by his friends and those who, like me, came to know this excitable, outspoken, but warm-hearted creek lover, fisherman, character and friend.
Mike phoned me several weeks ago and said that he was slowing down on his creek advocacy for a little while and was going to get serious about his fishing. This past April, running his trot-lines in his secret spots, he caught many catfish including three enormous flatheads. He sent me a phone text-message photograph of one which weighed 33 pounds. I called him to offer congratulations to him and ask if he had a fish fry. He said, ”no” - he let the big fish go after the photo because Red Creek needed it more than he did. I found out today he released the other two big ones as well. I am thankful that he enjoyed those final April fishing trips on Red Creek. I and many others will miss our big-hearted, passionate friend and honor him by pressing forward on the sediment problem on Red Creek.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's water program director and works on Mississippi water and wetland policy issues from Madison, Ms.