Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Morning Call Coffee Stand, open 24 hours, comes to City Park

     In City Park in New Orleans, LA there are trails for running and walking, roads to bicycle and a nearby bayou to paddle a canoe or kayak.  Now there is a place to savor a sweet and delicious New Orleans tradition: beignets and cafe au lait.
     Morning Call Coffee Stand opened about a month ago in the Casino Building, a beautifully restored Italianate structure with a red tile roof near the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).  It's open 24 hours a day.  Relax and revive after an early morning jog with a steaming cup of chicory coffee served the New Orleans way with hot milk and a trio of fresh, hot beignets dusted white with powdered sugar.
     Because of the relative security of the location, it also offers a great place for that late, late night or very early morning coffee fix without having to put up with the hassle of the French Quarter.
     The Casino Building has been the home to several snack shops through the years, the last one offering ice cream and light lunches.  (There is no casino in the building.  It is just called that because there might have been a casino in it years ago.)
     Morning Call Coffee Stand has a storied history.  Begun in the late 19th century in the French Market, the business was moved to a suburban strip mall in Metairie 1974, where it thrives today.
     Inside the City Park location, only the second Morning Call to open, is a faithful reproduction of the Metarie store complete with the old-school center coffee counter and stools framed overhead by a massive dark wooden arch lined with bare, clear, low watt lightbulbs.  Tables inside and outside on the broad brick verandah overlooking a playground and Greek Revival bandstand, provide plenty of seating.
     Take a table and be served indoors or out or order to-go.  Only cash is accepted, no credit cards.   Free WiFi is available, or will be soon.  Cafe au lait and an order of three beignets is less than $5.  There is a limited lunch menu of red beans and rice, gumbo and alligator.  Ice cream, soft drinks, hot chocolate and beer.  A bicycle rack is outside.  The staff is refreshingly local, confident and experienced.  Singer/guitarist Walter Gonzalez ( performs Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon on the verandah.  I think he knows every song on the Beatles' Rubber Soul album.
     Three beignets and a tablespoon of confectionery sugar has about 450 calories and 10 grams of fat but you have earned a treat, haven't you?  Morning Call Coffee Stand (504) 885-4068.  GPS N 29 59' 07.3" W 90 05' 42.3"

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Louisiana Jambalaya Tours Remembered

     Back in the day, for many "serious" bicyclists in south Louisiana, the Thanksgiving holidays meant a trip to the hill country north of Baton Rouge for three days of biking, camping and the celebration of all things velo.
     Begun in the mid-1970's by the Baton Rouge Bicycle Club (BRBC), Jambalaya Tours, or Jam for short, attracted riders of all stripes from hard-core racers spinning the finest Italian steel frames to families of recreational riders towing trailers with toddlers.  Each of the three days, riders would stream from the campground and ride the undulating and ancient back roads of the parishes of East and West Feliciana, through a fall tableaux of upland evergreen pine forests, plantations, sharecropper's shacks and the occasional field of emerald green winter rye grass.
     Sag stops along the way dispensed sports drinks, Fig Newtons and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hungry riders.  Directions were spray painted on the asphalt and riders were given map packs with rides usually ranging from about 30 miles to 75 miles.  Some years there was a hundred mile route--a century-- on Friday.
     While aways in the Felicianas, the location of Jam headquarters moved around through the years as facilities and needs of the BRBC changed.  The Jam heyday might be considered to be those held in the 1980's when Woodland Campground would be the temporary home to 250-300 riders, friends and families.  Every year a few from outside the immediate area would visit, hearing about the rides through mentions in bicycling oriented publications.
     At night, after a communal meal of jambalaya and all the trimmings often served in an open air pavilion, participants would drift over to one of several campfires and spend the rest of the evening swapping stories and bicycle lore.
     Except on Saturday night.  That was Cajun dancing night with a live Cajun band.  A loud Cajun band.  Early in the evening there was plenty of room on the concrete slab as riders, some still in their jerseys and tights were reluctant to join the more experienced two-steppers.  But if that November night was cold and the wind was whistling through that open air pavilion, after a little "liquid encouragement" from M&J, a convenience store on the highway, one could witness some mighty fancy foot work by many who were experiencing that part of Cajun culture for the first time.
     Beginning with the 1990's attendance began to dwindle.  By 2000 the BRBC was just breaking even.  Jam 2004, with a paltry attendance of about five dozen riders proved to be the last.  In August of 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck while the BRBC was mulling the future of Jam.  The decision was made to pull the plug on the venerable gathering and the BRBC has not scheduled one since.
     (A couple of years after Katrina a series of rides over the Thanksgiving holiday were held, headquartered in Jackson, LA. but the event was low key and not widely publicized.)
     Why are there no more Jambalaya Tours?  Maybe there ceased to be a need for Jam.  Single men and women in their 20's and 30's in 1980 have better things to do when they are older and in their 50's and 60's.  It can be harder and harder to put in the training time to ride 40-75 miles a pop with so many other responsibilities, not to to mention abandoning families and non-riding friends for the three-day holiday.
     Events for touring bicyclists (non-racers) have changed.  Multi-day linear rides across a state or region that offer nightly camping or gymnasium floor accommodations are more popular now than then. The Bicycle Ride Across Tennessee (BRAT) is an example of this.
     And the riding culture as changed a bit.  Beginners who want to ride but are wary of a tightly packed pace line don't get much love from groups of veteran riders who see every outing as a race to the death.  Tourist are often left on the road alone now.
     Even at its peak Jam was an acquired taste for some.  The Woodland years are probably best remembered by some as the "Cold Shower Years" as the hot water tank for the campground's single shower could only heat water fast enough to provide each day's early finishers a hot shower.
     Not everybody took to camping or looked forward to two or three nights of sleeping on the ground.  Civilized but spartan indoor accommodations at the Feliciana Retreat Center (in Jam's later years its headquarters) were available but were off-site and removed from the action at the campground requiring a drive to connect.
     Will their be another Jam?  I dunno.  The rides are still there.  The roads and environment in East Feliciana Parish have changed little.  In West Feliciana Parish there has been a large amount of development but the area is still a popular venue for both weekend rides and centuries just as it has been for more than 40 years.
     So if you were one of the fortunate ones who attended one or more of these unique events, consider yourself lucky.  You have the many memories of the good times and adventures Jam would serve up every year.  From the hokey encouragement spray painted on the pavement to the looooong gravel entrance roads, Jambalaya Tours was a memorable experience for 36 Thanksgiving holidays.
     (This month, in response to a proposal by the West Feliciana Police Jury to require rides larger than three people to get parish permits, members of the BRBC and parish officials have agreed to work out a permit that would apply to larger groups of cyclists at special events such as centuries.  Word on the street is that the need to corral cyclists is a response to bad behavior by cyclists who park at volunteer fire stations without permission and use the property as a bathroom.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Northlake Nature Center expands activities schedule to include kayaking, biking and yoga

     The Northlake Nature Center, a 400-acre nature preserve east of Mandeville, LA, has expanded it's outings schedule to include kayaking on Bayou Castine, mountain biking on the center's trails, paddle boarding and yoga.
     The events are open to the public but first notice of the events is given to NNC members via newsletter.  The NNC Facebook page (click Like, then click Events) is another source of information.  Members attend the events for free, non-members are requested to donate $5.
     While events are often in the works for a while they can be scheduled quite suddenly, but so far the response to the expanded programming has been strong, said NNC executive director Rue McNeill.
     "The kayak trips were filled a month ago," McNeill said as she busily logged in participants and watched staff from Massey's Outfitters in Covington launch novice kayakers of all ages into the still, black waters of Bayou Castine for a two-mile out-and-back through the swamp. 
     The NNC website offers membership applications via PayPal.  The site also has a good map of the facility but the outings information is out of date.
      Off the water the preserve offers three trails totaling almost four miles.  The trails wind through four ecosystems: hardwood forest, pine-hardwood forest, pine savanna and pond-swamp.  The pond-swamp is a product of a large beaver lodge which may or may not still be active.  The NNC can become a resource for local environmental educators looking for a nature hike for "kids" of all ages.  Guided hikes lead by local naturalists, adult education seminars and hands-on nature walks for school groups, summer camps and clubs can be arranged.
     In the spring the NNC preserve is the headquarters for the Great Louisiana BirdFest.  The NNC is located next to the Pelican Park Sports Complex which is connected to the Tammany Trace rails-to-trails.
    The preserve, the trails, and canoe/kayak launch are open dawn to dusk every day.  Admission is free.  Access is north, off U.S. 190.  HEADING EAST ON U.S. 190 HAVE YOUR TURN SIGNAL ON AND BE READY TO STOP AND TURN ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AFTER CROSSING THE BRIDGE OVER BAYOU CASTINE!!!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Birdwatching at the NorthLake Nature Center

     You may never have been birdwatching in your life.  But if you ever do feel the urge to spend some time observing a few of Louisiana's more than 470 species of birds in their natural habitat you probably have one of bird watching's essential tools already--your smart phone.
    In the Northshore Bird Club's  "Birding for Beginners," a very nicely done and concise pamphlet for novices to the sport, iPhones are recommended equipment for birding.  (Binoculars and field guides are considered "Essential".)  Many applications (apps) valuable to the birder can be downloaded.  (And you thought the only birds on your phone were Angry Birds.)  Photographs and drawings of just about any bird there is can be downloaded and viewed while on the trail along with habitat info and even their calls, which can be played to attract species you might think are in the area.
     Tom Trenchard, the club librarian, is shown here using his phone to call birds during the recent "Fall Birdwalk Through the Woods," a joint venture of the Northlake Nature Center and the club.  The group of over 30 rank-and-file birders and four leaders identified 38 species, a bald eagle among them, Trenchard reported.
     The club website, is too out of date to offer upcoming birding events but you might find a contact in the site for more recent information about birding events.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Park rangers again leading canoe trips in Barataria Preserve south of New Orleans

     Park rangers are again leading canoe treks on the waterways in the 20,000 acre Barataria Preserve in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park south of New Orleans, LA.
     The trips were stopped over a year ago when the growth of water hyacinths, an invasive species, clogged the waterways rendering them impassable for paddlers.
     However, in late August, the winds of Hurricane Isaac cleared the pesky plant from the surface of some of the waterways in the preserve.  The Saturday canoe treks were resumed in October.
     The ranger-led trek is short.  It's about a three mile round trip and takes about two hours.  Start at the canoe launch at Twin Canals (off highway LA 45 south of Marrero) and turn left (southwest) at the Kenta Canal.  After a little over a mile Kenta Canal becomes too clogged with hyacinths to proceed.
     As you turn around be sure to look north up the canal.  If the weather is clear you will be able to see the One Shell Square high rise in the New Orleans CBD at the corner of St. Charles Ave. and Poydras St.
     The banks of Twin Canals are forested with hardwoods which arch over the canal in places.  The Kenta Canal, on the other hand, is wide open, its hardwoods dead or dying because salt water from the Gulf of Mexico regularly inundates them during storms as the protective marshes to the south slowly become open water.  Tall grasses and shrubs line the banks now and make excellent habitat for the alligators that often can be seen sunning any time of the year if the day is warm.
     Many of the waterways in the preserve are still clogged, most notable of these is the beautiful Bayou Coquille (KO-KEY-YA).
     The preserve also has a not-to-be-missed visitor center.  Hikers and walkers will enjoy a jaunt on the more than two miles of paved and boardwalk trails through the swamp and the dramatic view of the marsh at the end of the Marsh Overlook Trail. 

IF YOU GO: Reserve a spot on a canoe trek by calling the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve at (504) 689-3690 ext 10.  For more info visit  Pets are not allowed on the trails and leaving unattended animals in vehicles is prohibited.  No food or drink (other than water) are allowed on the trails.   The canoe trek is free if you bring your own boat.  Bayou Barn rents canoes for the trek-$20 per person, a two-person minimum per canoe.  Fee includes delivery and pickup to Twin Canal.  To reserve a boat visit or call
(504) 689-2663 or 1-800-862-2968.  Accept no substitutes.    

Friday, November 9, 2012

MS Gulf Coast Trails Touted

     There was a lot of the talk about trails at the 13th annual Coastal Development Strategies Conference, held at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Nov. 7-8.  Here is a little of what was said.
     Two blueways will open soon in the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS), the largest national seashore park in the U.S.  This Saturday (Nov. 10) the Davis Bayou Blueway at the national park's Mississippi Unit in Ocean Springs, MS will open.  Beginning at 10 a.m. rangers will lead a paddle, expected to last less than two hours, of one or more of the three short loops that begin and end at the boat launch in the park.  The event is free.  Bring your own kayak or get there early and score one of the few free kayaks that will be there.  For more information call: 228-230-4100. or visit
     The following Saturday (Nov. 17) a paddling trail running east about five miles from the canoe launch at the Perdido Key Area will open with a ribbon cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. and a brief paddle.  Bring your own boat; no public boats will be available.  For more info call 850-934-2600 or visit the website.
     (There is a longer discussion of these two trails in a previous posting)
     Sticking with the topic of blueways, Paul Nettles, an experienced kayaker now consulting with the Heritage Trails Partnership, a non-profit promoting trails of all kinds in Mississippi, said the only gap in a long distance kayak trail that runs from the Dismal Swamp in Virgina, around the Florida peninsula to along the Texas coast is along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.  He suggests modeling a saltwater kayak trail along the coasts of LA, MS and AL after the detailed site and down loadable maps at at the site of the Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail.  "We are on the edge of something big here," said the former owner of two kayak tour business in the Biloxi area.
     Back on land, GINS superintendent Dan Brown said the roads in the Davis Bayou Unit have become crowded with runners, cyclists and walkers competing for space with car and camper traffic.  The roads are two-lane and have no paved shoulders, or in some cases, no shoulders at all.  Brown said starting next year the park will begin to deal with the problem and work to get "the runners and bicyclists separated from the cars."   Plans will most likely include widening the road with shoulders, he said.
     Fans of the Long Leaf Trace, a 41-mile rails-to-trails conversion from Hattiesburg to Prentiss, MS will be glad to learn that the trail will be extended two miles into Hattiesburg.  James Moore, a founder of the trail said it will take about six to nine months to start construction but that the ten-foot wide trail which will reach the downtown, now home to an emerging restaurant and entertainmment district, should be finished soon after construction begins.
     The Wolf River, north of Long Beach, MS, has been popular with paddlers for decades.  But access to the most scenic part of the river, the 24 miles between Silver Run and Cable Bridge is limited because of almost no public right-of-way access at the bridges and private ownership of most of the rest of the land fronting the stream.  And there is a security issue for parked cars too.  But a member of the Wolf River Conservation Society, said the group is working on developing a public access to the river.  There are no details now but look for something to happen before paddling season next year.
     And a shout-out to Jim Foster with whom I shared a delightful lunch between sessions at the conference.  Jim is president of the Heritage Trails Partnership, and dedicated to their main goal of establishing a border to border trail along the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama, about 110 miles.  Some of the talk was just a couple of old geezers gassing about bicycling, a passion we share.  But after our talk it was easy to see Jim's focus is on establishing the Mississippi Coastal Heritage Trail, largely a trail that will appeal to cyclists but with opportunities for walking, paddling and equestrian activities.  Plans for the trail and its progress will be covered in depth here in later postings.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Two paddling trails in MS and FL to launch

     Two paddling trails suitable for kayaking and canoeing will open this month (November 2012).  Both are in the Gulf Islands National Seashore; one is in the park's Mississippi unit near Ocean Springs, MS and the other is along the park's Perdido Key unit and Big Lagoon west of Pensacola.
     In Mississippi the opening of the Davis Bayou Blueway is November 10 (Saturday) at 10 a.m. at the Davis Bayou boat launch.  Paddlers are encouraged to bring their canoes or kayaks to participate in a group paddle through the marsh and piney upland that surround the launch.  The regular launch fee to use the ramp will be waived for those launching canoes and kayaks that morning  A few kayaks, supplied by a friend of the park, will be available free to those without a boat on a first-come-first serve basis.  The blueway is several short out and back loops from the launch. (As of March16, 2013, the three routes have not yet been signed.  A map is still in the works.)
     A 5.5 mile blueway trail for canoes and kayaks at Perdido Key (FL) will be dedicated Nov. 17, 2012, beginning at 10 a.m.  After a ribbon is cut there will be a two-hour ranger led paddle.  Paddlers will launch from the canoe launch north of Johnson Beach.  This is a BYOK (Bring Your Own Kayak) event; there will be no public kayaks or canoes available.  There is normally an $8 fee to enter the park.
     The blueway stretches 5.5 miles from the canoe launch east along sand dunes of Perdido Key to Ft. McRee overlooking Pensacola Inlet.  Distances on this blueway from the canoe launch are marked with two mile posts; one at three miles and one at five miles, said Mike Aymond, one of several park rangers with the Gulf Islands National Seashore who also kayak in the waters they protect.
      Both the Mississippi and Florida blueways are official recognition of paddling venues locals have been using for years.  The blueway in Mississippi, protected, shallow, narrow waterways snaking through the brackish marshes east of Ocean Springs, have long attracted birders expanding their "life lists" with sightings of graceful shorebirds strutting the mudflats and migrating ducks and geese squawking overhead.  A grinning but ominous alligator can often be spotted sunning on a half-sunken log.
     Looking at the birds, fishes and other creatures in the wild is a fun way to utilize the Florida blueway along Perdido Key and a fine way to pass the time.  But it is the opportunity to kayak/camp, to wake up to the rhythmic lapping of the waves on your own little stretch of white sand beach, a golden sunrise warming you as your sip your coffee watching a pod of dolphins just off shore that makes the Perdido Key blueway important to some paddlers.
     With the freedom to sleep and play on this largely remote and fragile federal preserve comes the responsibility to protect it.  There are several rules about camping on Perdido Key that apply to kayakers and everyone else who wants to camp at Perdido Key.  Camp only to the east of a north/south line that begins one half miles east of the end of the pavement.  But you say 'I am in a kayak.  How in the heck am I going to know where that is?'  Well, it is about three miles east of the canoe launch.  If you look sharp you will see a skinny, vertical brown marker about five inches wide and four feet tall on the Big Lagoon side of Perdido Key.  Camp to the east of that marker.  You are welcome to camp on the Big Lagoon side of Perdido Key as well as the gulf side, as long as you are past that sign.  But do not camp on the vegetation and do not camp on the dunes.  These are serious violations with penalties to match.
     You must pack in everything you will need, including water, for the time you are in the camping area.  And you must pack everything out.  Yes, EVERYTHING.  Ask the rangers if you do not understand what everything is.
     Before you camp you will need to get a permit, available at the entrance station.  The camping permit is free but driving into the park will cost $8 (Nov. 2012).  Save the receipt.  It is good for entry for eight days.  You will hear the rangers say "Six o'clock" a lot.  That is the time the gates close to the park.  If you are in after that time you can get out but if you are out you cannot get in after 6 o'clock.
     Camping is also available at the campground at Fort Pickens across the inlet to the east on Santa Rosa Island.  This large campground offers sites with water and electricity and there are bath houses with hot showers.  These sites are $20 per night and most likely need to be reserved in advance.
     North of Perdido Key and across Big Lagoon is Big Lagoon State Park.  Full service camping is available here at a large campground for a fee and reservations are required in most cases.  Fees are charged for using the boat launch and for overnight parking but a kayak launch is free (after paying to enter the park.) 
     The state park is the western terminus of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, a 1,600 mile water trail from the FL/GA border to Big Lagoon ( .)  At the state park a free primitive camping site, near the water and the kayak launch, is available to kayakers but only for one night and only if reserved in advance.
     Big Lagoon is not considered "open water paddling."  But a strong wind can whip up a pretty good chop.  Kayakers with sit-in kayaks should aways have a spray skirt handy not only if the wind is strong but to keep water out from the wake from boats, speedboats and barges on the busy Intracoastal Canal running through the lagoon.
     In warmer weather, the beaches around Ft. McRee become party boat central.  This might be an area you want to avoid if you want solitude.  But the reality is that solitude can be a hard vibe to summon at any time when camping on Perdido Key.  The north shore of Big Lagoon, about a mile from the gulf,  has more than a few few high rise condos that are always in your vision unless you are facing the gulf.  Camping on the gulf side of Perdido Key is still close enough to the north shore to hear traffic noise and motorcycles shifting through the gears.  And the Intracoastal Waterway is a busy place.  Treasure the minutes you are not hearing the throb of diesel powered barges or a plethora of noisy cabin cruisers and speed boats.  Pensacola Naval Air Station is across Big Lagoon from Perdido Key.  Consider yourself lucky if there is not much jet pilot training the days and nights you are on the beach.
     Be sure to anchor your tent against strong breezes so it will not blow into the gulf when you are away exploring the island.  And ask about the biting black flies.  The park rangers say they have yet to find a repellent that works against them.  DEET apparently has no effect, said one ranger.
     For more information about either event call (850) 934-2600.