Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tammany Trace: Not just a bicycle ride; its a vacation!

There are forested sections of the 27 mile long Tammany Trace in St. Tammany Parish Louisiana
(NOTE:  It was 20 years ago that the first section of the Tammany Trace, from Abita Springs to U.S. 190 in Mandeville opened.  This event will be celebrated November 1 & 2, 2014 with a variety of events held at trailheads along the Trace from Covington to Slidell.  Visit the parish website for the Trace for details.)  

       The Tammany Trace, a 27-mile asphalt recreation trail (no motorized vehicles) stretches across St. Tammany Parish (LA) straight as an arrow and flat as a pancake. On its way east from Covington to Slidell, LA, the popular path passes through several natural landscapes common to south Louisiana:  torpid bayous flanked by tall bald cypress and upland pine forests among them.
      Wildlife?  The Trace passes through Fontainebleau State Park where early morning riders may see wary deer foraging near the trail.  Lucky riders might see a bald eagle or soaring osprey from the nearby 19,000 acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge or hear the steady drumming of the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers that make their home amid the tall pines there.
     And as can be expected in one of the fastest growing parishes in the state, the view from the Trace can also be one of subdivisions and strip malls.  Yet in the four towns touched by the Trace there are museums, historic districts, art galleries and antique/curio shops along with a variety of eateries for every taste and pocketbook, most of them within a few blocks of the path.
     (The Trace, as it stands now, is not 31 miles long, the distance given in the promotional material distributed by St. Tammany Parish officials.  The right of way does go 31-miles but the paved Trace stops at the Slidell city limits.  This distance is 27.35 miles.  The trail stops a few yards past the Carollo Trail head.)
     St. Tammany Parish has long been a natural playground for New Orleans residents seeking a convenient escape from the summer heat in the city.  Beginning in the 19th century, ferries would ply Lake Pontchartrain taking passengers to and from New Orleans and resorts in Mandeville, Abita Springs and Covington.  The air in this "Ozone Zone" was said to be healthful and spring water at Abita Springs restorative.
     The railroad to Covington was finished around 1900 and operated until the mid 1980's when it was abandoned.  Key in the demise of the railroad was the building of the 24-mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain linking the north and south shores in 1956.  The deal for the purchase of the railroad right of way by St. Tammany Parish was signed in December of 1992.  The first stretch of the paved trail, eight miles connecting Abita Springs with US 190  in Mandeville was open in the fall of 1994.
     (Even after the Trace was built through Mandeville, the highway provided a de facto barrier for users queasy about dashing across the busy highway to continue despite a user actuated stoplight.   Later a tunnel was constructed under the road to allow Trace traffic to continue on through Mandeville without having to face down the heavy, highway traffic.  A tunnel is planned for the grade-level Trace crossing of  LA 59, a busy three-lane highway between Abita Springs and Mandeville)

These two railroad cars, the Pullman car General Jackson
 built in1942 and a baggage car, built in 1921,
parked at Hoffman Rd. for years, were recently hauled away
to be refurbished and put into service by a company
 offering luxury vintage railroad journeys,

     The western trail head is in downtown Covington, a quaint southern town on the cusp of celebrating its 200th anniversary.  Founded on the banks of the shallow Bogue Falaya River, the parish seat is a market town with many tony boutiques, coffee shops and antique dealers either right on the trail or only a block or two away.  The Covington Farmer's Market sets up shop at the trail head each Wednesday.
     Heading east the first town is Abita Springs, 3.5 miles from the Covington trail head.  Here a small museum (open weekends) adjacent to the trail, explains the town's history as a health resort in the early 20th century.  The notion that the combination of piney woods, mineral springs and pleasant scenery might be healthy got a boost from federal health officials when this "Ozone Belt" was named the healthiest region in the country in the early 1900's. 

For a "health" of a different sort, walk across the trail to the Abita Brew Pub.  Once the brewery for the popular beer, now brewed a mile away, the building is a popular casual restaurant with outdoor seating.  The fabulous root beer, sweetened with Louisiana cane sugar, is a treat for kids of all ages.
      A couple of blocks down the Trace housed in a depression-era service station, is the Mystery House, an eclectic collection of off-the-wall exhibits and dioramas, most of them created by artist John Preble.  The Mystery House, aka UCM Museum, is ground-zero for the Louisiana Bicycle Festival held each year the Saturday before Father's Day.  (In 2013 the date is June 15.)  The festival offers food, music, bicycle rides, a bicycle flea market and some of the weirdest working bicycle creations you have ever seen.
     The Trace turns south to pass through a lush wetland cut by muddy bayous, the landscape occasionally marred by the fresh concrete, brick and aluminum siding of new subdivisions backing into the green vista.  Just shy of eight miles from Covington, riders will arrive at the Trace Headquarters at the end of Koop Rd.  Here a green caboose serves as an information center and ranger station.    Home to a major playground complex open to all children with or without special needs, this trail head has lots of parking and is often the starting point for group rides on the Trace.
     The Mandeville trail head, 12.15 miles from Covington, is designed to look like a turn of the century train platform.  Here a unique splash fountain for the kids keeps them cool in the summer.  The open-air amphitheater here is busy with events and a farmer's market is held here too.  The snow cone concession next to the trailhead, Shivvers, rents bicycles.  (Visit for a calendar of events at the trailhead.)
      In Mandeville, riders can leave the Trace and ride south about .7 mi. to Lake Pontchartrain and the bike path along the seawall there.  (Do not ride Gerard St.  It is narrow and busy with traffic.  Almost any other street to the lake will have lighter traffic.) The path runs along Lakeshore Dr. where a number of seafood restaurants blend in with the "old money" raised plantation style homes facing the lake.  To the west the path ends when the seawall does.  To the east riders can connect with the Tammany Trace.  Just follow the seawall path east.  It ends at the playground and boat launch at Mandeville harbor. Cross Lakeshore Dr., which also ends, and ride north along the path flanking Jackson Ave.  This path intersects with the Trace.
     After crossing Bayou Castine, the Trace passes for almost 2.5 miles through Fontainebleau State Park.  The large park offers camping for RVs and tents and a sandy swimming beach on the lake.  There are no bathrooms near the beach.  Vacation cabins in the park, damaged by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, have not been repaired as of 10-23-2014.  A fee is charged to enter the park and for camping.  All state parks in Louisiana honor the federal senior (age 62) pass for half-price camping.
     Here's a weekend get-a-way idea.  Drive from the city to the park, set up, then bicycle to Mandeville, Covington, Abita Springs or Lacombe for morning coffee and meals.  Have a "near bike" experience.
     Just west of the park entrance a spur trail crosses busy highway U.S. 190 to Pelican Park, a popular recreation complex with ball fields.  Next to Pelican Park is Northlake Nature Center where  riders can access several dirt mountain bike trails from Pelican Park.  Roadies can park and lock road bikes in Pelican Park and walk the trails.
     East of Bayou Castine the trail can seem remote as it passes through undeveloped sections of the state park.  At the park's eastern border, the path crosses Bayou Cane.  Here paddlers launch into the popular bayou from an unimproved sand and shell bank.  The bayou forms a border between the state park and Big Branch Marsh NWR.
    Riders can visit the working-class community of Bayou Lacombe by taking Lake Rd. (LA 434) a short distance north.  Here are a bicycle/kayak rental and a few stores and eateries.  Main St. has some beautiful old live oak trees and there is a small museum featuring rural life of the area.
       (John Davis Park in Lacombe, described in the parish Tammany Trace website as a parking area is actually not on the Trace as shown on the parish map but north of the Trace a couple of blocks.  Use N. 12th St. to connect the Trace and the park. 
     Completed in 2008, the drawbridge crossing Bayou Lacombe is the trailhead for Lacombe.  There is no road to it so there is no motorized access to it but at the bridge there are restrooms, a drink machine and a bench on which to sit and gaze at the shaded bayou. The bridge is usually down--meaning trail users can cross it--from sunrise to sunset, though there is a bridge tender there during the day just in case one of the half dozen or so sailboats upstream of the bridge wishes to pass downstream.  The bridge stays open for boat traffic all night from sunset to sunrise.  There is a digital clock on the bridge displaying the time it will open for boat traffic for the night.  Pay attention.  There is no easy or safe detour if the bridge is up.
     East of the bridge the trail passes through a lovely grove of young pine trees next to the trail.  The section of the trail has a remote feel.
     The current eastern terminus of the trail is at the Slidell/Carollo trail head, 27.35 miles from Covington, where there are restrooms and a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's substation.  Two convenience stores are nearby at highway LA 433 and US 190.   The paved trail extends east past Carollo TH about a quarter of a mile to dead-end in an undeveloped wooded area about 50 yards from US 190, at the western city limits of Slidell.  The exact trail's end is a splash of gravel in the weeds known as Neslo Rd.  To the north is a large shopping center but to reach it riders have to cross the busy highway.  Leaving the Trace here is not at all recommended unless you have an untamed hunger for fast food and a big box store shopping experience.     
     Beautiful as it is the Trace can be dangerous for the careless.   Numerous streets and a couple of highways cross the Trace.  Assume they are all busy with traffic even if you don't see any.  Bicyclists riding the Trace should NEVER assume cyclists have the right of way at any cross streets. Come to a complete stop at stop signs.  Put your foot down.  Often vegetation growing near the intersection prevents a driver from seeing the Trace until they are right on it.  Earlier this year a teenager time-trialing on the Trace, raced through a stop sign without stopping between Covington and Abita Springs and was killed.  A "ghost bicycle" painted white, was placed at that intersection as a memorial.
A ghost bike memorial for rider who died in a
 crash at the intersection of the
 Tammany Trace and Josephine St.
     Several years ago an adult rider training on the Trace was paralyzed from the neck down after hitting one of the steel bollards at the edge of the Trace at a cross street.
     Ride carefully as the pathway is only 10 feet wide and can be crowded with people walking, jogging, skating, pushing strollers or skateboarding.  Toddlers on bikes with training wheels can stop and turn into your path in an instant.  When approaching from behind try to let other Trace users know you are there even if they are using ear buds.  A simple "passing on the left," or just "Hi" will let them know you are there.  If you have never been riding a shared path when a jogger or child suddenly stopped in front of you, apparently for no reason, you have not ridden much.
     There is a 20 mph speed limit.  No pets are permitted on the Trace.  Wear  a helmet.  As we head into deep summer, reconsider any plans to ride the Trace in the middle of the day.  There is not a lot of shade.  Drinks lots of fluids and don't leave a trail head without topping off water bottles.  And stay off highway U.S. 190.  Two lanes, too busy and no shoulder.

Brooks Bike Shop, 416 Gibson, Covington, LA. Phone 985-237-3658. (On the Trace near the Covington trail head.)
Shiver Shack, 2020 Woodrow St., Mandeville, LA Phone 985-246-9595. (Across from the Mandeville trail head.)
Spokesman Professional Bicycle Work, 1848 N. Causeway, Mandeville, LA. Phone 985-727-7211.
Bayou Adventure, 27725 Main St., Lacombe, LA. 985-882-9208. In addition to renting a one-speed cruiser or a sit-on-top kayak at the bait shop, co-owner Judge Shannon Villemarette, a Justice of the Peace in Lacombe, can marry you too.)

Bayou Lacombe Rural Museum, 61115 Saint Mary St., Lacombe, LA 70445.  Phone 985-882-3043.
Abita Mystery House and UCM Museum, Phone 985-892-2624.  Admission $3.  Open seven days a week.
Abita Springs Trailhead Museum, 22049 Main St., Abita Springs. Phone 985-871-5327.  Open Friday and Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sundays noon to 5 pm.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Lafitte Corridor: Nine years and no trail yet

Hikers in the 9th annual hike of the Lafitte Greenway walk through a section of the greenway between Jefferson Davis Parkway and Carrollton Ave.  Paving of a 2.4 mile trail on the 3.1 mile green way might begin late this year


     In May of 2004, just as a lark,  Bart Everson and two friends hiked a 3.1 mile section of derelict abandoned railroad right of way linking Basin St. with Canal Blvd.  He saw through the garbage, visualizing instead a green space with a paved trail used by walkers and bicycle commuters to connect the French Quarter with lower Lakeview.
     Each year the hike has been reenacted, sometimes attracting 150 participants in shorts, boots some pushing bicycles or baby strollers.  They make the urban trek past abandoned and rusting businesses, the city's former brake tag inspection station, through the shards of broken glass and waist high weeds to promote the building of a park and trail in the right of way.
      Looks like they are going to have their way.  This year's hike may have been the last year of walking the greenway as a weedy and trashy urban eyesore.
      Fliers handed out to this year's group of about 50 hikers on the 9th annual hike sponsored by the Friends of the Lafitte Corridor (FOLC), proclaimed construction on the path is projected to start by fall 2013.
      Funding, most of it from a Disaster Recovery Community Development Block Grant will provide for just the basics; the trail, landscaping and some signage.  Many more facilities have been proposed for the land that will become the city's first park in two decades, but they will have to wait until funding becomes available.
     At several stops along the trek of the future greenway (the park is the greenway, the Lafitte Corridor includes blocks of housing and commercial enterprises flanking the greenway) volunteer guides gave hikers insight into the greenway's future.  The lunch stop was at the western end of Bayou St. John where the proposed trail crosses the existing Jefferson Davis Parkway path.  Under a big tent hungry walkers were treated to po boy sandwiches from the nearby Parkway Bakery and Tavern. 
     There was music along the route: a brass band at the lunch stop and a jazz trio at Bud's Broiler on City Park Ave. where the hike ended.
     Rain postponed the hike from the previous Saturday which may explain the much lower turnout than previous years.   However weather for the May 18 event was warm with partly cloudy skies.

Original FOLC board members Daniel Samuels and Bart Everson.


     The first phase of the trail starts at Basin St. and dead ends at N. Alexander; a distance of about 2.4 miles.  The remaining .7 mi. to Canal Blvd. is an active railroad with a train servicing a brick yard several days a week.
     An agreement allowing the trail to be completed to Canal Blvd, could not be reached between Norfolk-Southern, the railroad with the right of way between N. Alexander and Canal Blvd, and the city,  FOLC members said.
     (This means trail users will forced to detour using surrounding streets to connect with Canal Blvd. and City Park.)
     The project appears to be grinding along at a snail's pace for many reasons.  After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the city was focused on reconstruction, not park creation.  Later, after bids had been accepted and a planning firm selected, the whole process had to begin again after an election brought in a new administration.  But those familiar with public capital improvement projects say things are moving about as fast as can be expected.
     While the Lafitte Corridor trail itself has yet to see any signs of the construction outside of a little grass cutting, businesses within the corridor are busy preparing for the greenway's eventual opening.
     The trail passes by Mid-City Market, a small shopping center under construction in the footprint of a shopping center and car dealership on N. Carrollton Ave. destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Mid-City Market developers, at the urging of the city, have included access to the trail providing trail users easy access to the Winn-Dixie, Office Depot and several food outlets and other businesses in the development.
     Where the tracks and City Park Ave. intersect, Shannon McGuire, owner of one of seven Bud's Broiler franchises, is getting her business ready for the trail's opening.  McGuire, who made the hike with the group, said she is installing bike racks and an area with piping to spray a cooling mist on overheated summer trail users.
     The building now housing Bud's Broiler has a history.  It was built in the 1920's as a ticket station for passengers boarding trains--pulled by steam engines in the early days-- of the Southern Railway, McGuire said. (The tracks were laid 1905-1908.)   Later, when the railroad moved its passenger service to the "new" Union Station on Loyola Ave, the small two-story frame building on City Park Ave. became the city's first Bud's Broiler in 1952.  (The Southern Railway became part of Norfolk-Southern in 1982.)
     The cozy burger joint has since become a treasured tradition in New Orleans, serving charcoal broiled hamburgers, hot dogs, onion rings, French fries, hot pies and shakes to hungry patrons 24/7.  McGuire has modernized the menu expanding the sandwich offerings.  Seating has been expanded with tables outside on the sidewalk and a patio in the back.

Bud's Broiler, 500 City Park Ave. N.O., LA. 504-486-2559

Monday, May 13, 2013

Camping fees at Gulf Islands National Seashore go up May 17, 2013


     Camping fees at Gulf Islands National Seashore developed camping sites at Fort Pickens near Pensacola, FL and Davis Bayou, Ocean Springs, MS, will go up $6 per night beginning May 17, 2013.  In Florida the rate will go from $20 to $26 and in Mississippi from $16 to $22.
     Individuals 62 years of age or older with a Senior pass or those with an Access pass for a disability receive a 50% discount.  SEE NOTE BELOW.
     In a press release dated 5-13-13, Gulf Islands superintendent Dan Brown said a proposed hike of $10 at each location was reduced following public input.
     "Although the majority of public comments supported the proposed increases, some indicated a preference for a smaller incremental increase," Brown said in the release.
     Camping fees have not been raised since 1997, but since that time salaries at the park have increased by 53% and electrical rates and usage have increased by more than 50%, Brown said.
     After hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Katrina (2005) the Fort Pickens Road and the large popular campground there did not reopen until the spring of 2009.
     Gulf Island NS will retain 80% of the camping and entrance fees to help repair, improve or replace visitor facilities.  Upcoming projects include replacing the restrooms in the For Pickens campground, remodeling the Fort Pickens campground store and redesigning the entrance stations at Fort Pickens and Perdido Key to speed entry and reduce line.
     Beginning March 1 of this year, in response to budget cuts mandated by congress (sequestration), some part-time positions at the park were cut.
     Gulf Islands National Seashore is among the top ten most visited national parks.  The white sand beaches and emerald water are popular with boaters, bathers and scuba divers.  The Florida unit of the park is about 220 miles east of New Orleans.

     These passes are not widely available.  Here in New Orleans they are sold at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park but may not be available because of a security problem.  This is apparently not a problem for the Mississippi unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore which has them on hand.  Recently they have been made available over the Internet but that process will take a month, sources say.  The bottom line: Don't wait until the last minute to get one if you think you will need one.  The passes cost $10,  are only available to U.S. citizens (you have to prove it) and are good for a lifetime.    

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Paddling the Salt Marshes of western Bay St. Louis (MS)

Jan Stammeyer, Maarten Buijsman and Lee Quave, relax with beer and crawfish on the deck of the Harbor House restaurant after exploring the salt marshes Catfish Bayou south of Diamondhead (MS) in their kayaks recently.


     Spending two or three hours kayaking through the salt marshes of Cutoff Lake and Catfish Bayou at the mouth of the Jourdan River in southeast Mississippi is normally not my idea of a good time. The scenery of a salt marsh, endless stands of head-high cordgrass, is not motivating enough for me to load up a kayak and gear and make the 120 mile round trip from New Orleans to this wetland south of Diamondhead, MS.
    Salt marshes are not a unique environment along the Gulf coast of Mississippi and Louisiana.  If you live here you don't have to go far to see one, certainly not 60 miles. And despite their importance to the food chain, a jaded thrill seeker might rightly complain, once you've seen one salt marsh, you've seen them all.
     Please don't misunderstand me.  Some people, mostly naturalists or birders, are in rapture drifting in the morning quiet amid thick clumps of head-high saw grass rooted in mud flats as far as the eye can see, watching for a spindly shore bird to spread their wide wings and launch majestically into a cloudless blue sky.  Or, the inspiring beauty of seeing dawn awaken these fertile wetlands as an orange sun slowly brightens the scene.  A Kodak moment.  I get it.  Been there, done that.  Once was enough. 
      What moved me to make this trip was the opportunity to share this fairly mediocre scenery with a diverse group of kayakers passionate about the sport and the outdoors.  It was the group that made the trip a pleasure and worth the effort.  The nearly dozen yakers in the Mississippi Kayak Meetup Group that gathered at the Diamondhead launch ($5 launch fee) represented a broad spectrum of those attracted to the sport.  Conversations among the boaters bobbing in the murky waters of the treeless wetland centered more on what boat we were paddling and less about where we were paddling.
     The weather was warm enough for t-shirts and it was breezy.  Not whitecap breezy but you knew the wind was blowing when you paddled into it.  High thin clouds hung around for most of the day earning the weather a few demerits for what would have been a nearly perfect weather.
     There was a  young couple paddling his-and-hers fully outfitted SOT fishing yaks.  (He caught a keeper red fish that was dinner for the pair that night.)  There was a winning kayak racer and two padders with shiny new boats on their maiden, or near-maiden, voyages.  Two boaters brought small dogs who spent the voyage curled quietly in the laps of their paddling captains.  There was a long, sleek and shiny wooden kayak, hand built by its owner, a composite sea kayak and a paddler lounging in a comfortable and well used ten-foot rec-yak.  Lots of yaks to yak about.
     The trip was a loop, a leisurely 10 miles, linking Cutoff Bayou, the Jourdan River and the western end of St. Louis Bay.  These waterways can have heavy speedboat traffic but we did not see much of that the day we paddled and most of the boats we did see slowed down for our group.
      A small sand beach appearing on a Google Earth satellite view, did not appear in reality so the group had lunch under the high haze in their boats, sheltered from the breeze by a small island of stiff cordgrass.  There were no gnats, mosquitoes, black flies or deer flies which seemed to me unusual considering we were in a salt marsh in warm weather.
     After lunch we left the sheltered marsh waterways for a more exposed run of about a mile WNW across the shallow western end of St. Louis Bay to Cutoff Bayou.  Small wavelets slapped at hulls but there were no white caps. 
     After returning to the launch, most everyone loaded up, said their goodbyes went their separate ways.  But four paddlers decided to "hang" at the restaurant next to the launch for some beers and food.  Before taking out, trip leader Maarten Buijsman displayed his skills at rolling a kayak in the placid marina waters before an appreciative audience of diners watching from their perch along the railing of the restaurant's upstairs gallery.
     The Harbor House restaurant there at the launch was a good choice.  We dined upstairs on the open deck overlooking the marina, and the salt marsh through which we had just paddled.  The service was outstanding and so was the food.  The down-scale ground level had a three-piece cover band, hot dogs and crawfish.  (The band and the crawfish are there most Sundays in crawfish season.)  This was just the second encounter with the succulent mudbugs for Buijsman, a native of the Netherlands.  Soon he was going bug for bug with his crawfish eating mentor Lee Quave, a native of the area.  The service staff was happy to freight upstairs platters heaped with the orange boiled crustaceans for our enjoyment.  The mood of the crawfish was not recorded.

THE HARBOR HOUSE-Diamondhead, MS.  From New Orleans, take I-10 east.  Exit south at the Diamondhead exit (Exit 16).  Or motor your boat to the dock in front of the restaurant. Visit their Facebook page: Harbor House of Diamondhead..