Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bayou Barbary: Trip Report, 01-27-2014

Bayou Barbary, January 26, 2014
       A slight breeze and temperatures in the high 50's greeted a dozen or so paddlers of the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club (Louisiana) for their mid-morning launch into the calm black waters of Bayou Barbary, in Livingston Parish, about 80 driving miles northwest of New Orleans.
      The group set a leisurely pace under the pale blue-gray sky as they spread across the bayou in a loose pod.  No reason to rush; there is not far to go.  It's less than two miles from the launch to Barbary's junction with the even more broad Amite River.  Add about a quarter of a mile on that historic waterway before turning around and retracing the route back to the launch and you have a trip of less than five miles.  The trip is an annual adventure for the Haystackers who usually visit the bayou in December to collect mistletoe from its upper reaches near Louisiana Highway 444.  
       Serious white water paddlers from New Orleans formed the Bayou Haystackers in the 1970's to share the long drive from south Louisiana to the swift water paddling meccas in Tennessee and North Carolina.  The club's outings have mellowed a bit since then, with trips closer to home requiring a drive of only a few hours or less.
         While the club' membership is diverse, it does skew heavily to the retired or about to be retired demographic.  Sunday, a former lawyer, several in the teaching professions and a graphic artist paddled with others from a variety of vocational disciplines. Many have been in the club a long time and greet each other with warm crinkled smiles happy to refresh an acquaintance dormant since the last time they were on the water together.
       While some participants were new to the club, as was the young nurse from Arizona, no one was new to paddling as their choice of boats revealed.  Boats ranged from a sleek and pricey featherweight solo canoe with wood trim to a red plastic sit-on top.  There were two well loved and well used sea kayaks and an eBay purchase on its maiden voyage, (maiden voyage with this captain at least).  The bulk of the fleet was made up of solo canoes with soon to be extinct Royalex hulls.
       (The one company now making Royalex, a nearly indestructible lightweight canoe hull material, said they will stop this year as it has become no longer profitable to manufacture it.  The introduction of Royalex in the late 1970's revolutionized the manufacture of white water and recreational canoes making it possible to mold a virtually indestructible, lightweight, maintenance-free canoe at a reasonable price.  Many in the club have spent hundreds of hours paddling in Royalex hulled canoes over the years.  Some are contemplating stockpiling Royalex boats while they are still available to replace their boats that might wear out in the distant future.)     
       The scenery flanking the chatty group was typical winter Louisiana swamp:  bare branches on skinny hardwoods, packed close together atop a muddy, mucky sponge of dead leaves and more mud.  Every now and then, near the bank, a lone grey bald cypress tree stands, hung with small beards of Spanish moss from skeletal branches, a survivor, its hollow center rendering it not worth harvesting when frenzied tree cutting took almost all the standing bald cypress trees, some hundreds of years old, from these swamps a century ago.
       At the turnabout one paddler ventured onto the terra unfirma for a snack and to stretch only to sink in the mud up to her knee cap.  While eagles are known to nest in Livingston Parish none were sighted-- in fact, no wildlife of any sort was spotted by the group this day.
       After the paddle nearly all the group gathered at Van's, a popular and reasonably priced seafood restaurant on LA highway 22 in Maurepas, to cement new friendships with glasses of beer and piles of delicious fried seafood.

       The Amite River is thought of today as a recreational waterway populated by speedboats, water skiers and fishermen.  But long before its use as a playground, the river--along with its tributary, Bayou Manchac--formed a vital trade route used by native Americans to link the Mississippi River with the Gulf of Mexico, via lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain and the Rigoletes.
       The first Europeans to paddle the route are said to have been a small group of French explorers in bark canoes led by Pierre le Moyne Sieur d'Iberville, in the spring of 1699.  Looking for a way back to their ship anchored at Ship Island (MS) after exploring the Mississippi River from its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico upriver to what would become Baton Rouge, Iberville was shown the shortcut by local Indians.  The story is told that Iberville may have named the river after the French word for friendly because of the favorable treatment he received from the native Americans in the area.
       Iberville's much younger brother, Bienville, who was with him but who returned to Ship Island via the Mississippi River, would found New Orleans in 1718.
      Both banks of the Amite River remained French territory until 1763 when France lost almost all its possessions in North America to the English after losing the French and Indian War--aka the Seven Years War.  However, just prior to losing that war, France gave Louisiana to its ally Spain.  The Manchac/Amite R. waterway became an international boundary separating the English on the north side of the river (West Florida) and the Spanish on the south bank on a large chunk of territory east of the Mississippi known as the Ille d' New Orleans.  Both nations built forts on the Mississippi River at the bayou's mouth anxious to protect their interests in the commercial fur trade, a booming business in the 18th century.
      Access to the Amite River from the Mississippi River using Bayou Manchac was seasonal.  The bed of the bayou was a few feet higher than the river.  Only for a few months in the spring when the Mississippi River was high did enough water flow into Manchac to make it useful.  Once on the bayou travelers faced an arduous journey through miles of downed trees blocking the channel before reaching the deeper and obstacle-free Amite River.
      In 1783, England gave the land north of Manchac/Amite River back to Spain after loosing the American Revolution.  The south bank of the Manchac/Amite waterway became United States territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 but the north bank, where we launched, remained in Spanish hands.  The US unilaterally annexed the lands north of Manchac/Amite in 1810 claiming the territory was part of the Louisiana Purchase.  Spain, long past it's prime as an international power, did not officially acknowledge the land grab until 1819--seven years after Louisiana became the 18th state admitted to the United States.
       During the Civil War, Union gunboats patrolled the river for Confederate contraband.  At the turn of the 20th century, sawmills lined the banks of the river to process the thousands of bald cypress trees harvested from the surrounding swamps.  Gravel from the banks of the Amite River upstream was shipped via the river well into the 20th century.

     The launch we used, Pete's, charges a $5 launch fee.  There are bathrooms there.  We were there in the winter so we did not see the usual heavy traffic of speedboats, personal watercraft and skiers that populate the river in warmer weather.  There are many waterfront bars and restaurants along the Amite River.  Infer what you will from that.
       Coming back from the Amite River, Bayou Barbary forks.  The left fork is the way back to Pete's launch.  Taking the right fork extends the trip about half a mile (one-way) and brings paddlers to a more narrow, scenic section of the bayou.  This is where the Haystackers go to collect mistletoe in December.