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?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jack, what a beautiful description of an idyllic day. Thank you!