Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bogue Falaya: Bogue Falaya Park to Lee Rd. Bridge (LA 437)

 Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club members pose on a Bogue Falaya River sandbar just upstream from the Lee Rd. (LA 437) bridge, November 22, 2015.  A group of five paddled upstream from the Columbia St. Landing in Covington to the bar.  From left are Dirk Van Duym of Covington and the leader of the group; Evelyn Almquist, Metairie; Pierre Sargent, Baton Rouge and Gina DiVincent, Metairie.  The USGS gauge at the Boston St. bridge in Covington was reading 2.02 feet when the picture was taken. 

       For 28 miles the Bogue Falaya River flows in a southwesterly direction from the piney woods of Washington Parish to its juncture with the Tchefuncte River south of downtown Covington, LA.  Shallow and creek-like until it gets to Covington (LA), it flows the color of caramel, taking the tint from the tannin that leaches into the stream from the decaying vegetation at its banks.
        At Covington, the Bogue Falaya a tributary to the Tchefuncte River which flows into Lake Pontchartrain, was deep enough to become a 19th century river of commerce.  Beginning with the founding of Covington in the early 1800s, the landing at the end of Columbia St. was busy with freight and passengers carried by small steamboats and shallow draft sailing schooners traveling to and from New Orleans.
          The vibrant and noisy wharves are gone now, replaced by a quiet park.  In modern times hubbub on the river most likely comes from recreational use.   Palatial homes built on high ground along the river's waterfront, many with docks and boat houses, are home to a wide variety of speedboats, ski boats and personal watercraft.  The waterway buzzes with motorboat traffic when the weather is nice.
            When the Louisiana Natural and Scenic Streams system was created by the state legislature in 1970--one of the nation's first--the Bogue Falaya River was not included.  When amended into the system later only the portion of the river--from the LA 437 bridge north of Covington to the river's headwaters in Washington Parish--was included in the act's protections.

A canoe trip is planned

           Except for those living in its immediate vicinity, the Bogue Falaya is not a favorite among paddlers.  Access to the stream is difficult.  The only two public access points for paddlers are below the Boston St. Bridge in Covington where motorboat traffic is common.  There is no public access on the upper Bogue Falaya upstream of the Lee Rd. bridge where the river is like a creek, winding and shaded by leafy tree canopies and too shallow for the motorboats to go.
          Dirk Van Duym loves to canoe.  Born into a canoeing family, the Covington architect has spent his spare time in the years since exploring the streams and bayous of Southeast Louisiana and beyond, sometimes confidently going by himself, at other times in the company of like-minded adventurers.  On these trips he is almost always paddling his sleek lightweight, cream-white, handmade in New York state, solo canoe.
        Early in November, Van Duym had an urge to go canoeing on the Bogue Falaya River, a stream he paddles occasionally because of its convenience.  (Van Duym's favorite canoeing venue in the parish is Cane Bayou.)  Portions of the river in Covington are on track to be mapped and signed creating the parish's first "blueway" or paddle trail and some time had passed since the veteran paddler last explored it.   He especially wanted a fresh impression of the stretch between the Bogue Falaya Park upstream to the Lee Rd. (LA 437) bridge, a stretch of the historic waterway less likely to be invaded by speeding powerboats.  This stretch of the river is not included in the Louisiana Natural and Scenic Streams System.
          A member of the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club, (BHPC) Van Duym posted notice of his upcoming trip on the BHPC calendar.  He described a trip that differed slightly from standard BHPC outings:  It was billed as a "social trip."   And paddlers would be going upstream working against a current for half of the trip.  (The trip was out and back.)
        While all BHPC trips are, at their core "social," trips, some trips require more skill, stamina and specialized gear than others.  Leaders carefully rate the difficulty of the trips they lead.   Ratings are based on the distance to be paddled and the required skill and experience needed to control a canoe or kayak in the expected conditions.  Paddlers are expected to choose trips within their ability.
        In BHPC Speak "social" means a benign trip where everyone is welcome, even tyros in borrowed boats with only a passing interest in paddling.  No one is left behind.  Gear or paddling skill are not issues.  Just be sure to wear a life jacket.  And if not a BHPC member bring five dollars to cover insurance.
        Van Duym's outing plans even included docking at a riverfront restaurant for a late lunch before taking out.  The trip was expected to take about four hours at most.
         Paddling upstream is commonly thought of as going the wrong way, even by experienced paddlers.  Because most paddling trips are on creeks and rivers with currents too strong to overcome when paddling against them (even a sluggish flow of just one mile an hour can require significant effort to overcome) paddlers have to resort to tedious vehicle shuttles to complete most paddle trips on moving water.  The necessity for a vehicle shuttle is eliminated when, after paddling upstream, boaters turn around and follow the current back to the put-in.
         To explore this stretch of the Bogue Falaya, paddling upstream is the only option unless permission from a landowner fronting the river can be secured prior to launching.  There are no public access points upstream of the Columbia St. landing.
          Van Duym's goal for the group was to paddle upstream about two miles to the Lee Rd. (LA 437) bridge then float back to the restaurant.  This objective was not set in concrete:  If at any point the current became too strong to master easily, the group would turn around, Van Duym promised.  But Van Duym found the Bogue Falaya's current to be tame enough for upstream paddling on two previous trips so the chances were good the group could make it.
          The seven-day weather forecast ahead of the trip could not have been more inviting: blue skies and cool temperatures.  A prediction of rain earlier in the week did not appear to be much of a problem.  Nine paddlers expressed interest via email.
           But as the trip drew closer the forecast for Saturday suddenly darkened to grey clouds with light rain followed by the coldest temperatures since March.  Surprisingly, the mid-week rain, raised the water level significantly, quickening the current considerably, bringing the chocolate brown, silt-laden river to the edge of its banks.
           Paddlers contemplating an upstream paddle on the Bogue Falaya should look for a water level of 1.75 feet or below at  the USGS gauge on the Boston St. bridge in Covington to have at least a fighting chance of making it upstream to the Lee Rd. bridge. Water levels higher than 2.30 can create currents of two miles per hour or more, too fast for even a strong paddler to overcome for long.  A couple of days before the BHPC trip the water level of the river was about five feet.
         After the rain stopped, and the sun came out Van Duym emailed frequently about the slowly falling water levels.  A "Plan B" was proposed.  The trip roster shrank.

Evelyn Almquist heads downstream on the Bogue Falaya River north of Covington, LA., Nov. 21, 2015.  She was part of a group of five members of the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club exploring the river, on tap to be included in the first blueway or paddle trail planned for St. Tammany Parish, the Three Rivers Paddling Trail.

Launching into history   

      Before the Civil War, timber, naval stores, bricks, cotton, cattle and produce from land-locked forests and farms as far away as Mississippi and Alabama were hauled by wagon to the Columbia Street Landing for shipment across Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans and markets beyond.
        But after the Civil War, (town officials voted to remain loyal to the Union but sympathies of the townspeople were with the new Confederate nation), hard times came to Covington.  A rapidly expanding network of railroads began providing both a cheaper and quicker alternative to shipping by water.  But there was no railroad to Covington.  Business from moving freight on the Bogue Falaya River dried up.
        Finally, in the late 1880s a spur railroad from Slidell reached Covington connecting the town with New Orleans.  The northshore, long known for its healthful pine-scented environment and mineral springs, now boomed with tourism.  The train trip from New Orleans to Covington took only two and a half hours, each way.  People began to commute.  Pictures taken about the turn of the 20th century show sailing schooners and steam packets competing for space at the landing.
        The wharves and bustling commerce they enabled are long gone.   A plaque and a small, quiet park, often used for low-key outdoor concerts, commemorate those commercial heydays of the last century.  The bare clay stevedores trod toting bales of cotton a century or more ago is now a lush green and groomed lawn surrounded by tall trees.  A nice place for a picnic.
          Five paddlers, two using kayaks and three in solo canoes, gathered at 10 a.m. at the landing and prepared to launch.  The group would launch under an oppressive grey sky that looked like it could pour rain at any minute, just the opposite of what was forecast a week ago.  On the other hand, temperatures were mild and there was no wind.
          River levels at the Boston St. bridge gauge had fallen significantly, the still murky river measuring 2.27 feet.  About a foot higher than the last time he made the trip but still low enough to make an attempt, Van Duym said.  The trip was on.
             At this water level there was no sandy beach exposed at the landing.  The grass and clay bank met the water directly and was as slick as melted butter.  Trying to avoid an embarrassing and drenching capsize, paddlers briefly became comedic contortionists to get situated in their tippy craft.  Safely away from shore everyone dug their paddles into the brown water and settled into the rhythm of the trip.  Next stop- Lee Rd. bridge!

Are we there yet?

         Passing under the Boston St. bridge, the high US 190 bridge a few yards upstream and under some power lines the group made good headway.  Here the river is about 30 feet wide and almost free of stumps and blow downs.  (Which is a mystery as post cards from the late 1890's show Gilded Age ladies in long dresses shaded by frilly parasols canoeing a Bogue Falaya River clogged with much more debris than in it now.)
          Very few structures are visible from the river, a couple of houses maybe, most of them well back from the water.  Here the river flows by the muddy banks of a flood plain.  A dense covering of squat, woody shrubbery grows down to the water's edge and there is a smattering of pine trees.  This stretch of the river has an open feeling, the faint smell of the mud, the river and the surrounding flood plain hung in the still air.
         It was only a hundred years ago that the last of the easy to reach, slow growing hardwoods and tall, old growth pine trees growing here were harvested and cut into lumber, sent by water and rail to shipyards in nearby Madisonville or to New Orleans to become homes.
          Vegetation hugging the banks is still green, lush.  Fall is a fleeting and brief season in this part of Louisiana and it really has not been cold enough long enough to kill anything yet.  When this trip was made there had not even been a night of frost on the northshore.  There was a light frost a few days later.
         Evidence of a current began about where the Little Bogue Falaya comes in from river left.  When flowing past stumps and sticks paddlers noticed the river's otherwise smooth surface now wrinkled into little "Vs" pointing upstream.  It became more of an effort to maintain headway and keep parallel with the current against the quickening flow.  Losing headway against a current means a boat can be swept sideways quickly and pushed downstream.  If swept into a stump or blow down before a paddler can regain control the water piles up against the upstream side of the pinned boat swamping it.  An unsuspecting paddler can be dumped in seconds.
          As the group nears highway 437 the scenery begins to transition from bottomland hardwood forest to upland pine.  As a result the small river becomes more like a large creek.   Paddlers are now churning a translucent stream the color of strong, sweet tea, squeezed between steep, dark loamy banks with more trees, less undergrowth.  Some taller trees grow at an angle, nearly meeting, their crowns forming a leafy canopy over a quickening but quiet stream.  It is pretty here.
         But the paddlers are too busy paddling for sight-seeing.   Paddling against an ever stronger current, hearing the traffic noise from the highway at their goal motivates the tired boaters to stroke harder.  At the bridge paddlers flail against the stiff current struggling to pass under the narrow concrete span.  Once upstream Van Duym directs the group to a slack-water pool and sandbar--the first sandbar they have seen since leaving the muddy slippery launch in downtown Covington.
          Despite the tenacious grey skies the gloomy weather seems to brighten a bit as paddlers step out of their boats onto the coarse tan sand to stretch and rest.  They made it.
         Standing on the narrow sandbar, Van Duym made a big reveal.  Up by the road and out of sight, was the lot where the first house he designed once stood.  Viewing Google Earth on his computer he saw that the house must have burned to the ground recently, leaving only a charred scar, he said.
          The group, having attained their goal, was anxious to head back.  After a brief rest they slid their boats back into the water happy to be hurried downstream by the current, now in their favor.  Somewhere near the Little Bogue Falaya, the group passed two boys fishing, one in a kayak-- the only people the group saw during their time on the river.  The boys said that the river can be busy with kayak traffic on weekends if the weather is nice.
          Several times a light drizzle would prompt the paddlers to don rain gear only to have to take it off a few minutes later when the rain stopped.
           With the current in their favor the five slightly damp paddlers made it to the restaurant dock in about an hour.  On the restaurant's back deck, chilled but pleased with their accomplishment, the quintet warmed to a repast of seafood and red beans and rice washed down with cups of hot decaf coffee before launching again for the quick paddle back to Columbia St. Landing and the drive home.

"Covington" by David Arbo, 2011.  A book in the "Images of America" series published by Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina.
The plan was to launch from the Bogue Falaya Park but a festival in the park closed it to paddlers. The put-in was moved outside park boundaries a few dozen yards upstream of the Columbia St. Landing.  Neither access is particularly accommodating to paddlers launching a canoe or kayak so one is as good as another for a put-in.  Both are free.  Check the Bogue Falaya Park website for hours of operation.  Parking at the park and the landing might seem like a long way from the water if you are carrying a heavy boat so you might want to bring a folding, two-wheel boat caddy.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Paddling the Abita River Nov. 4, 2015

On the Abita River in St. Tammany Parish (LA) about a mile east of the US 190 bridges, Bob Satterlee of Madisonville and Karen Christ of Covington paddle past old growth cypress draped with Spanish moss.  Parish officials are considering tagging the river a "blueway" to encourage recreational use of the stream.
by Jack Curry Jr.
        The winding Abita River flows just 9.3 miles SSW from its creek-like headwaters east of the town of Abita Springs, LA to its broad mouth on the Bogue Falaya in Covington.  The river, designated a "Natural and Scenic River" by the state runs through a remote flood plain in St. Tammany Parish providing paddlers a surprisingly tranquil wilderness experience in the middle of one of the fastest growing parishes in Louisiana.
          The river is a navigable waterway, open to the public, providing access to a lovely wetland having no terrestrial public access.
         The river will be a treat for casual paddlers and nature lovers.  After only 15-20 minutes or so on the water paddlers will find themselves surrounded by a bottomland hardwood forest unsullied by modern man-made development.  Paddlers say they have seen deer in the upland pine forest on the high ground.  There is no current for quite a way upstream so an out-and-back trip of several miles, at least up to the US 190 bridges, is easy.
      Figure a trip from the launch to the bridges and back to take about two hours.  
      Access the mouth of the Abita River by launching into the Bogue Falaya from the boat launch at the end of 4th St. in Covington.  The launch area is small and busy with people launching boats and personal watercraft from trailers.  For those paddling canoes or kayaks with tender hulls there is a patch of grass near the water.  For everyone else the concrete ramps are fine.  Launch and park for free.  There is no drinking water or restrooms at the launch. Vehicles without trailers can use the four or five parking places next to the river.
       From the launch paddle to the right or downriver.  After the first bend turn left into the Abita River.

A living Louisiana post card

       For the first mile or so on the Abita's left bank there are a few lavish lawns leading up to large homes built on high ground.  The right bank, most of it taken up by a Tulane University research center, remains wild with thick vegetation growing down to the water's edge.
       The muddy, grassy banks of the stream, the color of army green, looks like alligator habitat to me. Surprisingly, I don't see any.  Along the banks and in the shallows of streams closer to Lake Pontchartrain the toothy, grinning reptilians are often seen sunning on logs malevolently eyeing humans paddling past.  Maybe if we were on paddle boards, and a much easier to access snack, we might have flushed a couple of the clandestine carnivorous lizards .  I just hope no one living in those nice homes on the high ground thinks it is cool to feed them--if they are there.
        There is no public land accessible to to paddlers the length of the river both because all the land on both banks is privately owned and the dense vegetation of woody shrubs and stickers grows to water; a natural defense preventing anyone leaving their boats and climbing up the short steep and often slippery banks.
         The thickets are, of course, excellent habitat for a variety of wild creatures who have continued to live their lives as if humans and their developments did not exist.  Bird life is plentiful.  Sometimes a pretty good sized fish, maybe an alligator gar, will jump making a splash that shatters the otherwise placid setting.  A couple of times the river's winding channel splits to pass around a soggy island dense with reeds and woody tangle.
         Paddlers lose the serenity of the wilderness briefly as they pass under the US 190 bridges, assaulted by the noise of the thundering traffic above.  But as paddlers continue upstream the noise recedes very quickly, apparently soaked up by the verdant surroundings.  Soon paddlers will find themselves serenely drifting amid old growth baldcypress festooned with mats of grey Spanish moss; a living Louisiana post card.
          Even this far up the short river, about an hour's travel time from the Covington launch, the river is still wide enough for paddlers to navigate around the few trees that have been blown into the stream bed.

Even the benign Abita River is not without hazards.

       Benign as paddling on the Abita R. is most of the time, be aware of a few dangerous situations.
       The most dangerous situation comes right after leaving the launch in Covington.  Immediately downriver from the launch a no-wake zone ends.  Captains of speedboats, ski boats and personal watercraft often as large as sub-compact cars, hit the gas at this informal "starting line."  Paddlers looking for the entrance of the Abita River should exit the center channel of the Bogue Falaya as soon as possible staying close to the river's left bank as they seek the partially hidden entrance to the Abita River's mouth.
         There is no United States Geological Survey (USGS) gauge on the river making it difficult to determine water levels in advance of a trip.   Low water levels may not be a big deal; snags and blow downs may require more steering to avoid but considering the negligible current this is not a problem even for beginners.  A big advantage of exploring the river starting at its mouth is if it becomes too shallow to be fun you just turn around and paddle back to the launch.
         But at higher than normal water levels the river is downright dangerous.  The river is prone to flash flooding, becoming a muddy torrent after even a brief heavy rain.  Water levels can rise very quickly creating a dangerous fast current and the steep banks make escape difficult.   Do not paddle the Abita R. without knowing the latest weather forecast and stay off of it if it is muddy.
         It can seem the Abita River is two rivers in one.  Starting at the mouth the river is deep and fairly broad, 15-25 feet wide in most places. But upstream, at the town of Abita Springs, the river is an inviting creek, flowing the color of iced tea over a shallow sand bed you can step across.   The channel appears to be free of debris as far as the eye can see.  That is the problem.  The winding river does not allow you to see very far.  That makes launching into the river at Abita Springs a bad idea.  How much of the river will you float before you come to an impenetrable log jam?  Walking a canoe or kayak back up stream is not fun.
         I don't know where the easily paddled stream I experienced November 4, 2015 changes to a twisting, narrow and shallow creek.  But somewhere between the US 190 bridges and the town of Abita Springs the "two" rivers join.  The trio I was in exploring the creek turned around about where the picture opening this post was taken.  Yet even here the current was hardly noticeable.  Looking at the USGS topo map (Covington Quad) later it looked like another mile or so of easy paddling was possible.
          As with any adventure always let someone know where who are going and when you expect to finish.  Put anything that cannot get wet in a dry bag or container.  Pack as if you will capsize suddenly at any moment.  You might.  Bring rain gear on every trip no matter what the weather is or forecast to be.  And do you need to be told that you and your children must wear life jackets when on the water?