Friday, May 9, 2014

A paddle on Shell Bank Bayou in the Manchac Swamp WMA, Louisiana

Shell Bank Bayou in the Maurepas WMA about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA.
       Dense, free-floating mats of water hyacinths and salvinia often clog Shell Bank Bayou, a shallow, narrow watercourse through the grown-over remains of what was a majestic baldcypress and tupelo gum swamp about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA.  Penetrating the noxious growth is next to impossible in a canoe or kayak most of the time.  But not this year.
       The winter of 2013-2014 was harsh winter, at least harsh to us in the warm sunny South, and several nights of sustained below freezing temperatures killed the two invasive species in the bayou.  For now at least, Shell Bank Bayou is open it's entire length, from the put-in off old highway US 51, to Lake Maurepas; about 2.5 miles.
        The dieback allows greater access to the swamp, a swamp biologists say saltwater intrusion will turn into open marsh within a generation.  It is a change that is well underway and can be seen after just a 30-minute paddle west from the launch off old US 51 near Laplace, LA.
       Casual paddlers can easily reach the thin stand of large dead and dying baldcypress trees their branches trailing beards of Spanish moss, the tree's smooth, barkless trunks flaring at waterlevel surrounded by a crowd of spindly cypress knees poking up through the still, black surface.  The tattered grey trunks are all that remain of a dense wetland forest that once flourished here, spread across all or part of nine Louisiana parishes and clearcut over a 40 year period beginning in 1892.
      Baldcypress grow for centuries before reaching maturity.  Seeing the few scattered cypress trees now growing, (considered small and immature even at 120-years old), it is difficult to imagine the dense virgin wetland forest of towering cypress 12 stories tall, supported by trunks nearly 10 feet in diameter that once stood here.
        Not every cypress was logged. Trees that were diseased, assessed not valuable enough to cut or too difficult to take were spared. These often hollow and blackened trunks are likely to be the only old growth trees from the virgin forest today's paddlers see. Of these surviving trees sprinkled across wetlands of the Pontchartrain Basin, some have been measured to be more than 2,000 years old.  Of those harvested some trees may have been the oldest living plants in eastern North America.


        Maurepas Swamp was virtually an undisturbed wilderness when logging of the valuable baldcypress began in earnest i the late 19th century. leaving a watery wasteland of stumps, man-made canals and open marsh, says Robert Hastings, retired professor of biological sciences from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA and former director of the university's Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station in the Manchac Wildlife Management Area on Pass Manchac, a few miles from Shell Bank Bayou.
        In his book, "The Lakes of Pontchartrain: Their History and Environments," published by the University Press of Mississippi, 2009, Hastings tells of the demise of the massive and beautiful swamp and why its restoration is a long shot.
         Cypress trees are valuable timber.  Natural preservatives in cypress wood prevents rot making it valuable for housing in damp and humid environments.  To meet the demand for timber, a sawmill was built right at the edge of the swamp, one of the largest sawmills in Louisiana at the time.  Soon a town, called Ruddock, was built to house the workers that worked in the mill, shipping the logs and sawed cypress timber on long steam trains heading north and south.
        By 1907 over 700 people lived in Ruddock. Now nobody does.  The town is gone, like the forest of baldcypress that was clearcut to support it.  A series of fires and hurricanes ravaged Ruddock in the early 20th century so after the hurricane in 1912  nobody wanted to live there.  The townsite was abandoned.  By that time clearcutting had decimated the baldcypress forest anyway, eliminating the need for a sawmill and the town.  The taking of the cypress in Manchac swamp would continue until the 1950's, at a greatly reduced rate, but for the town of Ruddock it was over.  Only a few wooden foundations, hidden by mats of dense vines and weeds, remain.   Now Ruddock exists only in memory and in the name of an I-55 off-ramp to nowhere.


       Thinking nature would regrow the ravished forest without help, loggers of the time never replanted the baldcypress they had harvested, adding insult to injury, said Hastings who recently retired as director of the Alabama Natural Heritage Program.  Hastings was interviewed by telephone at his home in Alabama.
        Industrialized logging devastated the swamp century ago, but a variety of present day causes make reforestation of the swamp unlikely in the future, said Hastings. 
       "The major threats are subsidence, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion," Hastings said.

      The award winning educator explained that global warming has raised the water level in Lake Pontchartrain slightly and made the lake slightly more salty.  At the same time the swamp is subsiding.  Storms--or even just strong, sustained east winds--blow the saltier water from the lake into the sinking swamp leaving it under water for longer periods of time.  The slightly salty water inundating cypress seedlings stunts their growth and kills them if submerged long enough. 
       For eons, storms have pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain--not really a lake but an estuary of the Gulf of Mexico--into the freshwater wetlands surrounding it.  But each spring the Mississippi River would overflow inundating the swamp with freshwater and cleansing it, flushing saltwater residue back into the lake.  A bonus of the annual flooding was that sediment and nutrients in river water would be deposited in the swamp, slowing the natural compacting and sinking of the swamp's porous muck.
       (Connected to Mississippi Sound in the east and taking the flow of freshwater rivers to the north and west, the saline gradient of Lake Pontchartrain varies from very low salinity levels to freshwater.  However water in a flooding storm surge can be considerably more salty than normal lake salinity levels.)
       Completion of the river's levee system in the 1930s, a project that was began nearly 200 years ago, stopped the flooding, stopped the freshwater from cleansing the salt residue from the swamp and stopped the accretion of nutrients and sediment rebuilding swampland, Hastings wrote.
       Making matters worse, a labyrinth of ditches and canals dug by loggers to remove cut cypress logs, serve as a conduit for saltwater into freshwater areas, killing cypress seedlings, increasing the erosion of the swamp's banks, Hastings said.
       The conversion of cypress swamp to open marsh is progressing at different rates around the Pontchartrain Basin.  Cypress appear to be coming back at Shell Bank Bayou, albeit slowly, Hastings said.
       The National Audubon Society, tracking environmental conditions in the Maurepas Swamp notes that no tupelo tree regeneration has been observed in the last 15 years and many of the tops of existing tupelo trees have been broken off, a sign of trees stress from saltwater intrusion.  The group predicts that about 50% of remaining marsh will convert to open marsh by the year 2050.


        The first step to save and restore the wetland forest is to restore the hydrology of the swamp, said Jillian Day, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries office in Hammond, LA.  There is a plan to divert Mississippi River water into western Lake Maurepas, via the Blind River to restore some of the natural flow of nutrients and sediment into the swamp, she said.
        Engineers close to the project, which has been a plan on paper for more than a decade, say there was no funding for it in the past but that now they are optimistic that is about the change.
        There is no time to waste, said Hastings. Rising sea levels and rapid erosion of the land in the swamp are compounding the salinity problem with salt water intrusion pushing into areas that were fresh 10-20 years ago.
       "We have to re-nourish the swamps around Maurepas or they will not survive another 10-20 years," Hastings warned.


       Despite the swamp's tragic back story, paddling the black-water bayou can be delightful, especially for those interested in the natural history of a swamp. Shallow and loaded with stumps just below the water's surface, the bayou is seldom visited by power boats. If only the noise of the traffic from the nearby elevated I-55 did not intrude.
        Maurepas Swamp has been tagged an "Important Bird Area" (IBA) by the National Audubon Society.   It takes just a few minutes of watching to see why. White ibis, great blue heron, great egret, little blue heron, tri colored heron and snowy egret, can be seen among the bulltongue and alligator weed at the bayou's edges.  The Audubon Society says the little yellow prothonotary warbler, an annual warm weather visitor from Central America,  have an "extremely dense" breeding population in the swamp (   The year the IBA was designated, 2007, over a dozen active bald eagle nests were counted in the black water swamp surrounding Lake Maurepas.
      "Black water swamp" is a bit of a misnomer.  The water looks black only from a distance. The open tree canopy allows sunshine to pierce deep into the bayou revealing it to be actually tinted reddish brown, a byproduct of the decaying vegetation in it.  Looking over the gunwales of a canoe and down into the bayou the water is clear enough to see two feet to the bottom. Through this sepia lens you might see a turtle the size of a bicycle helmet swimming, a school of minnows or even an alligator gar scoot by. Bright dead leaves on the bayou's dark bottom shimmer a warm, pale crimson as if lit by the flickering coals of a dying fire.
       Closer to the water's surface long strands of pond weed sway in the slight current.  (Currents can come from either direction and are caused by wind or Lake Maurepas filling with runoff and draining through the bayou.)
      In the spring bright purple blooms topping the tall stalks of Louisiana iris punctuate the many shades of green along the banks. Other wildflowers also briefly bloom in the spring.  In th fall there are fields of yellow bur-merigolds covering the semi-solid marshy areas.


        Nighttime appears to be the most popular time for tourists to visit the swamp. With only the light of the moon to guide them, paddlers in tandem canoes led by a concessionaire based in New Orleans, scan the banks and floating logs with flashlights hoping to catch the red reflection of an alligator's unblinking eyes and hear a bull gators frightening bellow. Kids are warned to keep an eye out for Loup-garou, the Cajun werewolf, said to be a resident of the dark swamp.
         Veterans of sweltering summer moonlight excursions say mating frogs croak so loudly that paddlers have to shout to be heard over the din. Packing bug repellent is a good idea when venturing into the swamp day or night any season of the year. Mosquitoes can be active and hungry for a blood meal at any temperature above 56 degrees F.


        Shell Bank Bayou is at the eastern edge of the 120,470 acre Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The first parcel of land for the WMA was acquired in 2001.
Access to the state-owned WMA wetlands, one of the largest continuous tracts of wetland forest remaining in the lower Mississippi alluvial valley, is almost exclusively by boat.
       Launch into Shell Bank Bayou from old highway US 51.  There is no sign on the highway at the launching area, one of many breaks in the lush vegetation just beyond the highway shoulder.  The narrow oxbow lake on the east side of the highway and the tandem pipeline crossing it, serve as a landmarks.  A good hint you are at the right place are vehicles with canoe or kayak racks or a canoe trailer or two parked along the highway shoulder.
        At the put-in there are no facilities of any sort, just a wide gravel and dirt bank sloping to the water.   Before shoving off, show respect to the fishers that are always fishing from the bank and ask if where you are parking is OK. Trailered motorboats are also launched from here and drivers need room to back close to the water.
        Once in the water, head due west under the elevated I-55 to the broad mouth of the bayou. Paddle past a straight narrow canal on the left.  There are few opportunities to become lost.   The few options there are to leave the main bayou channel are obviously overgrown and impassable.
      No license or permit is required for recreational boating--paddling or otherwise--within the boundaries of Manchac Swamp WMA as long as you stay on the water.  Licenses are needed only if you hunt or fish in a WMA or step on to WMA land. The launch site at Shell Bank Bayou is outside WMA boundaries, so no license, stamp or permit is needed to paddle Shell Bank Bayou. 


       The only hiking trail into the Maurepas Swamp WMA is on old US 51 just south of the Shell Bank Bayou put-in.  To use this out and back half-mile long trail you will be on WMA property so you must have a hunting or fishing license.  Don't want to hunt of fish?  Get the Wild Louisiana Stamp.  Available at just about any big box store with a sporting goods department, the annual stamp is $9.50.  Licenses/stamps are good for one year and expire at the end of June.
         All visitors hiking in WMAs must have a WMA Self-Clearing Permit (SCP).  The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries uses SCPs to keep track of the number of people who visit WMAs and what they do there when they visit.  Kiosks with SCPs can be found at many WMA launches and trailheads or can downloaded from the LDWF website.  Again, SCPs are not required for recreational boating in Shell Bank Bayou because the launch off old US 51 is not on WMA property and you will not be stepping out onto WMA land.   But you will need a SCP and a valid license/stamp if hiking in the WMA.  Visit the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website for SCP details.
     If you want to bring a school group to explore the hiking trail, call the LDWF.  They are anxious to show off WMAs and will streamline the permitting process to accommodate educational groups.
       (The nearby Joyce WMA, a few miles north offers a hike on a 1,000 foot long boardwalk trail extending east from a shell parking lot on old US 51 through the swamp to a deck overlooking a marsh.  The boardwalk and parking area are closed now for reconstruction of the boardwalk which was damaged in Hurricane Isaac in 2012.)
     Also, even though you do not have to have a Self-Clearing Permit (SCP) to paddle in the swamp, stop by the kiosk at the hiking trail trail head and fill one out.  This lets WMA managers know you were in the refuge to paddle.   When decisions are made on how to allocate funding, WMA managers who see lots and lots of these permits from paddlers may be more inclined to invest in facilities for them.  Write on the SCP the refuge you visited and mark through BOATING and print canoe or kayak.

Massey's Professional Outfitters, 800.754.7467.  Canoe and kayak rental.  No delivery or pickup.
Canoe and Trail Adventures, call or text, 504.233.0686.  Guided canoe trips for groups into Manchac Swamp.  Monthly moonlight trips.
Louisiana Lost Lands Environmental Tours, kayak tours with tour guide. By appointment;
LDWF, Hammond Office, (985)543-4777 or  For WMA rules and regulations click on hunting regulations.
Field checked April 20, 2014. 

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