Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tammany Trace (LA) to remain open during 30-day facelift

       Work upgrading signage, crosswalks and painted legends along the 28-mile Tammany Trace recreation trail from downtown Covington, LA to the western city limits of Slidell will begin today (September 24, 2014) and run for about 30 days, www.tammanytrace.org reports.
       The Trace will remain open during the work but users are asked to go around the freshly painted areas which will be marked.
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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Big Branch Marsh USFWS cleanup nets about 1,000 lbs of trash

Angie Braaten (left) a volunteer at Big Branch Marsh NWR Beach Sweep, September 20, 2014, tells Emma Congalton (right), a volunteer intern with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) what types of trash she picked up.  Braaten, an English teacher at Salmen High School in Slidell brought several students with her to help with the trash pickup efforts.  Congalton, from Durham, NH, is an environmental education intern at the refuge.
       Saturday morning, nearly 40 volunteers of all ages gathered at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service boat launch on Lake Rd. south of Lacombe, LA to begin a three-pronged assault on trash and litter near the launch, the most visited site in the 15,000-acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
        A large portion of the refuge is wetland, accessible only by motorboat, canoe or kayak.  Crisscrossed with numerous unnamed bayous and dotted with ponds the marsh in Big Branch Marsh NWR is popular with fishers and hunters. 
       The marsh is on the Mississippi Flyway, an avian highway for migrating birds flying to and from North and South America.  Bird watchers visit the preserve to observe the variety neotropical birdlife migrating through the marsh spring and fall.  USFWS officials estimate 100,000 people annually use the popular Lake Rd. boat launch to put into Bayou Lacombe near Lake Pontchartrain. 
        Lucky with the weather--bright sun, low humidity and a slightly cool but still comfortable for short sleeves morning--the volunteers, and a sprinkling of full-time USFWS staffers, divided into three groups.  One group scoured the shoulders of Lake Rd.  A second group prowled the quiet sloughs in canoes.  A third smaller group of adults boarded an airboat for a swift trip to where the marsh meets Lake Pontchartrain near Point Platte.
       On the narrow beach the group of five spent about two hours combing the thin ribbon of sand, and the marsh immediately behind it, for bottles, cans and all forms of plastic trash marring the pristine scene.  "Beach" is a bit of an exaggeration.  Often only a yard or two of tan sand separated thick stands of stiff, green marsh grass, punctuated by an occasional bright purple morning glory and the lapping waters of the lake.  And even that meager apron disappeared when the marsh grasses grew to the water's edge blocking passage farther by foot.
       Sand beaches are rare on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.  When sand is not hauled in or washed in from somewhere else, beaches are usually formed by eons of wave action pulverizing rock into fine bits and depositing the tiny grains up on the shore as sand.  The bottom of Lake Pontchartrain is predominately silt overlain by a thick organic layer of mucks and peats. No rocks here.
       From the remote strand the view to the north, east and west is of thousands of acres of featureless prairie--green marsh grass mostly the horizontal sameness broken only occasionally by a rattlebox shrub, its long green seed pods dangling, twisting in the breeze.  In the distance there are pine trees, evidence of the slightly higher and drier ground that marks the edge of the marsh.  You have to look hard to see any evidence of man.
       The scene probably looks as it did in the spring of 1699 when a 26-year old Pierre le Moyne Sieur d' Iberville and a small party of French explorers traveling in dugout canoes camped at nearby Goose Point.  Establishing a base camp on Ship Island after arriving from France just a few weeks prior, the group was exploring the Pontchartrain Basin for the first time looking for a site to colonize, securing their claim to the land.  Iberville's younger brother would later found New Orleans on the Mississippi River in 1718 but that is a long story.
       Lake Pontchartrain fills the view to the south.   On mornings such as this when the first faint cool front of the fall moves through, bringing a bright sun to dry the air and paint the sky bright blue, tall buildings in downtown New Orleans 20 miles away can be seen from the lake's north shore.
       Regrouping at the USFWS boat launch for a light lunch provided by the Friends of Louisiana Wildlife Refuges, the group of high school students from Slidell, and adults--for which high school is a very distant memory--got an estimate of what was collected.
     "It looks like at least a thousand pounds," announced David Stoughton, surveying the pile of black garbage bags bloated with trash.  Stoughton is a Supervisory Park Ranger at Big Branch Marsh and the "volunteer wrangler" there.
       Volunteers also plucked a couple of abandoned wire crab traps from the preserve's muck, removing a danger to boaters who visit the refuge.  The refuge is open only during daylight hours and even if you could find a spot dry enough to camp in the marsh, which is not very likely, camping anywhere in Big Branch Marsh NWR is strictly prohibited.
       Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is one of eight refuges in southeast Louisiana headquartered on a 110-acre tract of of the refuge along scenic Bayou Lacombe, 61389 LA Highway 434 just north of highway U.S. 190, and just east of "downtown" Lacombe.  The facility is surrounded by a variety of formal garden areas, camellia gardens and ornamental species and was once operated as a commercial garden attraction. The grounds, maintained largely by volunteers, are open Monday-Friday 7:30 am - 4:00 pm.  Free admission.
       Southeast Louisiana Refuges headquarters is on the site of a former boarding school operated by the Redemptorist Fathers.  The building that once housed the chapel now serves as the visitor center for the headquarters.  Under its soaring wooden vaulted ceilings are excellent displays explaining the fragile ecology of the wetlands of south Louisiana.  There is also a small gift shop.  The visitor center is free and is open three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 9:00 am-4:00 pm.
        Established in 1994, Big Branch Marsh NWR is one of the nation's newest federal refuges.
       National Wildlife Refuge Week is a big deal at the Lacombe headquarters.  The grounds host one of the largest "Wild Things" celebrations in the nation, attracting thousands of visitors.  There are displays, tours, demonstrations and presentations from almost all of the local organizations and governmental agencies that have something to do with the environment and recreation in it in Southeast Louisiana.  Very family friendly there are canoe rides and plenty of opportunities to touch stuff and animals. The 2014 "Wild Things" is scheduled for October 18.
       For more information call 985-882-2000 or 985/882-0093.
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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 is next to impossible in a canoe or kayak most of the time.  But not this year.
       The winter of 2013-2014 was 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, barkless trunks flaring at waterlevel surrounded by a crowd of spindly cypress knees poking up through the still, black surface.  The tattered grey trunks are all that remain of a dense wetland forest that once flourished here, spread across all or part of nine Louisiana parishes and clearcut over a 40 year period beginning in 1892.
      Baldcypress grow for centuries before reaching maturity.  Seeing the few scattered cypress trees now growing, (considered small and immature even at 120-years old), it is difficult to imagine the dense virgin wetland forest of towering cypress 12 stories tall, supported by trunks nearly 10 feet in diameter that once stood here.
        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.  Of those harvested some trees may have been the oldest living plants in eastern North America.

VAST BALDCYPRESS SWAMP CLEAR CUT

        Maurepas Swamp was virtually an undisturbed wilderness when logging of the valuable baldcypress began in earnest 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.
        In his book, "The Lakes of Pontchartrain: Their History and Environments," published by the University Press of Mississippi, 2009, Hastings tells of the demise of the massive and beautiful swamp and why its restoration is a long shot.
       One of the largest sawmills in Louisiana at the time was built in the swamp to cut the harvested logs into lumber.  Steam trains took the valuable cut lumber--natural preservatives in the wood prevents rot--to markets north and south.  A good sized town, Ruddock, was raised from the swamp to service the mill.  In 1907 over 700 people lived there. Now nobody does.  The town is gone like the cypress trees that supported it.  A series of fires and hurricanes ravaged Ruddock in quick succession so after the hurricane in 1912  nobody wanted to live there.  The townsite was abandoned.  By that time the cypress forest was well on its way to being eradicated anyway eliminating the need for a sawmill and a town to support it.  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.
    

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 century ago, a variety of present day causes now make reforestation of the swamp unlikely, said Hastings. 
       "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.

NIGHT TIME IS A POPULAR TIME TO PADDLE THE SWAMP

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.

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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