Saturday, March 30, 2013

Blowin in the Wind: Mellow Yellow and I kayak to Deer Island (MS)

Kristi Ducote, of the Mississippi Kayak Meet-Up group surveys Deer Island from the beach at Grand Bayou March 24, 2013.  Kristi is the outdoor recreation specialist for Pascagoula, MS. 


  Flags flapped and there was a light chop on Biloxi Bay one Sunday in late March when the dozen or so kayakers from the Mississippi Kayak Meet Up group pushed off in a bright sun from the Kuhn St. boat launch headed to Grand Bayou on Deer Island, about three miles downwind.
     By the 10:30 launch, many of the paddlers were in short sleeves, typical attire for a spring day along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The stiff breeze that morning was no surprise.  Small craft warnings--wind and sea conditions that pose a risk to watercraft shorter than 65 feet--had been in the weather forecast for days.
     Winds are a concern for kayakers on every trip because winds make waves.  How hard the wind blows and how far the wind-driven wave has traveled-- this distance is called "fetch"-- determines a wave's size.
     Our trip was on "protected water," the shallow bay between the Biloxi mainland and Deer Island, a five-mile long sliver of sand, pine trees and marsh angled across the bay about a mile south of the mainland.  Even strong winds don't generate big waves here because there is too little fetch in any direction for a wave to build.
     The same wind that was buffeting us and whipping up a chop of a foot to a foot and a half for us in the bay was creating seas in Mississippi Sound of over four feet high and even higher wave heights in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
    (NOTE: Winds of 17-18 mph with gusts up to 32 mph were reported at the nearby Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport that afternoon.)
     That does not mean the wind was not a problem.  True, conditions never became perilous.  It was not cold nor were there dangerous currents.  The experience level of group members varied but this was not the first kayak trip for anyone in the group.  But the northwest wind blowing on us was strong and steady, funneled through a "slot" right between the mainland and the island, providing a physically challenging couple of hours for everyone.  It was hard to paddle into it.
     The trip out to Grand Bayou was easy.  Heading east along the north shore a tailwind made paddling barely necessary.  At the bayou's beach, the group had lunch in the warm sun then separated into groups, the elite among us, in swoopy and sleek and shiny ocean-going craft and probably armed with rescue flares and locator beacons, headed east for more adventure.  Others explored the bayou where it is reported that alligators live.
     My beamy, ten-foot rec yak (Mellow Yellow) is the slowest in this fleet of stiletto hulls so my plan was to leave before the others, getting a head start to avoid holding up the group on the trip home.   The course home was paddle west, hugging the north shore of the island until directly across from the Kuhn St. boat launch, then dash across the Intracoastal Waterway to the beach next to the launch.  This meant most of the time headway would have to be gained paddling directly into the teeth of the mounting wind.   But a good thing about this course was following it put the hull at right angles to the waves--the most stable of the four compass points for small, tippy paddle craft.  And maybe the most exciting.
     By the time I began my return trip the early afternoon wind was blowing steadily with enough force to create little ripples on top of the waves, like the ripples you get when blowing hard on the surface of a hot bowl of soup to cool it.
     The waves were high enough to occasionally break over the bow splashing spray as the brave little "pool toy" rose and fell with a whoomp! at the passing of each short, steep wave. I was using a kayak skirt to keep water out of the cockpit for the first time but had not pulled it high enough up my chest to keep it taut.  This beginner's mistake meant water splashed onto the skirt and pooled over my waist.  But it was too rough to fix it while underway.  So about every 10 minutes I stopped paddling, put my paddle down and quickly brushed the water back into the bay.
     (Others without skirts reported getting water splashed to their boats but not that much.)
     The force of the wind slowed my paddling stroke to a comical mime-like slow motion.  Forward progress was frustratingly laggard, about the speed of a mummy's shuffle, judging by how slowly the jagged dead pine trees on the shore passed.  But when I stopped paddling it was worse: I was immediately blown backward.
     Finally, after about an hour, I reached the red, white and blue hull of the  "Rachel-Ann" a large sloop tossed far up on the sandy western end of Deer Island by a recent storm.  Just past her I made the turn north for the mainland.  Because of the westerly wind direction, the steep chop was a vexation until the final few feet from shore.  But by then I knew I was safe and began thinking about how appropriate it would be, having bested the elements on such a windy day, to have a celebratory dinner and free senior drink at a place called...wait for it...Wendy's.

NOTE:  A small craft advisory is issued by NOAA when winds have reached or are expected to reach within 12 hours a speed marginally less than gale force.  Wind speeds that trigger small craft advisories have been standardized to between 25-35 mph (22-33 knots) or about six or seven on the Beaufort Scale.
     The Beaufort Scale relates wind speed to observed conditions on sea or land.  Conditions for a rating of six includes waves of 9-13 feet, (at sea) with some airborne spray.  Wind speed is between 25-30 mph.  Wires whistle in the wind.  On land, empty plastic bins tip over and umbrella use becomes difficult.  At a rating of seven, wind speeds of between 31-38 mph, waves are 13-19 feet at sea.  Sea spray is constant and heavy.  On land effort is needed to walk against the wind and whole trees are in motion.  Pressure of the wind: 4.1-5.8 pounds/square foot. (How big are the blades on your paddle?)
     An informal, lesser advisory, small craft exercise caution, is issued by NOAA for wind speeds between 17-23 mph, depending on local conditions.--from Wikipedia, small craft advisory, Beaufort Scale.

NOTE:  Is kayaking THE HOT THING for 2013?  Kristi Ducote, the outdoor recreation specialist for the parks and recreation department in Pascagoula, MS, said some kayak outings organized in Pascagoula attract over 50 paddlers.  Fifty kayakers?  In Pascagoula?


Friday, March 29, 2013

"This is not a biking community," say critics as sparks fly at Jeff Parish bicycle plan meeting

Attendees at the last public meeting held to discuss a proposed network of bicycle paths and routes covering Jefferson Parish listen to Matt Rufo describe the plan at the main branch of the East Bank Regional Library, 3-28-2013.

  A rough draft of a plan to develop a network of bicycle paths, trails and bike lanes sharing streets with motorized traffic in Jefferson Parish, drew fire last night (3-28-13) from a small group of citizens claiming that public budgets were too tight to spend money on bicycling and that there was scant public notice that the plan was being developed.
     The meeting's presenter, Matt Rufo, senior planner with GRC Inc., was briefly hammered with questions about funding for the project, if the bike lanes required the taking of private property, why the meetings were not publicized and other concerns.  GRC Inc., is one of five firms hired by the Regional Planning Commission, (RPC) to develop the plan.  The Jefferson Parish Council is paying 20% of the project's cost.
     Rufo, along with several members of the audience who supported the plan, tried to explain that two meetings publicized in the Times-Picayune newspaper had been held in January and that the parish should encourage the use of bicycles for transportation, but the critics were not swayed, saying "this is not a biking community," and referring to the rough draft as, "a vision of government and not of the people."
     Rufo said opposition to the plan should be taken up with parish council members.  While the planning firms were hired by the RPC who funded 80% of the project, the decision to implement any or all of the proposed plan will be made by the parish council.
     Shortly after calls from the audience to return to discussion of the plan itself, the four citizens left the meeting, the most vocal of the four refusing to give her name to a reporter.
     The meeting, held at the East Bank Regional Library, was the last of four public meetings held this month to gather comments on the proposed parish-wide bike route network.  The five firms working on the project will finish it and take it to the Jefferson Parish Council for approval this summer.
     The plan, if approved, will provide a template for individual projects to eventually link up and form a connected bicycle transportation system in the sprawling parish.  No money is allocated in the proposed plan.  Decisions on funding any of the suggested routes, paths or facilities, must be approved at a later date, but funding is more likely from state or federal sources if projects can be shown to be part of a larger cohesive plan, planners say. 
     Rufo said that maps showing the proposed system will be posted on the project's web site,

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Read "Deep Trouble" to see what a really bad day sea kayaking is like

      With the proper training, attitude and equipment, sea kayaking can be quite safe.  But give short-shrift to any of these and you could be in trouble, deep trouble.  This collection of stories culled from "Sea Kayaker" magazine details 22 harrowing kayaking trips based on first-hand accounts of survivors, witnesses and rescuers.
     Each story in "Deep Trouble" begins with a straight narrative of the event, followed by a "Lessons Learned" passage explaining how it might have been prevented.   Seeded through out the 186 page paperback are three dozen sidebars covering a wide variety of troublesome situations faced by yakers, such as leaky hatches and flotation, pumping out a kayak, self rescue and what happens behind the scenes when the Coast Guard receives a call for help.
     Easy to read and written at a level beginning kayakers can comprehend,  "Deep Trouble" should be on the bookshelf of any yaker planning to paddle in water over their head.

     Sea Kayaker Deep Trouble, True stories and their lessons from Sea Kayaker Magazine, by Matt Broze andGeorge Gronseth, Ragged Mountain Press, 1997.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sequestration affects Gulf Island National Seashore

Budget cuts at Gulf Islands will mean shorter hours for lifeguards, fewer ranger-led programs, partial closing of visitor centers and reduced grounds and facilities maintenance.

     The five percent cut in the Gulf Islands National Seashore FY 2013 budget imposed by the sequestration, "will be felt by our visitors and surrounding communities," said Dan Brown, superintendent of the park which includes units in Florida, Mississippi and several barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico.
     Brown said in a press release dated March 15 that while the park will not have to furlough any of the permanent staff to make up for the $359,000 gap in funding, ten fewer seasonal employees will be hired and several vacant permanent position will remain unfilled.
     The staffing cuts will mean, beginning April 7,  visitor centers will close two days a week, some restroom facilities will close and there will be shorter hours for lifeguards, fewer ranger-led programs and less grounds and facilities maintenance, Brown said.
     Also the visitor center at Ft. Massachusetts on West Ship Island will be closed.
     Three restrooms at Ft. Pickens and two at Santa Rosa/ Opal Beach will close.
     Visitors will be asked to take their garbage with them when they leave after visiting the park as trash cans will be eliminated at most locations.  When roads are closed because of storm-driven sand, it may take longer to open them as the park will no longer contract sand removal with outside firms.
     "Gulf Islands is still one of our country's crown jewels and we encourage people to come and enjoy their national park.  Our staff always strives to provide the best possible service and we ask for visitors' understanding as they encounter changes to some park operations," Brown said.
     With over 5 million annual visitors, Gulf Islands is one of the top 10 most frequented national parks in the country, exceeding Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

     The regular hours of the visitor center at Davis Bayou, near Ocean Springs, not change (8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) but the center will close Wednesdays and Thursdays.  For more information contact Gulf Islands at 850-934-2600 (FL) and 228-875-9057 (MS). 

     I spoke with Steve McCoy at Gulf Islands about the removal of the trash cans.  Reducing the number of trash cans has been an ongoing process in the park and he explained that there are very few trash cans left to remove.  Instead of using lots of smaller trash cans, park visitors have been encouraged over the years to use larger and centrally located Dumpsters.  These do not have to be emptied as often and the job is contracted out.  Also, a pack it in/pack it out trash policy has been in effect for several years and that has worked reasonably well, he said.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Tuxachanie Trail De Soto NF Mississippi

Tuxachanie National Recreation Trail, a 11.9 mile hiking trail in the Desoto National Forest in southeast Mississippi

         The Tuxachanie National Recreation Trail, a 12-mile hiking trail in the De Soto National Forest north of Gulfport, MS, does not make a good first impression.  At least it doesn't when a hike starts at the western trail head off U.S 49.
        The thunder of car and tractor-trailer traffic from the highway washing over the trail is more than annoying and trumps any "wilderness experience" gained from exploring the small pond of water lilies just yards from trail head or viewing the brightly colored spring wildflowers there.  The sparse and straggly pine forest, not yet recovered from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina nearly ten years ago does nothing to enhance the broad, flat, straight-as-an-arrow trail--a former railroad grade.
         (The pond is well-known for its population of insect eating pitcher plants.)
          But soon, very soon, the vista from the trail begins to improve.   White diamond blazes suddenly veer to the south taking the trail over a low rutted ridge and east to a stretch of beech and magnolia hardwood forest flanking a small creek.  Coming just after the one-mile marker,this pretty grove offers deep shade, a good thing when the sun is out and the air is hot.
     The five miles or so of the trail from the western trailhead at US 49 to Airey Lake, is the most popular section of the trail.   Mile posts ever mile mark the distance.   From Airey Lake the path bends to the southeast for another 6.6 miles and deadends at the trail's eastern terminus at the POW Camp.  The total distance for the trail, one-way is 12 miles.

Trail was first blazed about 40 years ago

      The trail is out and back: there are no loops.  When the trail was first blazed in the early 1970's old-timers will remember it was 17-miles long and contained a loop at its eastern end.  But about five miles of the trail east of Tuxachainie Creek has been cut because of drainage problems.  This eliminated a loop leaves the total mileage at about 12 miles.
       Trailriders on horseback are often seen on Tuxachanie Trail east of Airey Lake.  Bicycling is not permitted on Tuxachanie Trail but you will probably see some anyway.
     In this bottomland hardwood forest about a mile from the trailhead on US 49 the traffic noise diminishes, overtaken by the sound of the wind rustling through the broad deep green leaves of the magnolias.  Near mile post two, a substantial iron bridge crosses over a larger creek.  The creek banks here offer plenty of space for a picnic or to sit with your "dawgs" dangling in the cool creek water.
     From here it is about three miles to the Airey Lake Recreation Area, (UTM R16 0302609E, 3396941N).  The trail is mostly straight or curves gently.  Long, shallow grades, up and down, deal with what little elevation change there is--about 30 to 40 feet separate the lowest creek bottom from the highest ridge.  This is not surprising.  From U.S. 49 to Airey Lake the trail follows an abandoned logging railroad built early 1900's using hand tools and mule-powered scoops.  Here the broad smooth path passes through an upland pine forest, recently scorched by a prescribed burn.  Between the ridges are pine savannas and wetlands where the lucky might find a wild orchard.  Spiky green palmettos dot the scorched black and brown forest floor.
        Only a few minutes drive from Gulf Coast population centers, Biloxi and Gulfport, the trail can get busy at times.  Most days you will see as many pairs of brightly colored, high-tech jogging shoes as old school hiking boots pounding the trail's hard packed natural clay surface.  Largely root and stob-free, the trail  is favored by the physically fit who, in groups or solo, use the trail for trail running or power hiking.  The trail is not wheelchair accessible.

Airey Lake has a small primitive campground, drinking water

     At Airey Lake there is a small, free, primitive campground.  It has water, pit toilets, picnic tables and there is a fishing lake.  Located on all-weather Airey Tower Rd,  hikers often camp there using it as a base for day hikes on the trail.  Camping is permitted most anywhere in the forest, and this section of De Soto is crisscrossed by dirt jeep trails and gravel roads maintained by the Forest Service. But you must camp away from the roads and the trails.  And you are not likely to find a site near water.  Be careful with fire, build only small fires, and pack all garbage out.  No alcohol is allowed in any De Soto NF campground.
     Shuttling vehicles back and forth between U.S. 49 and Airey Lake to eliminate having to hike back to the trailhead is a hassle. The shuttle is a long, roundabout drive and requires a map.  Even with a map it is easy to get lost.
     East of Airey Lake the trail bends south another 6.5 miles to end at the POW Camp near FS 402. Citing seepage problems with half of what used to be a loop trail back to Airey Lake, the Forest Service has now shortened the trail, eliminating half of the loop.
     The old P.O.W. camp, now the trail's eastern terminus, was used to house German prisoners of war during WWII.  You could camp here but there are no facilities and the area has a history of vandalism.  Also east of Airey Lake, are a number of horse trails and forest roads making staying on the trail difficult.
      The De Soto National Forest headquarters in Wiggins, MS, sells a brochure ($4) about the trail that includes info on the trail and a map of the trail in 1:24,000 scale (the scale of a USGS quad map).  However since the piece was printed in 1983, the trail has had minor revisions not reflected in the map.  A more recent map can be found at  This site also has lots of information about wildflowers found along the trail.
    The only drinking water on the trail is at the Airey Lake Recreation Area, so leave the trailhead with enough water and snacks for the entire time you plan to be hiking, especially in summer.  How much is enough?  At least two quarts.  Bug repellent, with DEET, is also recommended for hikers year-around.  There is a nearby mountain bike trail at Bethel.  A map of the Bethel bike trail can be found at the national forests of Mississippi web site. 
      When driving to the U.S. 49 trail head north from Gulfport, MS, watch carefully for the small (10 cars) parking lot.  It is just over a small hill and if you are not in the right lane and looking for it you will miss it.  The parking lot is about 17 miles north of the 110/U.S. 49 interchange in Gulfport, MS.
     For more information call the U.S. Forest Service in Wiggins, MS at 601-528-616.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Busy New Orleans street popular with cyclists to be striped with bike lanes

This map shows the 1.5 mile section of Esplanade Ave. where one traffic lane will be striped a bike lane.
      A 1.5 mile stretch of Esplanade Ave, between Moss St. and N. Claiborne Ave., is trading two traffic lanes-one in each direction--for bike lanes..  The lane-restriping is the finishing touch on a street resurfacing project that will also see a section of City Park Ave., from Canal Blvd. to Orleans Ave., resurfaced, said the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development in a press release dated March 6, 2013.
     The project is scheduled to be completed in the summer of this year (2013).  No bicycle friendly improvements are in this project for this stretch of City Park Ave.
     The work is part of the Paths to Progress, a collaborative effort among the Federal Highway Administration, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, New Orleans Regional Planning Commission and City of New Orleans.  Contact them by phone, 1-800-574-7193, at or or
     Esplanade Ave. has long been used by bicyclists to connect Mid-City, City Park and Lakeview with the French Quarter and downtown.  Lined with leafy live oak trees and stately 19th century homes, the street sees a daily stream of riders--everything from hipsters riding with no hands on "fixies" to eco-tourists on single speed cruisers-- mixing it up with tour buses, school buses, delivery trucks and commuter traffic.
     But the two and a half miles from Bayou St. John at City Park to the French Quarter has often been a white-knuckle experience on a bicycle.  Striped for two narrow lanes of traffic in each direction and parallel parking, the 1.5 miles now being resurfaced had no room for a cyclist.  To avoid a sideswipe from a passing driver trying to squeeze by or being "doored" by a driver exiting a parked car cyclists often had to share a traffic lane with drivers who may or may not have been willing to share.  And the deteriorating road surface made it worse.  Luckily it was a quick trip for a speedy, fearless rider.
     The other option for the trip downtown, Canal St., is even riskier.  Wider by a lane but carrying heavier traffic, Canal St. is the main route for trucks and motorists into the CBD.  Once in downtown cyclists face a variety of risky car and streetcar intersections not to mention the hazard of the streetcar tracks themselves.  Definitely a ride limited to the experienced cyclist and the traffic-hardened bike-commuter.
     A third option, the paving of the path on the 3.1 mile Lafitte Greenway, is not slated to be ready to ride until 2014.
     The work resurfacing and re-striping Esplanade Ave. now underway, has made conditions for cyclists on the street more dangerous for the time being.  The street, reduced to one lane in each direction has meant increased competition between drivers and cyclists for the limited asphalt.  A detour on Desoto St., from Moss St. (along Bayou St. John) almost to Broad Ave. will offer some respite from the traffic on Esplanade Ave.  
     When the resurfacing work is complete this summer, conditions for cyclists on Esplanade Ave. should improve.  But cyclists will still have to  be careful, paying full attention to passing traffic and parked cars, just as they should do now.  Riders will have to be alert for car doors flung open from parked cars by drivers unaware of the new bike lane. Cyclists themselves may also become a hazard as novice riders are more likely to stop suddenly on the bike path than they are on a busy street.
     Esplanade Ave., from N. Claiborne to Decatur St. at the Mississippi River levee, a distance of about a mile, is not included in the bike lane plan.  This one-mile stretch is one-lane already.  The lane is just wide enough for cyclists to squeeze between the moving traffic at their left shoulder and the parallel parking on their right.  Parked cars should be watched carefully to try and anticipate an exiting driver opening a car door suddenly.  Have and use a rear view mirror.     
     Critics of the move to reduce Esplanade Ave. to one traffic lane and one bike lane say the loss of a traffic lane will increase congestion on the street and slow traffic as drivers get stuck behind tour buses that ply the avenue.  They also argue that the plan had already been decided upon before it was presented at public meetings.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Gulf Islands National Seashore campgrounds could see hefty hike in fees

     The two campgrounds in Gulf Islands National Seashore-Davis Bayou near Ocean Springs, MS and Fort Pickens near Pensacola Beach, FL-could see camping site fees jump 50%, according to a press release from Dan Brown, Gulf Islands National Seashore superintendent.
     The current fee for camping at Fort Pickens, $20, would increase to $30 per night.  At Davis Bayou the current fee of $16 would increase to $26.  The camping fees at both campgrounds include electric and water hookups.  The press release did not say when the proposed higher fees, if approved, would take effect.
     Senior Pass (available to those over 62) and Access Pass holders would continue receive 50% off the campground fees, Brown said.
     Brown said the "proposed new rates would make the camping fees at Gulf Island National Seashore comparable with those of other camping facilities in the area to avoid unfair competition."
     The public is invited to comment on the proposed fee increase.  Comment should be submitted by March 25, 2013 either via email at or regular mail to: Gulf Islands National Seashore, Attn: Fee Program, 1801 Gulf Breeze Pkwy, Gulf Breeze, FL 32563.
     By federal law, 80% of the camping and entrance fees are retained by the National Seashore and can be used to help repair, improve or replace visitor facilities.  Upcoming projects at Gulf Islands National Seashore include replacing the restrooms in the Fort Pickens campground, remodeling the Fort Pickens campground store, redesigning the entrance stations at Fort Pickens and Perdido Key to speed entry and reduce lines and installing solar panels on West Ship Island to provide clean and renewable energy for visitor facilities, Brown said.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Chicot (LA) State Park Canoe Trail Map

This is a scan of the Chicot SP map of the canoe trail in the lake.  I have added where I think the back country primitive camping sites are but I am guessing about their location.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Canoe Camping in Chicot State Park (LA)

Paddlers from the Lafayette (LA) Paddle Club perform maintenance on canoe trail signs in Chicot State Park north of Ville Platte, LA.  They are from left; Mike VanEtten, Kathy Knierim and Thomas Junk.
      The eight-mile paddle trail in the swamp-like lake at Chicot State Park north of Ville Platte, LA is marked with signs.  The yellow, rectangular signs are nailed to towering tree trunks rising from the brown lake water and can be easily seen by paddlers floating amid the watery forest of bald cypress and tupelo gum trees that reach into the lake from the low wooded hills surrounding it.  The signs show where the designated camping sites are (there are six) and keep paddlers following the mapped trail on track.
     Without the signs, navigation on the 2,000-acre lake requires a GPS or map and compass skills to locate a destination because once on the water landmarks that were so distinct when standing at the launch quickly disappear from view.  It is a lot easier to get lost on a lake that is seldom more than a quarter-mile wide than you might think.  Not really life-threatening but certainly embarrassing.         
     That's why on a cool day in early March, Mike VanEtten, president of the Lafayette (LA) Paddle Club, spent a sunny afternoon leaning from the bow seat of a faded red canoe to wipe each trail marker clean.   He reattached loose signs to the massive trees being careful to leave some of the nail sticking out so the tree could grow and not pop the sign off.   And he made mental notes on missing signs that will need to be replaced later.  VanEtten's stern paddler, Thomas Junk, another LPC member, scouts for upcoming signs and slowly pilots VanEtten into position through stubby cypress knees and clumps of green, floating aquatic vegetation.
     The setting for the chore is beautiful--the busy paddlers surrounded by a tupelo gum/bald cypress swamp, the tall trees draped with Spanish moss swaying in the breeze, the air filled with the chirps, chortles and songs of migrating song birds.  But the work is not without risks.
     "Look behind every sign before touching it.  There could be a wasp nest there," VanEtten cautions LPC member, Kathy Knierim who is helping him administer to the signs from the seat of a smaller blue solo canoe.  The lake is rife with alligators but the trio sees none.  Apparently it is still just too cold on this early spring day for the cold-blooded reptiles to climb out of the water to sun on a log.
     The signed trail is accessed from the three boat launches in the park.  Canoes, located at the South Landing rent for $20 a day.  Pay at the entrance station.  The eight miles of paddle trail is divided into three sections: the Northern Loop Trail, connecting the North Landing and the East Landing is 4.5 miles, the trail from the East Landing to the South Landing is 1.5 miles and the trail from the South Landing to the south end of the lake is two miles-one way.  Bring bug repellent every trip, even in winter. 
     The paddle trail is one of two popular trails in the 6,400 acre Chicot State Park.  The other is the Buckeye Trail, a 20-mile hiking/backpacking/mountain bike trail; a root and stob strewn loop through the hilly beech/magnolia forest surrounding much of the lake; difficult for a mountain biker, taxing for the hiker/backpacker.  "Up" is only 30 feet higher than "down" along the trail with little level trail so flat-landers are especially challenged.  One of the Bayou State's longest backpacking trails, the Buckeye Trail is also the venue for an ultra-endurance run each December attracting competitors from around the world.
      The volunteer labor provided by the three members of the Lafayette (LA) Paddle Club tending to the canoe trail signs is both welcome and comes at a good time of the year, said Chicot State Park assistant manager, Keith Broussard.
     "In the spring when the weather is warm but not hot, the trails are very popular.  The Easter holiday is a busy time here at Chicot," Broussard said.
     Members of outdoor clubs such as the Lafayette Canoe Club and the Louisiana Hiking Club, based in Baton Rouge (LA), provide valuable assistance in helping maintain the trails in the park at a time when trail maintenance is not a top priority in tight state park budgets.
     Mountain bikers, hikers, backpackers and paddlers will find the park welcoming.  The staff is friendly and savvy to the needs of non-motorized recreationalists.  Don't be surprised to be offered a map of the park's canoe trail even before you ask if a staffer sees your paddle craft on top of your vehicle.
     The efficiency and friendliness of  "those kids" working the entrance station in the park is a point of pride for residents of Ville Platte, six miles to the south.  One fisherman from a group of men having coffee at the Ville Platte McDonald's, heaped praise on the Chicot staff after seeing my canoe and hearing I had paddled in the park.
     Because the park is about a three-hour drive from New Orleans, paddlers, hikers and bikers from the Crescent City usually stay one or more nights in the park, either at a back country site, in the campground or in a cabin.  To avoid the disappointment and inconvenience of arriving at the park after a long drive only to find all the camping is taken, plan your trip carefully.  And if your goal is one of the six back country sites, which cannot be reserved, hope you are lucky.

How to get a back country site.

     Drive to the Chicot SP entrance off LA highway 3042, seven miles north of Ville Platte, LA.  This is the main entrance.  You must register here to camp at the back country sites.  The fee for back country camping is $1 per person, per day.  There are six back country sites sprinkled along the seven-mile long lake's shoreline.  ALL BACK COUNTRY SITES ARE FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE.  BACK COUNTRY SITES CANNOT BE RESERVED.  Five are accessible from the lake and by foot: one is only accessible from the lake.  (Somewhere there is a map with the GPS coordinates for the back country sites.  I used to have a copy but I don't any more.) Arriving at a campsite in a motorized boat is not permitted.  All back country sites are open to both hikers and paddlers.
      Because everyone camping at a back country site registers in person at the entrance station, staff at the entrance station know immediately when all six back country sites are filled.  If you are the seventh person to appear at the entrance station to ask for a back country site YOU WILL BE TURNED AWAY!  (Plan B: If there is an unreserved site in the campground you are welcome to stay there.  Fees start at $16 per night plus the reservation fee of $6)  Staff at the park said they don't like to turn people away but they do when all the back country sites are taken.  Do not call from New Orleans, Baton Rouge or Lafayette to ask if there are any back country sites left.  NOBODY KNOWS HOW MANY WILL BE LEFT BY THE TIME YOU GET TO THE PARK.  BACK COUNTRY SITES CANNOT BE RESERVED! Staffers say there is high demand for back country sites on holidays and weekends in the spring and fall and all six sites can be occupied by Friday night.   Planning to snag a back country site Saturday morning?  DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?
     The entrance station is open later on Friday and Saturday nights but call to confirm entrance station hours.  You can register for a back country site only if the entrance station is open.  The park opens earlier and stays open later than the entrance station so make sure you know the different times.
     Ask for both the trails/facility map and the canoe trail map.  The canoe trail map does not show the location of all the back country camping sites.  (You know somebody cares when you get a hiking trail map with the trail highlighted by hand using three different Sharpie marker colors!)
     Reservations are strongly recommended for the 198 camping sites ($16 and up per night) in the parks two campgrounds.  Call toll-free, 877-226-7652, to reserve a campsite or cabin.  Back country sites cannot be reserved.  There is a $6 fee to make a reservation.   You don't have to reserve a site--drive ups are welcome if there is an open spot--but you pay the $6 reservation fee for a camping site no matter if you reserved it or not.  This is the policy for all Louisiana State parks.
     The park and the adjoining Louisiana State Arboretum schedule a variety of family activities, such as guided canoe treks, bird hikes and nature programs.  After paying the entrance fee, the scheduled activities are free.  Visit the arboretum blog for program information or call 1-888-677-6100.
     Recently a beautiful new building housing the arboretum visitor center has opened in Chicot SP off  North Landing Road in the park.  The old entrance to the 600 acre arboretum on the highway is still there as is the tiny museum at the Caroline Dorman Lodge.   The six miles of trails in the arboretum connect the two locations.
     The lake is very popular with fishermen, dating back to the day the park opened in 1942.  Chicot is one of the oldest state parks in Louisiana.
     For more information call the park toll-free at 1-888-677-2442 or not toll-free at 337-363-2403.  The E-mail address is

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Cold weather puts a chill on attendance at Louisiana Hiking Club's 2013 Campfest

Clair Anne Johnson, 14, of Ponchatoula, LA gets ready to savor a s'more she just made at the Louisiana Hiking Club's Campfest held at Chicot State Park, March 2-3, 2013.
     When making the decision to go or not go to the Louisiana Hiking Club's Campfest at Chicot State Park just north of Ville Platte, LA, March 2-3, some prospective campers apparently got cold feet after hearing the weather forecast for the park included night time temps below freezing and daytime temps struggling to reach 50 degrees.
     The blustery weather may have been the reason only 65 people attended this year, down from the usual of about 100, said LHC acting president, Nancy Hall.  The event is held annually the first weekend in March. 
     "I thought the weather was fine.  I had a great time at this year's fest," said the veteran backpacker and hiker referring to the partly cloudy and breezy weekend.  Temperatures in nearby Ville Platte for the weekend were: Friday 60H-40L; Saturday 49H-34L; Sunday 57H-30L, according to  There was no rain but there was frost Sunday morning.
     No records are kept of who plans to attend and who actually does--people just show up, said Hall, so there is no way to poll members to ask why they did not attend this year.  The LHC provides the meat grilled Saturday night to serve as the entree for the potluck supper and the Sunday morning pancake breakfast but because the number of attendees is about the same every year, the same amount is food is purchased every year--no RSVP needed.
     Attendees tent camp on the grounds of a conference center on the eastern side of Chicot Lake.  There are no hookups there for R.V.s.  Saturday, during the day, participants join groups to learn about map reading, how to pack a backpack and emergency medicine among other topics.  Also speciality outdoor shops from Baton Rouge and Lafayette set up tables featuring the latest and greatest outdoor gear. 
     Members pay $5 for the event and two nights camping.  LHC membership is $10 and the process can be completed online.
     The highlight of the fest, not counting renewing old friendships, is the potluck supper and raffle Saturday night.   Perhaps because of the smaller turn-out this year, everyone won something at the raffle.   The pile of swag included gift certificates, freeze-dried entrees, gift boxes of jerky, packs and other stuff, donated by outdoor merchants from across south Louisiana.  Later a film was shown about three young men hiking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail (four started the hike) and the personal challenges each faced in completing the journey.
     Sunday morning began with an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, prepared by a team of cooks under the supervision of the crusty but kind "Larry the Pancake King."  (Larry hung up his spatula after this year saying that after nine or ten years it's time.)  Many of the group left after breakfast but some stayed and hiked a portion of the scenic 22-mile "Buckeye Trail" surrounding the the lake.  Volunteer work crews from the LHC help maintain the trail.
     After Sunday breakfast this year, some atendees got a prize--free food.  Because of the reduced attendance plenty of grilled chicken and sausage were left over.  It was quickly distributed to members who wanted it, the free protein destined to become a succulent addition to many a delicious gumbo and jambalaya.