Friday, April 11, 2014

Take your bicycle on the Mississippi River ferry to Old Algiers Point and enjoy a little jazz with your weekend breakfast

Roy and Bill,  (Roy is on the right), set up for a photo shoot promoting their regular Saturday and Sunday morning performances at tout de suite, a coffee house and cafe in Old Algiers Point across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, LA.
This post is an update of the 4-25-12 post titled "Bicycle to Breakfast in Algiers (New Orleans)    

       I am again comfortably numb.  Paralyzed by relaxation.  This happens every time I bicycle the few miles from the go-go 24/7 party city of New Orleans to the laid back neighborhood of Algiers Point.  Taking the passenger ferry across a churning brown Mississippi River, and plunking myself down at a two-top covered with a red and white checked tablecloth outside tout de suite, a coffee house and cafe at the quiet corner of Alix and Verret in the historic district just does this to me.  Eighty-six reality, at least for a little while, while I drift in a caffeinated haze.
       A bright sun rising in a cloudless pale blue sky warms my bones while I enjoy my mid week, mid-morning reverie.  Every fifteen minutes I hear from across the street, a loudspeaker hung on the outside of the the massive Tudor-Gothic brick bell tower of  Holy Name of Mary Catholic church broadcasting a reasonable rendition of London's Big Ben chiming.  Locals say it has been decades since actual bells in the belfry of the church, built in the 1920's, pealed the time.
     Few other distracting noises intrude.  This is not a busy corner, where Verret and Alix streets cross.  There is no need for a traffic light, just a stop sign.
     My wandering gaze lights on matching brown bicycles with fenders, fat tires and baskets locked to a bike rack shaped like a Celtic Cross a few feet away.  Cute.  I peer through the large place glass window into the cafe half-full with customers.  Wood all around, dark and exposed.  Kind of funky, really, but most of the art by local artists that had hung on these dark walls is gone.  A recently opened community art gallery nearby displays those pictures now.
       I write a blog about the outdoors.  Sitting here, having coffee at a table in front of a coffee house and cafe, in the sun, I am outdoors.  I am at work.
       I break my vacant, 2,000 yard stare to begin a conversation with a cheery middle aged woman wearing an apron busily loading stuff from the cafe into a station wagon at the curb.  She is Jill Marshall, owner of the tout de suite, a business she started ten years ago.  As soon as she accepts my invitation to chat, she sits down and begins to tell me about changes in her cafe's menu offerings to better reflect the cultural influences that have swirled through the cooking of Old Algiers for centuries.  Her face lights up as she highlights the changes.
       "Huevos rancheros, the best in the city, reflect the Spanish influence of the 18th century," she said.  Old favorites rooted in country French cooking that are popular have been retained.  The Atchafalaya, eggs topped with crawfish etouffee, and the definitely French pain perdu, an almond crusted brioche with seasonal fruits and berries, continue to satisfy.  The menu is diverse.  Soups, sandwiches, entree salads, desserts.  You want to come to tout de suite hungry.  Basic breakfast noshes are available and their coffee is certainly good but the reputation of tout de suite is built on their skilled and inventive kitchen.
        The thing about this place is that people go there to eat.  They order at the counter, sit down and are served and they stay to eat their food.  Not so much do people rush in to grab a cup of coffee and walk out the door sipping it as they talk on their iPhones on their way to somewhere else.  This IS the destination.
        Local products such as Steens cane syrup are featured.  Pies and cookies are house made and there is an organic cereal offering on the kid's menu.  Non-carnivores will find plenty on the menu to suit them from wild mushroom macaroni with four cheeses to quinoa patties.  (The complete menu is at
       Moving away from food I quizzed her about how the reduction in ferry hours has affected her business.  The ferry had always appealed to Algiers Point visitors, offering a quick and convenient connection with the French Quarter without having to drive over the Mississippi River bridge.
       But that was when the ferry ran from early in the morning to nearly midnight.  Now the schedule is a fraction of that.  During the week service ends about the time people get off from work and is of little use for anyone with an early morning schedule.  The weekend schedule has been similarly gutted.
       She said while there may be fewer tourists having breakfast in her place (Sunday, the first ferry does not leave the Canal Street ferry dock until 11 am), she now serves more locals on weekends who would have otherwise crossed the river to breakfast in the French Quarter.
       "It has been kind of a wash," she said.
       Live jazz music packs the place Saturday and Sunday mornings beginning at 9 am so I asked her if those staying in New Orleans miss out on the live music at tout de suite because of the late morning ferry schedule.
       "Oh no.  They play until noon," she said.  As if on cue, the duo of Roy and Bill, who play at those jazz sessions, began to set up a photo shoot behind us at the curb on the corner.
       All too soon my coffee cup is empty so it's time to leave.  I thanked Jill for the conversation and started to ride my bicycle back to the ferry, a grueling six tenths of a mile. 
Pelican Gulf gas station c. 1929.  Closed in 1990
and reopened as Gulf Pizza. (504) 373-5379.

      While Algiers Point was settled within months of when New Orleans was founded in 1718, the historic district of Algiers Point looks like a village from the late 19th century.  This is because most of the homes were built about that time after a disastrous fire destroyed most of the existing housing stock.
       The historic area is small, bounded by the curve in the river and Atlantic and Newton streets.  However most of the good stuff is clustered within a six or seven block radius of the ferry landing.  Just let yourself wander around and soak up the vibe.
        If you are on a bike, or like to walk a lot, take advantage of the paved path topping Mississippi River levee.  To the south, (upriver,) the path runs three miles to Gretna, the parish seat of Jefferson Parish.  The view from the path is mostly river related business and the New Orleans skyline.  A tidy neighborhood of modest shotgun houses comes into view as you near Gretna.  Two blocks from the river on Huey P. Long Ave. a red caboose serves as a railroad museum for this once very busy railroad town.  Eateries in Gretna, now home to many parish governmental offices, are mostly sandwich shops feeding lunch to office workers.  But look around, you might find something special.
       The first weekend in October, Gretna is home to one of the largest music festivals in the area, Gretna Fest.
        Heading east (downriver) from the ferry landing, the path runs for another mile and a half before it deadends at Merrill St.  Other than views of river traffic and industrialized St. Bernard Parish on the far bank there is not much to see.  But the path does pass in front of the Old Point Bar which offers an extensive music schedule packed with local bands.  (Riders can come off the levee and ride Patterson Road to the Chalmette Ferry and cross over to St. Bernard Parish.  But riders exit the ferry onto a narrow two-lane with heavy traffic surrounded by large chemical plants and shipping interests.  Not a recommended ride.)
         Both paths have historical plaques installed at ground level.  You may have to look for them but it is worth the effort as they give an idea of what was here before.  Across the street from the ferry landing is The Dry Dock Cafe,  The cafe/bar, popular with locals and tourists alike, offers lunch and dinner seven days a week.  Around the corner on Pelican St., a weekly quiz night at The Crown and Anchor,, keeps patrons entertained.
        If walking or riding at night at Algiers Point, use common sense to keep safe, especially after dark.  Don't venture far from from the ferry landing and stick to areas that are well lighted.  Always be aware of your surroundings and maybe wait until you are back on the ferry before blocking your hearing with headphones.
        Boarding the ferry, I met the riders of the matching brown bikes with baskets I saw at the cafe.  A young couple visiting from Seattle, they said they rented the bikes and that they loved the food at the cafe.  The fare for the ferry trip, $2 each way was a bargain for them as they pay more than that for bus fare they said.
      As I walked my bike up the ramp at Canal Street I glanced down river to see workers setting up for French Quarter Fest.  With opening day tomorrow, workers were busy pitching the food tents and building the stages.  Only Mardi Gras attracts more visitors to New Orleans than French Quarter Fest, a music festival featuring only local performers.  The "free" festival (this year attendees will be searched at check points around the festival perimeter to make sure they do not smuggle in food or drink) now draws more people than Jazz Fest.
       I can only imagine what the crowds will be like when Dr. John takes the stage Friday night.  Probably a lot like Mardi Gras, only warmer.

For more information visit
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Day hiking Black Creek Wilderness and Red Hills in De Soto National Forest in Mississippi

Black Creek Trail between Melvin Breland Rd and Red Hills Cemetery
       When hikers hear of the 41-mile Black Creek Hiking Trail in Mississippi's De Soto National Forest, about a two-hour drive northeast of New Orleans, right away they want to hike the whole thing in one trip.  They think: Start at Big Creek Landing, hike southeast to Cypress Creek Landing, the trail's eastern terminus.  Takes four to five days.  Done.  Next!
        But not everybody has the kind of time or even interest to take the Magnolia State's longest hiking trail in one big bite.  Fortunately for the rest of us, Black Creek Hiking Trail can be broken into much shorter chunks suitable for weekend backpacking or even day hiking using car shuttles to connect various trailheads along the trail.
        Shuttles?  The only problem with hiking the Black Creek Trail is that it is linear.  No loops.  So any distance you hike one-way on the trail, from five miles to the whole 41 miles, will require either turning around and retracing your steps or at least two cars, one parked at the start and one at the finish, to complete the trip.
       After accepting this one negatory, you will find Black Creek Trail has some lovely short hikes that match any level of interest in exploring up close and personal the Piney Woods region of southeast Mississippi.  Oh, and one other thing.  Pack bug repellent year around.  You will be glad you did.  And do I need to mention that summers are hot, and that hunters are hunting something most of the cooler months of the year so wear hunter orange when hiking?
        Many experienced hikers say the 5058-acre Black Creek Wilderness and/or the adjoining rugged Red Hills offer the most scenic hikes in the entire 382,000 acre De Soto National Forest.   Black Creek Wilderness, about a two-hour drive northeast of New Orleans, is the closest federally designated wilderness area to the Crescent City.
       "Parts of the trail in the wilderness area are gorgeous, if you know where to look," said Robert Reams, a veteran hiker who has hiked portions of Black Creek Trail many times as part of his job as archaeologist with the De Soto National Forest's De Soto Ranger District based in Wiggins, MS.
      Black Creek Hiking Trail twists and turns 10.8 miles through the pristine wilderness.  Heading west to east hikers enter the wilderness area from the trailhead on highway MS 29 near Janice Landing and Black Creek.  The trail is well marked with white diamonds nailed to the trees.  But machinery and wheeled vehicles are prohibited in federal wilderness areas so all trail maintenance must be done manually with hand tools.  This leaves the trail a bit rugged as big chores, such as removing large trees that have fallen across the trail, apparently are a low priority. 
      "It took us almost three years to reopen this section of the Black Creek Trail after hurricane Katrina in 2005," said Reams.  Black Creek Hiking Trail, both inside and outside the wilderness area is maintained by a contractor.  Pruning and cutting is done every two to three years as needed.  If the trail looks especially trimmed this year it is because the trail was recently groomed, Reams said.
The walk around Beaver Creek, in the wilderness, is especially scenic though there is access to the creek only on its eastern bank.  Leaving the confluence of Beaver Creek and Black Creek, the trail courses through a hardwood flood plain of red maple, oak, pine and bald cypress until it turns south and gently rises onto a piney flat at the eastern edge of the wilderness at Melvin Breland Rd. (FS 382B).  There is parking here for about three to five cars at an undeveloped dirt pull-out.
       (Searching the Internet will return several references to parking and access to the trail at St. Andrews Church on Florida Gas Road, often mistakenly identified as New York Rd. That may have been true 20 years ago but not now. Now the "church" grounds are festooned with menacing no trespassing signs and the satellite dishes on the building are a good indication that the building is now used as a home. Topo maps of the area show the building and grounds sit within national forest property lines but Reams said even a public employee in a marked vehicle would be taking a risk parking there for any reason.)
        Melvin Breland Rd. marks the eastern boundary of the wilderness. Continuing east after crossing the road the trail changes dramatically, widening to about 10 feet, the forest highland becoming more open with fewer tall trees and more bushy understory.  Some of that open feeling is due to the severe toll the high winds of Hurricane Katrina took on trees in De Soto.  But also hikers are now outside the wilderness area so the trail is maintained with power tools and motorized equipment carts. 
      Right after crossing Melvin Breland Rd. he trail drops gradually from the piney highlands down to the flood plain, 10-15 feet above Black Creek flowing at the edge of a steep cutbank  The only access to the creek here is a well-worn, short unsigned spur leading to a sad narrow sandbar which looks like it is eroding away.  But on a hot day any access to the cooling waters of the creek would be welcome.
      Right after the spur to the sandbar, the trail veers sharply to the west southwest leaving the shade of the hardwood flood plain and enters the more open Red Hills.  That is when things become challenging.  For the next two miles steep climbs--straight up, there are no switchbacks--of about 100 vertical feet will have some hikers on their toes and breathing heavily as they crest each hilltop.  Just as steep are the descents to the valley floor where wooden foot bridges cross small, clear creeks.  The clear rivulets, some named on the map, some not, tumble, bubble and burble over the sandy stream beds splotched tan, dark brown and olive.
     From Melvin Breland Rd. to where FS 318B-1 crosses the trail near Red Hill Cemetery only about 3.5 trail miles but the shuttle distance is much longer.  Where the trail crosses FS 318B-1 is space for a few vehicles to park.  Hikers parking here can make a nice out-and-back hike through the hills.  Head north. 
       From Red Hill Cemetery the trail tracks southeast and gradually looses elevation as the hills level out and the path returns to the flood plain.  Here the trail might be wet after a rainy spell.  The eastern terminus of Black Creek Hiking Trail is Fairley Bridge Landing, a primitive campground 2.6 miles from Red Hill Cemetery.  At Fairley Bridge there is a vault toilet and a few picnic tables but no potable water.
       Shuttles can be arranged with Black Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn, MS, (601) 582-8817, and Red Wolf Wilderness Adventures, (601) 598-2745, near the Janice trailhead.  Remember that cell phone service in this area is spotty.
       Despite the scenery and the unusually hilly terrain, the Wilderness Area and the Red Hills do not seem to be as popular with hikers as other sections of Black Creek Trail, Reams said.  WildSouth, an environmental advocacy group is helping to make the wilderness area more popular.  Beginning in 2012, both seasonal workers and volunteer wilderness rangers, trained by WildSouth have been walking the trail in the Black Creek Wilderness Area educating wilderness visitors, monitoring recreational resources and collecting visitor use data in addition to performing light trail maintenance and picking up litter, according to their website
       The volunteers have the blessing of the US Forest Service and carry US Forest Service radios.  The volunteers are trained in first aid and CPR, the website states.  They also offer assistance on the 21-mile stretch of Black Creek designated a Wild and Scenic River.
     Note:  The only drinking water available near the trail is at Janice Landing, across Black Creek from the Janice trailhead on highway MS 29.  There is no drinking water at the Fairley Bridge Landing a primitive campground at the southeastern terminus of Black Creek Hiking Trail.  Water taken from streams along the trail must be treated, boiled or filtered before consuming


     The USGS topgraphical maps covering this part of the De Soto National Forest are Bond Pond and Barbara.  You can download 1:24000 scale maps for free from   You can order topos printed in full color from the site too. If you download and print, to maintain the 100 percent size of the map you will end up with nine sheets of 8.5" by 11" paper that will need to be carefully cut and taped together.  To make it easier to draw UTM grids download complete maps.  Once on the trail a black and white downloaded topo is much, much better than nothing.  If you are not in a hurry ordering the printed maps might be a good idea and save a little time.
      Maps are also available from the US Forest Service District Office in Wiggins, MS.  Call 601-528-6160 or write De Soto National Forest, P.O. Box 248, 654 West Frontage Road, Wiggins, MS  39577.  There are two: an 8.5 by 11 map of the entire Black Creek Hiking Trail with the distances between trailheads printed on the map and a larger scale map printed on one sheet of 11" by 17" paper, but no trail distances.   The larger map is better at showing the road system making it useful for finding your way for shuttles and to the campgrounds along Black Creek which are also access points for paddlers.  Both maps are free, at least they were free when I picked up mine  at the district office.  Also ask for the De Soto Ranger District Recreation Opportunities booklet which describes the features and facilities of each campground.  And for some scary reading ask for "Alligator Awareness in Mississippi." by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks.  The gator population has exploded in Mississippi and they are everywhere.
     I hear an updated 1:24000 scale map is now in the works.  It may not have as much detail as the much beloved Black Creek topo map dated 1988 and printed on waterproof paper but it will be a welcome addition to the smaller two ink jet generated maps now available.  The new map might be ready by the end of 2014.  Drop a comment to the folks in Wiggins that you want to make sure there are UTM tics in the margins.  Or better yet, maybe a complete UTM grid!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Bike to Work Day in New Orleans set for Tuesday, April 8, 2014

       Scheduled for April 8, Bike to Work Day in New Orleans was postponed one day because wet weather was forecast for the morning of April 8.   It was held the following day, April 9, a day of brisk winds, morning temperatures in the low 60's and brillant blue skies.
         There seemed to be a smaller turnout this year than last year.  Participants gathered on the Camp St. side of Lafayette Square Park around two tents:  One with breakfast of huge fresh muffins and Community coffee and a second tent for recruiting new Bike Easy members, the non-profit bicycle advocacy group holding Bike to Work Day.  Entergy is a major sponsor of Bike to Work Day and Patty Riddlebarger, the Director of Social Responsibility for Entergy Corp. was there chatting up bicycle commuting participants.
       If bicycling to work is on your bucket list, Tuesday, April 8 is the day to make it happen.  After your pedal into the city, join dozens of like-minded bicycle commuters after their ride into town for coffee and breakfast, 8:00am to 9:30am, in Lafayette Square Park in the CBD.  Riders can ride solo or join groups leaving at 7:30am for the ride to the square

Bike to Work Day in New Orleans, 2012
 from about half a dozen neighborhood staging areas in Mid-City, Lakeview, Uptown, the French Quarter and the Marigny.
       The ride is a project of Bike-Easy, a non-profit bicycle advocacy organization.  The event is sponsored by Entergy and is free.  For more information and a map of the neighborhood staging areas visit  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

De Soto NF celebrates passage of the Wilderness Act 50 years ago with hike, creek cleanup and paddle trip through Black Creek Wilderness

      To celebrate the passage of the Wilderness Act 50 years ago, the De Soto National Forest, south of Hattiesburg, MS will hold a Wilderness Challenge Day, April 19, 2014.  Participants will have the opportunity to hike 10.5 miles (or less) through the 5050 acre Black Creek Wilderness or paddle a canoe on Black Creek, a National Scenic River, through the wilderness.  There is also an option to join a cleanup crew to freshen up the banks of Black Creek.

Black Creek as it begins its run
 through the Black Creek Wilderness.

     Registration will be held at the Black Creek Trail's Janice Trailhead on MS 29 near Black Creek.  Registration is free but there will be a charge to rent a canoe for the creek trips.  Everyone is expected to come prepared for a day in the wilderness and provide their own water, food and snacks, rain gear, comfortable shoes, and for those on the paddle trip, a dry bag with extra clothing.
     For more information email  The headquarters for the De Soto National Forest is in Wiggins, MS.  The telephone number is 601.528.6160.
     The National Wilderness Preservation System, created when the Wilderness Act of 1964 was signed into law fifty years ago, provided the legal mechanism for Congress to approve wilderness areas in federally owned lands.  Now, nearly 110 million acres of federally owned land is set aside in 756 wilderness areas--five percent of the total land area of the United States.
       The Black Creek Wilderness was approved by Congress in 1984.  Mississippi has two other federal wilderness areas; the Leaf Wilderness also in the De Soto National Forest and land in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In Louisiana there are also three: Breton Island, the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness and the Lacassine Wilderness.
        "Where man himself is a visitor who does not remain," is a founding principle of establishing wilderness areas.   No motorized or mechanized devices are permitted in wilderness areas including vehicles, motor bikes and as of 1986, no bicycles.  (No bicycles are permitted on Black Creek Trail.)  The absence of human impact in wilderness areas makes them popular with hikers seeking to really get away from it all. The stretch of the Black Creek Recreation Trail running through the wilderness is said to be the most scenic and serene of the 41-mile trail.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Canal St.-Algiers Point ferry service cuts trips, charges $2 fare each way

      For years, taking the ferry from Canal Street (New Orleans, LA) across the Mississippi River to absorb some of the turn-of-the-century small town vibe of Algiers Point, has been a favorite excursion for pedestrians and bicyclists seeking a brief respite from the nonstop partying in New Orleans.
       The free trip across the river offered the best views of the New Orleans city skyline and in summer the often breezy mini-cruise offered a way to beat the tropical heat of a summer's evening.
       The views and the breezes are still there, but drastic cuts in ferry service hours and the establishment of a $2 fare, each way, has changed the way this sublime amusement is appreciated by the cult of the self-propelled.  Gone are the days when, broke and on a whim, you could visit Algiers to sight-see, groove to a festival or compete in quiz night at a cozy Algiers Point bar knowing that unless you stayed way past your bedtime, a ferry would be there to bring you to your home across the Mississippi.
       Now, visiting Algiers as a pedestrian or bicyclist via the ferry requires a willful decision and a working knowledge of the ferry schedule to void being stranded for the night on the wrong shore.
       Here is that all important schedule, from the web site.  During the daily ferry schedule, ferries leave Canal St. every 30 minutes: on the hour and on the half hour.  Ferries leave Algiers Point a quarter (15 minutes) before the hour and a quarter (15 minutes) after the hour.  The trip takes about five minutes.  No food or drink is available on the ferry or at ferry terminals.
     Monday-Thursday:  The first ferry of the day leaves Algiers at 7:15 am.  It arrives at the foot of Canal St and leaves for the return trip to Algiers point at 7:30 am.  The last ferry leaves Algiers at 6:15 pm.  The last ferry leaves Canal St. at 6:30 pm.
     Friday:  The first ferry leaves Algiers at 7:45 am.  The first ferry leaves Canal St at 7:30 am.  The last ferry leaves Algiers 7:45 p.m. and the last ferry leaves Canal St. at 8:00 p.m.
     Saturday: The first ferry leaves Algiers at 10:45 am and the first ferry leaves Canal St. at 11:00 am.  The last ferry leaves Algiers at 7:45 p.m. and the last ferry leaves Canal St. at 8:00 pm.
     Sunday:  The first ferry leaves Algiers at 10:45 am.  The first ferry leaves Canal St. at 11:00 am.  The last ferry leaves Algiers at 5:45 pm and the last ferry leaves Canal St. at 6:00.
       The ferries are fairly reliable but if the river is foggy, they ferries stop running.  Board the ferry by walking your bike to the ferry outside the terminal on the metal grate down to the ferry.  DO NOT RIDE YOUR BIKE ON THE METAL GRATE!
     (Note: Veolia Transportation, the private for-profit company hired by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to run the city's buses and now the pedestrian/bicycle ferry at Canal St. and the car ferry downriver at Chalmette, extended ferry operation hours considerably to accommodate Mardi Gras revellers.  It might do the same for other large events such as the French Quarter Festival and Jazzfest.  Log on to the NORTA site: for the latest schedule changes.)
      In late February of this year, pedestrians, bicyclists and scooter drivers began to pay a $2 fare for a one-way trip.  Have correct change, each way.  Cars are no longer carried on the ferry.  Even though the ferry and the buses and streetcars are now managed by the same agency, bus/streetcar transfers are not valid for ferry trips.  (Because of the narrow passageways on the passenger ferry, no motorcycles are allowed on the ferry; only scooters.)  Pets are OK.
     You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that even with the slightly extended ferry scheduling on Friday and Saturday nights sampling the nightlife of one side of the river if you live on the other and depend on the ferry for transportation is not in the cards.
      But if after a night of too much fun you find yourself stuck on the wrong side of the river after the ferries shut down for the evening, it's not the end of the world.  You can take the bus.  The RTA bus crossing the river to New Orleans from Algiers is the 101 Algiers Loop bus.  The bus stop closest to the ferry landing is at the corner of Verret and Pelican and the last bus leaves at 9:49 pm.  (There is an old abandoned Gulf service station at that corner.) The fare is $1.25.  The trip takes about 30 minutes and arrives at Elk Place and Canal St.
       Each RTA bus has a bicycle rack that holds two bicycles on the front of the bus. First come, first serve. You load the bike yourself. No extra charge for the bike.   Visit the RTA web site at for instructions on how to load your bicycle on the bike rack on the front of the bus.
       The bus stop at the ferry landing is for the 106 Algiers Local.  Do not take this bus.  It does not go to the East Bank and New Orleans.  It just makes loops around Algiers on the West Bank.
      Missed the bus?  Time to call a taxi.  Make sure the taxi service knows you have bicycle you want to bring.  The trip will not be cheap but it will be cheaper than spending the night in a bed and breakfast waiting for ferry service to resume in the morning.  Either way, next time you will pay more attention to when your ship leaves the dock.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Construction on Lafitte Corridor bicycle path (New Orleans) begins

Six shovels at the ready ten minutes before the ceremonial groundbreaking, March 25, 2014, for the Lafitte Corridor bicycle trail.  The paved trail, 12 feet wide, will connect Basin St. at the north border of the French Quarter in New Orleans, with N. Alexander St., near City Park, a distance of 2.6 miles.  The project, which in addition to the path will include playing fields and a large tree planting, will cost $9.1 million.  It is expected to take 11 months to construct.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cane Bayou. Bayou Lacombe: So close, so different.

An early spring paddle on Bayou Lacombe, LA
       Bayous Cane and Lacombe, slack and brown waterways draining the upland pine forests, swamps and vast marshes of Lake Pontchartrain's northshore, can provide paddlers with distinctly different paddling experiences despite flowing only a few miles apart.
       To be sure, both bayous, about an hour's drive north of New Orleans, LA, share classic bayou country touchstones: nearly zero current allowing easy travel up and downstream, bald cypress trees draped with beards of Spanish moss along the muddy, spongy banks, beau coup alligators and an astounding variety of shore birds and neotropical migrating birds, especially in spring.
       But the bayous are different.  Let us start with Bayou Cane, about four miles east of Mandeville, LA.

Bayou Cane

On Bayou Cane paddling to Lake Pontchartrain, winter 2013. 

       Bayou Cane, in St. Tammany Parish, LA, is a popular paddling destination.  Rare is the time you drive to the launch and do not see at least one vehicle festooned with canoe or kayak racks, even on weekdays.
       The trip from the launch at US 190 to Lake Pontchartrain and back is a little less than four miles allowing for plenty of time to just float the dark brown bayou and observe a natural world brimming with life away from the intrusions of suburban life.  The wetlands flanking the bayou are considered to be the last undeveloped large natural area on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
      The free launch is an undeveloped hard sand and shell bank sloping gently to the deeply shaded bayou, about 20 feet bank to bank at this point.  The launch, with room for about 20 cars, is used by those launching a variety of boats from canoes and kayaks to trailered outboard motor boats.  Once on the bayou expect to stay in your boat the entire trip to the lake as the launch is, with very few exceptions, the only easily accessible dry ground on the trip.
          The bayou flows through publicly held refuges.  The right bank is the border of Fountainebleau State Park, the left bank is the border of the 19,000 acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.  No manmade structures can be seen from the bayou except for the large brick house, on high ground to the left, said to have once been the television studios of Cajun humorist, Justin Wilson.  Wilson, born in Tangipahoa Parish, was the star of a cooking show that appeared on public television for 30 years.  He died in 2001.
      The traffic noise of busy US 190 fades as the upland pine forest at the launch quickly yields to a wider bayou and wetter wetlands as paddlers make their way toward the lake. Stay to the left at what appears to be a fork in the bayou just down stream of the bridge. About a mile downstream the hardwood forest disappears and the scenery changes to marsh.  Thick stands of wire grass, and cane, some of it six to eight feet high grows from the silty black muck, crowding the banks.  Small sloughs and waterways cut paths through this tan and green curtain leading away from the bayou's distinct channel.  This is alligator habitat and the chances of seeing one or more of the fearsome reptile are very good, especially if the weather is warm.
       A diversity of habitats along the bayou supports a variety of wildlife.  In the spring and fall wild flowers bloom.  Fur bearers such as mink, otter, raccoon, muskrat, nutria rat and many other non-game species are found here in abundance.
        In a tall solitary dead tree in a open area halfway between the lake and the launch, a large osprey nest rests.  Brown pelicans, the state bird, can be seen in winter.  The ridges and swamps on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain offer one of the first significant landfall habitats for neotropical migratory birds after their trans-Gulf of Mexico migrations.
       Upon reaching Lake Pontchartrain paddlers have two choices.  On days the winds are light and the lake is calm, paddlers can explore east and west along the lake's shore where a seemingly endless marsh grows right to the water's edge.  Go far enough in either direction and you might find a sliver of sandy beach on which to have a picnic lunch.
       At the entrance to Bayou Cane from the lake, the shallow lake bottom is covered by a large grass bed of eelgrass, wigeon grass and spike rush.   These fragile underwater grass beds provide a home for animal life while helping to purify the lake's waters.  The lake's shallow bottom tapers very, very gently away from the grassy north shore, the water in the lake only hip deep 50 yards from shore. 
       (Pollution in the lake is much less of an issue than it was 20 years ago when shell dredging in the lake kept the shallow waters constantly murky, smothering benthic flora and fauna.  Now, bacterial pollution from communities draining into the lake is the biggest risk to recreational users of the lake.)
        The launch is adjacent to the south side of highway US 190 east of Mandeville.  There is no sign on the highway.   The speed limit on this stretch is 55 mph and you must slow considerably to make the right turn off the highway onto the sand, dirt and shell launch area.  The turn is about four-tenths of a mile east of the blinking yellow light at the main entrance to Fountainebleau S.P.  Your landmark is a fire station almost across the highway on the left (when driving east) from the right turn into the launch parking lot.  If you cross the bridge you have driver too far.
       What about paddling upstream of the launch going under the US190 bridge?  Well, shortly after loosing sight of the launch, a series of downed trees block progress up stream.

Bayou Lacombe

       The launch for Bayou Lacombe, five miles to the east of Bayou Cane, is the public boat ramp where Main St. in Lacombe deadends at the bayou. Here the bayou is broad, at least 50 yards to the far bank. Kayak fisherman often launch here and head downstream to Lake Pontchartrain or look for deep fishing holes between the lake and the launch.  Redfish, speckled trout, largemouth bass, catfish and bream are among the fishes found in the bayou, USFWS brochures say.
        Paddlers with a mind for nature study and contemplation are encouraged to head upstream. The first two miles affords views of large wooded waterfront lots on high ground with manicured backyards sloping down to wooden decks where big boats are docked. Shortly after passing under the US 190 highway bridge the bayou becomes the western border of the headquarters of the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Bayou Lacombe Center and Visitor Center and Gardens, aka the Bayou Lacombe Center and the scenery becomes a bit wilder.
        Here the bayou winds and splits, flowing through a series oxbows and bottomland hardwood hummocks. You are out of sight of manmade structures giving the small area the feeling of a remote wilderness despite being only yards away from suburban intrusions.  Have no worries about becoming lost here: all the waterways are short and eventually reconnect with the main channel.
       Less than a mile upriver of the US 190 bridge, look for the small sand beach (there is only one sand beach on the bayou) east off the bayou's main channel.  Pull up on the sand and take the quarter mile walk up to the refuge visitor center.  The USFWS bought the Holy Redeemer seminary campus a few years back, turning the former chapel into a visitor center featuring wildlife dioramas, interactive displays and exhibits exploring the wetland ecosystems and wildlife of the eight USFWS refuges administered from the Lacombe headquarters.  The museum is run by volunteers and is open Thursday-Saturday, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.  Admission is free and there is also a bookstore and gift shop.
       At the large campus you can stretch your legs on a self-guided hike of up to two miles on the walkways and trails through formal camellia gardens, native forests and wetland areas.  Bug repellent is recommended year around.  The trails are open Monday-Saturday, 7:00 am-4:00 pm.
       Once back in the boat, how far you paddle upstream from here depends a lot on your stamina.  The current is almost nil from the launch to the USFWS headquarters (unless it has rained heavily recently). But the downstream current gradually gains momentum as the bayou becomes narrow and more creek-like up stream.  About four miles upstream of the launch the current is not rippin' but even kayak paddlers will have to work their stroke to keep their forward speed up against the opposing flow. 
      Refuge property does not extend much up stream from the headquarters.  Yet long stretches of the bayou remains in a wild state as it is too swampy to build on.  Intrusive housing stock is rare and most of the shore is a mix of pine uplands and bottomland hardwood hummocks reflecting into the mirror-still dark brown bayou.  Outside the USFWS holdings, and a couple of state and federal facilities barring public access, all the land is privately leaving no place to step out of a canoe or kayak.  Even if landing was permitted it would be hard to do as most of the bank is low and swampy with thick vegetation.
       Paddlers will find plenty of water in the channel all the way to the I-12 highway bridge but the way might be blocked by trees that have fallen across the channel.
       Lots of bird life can be seen from a paddle craft if you are quiet.  There are, of course alligators and lots of them if the weather is warm.  In summer banana spiders spin their webs across the waterway high above paddlers on the dark water's surface.  Summer also brings increased motorized boat traffic to the bayou but much of it is in a No Wake zone and locals claim this is enough to keep things civil.

For more information:
Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Bayou Lacombe Center Visitor Center and Gardens, 61389 Highway 434, Lacombe, LA 70445.  Telephone 985/882-0093 or 985/882-2000.  On the web find them at

Paddling Through Time: How humans have interacted with and changed the land over time along Cane Bayou.  A canoe excursion on Bayou Cane led by the Friends of the Southeast Louisiana Refuges and held to raise money to buy more canoes and hire interpretative staff.  Registration is only by mail or in person when the visitor center is open.  You HAVE to preregister for each trip.  See calendar of events at the Big Branch Marsh web site for important details.  But if you are just thinking about going here is an overview.  Only two more excursions this spring: April 19 and May 31, both Saturdays.  Trips will start up again in November. Each paddler pays $10 and that includes the canoe, paddles and PFD.  You bring your own water, snacks, rain gear and bug repellent.  Trips begin at 9:00 am and last for two or three hours.  The trips are geared for adults but if you want to bring a kid, contact the Friends.  Don't just show up with a child.

For kayak rentals:
Bayou Adventure, 27725 Main St., Lacombe, LA. 70445, at Lake Rd. (LA 434)  Phone 985-882-9208.  Kayaks rent for $35.  Free delivery to Main St. boat launch in Lacombe.  Delivery charge to Cane Bayou is $10.