Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New Orleans ranked #22 on Bicycling magazine's list of America's Best Bike Cities

A sharrow in the right travel lane heading to the French Quarter
 of Orleans Ave. in New Orleans

 New Orleans is ranked #22 on Bicycling magazine's 50 top cities for bicycling in the U.S.   The magazine ranked the city 43 in 2012.   Number one this year was New York City.
       The rankings boost for New Orleans is attributed to the expansion of the city's bicycle network from about five miles to nearly 100 miles since Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, the magazine editors say in a blurb in the October 2014 edition of the magazine.
       (To give the bike lane miles a little context, true there were probably only about five miles of bona fide separate bicycling paths in the city August 2005.  But most of the "nearly 100" miles of bike lanes touted now consists of many traffic lanes of busy streets stenciled with "sharrows," a quick and dirty way to boost bike lane mileage.  Counted as bike lanes now are busy city arteries such as City Park Ave. leading from under an Interstate interchange to Delgado Community College and east bound Orleans Ave. a four-lane street leading to the French Quarter.)
      Other bicycle infrastructure improvements over the past year are in reality more significant.  Esplanade Ave. from City Park nearly two miles to Claiborne Ave. was resurfaced and restriped converting the narrow four-lane into one wider traffic lane and one bike lane in each direction.  This has become the main route used by cyclists traveling from the French Quarter to Lakeview and City Park.
       The completition of the bike path along Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish, after about 30 years of partial closings because of levee and pumping station construction is a boon to riders who like the scenic views of the lake the 12 mile ride (one-way) affords.
       (While that path is not in New Orleans it is very popular with riders from New Orleans who ride it regularly and its existence contributes much to the cycling climate of the area.)
       To be completed next year is the Lafitte Corridor multi-use path and playground, from near N. Carrollton Ave. to Basin St.  Construction of the path part of the development is well underway with the blacktop down in some sections.
A view of the path under construction in the Lafitte Corridor in New Orleans taken 09-11-2014.  The view is looking southwest towards N. Carrollton Ave. from N. Scott St.  Rouses is on the left.
       In a move sideways, two-way traffic was restored to Lakeshore Drive on weekends but to partially mollify cyclists who use the scenic roadway in great numbers, sharrows have been stenciled on the right lanes in each direction of the four-lane road.
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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Leaving canoes and kayaks in Bayou St. John (New Orleans) overnight now prohibited.

    
MOORING NO MORE-These canoes locked to the seawall on Bayou St. John in New Orleans will have to be removed by their owners soon or risk removal, impoundment and a $150 fine. The New Orleans City Council recently prohibited long-term storage (more than 24 hours) of canoes and kayaks on Bayou St. John.  Residents complai
ned the untended craft looked bad, were a mosquito nursery and attracted vermin.
        Almost empty of recreational paddlecraft for decades prior to Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, today historic Bayou St. John in New Orleans almost looks busy with a variety of canoes and kayaks creasing its calm waters.
       With the increasing numbers of paddlers using the five-mile long bayou, designated a scenic river by the state, has come the practice of in-the-water-storage of kayaks and canoes.  Most of the boats are locked to mooring rings along the bayou's seawall between the Magnolia Bridge across from Cabrini HS and the end of the bayou at Lafitte St.  Over the years the "fleet," consisting mostly  of lower priced recreational kayaks and canoes, the occasional pricey propeller drive fishing kayak and a few very well used aluminum canoes, has varied in number from about a dozen to over 40.   
       Residents began complaining about the all but abandoned paddlecraft locked up along the bayou soon after the practice began after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The mostly untended boats gradually fill with rainwater partially sinking into the bayou. Some say this is unsightly.  Barnacles cover the hulls and thin strands of bright green seaweed grow in the gray/green slime in the water-filled cockpits. Untreated wood or fabric rots. Boats pulled out of the water onto the grass behind the seawall become obstacles for tractors mowing the low levee flanking the bayou.  Faubourg St. John residents complained the sinking boats bred mosquitoes and attracted vermin.
       But not for much longer.
       Last week (September 4, 2014) the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a law giving the city the right to impound boats left in the bayou more than 24 hours. The mosquito control board will sticker outlaw boats which will then be hauled away after two days. The fine is stiff: $150, more than what many tied to the seawall are worth. A $10 a day storage fee will be charged and, if after five months no one claims the boat, it can be sold.
       The move to create a law to prohibit paddlecraft from being left tied to the banks for more than a day proceeded at a snails pace, in part, because jurisdiction over the bayou is shared by three entities: the state, the Orleans Levee District and the City of New Orleans.
        The bayou has not seen this much use by recreational paddlecraft since the late 19th and early 20th centuries when competing boating clubs would attract hundreds to their regattas held near the Esplanade bridge.  Today at least two businesses offer kayak tours to view the historic homes along its banks and wildlife attracted to the tranquil slough.  A SUP (stand-up paddling) business brings paddle boards to the bayou near the Mirabeau Bridge.  Many paddle the bayou for exercise or just drift on the water and view the bird life and wildlife nearby.    
       For the past two years (2013 and 2014) there has been a paddlecraft parade near the Orleans Ave. bridge the Fourth of July holiday.   Most of the kayaks, canoes and SUP's seen on the bayou are owned either by residents living near the waterway or by those who drive in from other parts of the city.  No power boats are allowed on the bayou and while non-motorized human powered craft are permitted, there are no developed launch facilities for them on the bayou.
      Launching into the bayou is problematic especially if you have a fragile composite hull of fiberglass or kevlar because in addition to the seawall there are stretches of broken concrete riprap and a slanted concrete retaining wall along the banks that make launching best attempted by the agile.
        New Orleans, founded in 1718, is about 90 miles up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. The trip up the winding river in the days of sail could take a month or more if the winds and currents were not cooperative.  Bayou St. John offered early settlers a waterborne route via Lake Pontchartrain that passed within two miles of the future city avoiding the time consuming river route.
       True, shipping the Lake Pontchartrain/Bayou St. John route had its problems.  Shallow water in the lake and bayou meant only smaller boats with a shallow draft could be used.  A lot of time was spent loading and unloading cargo and passengers to progressively smaller boats.  And then there was the matter of loading goods and people onto wagons for the two mile portage to the back of what is now the French Quarter.  But even with all that work shipping via the lake often would shave weeks off the transit time it took to sail up the serpentine Mississippi River.
       However, most of the traffic on the lake and the bayou was in service of trade along the gulf coast.  Ocean-going ships carrying cargo and passengers to and from Europe to New Orleans would still have to sail the Mississippi River to and from the city.
       Steamboats made for much faster travel both with and against winds and currents but they were not common on the river until after 1820.  And it was not until the 1850s that ocean going steam powered vessels came into regular service. 
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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Algiers/Canal St. ferry to expand weekday hours

 (This rewrite corrects the date new weekday service hours go into effect on the Algiers Point/Canal Street passenger ferry.)

     Passenger ferry service across the Mississippi River connecting Canal St., downtown New Orleans, to Algiers Point will expand weekday service in July.  The announcement was made in a press release posted on NOLAFerries.com, a website of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA).
       The ferries are managed by Veolia Transportation Services, a French company hired by the RTA to manage the city's buses and streetcars.
       Beginning Monday, July 21, 2014, ferries will run weekdays from 6 am until 10 pm.  Saturday/Sunday schedules were not changed.  Fares remain at $2 each way.  Check NOLAFerries.com for exact departure times.
       The Algiers Point/Canal St. ferry does not take cars but does accept bicycles and small motor scooters.  (If you have a motor scooter check the long list of rules before attempting to board the ferry with your scooter.)  The Chalmette ferry downstream accepts cars and larger motorcycles.
      Other changes and proposed changes are:
      - beginning July 1, monthly, ferry-only, passes will be sold for $65. These are good for unlimited rides in the month they are punched.
      -Drop boxes will be installed to allow passengers to pay fares without employees having to take cash.  Fares must still be paid in cash and no change is given.  Later in the year passengers may be able to use automated fare cards.
       - In September fares will be integrated with bus and streetcar service.  Now, transfers bought on a streetcar or bus are not valid for the passenger ferry.
       -A passenger ferry from Washington could be transferred to the ferry fleet in New Orleans pending approval by the Maritime Administration, a federal agency.
         Cyclists have the option of using RTA buses to cross the river via the Crescent City Connection bridge but the trip takes much longer than the ferry crossing and the bus schedule does not offer many trips.  Bicycle riding is not permitted on the Crescent City Connection.
       The changes were announced June 12 at a meeting of the Algiers Point Association.  The group has been fighting the deep cuts in the ferry schedule taken last summer after tolls on the bridge, a major subsidy for the ferry, were eliminated.  The ferries had been run by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development before being taken over by the RTA.
        Currently, the last ferry boats leave Canal St. for Algiers at 6:30 pm (8:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights).  This is too early for service workers without cars living in Algiers to return from their late shifts in French Quarter bars, restaurants and hotels, via the ferry, forcing them to either endure a lengthy bus ride or pay for taxi service.
        Business at some bars, restaurants and bed and breakfast inns in Old Algiers has also been hurt.  The ferry, which used to run until midnight, eliminated the necessity to drive across the bridge after a night out on the town.  Especially popular with out-of-town visitors staying in Algiers was the chance to walk to and from the French Quarter without the hassle of crossing the bridge and finding a place to park in the crowded and world-famous New Orleans entertainment district. 
       Bicyclists ride the ferry to the West Bank to explore the historic neighborhood of Algiers Point.
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Monday, May 26, 2014

Paddling conditions for Black Creek on May 24-25, 2014




A small shady sandbar between Moody's Landing and Janice Landing on Black Creek in the De Soto National Forest, in southeast Mississippi.  Decaying vegetation in the stream bed tint the stream with tannin, giving the water the color of  dark, Mississippi sweet tea.    

          For 42 miles on its run from its source in the piney uplands south of Hattiesburg, MS to its confluence with the wetlands surrounding the Pascagoula River near the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Black Creek winds through the De Soto National Forest.  This stretch of the mostly shallow slow-flowing, winding "blackwater" stream flanked by numerous sandbars and a deep forest mostly devoid of signs of permanent human intrusion is considered by many to be the best canoe/camping trip in the Magnolia State.
       Between Moody's Landing and Fairley Bridge Landing, about 21 miles, has been designated a Wild and Scenic Stream by the U.S. Congress.  About six miles of that stretch flows through the 5051-acre Black Creek Wilderness Area.  Wilderness Areas, a federal designation, are road-less preserves where use of motorized devices of any sort and wheeled vehicles (including bicycles) are prohibited. 
         Getting on the creek is easy for both paddlecraft owners and non-paddlecraft owners.  The largest of two canoe liveries servicing the creek is about 110-miles northeast of New Orleans, in Brooklyn, MS. A second, much smaller livery with a small campground, RV park and cabins-- Red Wolf Adventures--on MS 29 north of Wiggins, MS, is about a mile south of Janice Landing.  Both will run a shuttle for you if you have your own canoe or kayak.
       The best craft for floating the creek, either for the day or weekend, is a canoe or short, sit-on-top kayak.  The necessity of having to steer through stump gardens in the stream channel and the probability of having to get out of the boat to drag it over the shallows several times makes using a long, narrow "sea" kayak more trouble than it is worth.  Consider too: Where would you put an ice chest on a sea kayak?  Floating the creek with your butt wedged in a truck tire inner tube is permitted but is rarely seen.  Neither of the two liveries rent tubes to float the creek. 
        The forest service maintains concrete boat ramps along the creek at five primitive Recreation Areas (campgrounds): Big Creek, Moody's Landing, Janice Landing, Cypress Creek Landing, and Fairley Bridge Landing. Not on national forest property is the most popular put-in, a gravel bar in Brooklyn, MS, near the canoe livery there.     
       In the summer and particularly on warm weather holidays, the two canoe liveries are kept busy running shuttles and renting, canoes and kayaks.  If you are a hermit all of this activity can make the creek appear noisy and crowded, having all the charm of the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island.
       But crowds are spread out along the creek so even on busy weekends you can probably find a sandbar to call your own, away from the noises of others, if you begin looking early enough.  No permits, reservations or permissions needed to camp along the stream.  Note that there are a few small parcels of land along the creek that are privately held.  These in holdings are often posted and paddlers should respect the rights of private landowners along the creek.
        Excluding stopping time, experienced and sober paddlers can plan on a pace of about three miles an hour.  That's constant paddling.  Daydreamers, and inexperienced or inebriated paddlers, will need more time. (Alcohol is permitted while on the creek but is not permitted in the FS recreation areas (campgrounds.)
       Be sure to bring a garbage bag to corral cans and trash. No glass containers are permitted on the creek and Styrofoam coolers are strongly discouraged.   Styrofoam coolers break up easily when dumped into the creek during a capsize, littering the creek with its contents.  And Styrofoam cooler pieces never sink littering the creek for years.
      There must be a life vest for each person in the boat but adults do not have to wear them.  Kids do.
       Distances marked on maps and provided by outfitters are approximate and useful in plotting your progress on the creek.  However the distance from the Brooklyn put-in to Moody's Landing, said to be five miles, is closer to seven miles.  Try to bring a compass and have a map showing major side creeks to help answer the inevitable question: "How much farther till we can stop?"
      No map?   One trick to determine your location is to follow the bends in the creek while you paddle.  While the creek flows mostly east and south and sometimes north, there are a few sections, miles apart, that flow west or southwest.  If you find yourself heading south or southwest you can usually find that stretch on a map and from that determine your approximate location.
       A water level of four feet on the USGS Brooklyn gage means a tandem canoe loaded with a weekend's worth of gear will clear broad tan gravel and sand shallows by a mere inch or two.   When water levels drop in summer and late fall, as they often do, expect to run aground at least once or twice. 
       Hint: Flip-flops will not keep gravel from wedging uncomfortably between your foot and the sole.  To protect your feet when out of the canoe, wear a pair of old sneakers you are willing to sacrifice.
       Obstacles in the creek, such as blow downs and stumps will require some steering to avoid, but the current is benign at lower water levels so there is plenty of time to develop a strategy to avoid smacking into something.
       Know the weather forecast before launching.  If the weather becomes threatening--you hear thunder or see lightening--get off the creek and get a weather forecast update.  Cell phone service is spotty with some carriers especially near Janice Landing so pack a weather radio just in case.  Heavy rain on the creek's watershed, miles away from where you are, can raise water levels in the creek eight to 10 inches an hour. Always drag your boat well up from the water when spending the night on a sandbar, even when no rain is forecast.  This is a good habit to acquire.  It can be quite a shock in the morning to realize your canoe floated away during the night.  What would you do? 
       Click on the "Water Level" link in the Black Creek Canoe Rental website for real-time water levels and for water level readings for the past six months.
       There are a number of sandbars, of varying suitability for camping, between Brooklyn and Janice Landing but they get a little sparse as you approach Janice Landing.  In the six miles between Janice Landing and Cypress Creek Landing there are only a few sand and gravel bars and they are low to the water so should be considered only as a last resort.  There is one exception:  about an hour downstream from Janice Landing there is a sandbar steeply rising Gibraltar-like from a deep pool, river right.  The top is flat but it is small-- room for two tents at most. Off-loading gear and dragging boats six to ten feet up the steep bank to the top is a chore but the reward is a remote, private and secure home for the night.
       The large bar that was at the confluence of Black Creek and Beaverdam Creek is gone.
       Getting off the creek can be tedious and time consuming because of the crush of paddlers at the takeouts at Janice and Cypress Creek.  The concrete boat ramp is narrow and there are no beaches to park and unload.  So canoes have to be unloaded one or two at a time at the bottom of the ramp and a weekend's worth of gear marched up the ramp and deposited at the top of the ramp before the next canoe can offload.  Pack light.
         Moody's Landing and Janice Landing are primitive campgrounds (recreation areas) with drinking water, picnic tables, and at Janice, a flush toilet.  No fees are charged.   The only FS recreation area/campground charging a fee is Cypress Creek Landing. The fee is the same for day use or overnight camping: $7 per day.  It offers only primitive camping basics: water, picnic tables and a flush toilet (no RV hookups).  But it has a tepid to cold water shower stall.  The fee is collected at an honor box at the campground entrance.  Have correct change.  The hard to find campground can be busy on holiday weekends and generators are permitted.  There is no campground host.  The boat launch is outside the fee area so you can park there for free as long as you do not pass the gate into the fee area.  Parking can get crowded; park where you will not be blocked in by those parking after you.

Search "Black Creek" in this blog for more posts about paddling Black Creek.
Big groups need  big sandbars.  A group from 13 paddlers from the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club (BHPC) and the Lafayette Paddling Club relax around a campfire after pitching their tents on a sandy bar along Black Creek about two miles downstream from Moody's Landing in the De Soto National Forest, MS.  The BHPC makes a three-day, two-night paddling trip on the creek every year for Memorial Day.   
    
       
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Friday, May 9, 2014

A paddle on Shell Bank Bayou in the Manchac Swamp WMA, Louisiana


Shell Bank Bayou in the Maurepas WMA about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA.
 
       Dense, free-floating mats of water hyacinths and salvinia often clog Shell Bank Bayou, a shallow, narrow watercourse through the grown-over remains of what was a majestic baldcypress and tupelo gum swamp about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA.  Penetrating the noxious growth was next to impossible in a canoe or kayak.  But not this year.
       A harsh winter, at least harsh to us in the warm sunny South, and several nights of sustained below freezing temperatures killed the two invasive species in the bayou.  For now at least, Shell Bank Bayou is open it's entire length, from the put-in off old highway US 51, to Lake Maurepas; about 2.5 miles.
        The dieback allows greater access to the swamp, a swamp biologists say saltwater intrusion will turn into open marsh within a generation.  It is a change that is well underway and can be seen after just a 30-minute paddle west from the launch off old US 51 near Laplace, LA.
       Casual paddlers can easily reach the thin stand of large dead and dying baldcypress trees their branches trailing beards of Spanish moss, the tree's smooth trunks flaring into a crowd of spindly cypress knees poking up through the still, black water.  The tattered grey trunks are the remains of a dense forest that once flourished here, home to an astounding variety of wildlife until the valuable baldcypress were clearcut about a century ago.
      The jagged trunks provide a sparse tree canopy so there is little shade. A few cypress trees and other species have grown back since the logging but they are less than 120 years old, small by mature tree standards and very widely spaced.   
       Nighttime appears to be the most popular time to visit the swamp. With only the light of the moon to guide them, paddlers in tandem canoes led by a concessionaire based in New Orleans, scan the banks and floating logs with flashlights hoping to catch the red reflection of an alligator's unblinking eyes and hear a bull gators frightening bellow.  Kids are warned to keep an eye out for Loup-garou, the Cajun werewolf, said to be a resident of the dark swamp.
       Veterans of sweltering summer moonlight excursions say mating frogs croak so loudly that paddlers have to shout to be heard over the din. Packing bug repellent is a good idea when venturing into the swamp day or night any season of the year. Mosquitoes can be active at any temperature above 56 degrees F.

VAST BALDCYPRESS SWAMP CLEAR CUT

       Sadly, the smattering of weathered gray baldcypress trunks paddlers see today are all that are left of what once was a dense virgin wetland forest of towering cypress trees 120 feet tall supported by trunks nearly 10 feet in diameter.   Some of these ancient cypress in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin were larger and may have been among the oldest living plants in eastern North America.  Mature trees found now standing in the swamp are between 100-150 years old.
       Maurepas Swamp stretches for thousands of acres across nine Louisiana parishes from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain.  It was virtually an undisturbed wilderness until 1892 when logging of the valuable baldcypress began in earnest.
         It took only about 40 years for the vast stand of timber to be clear cut, leaving a watery wasteland of stumps, man-made canals and open marsh, most of it yet to recover, says Robert Hastings, retired professor of biological sciences from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA and former director of the university's Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station in the Manchac Wildlife Management Area on Pass Manchac, a few miles from Shell Bank Bayou.
       At the turn of the 20th century one of the largest sawmills in Louisiana was built in the swamp to cut the harvested logs into lumber.  Steam trains leaving the mill with their valuable log cargoes rode on rails supported by tupelo stumps and cypress logs cut from the swamp surrounding them .
      The town of Ruddock, built to service the mill, had a population of about 700 in 1907.   But the town was devastated by a series of fires and hurricanes.  After the hurricane in 1912  it was decided not to rebuild and the townsite was abandoned.  The cypress forest was well on its way to being eradicated by that time anyway, eliminating the reason the town was built in the first place.  Only a few wooden foundations, hidden by dense undergrowth, remain.   Now Ruddock exists only in memory and in the name of an I-55 off-ramp to nowhere.
       Not every cypress was logged.  Trees that were diseased, assessed not valuable enough to cut or too difficult to take were spared. These often hollow and blackened trunks are likely to be the only old growth trees from the virgin forest today's paddlers see. Of these surviving trees sprinkled across wetlands of the Pontchartrain Basin, some have been measured to be more than 2,000 years old, Hastings said.

RESTORATION IS A LONG WAY OFF  

       Adding insult to injury, loggers of the time never replanted the baldcypress they had harvested, thinking nature would take care of it, said Hastings who recently retired as director of the Alabama Natural Heritage Program.  Hastings was interviewed by telephone at his home in Alabama.
       While industrialized logging devastated the swamp, a variety of causes since then now make reforestation a long shot, said Hastings, author of;  "The Lakes of Pontchartrain: Their History and Environments," published by the University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
       "The major threats are subsidence, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion," Hastings said.

The award winning educator explained that global warming has raised the water level in Lake Pontchartrain slightly and made the lake slightly more salty.  At the same time the swamp is subsiding.  Storms--or even just strong, sustained east winds--blow the saltier water from the lake into the sinking swamp leaving it under water for longer periods of time.  The slightly salty water inundating cypress seedlings stunts their growth and kills them if submerged long enough. 
       For eons, storms have pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain--not really a lake but an estuary of the Gulf of Mexico--into the freshwater wetlands surrounding it.  But each spring the Mississippi River would overflow inundating the swamp with freshwater and cleansing it, flushing saltwater residue back into the lake.  A bonus of the annual flooding was that sediment and nutrients in river water would be deposited in the swamp, slowing the natural compacting and sinking of the swamp's porous muck.
       (Connected to Mississippi Sound in the east and taking the flow of freshwater rivers to the north and west, the saline gradient of Lake Pontchartrain varies from very low salinity levels to freshwater.  However water in a flooding storm surge can be considerably more salty than normal lake salinity levels.)
       Completion of the river's levee system in the 1930s, a project that was began nearly 200 years ago, stopped the flooding, stopped the freshwater from cleansing the salt residue from the swamp and stopped the accretion of nutrients and sediment rebuilding swampland, Hastings wrote.
       Making matters worse, a labyrinth of ditches and canals dug by loggers to remove cut cypress logs, serve as a conduit for saltwater into freshwater areas, killing cypress seedlings, increasing the erosion of the swamp's banks, Hastings said.
       The conversion of cypress swamp to open marsh is progressing at different rates around the Pontchartrain Basin.  Cypress appear to be coming back at Shell Bank Bayou, albeit slowly, Hastings said.
       The National Audubon Society, tracking environmental conditions in the Maurepas Swamp notes that no tupelo tree regeneration has been observed in the last 15 years and many of the tops of existing tupelo trees have been broken off, a sign of trees stress from saltwater intrusion.  The group predicts that about 50% of remaining marsh will convert to open marsh by the year 2050.

A MOVE TO PRESERVE THE AREA ON THE WAY

        The first step to save and restore the wetland forest is to restore the hydrology of the swamp, said Jillian Day, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries office in Hammond, LA.  There is a plan to divert Mississippi River water into western Lake Maurepas, via the Blind River to restore some of the natural flow of nutrients and sediment into the swamp, she said.
        Engineers close to the project, which has been a plan on paper for more than a decade, say there was no funding for it in the past but that now they are optimistic that is about the change.
        There is no time to waste, said Hastings. Rising sea levels and rapid erosion of the land in the swamp are compounding the salinity problem with salt water intrusion pushing into areas that were fresh 10-20 years ago.
       "We have to re-nourish the swamps around Maurepas or they will not survive another 10-20 years," Hastings warned.
    

A HAVEN FOR WATCHING BIRDS

       Despite the swamp's tragic back story, paddling the black-water bayou can be delightful, especially for those interested in the natural history of a swamp. Shallow and loaded with stumps just below the water's surface, the bayou is seldom visited by power boats. If only the noise of the traffic from the nearby elevated I-55 did not intrude.
        Maurepas Swamp has been tagged an "Important Bird Area" (IBA) by the National Audubon Society.   It takes just a few minutes of watching to see why. White ibis, great blue heron, great egret, little blue heron, tri colored heron and snowy egret, can be seen among the bulltongue and alligator weed at the bayou's edges.  The Audubon Society says the little yellow prothonotary warbler, an annual warm weather visitor from Central America,  have an "extremely dense" breeding population in the swamp (http://netapp.audubon.org/iba/Site/3006).   The year the IBA was designated, 2007, over a dozen active bald eagle nests were counted in the black water swamp surrounding Lake Maurepas.
      "Black water swamp" is a bit of a misnomer.  The water looks black only from a distance. The open tree canopy allows sunshine to pierce deep into the bayou revealing it to be actually tinted reddish brown, a byproduct of the decaying vegetation in it.  Looking over the gunwales of a canoe and down into the bayou the water is clear enough to see two feet to the bottom. Through this sepia lens you might see a turtle the size of a bicycle helmet swimming, a school of minnows or even an alligator gar scoot by. Bright dead leaves on the bayou's dark bottom shimmer a warm, pale crimson as if lit by the flickering coals of a dying fire.
       Closer to the water's surface long strands of pond weed sway in the slight current.  (Currents can come from either direction and are caused by wind or Lake Maurepas filling with runoff and draining through the bayou.)
      In the spring bright purple blooms topping the tall stalks of Louisiana iris punctuate the many shades of green along the banks. Other wildflowers also briefly bloom in the spring.

IF YOU GO 

        Shell Bank Bayou is at the eastern edge of the 120,470 acre Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The first parcel of land for the WMA was acquired in 2001.
Access to the state-owned WMA wetlands, one of the largest continuous tracts of wetland forest remaining in the lower Mississippi alluvial valley, is almost exclusively by boat.
       Launch into Shell Bank Bayou from old highway US 51.  There is no sign on the highway at the launching area, one of many breaks in the lush vegetation just beyond the highway shoulder.  The narrow oxbow lake on the east side of the highway and the tandem pipeline crossing it, serve as a landmarks.  A good hint you are at the right place are vehicles with canoe or kayak racks or a canoe trailer or two parked along the highway shoulder.
        At the put-in there are no facilities of any sort, just a wide gravel and dirt bank sloping to the water.   Before shoving off, show respect to the fishers that are always fishing from the bank and ask if where you are parking is OK. Trailered motorboats are also launched from here and drivers need room to back close to the water.
        Once in the water, head due west under the elevated I-55 to the broad mouth of the bayou. Paddle past a straight narrow canal on the left.  There are few opportunities to become lost.   The few options there are to leave the main bayou channel are obviously overgrown and impassable.
      No license or permit is required for recreational boating--paddling or otherwise--within the boundaries of Manchac Swamp WMA as long as you stay on the water.  Licenses are needed only if you hunt or fish in a WMA or step on to WMA land. The launch site at Shell Bank Bayou is outside WMA boundaries, so no license, stamp or permit is needed to paddle Shell Bank Bayou. 

HALF-MILE HIKING TRAIL REQUIRES LICENSE

       The only hiking trail into the Maurepas Swamp WMA is on old US 51 just south of the Shell Bank Bayou put-in.  To use this out and back half-mile long trail you will be on WMA property so you must have a hunting or fishing license.  Don't want to hunt of fish?  Get the Wild Louisiana Stamp.  Available at just about any big box store with a sporting goods department, the annual stamp is $9.50.  Licenses/stamps are good for one year and expire at the end of June.
         All visitors hiking in WMAs must have a WMA Self-Clearing Permit (SCP).  The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries uses SCPs to keep track of the number of people who visit WMAs and what they do there when they visit.  Kiosks with SCPs can be found at many WMA launches and trailheads or can downloaded from the LDWF website.  Again, SCPs are not required for recreational boating in Shell Bank Bayou because the launch off old US 51 is not on WMA property and you will not be stepping out onto WMA land.   But you will need a SCP and a valid license/stamp if hiking in the WMA.  Visit the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website for SCP details.
     If you want to bring a school group to explore the hiking trail, call the LDWF.  They are anxious to show off WMAs and will streamline the permitting process to accommodate educational groups.
       (The nearby Joyce WMA, a few miles north offers a hike on a 1,000 foot long boardwalk trail extending east from a shell parking lot on old US 51 through the swamp to a deck overlooking a marsh.  The boardwalk and parking area are closed now for reconstruction of the boardwalk which was damaged in Hurricane Isaac in 2012.  The construction will be finished in late August of 2014.)
     Also, even though you do not have to have a Self-Clearing Permit (SCP) to paddle in the swamp, stop by the kiosk at the hiking trail trail head and fill one out.  This lets WMA managers know you were in the refuge to paddle.   When decisions are made on how to allocate funding, WMA managers who see lots and lots of these permits from paddlers may be more inclined to invest in facilities for them.  Write on the SCP the refuge you visited and mark through BOATING and print canoe or kayak.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Massey's Professional Outfitters, 800.754.7467.  Canoe and kayak rental.  No delivery or pickup.
Canoe and Trail Adventures, call or text, 504.233.0686.  Guided canoe trips for groups into Manchac Swamp.  Monthly moonlight trips.
Louisiana Lost Lands Environmental Tours, kayak tours with tour guide. By appointment; www.lostlandstours.org.
LDWF, Hammond Office, (985)543-4777 or www.wlf.louisiana.gov/wma/2791.  For WMA rules and regulations click on hunting regulations.
Field checked April 20, 2014. 
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Friday, April 11, 2014

Take your bicycle on the Mississippi River ferry to Old Algiers Point and enjoy a little jazz with your weekend breakfast

Roy and Bill,  (Roy is on the right), set up for a photo shoot promoting their regular Saturday and Sunday morning performances at tout de suite, a coffee house and cafe in Old Algiers Point across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, LA.
As of July 21, 2014 passenger ferry service hours connecting New Orleans with Algiers point will be expanded for weekday trips.  The new hours will be from 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.  Saturday and Sunday hours will remain the same.  The trip is $2 each way.  The ferry takes passengers and bicyclists and small motor scooters but no cars. Visit NOLAFerries.com to review extensive rules governing motor scooters and to see exact departure times for the boats.

This post is an update of the 4-25-12 post titled "Bicycle to Breakfast in Algiers (New Orleans)    

       I am again comfortably numb.  Paralyzed by relaxation.  This happens every time I bicycle the few miles from the go-go 24/7 party city of New Orleans to the laid back neighborhood of Algiers Point.  Taking the passenger ferry across a churning brown Mississippi River, and plunking myself down at a two-top covered with a red and white checked tablecloth outside tout de suite, a coffee house and cafe at the quiet corner of Alix and Verret in the historic district just does this to me.  Eighty-six reality, at least for a little while, while I drift in a caffeinated haze.
       A bright sun rising in a cloudless pale blue sky warms my bones while I enjoy my mid week, mid-morning reverie.  Every fifteen minutes I hear from across the street, a loudspeaker hung on the outside of the the massive Tudor-Gothic brick bell tower of  Holy Name of Mary Catholic church broadcasting a reasonable rendition of London's Big Ben chiming.  Locals say it has been decades since actual bells in the belfry of the church, built in the 1920's, pealed the time.
     Few other distracting noises intrude.  This is not a busy corner, where Verret and Alix streets cross.  There is no need for a traffic light, just a stop sign.
     My wandering gaze lights on matching brown bicycles with fenders, fat tires and baskets locked to a bike rack shaped like a Celtic Cross a few feet away.  Cute.  I peer through the large place glass window into the cafe half-full with customers.  Wood all around, dark and exposed.  Kind of funky, really, but most of the art by local artists that had hung on these dark walls is gone.  A recently opened community art gallery nearby displays those pictures now.
       I write a blog about the outdoors.  Sitting here, having coffee at a table in front of a coffee house and cafe, in the sun, I am outdoors.  I am at work.
       I break my vacant, 2,000 yard stare to begin a conversation with a cheery middle aged woman wearing an apron busily loading stuff from the cafe into a station wagon at the curb.  She is Jill Marshall, owner of the tout de suite, a business she started ten years ago.  As soon as she accepts my invitation to chat, she sits down and begins to tell me about changes in her cafe's menu offerings to better reflect the cultural influences that have swirled through the cooking of Old Algiers for centuries.  Her face lights up as she highlights the changes.
       "Huevos rancheros, the best in the city, reflect the Spanish influence of the 18th century," she said.  Old favorites rooted in country French cooking that are popular have been retained.  The Atchafalaya, eggs topped with crawfish etouffee, and the definitely French pain perdu, an almond crusted brioche with seasonal fruits and berries, continue to satisfy.  The menu is diverse.  Soups, sandwiches, entree salads, desserts.  You want to come to tout de suite hungry.  Basic breakfast noshes are available and their coffee is certainly good but the reputation of tout de suite is built on their skilled and inventive kitchen.
        The thing about this place is that people go there to eat.  They order at the counter, sit down and are served and they stay to eat their food.  Not so much do people rush in to grab a cup of coffee and walk out the door sipping it as they talk on their iPhones on their way to somewhere else.  This IS the destination.
        Local products such as Steens cane syrup are featured.  Pies and cookies are house made and there is an organic cereal offering on the kid's menu.  Non-carnivores will find plenty on the menu to suit them from wild mushroom macaroni with four cheeses to quinoa patties.  (The complete menu is at www.toutdesuite.com.)
       Moving away from food I quizzed her about how the reduction in ferry hours has affected her business.  The ferry had always appealed to Algiers Point visitors, offering a quick and convenient connection with the French Quarter without having to drive over the Mississippi River bridge.
       But that was when the ferry ran from early in the morning to nearly midnight.  Now the schedule is a fraction of that.  During the week service ends about the time people get off from work and is of little use for anyone with an early morning schedule.  The weekend schedule has been similarly gutted.
       She said while there may be fewer tourists having breakfast in her place (Sunday, the first ferry does not leave the Canal Street ferry dock until 11 am), she now serves more locals on weekends who would have otherwise crossed the river to breakfast in the French Quarter.
       "It has been kind of a wash," she said.
       Live jazz music packs the place Saturday and Sunday mornings beginning at 9 am so I asked her if those staying in New Orleans miss out on the live music at tout de suite because of the late morning ferry schedule.
       "Oh no.  They play until noon," she said.  As if on cue, the duo of Roy and Bill, who play at those jazz sessions, began to set up a photo shoot behind us at the curb on the corner.
       All too soon my coffee cup is empty so it's time to leave.  I thanked Jill for the conversation and started to ride my bicycle back to the ferry, a grueling six tenths of a mile. 
      
Pelican Gulf gas station c. 1929.  Closed in 1990
and reopened as Gulf Pizza. (504) 373-5379.
 

      While Algiers Point was settled within months of when New Orleans was founded in 1718, the historic district of Algiers Point looks like a village from the late 19th century.  This is because most of the homes were built about that time after a disastrous fire destroyed most of the existing housing stock.
       The historic area is small, bounded by the curve in the river and Atlantic and Newton streets.  However most of the good stuff is clustered within a six or seven block radius of the ferry landing.  Just let yourself wander around and soak up the vibe.
        If you are on a bike, or like to walk a lot, take advantage of the paved path topping Mississippi River levee.  To the south, (upriver,) the path runs three miles to Gretna, the parish seat of Jefferson Parish.  The view from the path is mostly river related business and the New Orleans skyline.  A tidy neighborhood of modest shotgun houses comes into view as you near Gretna.  Two blocks from the river on Huey P. Long Ave. a red caboose serves as a railroad museum for this once very busy railroad town.  Eateries in Gretna, now home to many parish governmental offices, are mostly sandwich shops feeding lunch to office workers.  But look around, you might find something special.
       The first weekend in October, Gretna is home to one of the largest music festivals in the area, Gretna Fest.
        Heading east (downriver) from the ferry landing, the path runs for another mile and a half before it deadends at Merrill St.  Other than views of river traffic and industrialized St. Bernard Parish on the far bank there is not much to see.  But the path does pass in front of the Old Point Bar which offers an extensive music schedule packed with local bands.  (Riders can come off the levee and ride Patterson Road to the Chalmette Ferry and cross over to St. Bernard Parish.  But riders exit the ferry onto a narrow two-lane with heavy traffic surrounded by large chemical plants and shipping interests.  Not a recommended ride.)
         Both paths have historical plaques installed at ground level.  You may have to look for them but it is worth the effort as they give an idea of what was here before.  Across the street from the ferry landing is The Dry Dock Cafe, www.thedrydockcafe.com.  The cafe/bar, popular with locals and tourists alike, offers lunch and dinner seven days a week.  Around the corner on Pelican St., a weekly quiz night at The Crown and Anchor, www.crownandanchorpub.com, keeps patrons entertained.
        If walking or riding at night at Algiers Point, use common sense to keep safe, especially after dark.  Don't venture far from from the ferry landing and stick to areas that are well lighted.  Always be aware of your surroundings and maybe wait until you are back on the ferry before blocking your hearing with headphones.
        Boarding the ferry, I met the riders of the matching brown bikes with baskets I saw at the cafe.  A young couple visiting from Seattle, they said they rented the bikes and that they loved the food at the cafe.  The fare for the ferry trip, $2 each way was a bargain for them as they pay more than that for bus fare they said.
      As I walked my bike up the ramp at Canal Street I glanced down river to see workers setting up for French Quarter Fest.  With opening day tomorrow, workers were busy pitching the food tents and building the stages.  Only Mardi Gras attracts more visitors to New Orleans than French Quarter Fest, a music festival featuring only local performers.  The "free" festival (this year attendees will be searched at check points around the festival perimeter to make sure they do not smuggle in food or drink) now draws more people than Jazz Fest.
       I can only imagine what the crowds will be like when Dr. John takes the stage Friday night.  Probably a lot like Mardi Gras, only warmer.

For more information visit www.algierspoint.org.
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Day hiking Black Creek Wilderness and Red Hills in De Soto National Forest in Mississippi


Black Creek Trail between Melvin Breland Rd and Red Hills Cemetery
       When hikers hear of the 41-mile Black Creek Hiking Trail in Mississippi's De Soto National Forest, about a two-hour drive northeast of New Orleans, right away they want to hike the whole thing in one trip.  They think: Start at Big Creek Landing, hike southeast to Cypress Creek Landing, the trail's eastern terminus.  Takes four to five days.  Done.  Next!
        But not everybody has the kind of time or even interest to take the Magnolia State's longest hiking trail in one big bite.  Fortunately for the rest of us, Black Creek Hiking Trail can be broken into much shorter chunks suitable for weekend backpacking or even day hiking using car shuttles to connect various trailheads along the trail.
        Shuttles?  The only problem with hiking the Black Creek Trail is that it is linear.  No loops.  So any distance you hike one-way on the trail, from five miles to the whole 41 miles, will require either turning around and retracing your steps or at least two cars, one parked at the start and one at the finish, to complete the trip.
       After accepting this one negatory, you will find Black Creek Trail has some lovely short hikes that match any level of interest in exploring up close and personal the Piney Woods region of southeast Mississippi.  Each season has its pluses and minuses.  Summer is hot, humid and buggy.  In winter deer hunting takes place from late November to the end of January.  The website: mdwfp.com, has all the hunting seasons in the national forest.  Spring is very nice, the weather is good and the wildflowers are in bloom.  Fall is also nice, October and November are the driest months.  Always pack insect repellent especially in the late spring, summer and fall to repel deer flies, deer ticks and mosquitoes.
        Many experienced hikers say the 5058-acre Black Creek Wilderness and/or the adjoining rugged Red Hills offer the most scenic hikes in the entire 382,000 acre De Soto National Forest.   Black Creek Wilderness, about a two-hour drive northeast of New Orleans, is the closest federally designated wilderness area to the Crescent City.
       "Parts of the trail in the wilderness area are gorgeous, if you know where to look," said Robert Reams, a veteran hiker who has hiked portions of Black Creek Trail many times as part of his job as archaeologist with the De Soto National Forest's De Soto Ranger District based in Wiggins, MS.
      Black Creek Hiking Trail twists and turns 10.8 miles through the pristine wilderness.  Heading west to east hikers enter the wilderness area from the trailhead on highway MS 29 near Janice Landing and Black Creek.  The trail is well marked with white diamonds nailed to the trees.  But machinery and wheeled vehicles are prohibited in federal wilderness areas so all trail maintenance must be done manually with hand tools.  This leaves the trail a bit rugged as big chores, such as removing large trees that have fallen across the trail, apparently are a low priority. 
      "It took us almost three years to reopen this section of the Black Creek Trail after hurricane Katrina in 2005," said Reams.  Black Creek Hiking Trail, both inside and outside the wilderness area is maintained by a contractor.  Pruning and cutting is done every two to three years as needed.  If the trail looks especially trimmed this year it is because the trail was recently groomed, Reams said.
      
     
The walk around Beaver Creek, in the wilderness, is especially scenic though there is access to the creek only on its eastern bank.  Leaving the confluence of Beaver Creek and Black Creek, the trail courses through a hardwood flood plain of red maple, oak, pine and bald cypress.  The bridge at Mill Creek, a creek too wide to jump across, is out.  Hikers have to wade across the shallow creek or brave balancing on a log above it to cross.  After Mill Creek the trail then turns south and gently rises onto a piney flat at the eastern edge of the wilderness at Melvin Breland Rd. (FS 382B).  There is parking here for about three to five cars at an undeveloped dirt pull-out.
       (Searching the Internet will return several references to parking and access to the trail at St. Andrews Church on Florida Gas Road, often mistakenly identified as New York Rd. That may have been true 20 years ago but not now. Now the "church" grounds are festooned with menacing no trespassing signs and the satellite dishes on the building are a good indication that the building is now used as a home. Topo maps of the area show the building and grounds sit within national forest property lines but Reams said even a public employee in a marked vehicle would be taking a risk parking there for any reason.)
        Melvin Breland Rd. marks the eastern boundary of the wilderness. Continuing east after crossing the road the trail changes dramatically, widening to about 10 feet.  The forest highland becomes more open with fewer tall trees and more bushy understory.  The opening of the tree canopy is in part due to the severe toll the high winds of Hurricane Katrina took on trees in De Soto.  Also, now outside the wilderness area,  the trail can be maintained with power tools and motorized equipment carts. 
      Right after crossing Melvin Breland Rd. he trail drops gradually from the piney highlands down to the flood plain, 10-15 feet above Black Creek flowing at the edge of a steep cutbank  The only access to the creek here is a well-worn, short unsigned spur leading to a sad narrow sandbar which looks like it is eroding away.  But on a hot day any access to the cooling waters of the creek would be welcome.
      Right after the spur to the sandbar, the trail veers sharply to the west southwest leaving the shade of the hardwood flood plain and enters the more open Red Hills.  That is when things become challenging.  For the next two miles steep climbs--straight up, there are no switchbacks--of about 100 vertical feet will have some hikers on their toes and breathing heavily as they crest each hilltop.  Just as steep are the descents to the valley floor where wooden foot bridges cross small, clear creeks.  The clear rivulets, some named on the map, some not, tumble, bubble and burble over the sandy stream beds splotched tan, dark brown and olive.
     From Melvin Breland Rd. to where FS 318B-1 crosses the trail near Red Hill Cemetery only about 3.5 trail miles but the shuttle distance is much longer.  Where the trail crosses FS 318B-1 is space for a few vehicles to park.  Hikers parking here can make a nice out-and-back hike through the hills.  Head north. 
       From Red Hill Cemetery the trail tracks southeast and gradually looses elevation as the hills level out and the path returns to the flood plain.  Here the trail might be wet after a rainy spell.  The eastern terminus of Black Creek Hiking Trail is Fairley Bridge Landing, a primitive campground 2.6 miles from Red Hill Cemetery.  At Fairley Bridge there is a vault toilet and a few picnic tables but no potable water.
       Shuttles can be arranged with Black Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn, MS, (601) 582-8817, and Red Wolf Wilderness Adventures, (601) 598-2745, near the Janice trailhead.  Remember that cell phone service in this area is spotty.
       Despite the scenery and the unusually hilly terrain, the Wilderness Area and the Red Hills do not seem to be as popular with hikers as other sections of Black Creek Trail, Reams said.  WildSouth, an environmental advocacy group is helping to make the wilderness area more popular.  Beginning in 2012, both seasonal workers and volunteer wilderness rangers, trained by WildSouth have been walking the trail in the Black Creek Wilderness Area educating wilderness visitors, monitoring recreational resources and collecting visitor use data in addition to performing light trail maintenance and picking up litter, according to their website www.wildsouth.org.
       The volunteers have the blessing of the US Forest Service and carry US Forest Service radios.  The volunteers are trained in first aid and CPR, the website states.  They also offer assistance on the 21-mile stretch of Black Creek designated a Wild and Scenic River.
     Note:  The only drinking water available near the trail is at Janice Landing, across Black Creek from the Janice trailhead on highway MS 29.  No alcohol is permitted in any of the De Soto National Forest campgrounds.  No glass is permitted on the creeks.  The small free campground by the highway also has a flush toilet and small sink.  There is no drinking water at the Fairley Bridge Landing a primitive campground at the southeastern terminus of Black Creek Hiking Trail.  Water taken from streams along the trail must be treated, boiled or filtered before consuming

Maps

     The USGS topgraphical maps covering this part of the De Soto National Forest are Bond Pond and Barbara.  You can download 1:24000 scale maps for free from https://store.usgs.gov/.   You can order topos printed in full color from the site too. If you download and print, to maintain the 100 percent size of the map you will end up with nine sheets of 8.5" by 11" paper that will need to be carefully cut and taped together.  To make it easier to draw UTM grids download complete maps.  Once on the trail a black and white downloaded topo is much, much better than nothing.  If you are not in a hurry ordering the printed maps might be a good idea and save a little time.
      Maps are also available from the US Forest Service District Office in Wiggins, MS.  Call 601-528-6160 or write De Soto National Forest, P.O. Box 248, 654 West Frontage Road, Wiggins, MS  39577.  There are two: an 8.5 by 11 map of the entire Black Creek Hiking Trail with the distances between trailheads printed on the map and a larger scale map printed on one sheet of 11" by 17" paper, but no trail distances.   The larger map is better at showing the road system making it useful for finding your way for shuttles and to the campgrounds along Black Creek which are also access points for paddlers.  Both maps are free, at least they were free when I picked up mine  at the district office.  Also ask for the De Soto Ranger District Recreation Opportunities booklet which describes the features and facilities of each campground.  And for some scary reading ask for "Alligator Awareness in Mississippi." by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks.  The gator population has exploded in Mississippi and these fearsome reptiles have begun to appear in streams that before had none.
     I hear an updated 1:24000 scale map is now in the works.  It may not have as much detail as the much beloved Black Creek topo map dated 1988 and printed on waterproof paper but it will be a welcome addition to the smaller two ink jet generated maps now available.  The new map might be ready by the end of 2014.  Drop a comment to the folks in Wiggins that you want to make sure there are UTM tics in the margins.  Or better yet, maybe a complete UTM grid!