Sunday, September 21, 2014

Big Branch Marsh USFWS cleanup nets about 1,000 lbs of trash

Angie Braaten (left) a volunteer at Big Branch Marsh NWR Beach Sweep, September 20, 2014, tells Emma Congalton (right), a volunteer intern with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) what types of trash she picked up.  Braaten, an English teacher at Salmen High School in Slidell brought several students with her to help with the trash pickup efforts.  Congalton, from Durham, NH, is an environmental education intern at the refuge.
       Saturday morning, nearly 40 volunteers of all ages gathered at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service boat launch on Lake Rd. south of Lacombe, LA to begin a three-pronged assault on trash and litter near the launch, the most visited site in the 15,000-acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
        A large portion of the refuge is wetland, accessible only by motorboat, canoe or kayak.  Crisscrossed with numerous unnamed bayous and dotted with ponds the marsh in Big Branch Marsh NWR is popular with fishers and hunters. 
       The marsh is on the Mississippi Flyway, an avian highway for migrating birds flying to and from North and South America.  Bird watchers visit the preserve to observe the variety neotropical birdlife migrating through the marsh spring and fall.  USFWS officials estimate 100,000 people annually use the popular Lake Rd. boat launch to put into Bayou Lacombe near Lake Pontchartrain. 
        Lucky with the weather--bright sun, low humidity and a slightly cool but still comfortable for short sleeves morning--the volunteers, and a sprinkling of full-time USFWS staffers, divided into three groups.  One group scoured the shoulders of Lake Rd.  A second group prowled the quiet sloughs in canoes.  A third smaller group of adults boarded an airboat for a swift trip to where the marsh meets Lake Pontchartrain near Point Platte.
       On the narrow beach the group of five spent about two hours combing the thin ribbon of sand, and the marsh immediately behind it, for bottles, cans and all forms of plastic trash marring the pristine scene.  "Beach" is a bit of an exaggeration.  Often only a yard or two of tan sand separated thick stands of stiff, green marsh grass, punctuated by an occasional bright purple morning glory and the lapping waters of the lake.  And even that meager apron disappeared when the marsh grasses grew to the water's edge blocking passage farther by foot.
       Sand beaches are rare on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.  When sand is not hauled in or washed in from somewhere else, beaches are usually formed by eons of wave action pulverizing rock into fine bits and depositing the tiny grains up on the shore as sand.  The bottom of Lake Pontchartrain is predominately silt overlain by a thick organic layer of mucks and peats. No rocks here.
       From the remote strand the view to the north, east and west is of thousands of acres of featureless prairie--green marsh grass mostly the horizontal sameness broken only occasionally by a rattlebox shrub, its long green seed pods dangling, twisting in the breeze.  In the distance there are pine trees, evidence of the slightly higher and drier ground that marks the edge of the marsh.  You have to look hard to see any evidence of man.
       The scene probably looks as it did in the spring of 1699 when a 26-year old Pierre le Moyne Sieur d' Iberville and a small party of French explorers traveling in dugout canoes camped at nearby Goose Point.  Establishing a base camp on Ship Island after arriving from France just a few weeks prior, the group was exploring the Pontchartrain Basin for the first time looking for a site to colonize, securing their claim to the land.  Iberville's younger brother would later found New Orleans on the Mississippi River in 1718 but that is a long story.
       Lake Pontchartrain fills the view to the south.   On mornings such as this when the first faint cool front of the fall moves through, bringing a bright sun to dry the air and paint the sky bright blue, tall buildings in downtown New Orleans 20 miles away can be seen from the lake's north shore.
       Regrouping at the USFWS boat launch for a light lunch provided by the Friends of Louisiana Wildlife Refuges, the group of high school students from Slidell, and adults--for which high school is a very distant memory--got an estimate of what was collected.
     "It looks like at least a thousand pounds," announced David Stoughton, surveying the pile of black garbage bags bloated with trash.  Stoughton is a Supervisory Park Ranger at Big Branch Marsh and the "volunteer wrangler" there.
       Volunteers also plucked a couple of abandoned wire crab traps from the preserve's muck, removing a danger to boaters who visit the refuge.  The refuge is open only during daylight hours and even if you could find a spot dry enough to camp in the marsh, which is not very likely, camping anywhere in Big Branch Marsh NWR is strictly prohibited.
       Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is one of eight refuges in southeast Louisiana headquartered on a 110-acre tract of of the refuge along scenic Bayou Lacombe, 61389 LA Highway 434 just north of highway U.S. 190, and just east of "downtown" Lacombe.  The facility is surrounded by a variety of formal garden areas, camellia gardens and ornamental species and was once operated as a commercial garden attraction. The grounds, maintained largely by volunteers, are open Monday-Friday 7:30 am - 4:00 pm.  Free admission.
       Southeast Louisiana Refuges headquarters is on the site of a former boarding school operated by the Redemptorist Fathers.  The building that once housed the chapel now serves as the visitor center for the headquarters.  Under its soaring wooden vaulted ceilings are excellent displays explaining the fragile ecology of the wetlands of south Louisiana.  There is also a small gift shop.  The visitor center is free and is open three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 9:00 am-4:00 pm.
        Established in 1994, Big Branch Marsh NWR is one of the nation's newest federal refuges.
       National Wildlife Refuge Week is a big deal at the Lacombe headquarters.  The grounds host one of the largest "Wild Things" celebrations in the nation, attracting thousands of visitors.  There are displays, tours, demonstrations and presentations from almost all of the local organizations and governmental agencies that have something to do with the environment and recreation in it in Southeast Louisiana.  Very family friendly there are canoe rides and plenty of opportunities to touch stuff and animals. The 2014 "Wild Things" is scheduled for October 18.
       For more information call 985-882-2000 or 985/882-0093.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New Orleans ranked #22 on Bicycling magazine's list of America's Best Bike Cities

A sharrow in the right travel lane heading to the French Quarter
 of Orleans Ave. in New Orleans

        For the year 2013, New Orleans is ranked #22 on Bicycling magazine's 50 top cities for bicycling in the U.S.   The magazine ranked the city 43 in 2012.   Number one for 2013 was New York City.
       The rankings boost for New Orleans is attributed to the expansion of the city's bicycle network from about five miles to nearly 100 miles since Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, the magazine editors say in a blurb in the October 2014 edition of the magazine.
       (As reported in the Times-Picayune November 7, 2014, the city had 37 miles of dedicated, on-street bike lanes and 16.5 miles of off-street paths.  The city has 40 miles of designated "shared" lanes.
        Shared lanes are traffic lanes marked with "sharrows",  arrows and a bicycle glyph painted white on the roadway.  Some have signs too.  Shared lanes do not exclude motorized traffic.  Shared lanes offer little or no protection to cyclists because drivers follow the suggestion of sharing the lane with cyclists only if a driver wants to.  Many city streets with shared lanes carry heavy traffic.  Shared lanes are used on such busy city arteries as City Park Ave. leading from under an   Interstate interchange to Delgado Community College and east bound Orleans Ave. a four-lane street leading to the French Quarter.)
      However, infrastructure improvements over the past several years not mentioned in the magazine's appraisal do boost the city's reputation as a bike friendly town.  About two miles of Esplanade Ave. from City Park to Claiborne Ave. was resurfaced and restriped converting the narrow four-lane into one wider traffic lane and one bike lane in each direction.  This has become the main route used by cyclists traveling from the French Quarter to Lakeview and City Park.  (Cyclists must still negotiate a half-mile stretch of Esplanade riding in a narrow traffic lane between N. Claiborne and Rampart St. at the edge of the French Quarter.)
       Last year the bike path along Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish was finally finished after about 35 years of on and off construction and partial closings because of levee and pumping station construction.  Riders can now ride the entire 10-miles from Bucktown at the 17th Street Canal separating the parishes of Orleans and Jefferson west to Kenner without having to detour or leave the path for any reason.  The ride can be extended two miles (one-way) by turning south at the end of the path in Kenner onto the broad concrete service apron at the base of the storm wall along the Jefferson/St. Charles parish line.  This path dead-ends at a pumping station.  Until completion of an underpass at the Causeway Bridge last year, causeway traffic served as a de facto barrier separating the trail into east and west sections.   Cyclists and pedestrians would have sprint across six lanes of busy highway traffic to complete their trips on the path.   
       (While that path is not in New Orleans it is very popular with riders from New Orleans who ride it regularly and its existence contributes much to the cycling climate of the area.)
       To be completed in the spring of next year is the Lafitte Corridor multi-use path and playground, from N. Alexander St. near N. Carrollton Ave. to Basin St.  Construction of the path is well underway with the blacktop down in some sections.
A view of the path under construction in the Lafitte Corridor in New Orleans taken 09-11-2014.  The view is looking southwest towards N. Carrollton Ave. from N. Scott St.  Rouses is on the left.
       In a move sideways, two-way traffic was restored to Lakeshore Drive on weekends but to partially mollify cyclists who use the scenic roadway in great numbers, sharrows have been stenciled on the right lanes in each direction of the four-lane road.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Leaving canoes and kayaks in Bayou St. John (New Orleans) overnight now prohibited.

MOORING NO MORE-These canoes locked to the seawall on Bayou St. John in New Orleans will have to be removed by their owners soon or risk removal, impoundment and a $150 fine. The New Orleans City Council recently prohibited long-term storage (more than 24 hours) of canoes and kayaks on Bayou St. John.  Residents complai
ned the untended craft looked bad, were a mosquito nursery and attracted vermin.
        Almost empty of recreational paddlecraft for decades prior to Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, today historic Bayou St. John in New Orleans almost looks busy with a variety of canoes and kayaks creasing its calm waters.
       With the increasing numbers of paddlers using the five-mile long bayou, designated a scenic river by the state, has come the practice of in-the-water-storage of kayaks and canoes.  Most of the boats are locked to mooring rings along the bayou's seawall between the Magnolia Bridge across from Cabrini HS and the end of the bayou at Lafitte St.  Over the years the "fleet," consisting mostly  of lower priced recreational kayaks and canoes, the occasional pricey propeller drive fishing kayak and a few very well used aluminum canoes, has varied in number from about a dozen to over 40.   
       Residents began complaining about the all but abandoned paddlecraft locked up along the bayou soon after the practice began after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The mostly untended boats gradually fill with rainwater partially sinking into the bayou. Some say this is unsightly.  Barnacles cover the hulls and thin strands of bright green seaweed grow in the gray/green slime in the water-filled cockpits. Untreated wood or fabric rots. Boats pulled out of the water onto the grass behind the seawall become obstacles for tractors mowing the low levee flanking the bayou.  Faubourg St. John residents complained the sinking boats bred mosquitoes and attracted vermin.
       But not for much longer.
       Last week (September 4, 2014) the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a law giving the city the right to impound boats left in the bayou more than 24 hours. The mosquito control board will sticker outlaw boats which will then be hauled away after two days. The fine is stiff: $150, more than what many tied to the seawall are worth. A $10 a day storage fee will be charged and, if after five months no one claims the boat, it can be sold.
       The move to create a law to prohibit paddlecraft from being left tied to the banks for more than a day proceeded at a snails pace, in part, because jurisdiction over the bayou is shared by three entities: the state, the Orleans Levee District and the City of New Orleans.
        The bayou has not seen this much use by recreational paddlecraft since the late 19th and early 20th centuries when competing boating clubs would attract hundreds to their regattas held near the Esplanade bridge.  Today at least two businesses offer kayak tours to view the historic homes along its banks and wildlife attracted to the tranquil slough.  A SUP (stand-up paddling) business brings paddle boards to the bayou near the Mirabeau Bridge.  Many paddle the bayou for exercise or just drift on the water and view the bird life and wildlife nearby.    
       For the past two years (2013 and 2014) there has been a paddlecraft parade near the Orleans Ave. bridge the Fourth of July holiday.   Most of the kayaks, canoes and SUP's seen on the bayou are owned either by residents living near the waterway or by those who drive in from other parts of the city.  No power boats are allowed on the bayou and while non-motorized human powered craft are permitted, there are no developed launch facilities for them on the bayou.
      Launching into the bayou is problematic especially if you have a fragile composite hull of fiberglass or kevlar because in addition to the seawall there are stretches of broken concrete riprap and a slanted concrete retaining wall along the banks that make launching best attempted by the agile.
        New Orleans, founded in 1718, is about 90 miles up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. The trip up the winding river in the days of sail could take a month or more if the winds and currents were not cooperative.  Bayou St. John offered early settlers a waterborne route via Lake Pontchartrain that passed within two miles of the future city avoiding the time consuming river route.
       True, shipping the Lake Pontchartrain/Bayou St. John route had its problems.  Shallow water in the lake and bayou meant only smaller boats with a shallow draft could be used.  A lot of time was spent loading and unloading cargo and passengers to progressively smaller boats.  And then there was the matter of loading goods and people onto wagons for the two mile portage to the back of what is now the French Quarter.  But even with all that work shipping via the lake often would shave weeks off the transit time it took to sail up the serpentine Mississippi River.
       However, most of the traffic on the lake and the bayou was in service of trade along the gulf coast.  Ocean-going ships carrying cargo and passengers to and from Europe to New Orleans would still have to sail the Mississippi River to and from the city.
       Steamboats made for much faster travel both with and against winds and currents but they were not common on the river until after 1820.  And it was not until the 1850s that ocean going steam powered vessels came into regular service.