Monday, February 29, 2016
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Given the name Jourdan River Blueway Trail, the five and a half mile stretch passes through the eastern portion of a 125,000 acre acoustical buffer surrounding the NASA rocket engine testing site at the Stennis Space Center. The land flanking the stream is undeveloped, the result of an agreement between landowners and NASA in the 1960s when the space center was established. Those with land within the buffer zone were allowed to retain ownership of the land with with the promise no permanent structures would be built and no camping would be allowed in it.
For the first several miles upriver of the park the Jourdan R. is a estuary of Mississippi Sound. It is broad and there is no current. Several oxbow lakes connect to the river affording paddlers a chance to just drift in this haven for birds and wildlife.
There are small signs, in half-mile increments, marking the mileage along the stream. Mile 0 is at the confluence of Bayou Bacon and the slightly larger Catahoula Creek. McLeod Park is about mile 5.5. The markings continue to Bayou Talla, about 2.5 miles downriver from the park.
The Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain, www.ltmcp.org, a private conservation group promoting the Jourdan River and several other coastal streams as "blueways" warns in their brochure and map of the Jourdan that the "Jourdan River below McLeod Park is a popular area for high-speed water sports, so remain aware!"
Paddlers on this winter trip saw only one boat. The trip ended up a round trip of about 6.5 miles, the group turning around about where the stream narrows and the slight current begins. From where the group made their turn around the river becomes creek-like and the current increases. It is not strong but it will require about 30-45 minutes of steady paddling by a paddler using a double bladed paddle to make it to the confluence.
Saturday's trip took a little less than four hours and that included a break to snack and recover after one SOT kayak capsized in water waist deep. The unintended dunking was quickly taken care of. After the paddler changed into the dry clothes he had in a dry bag the group continued upstream. There were no other incidents after that.
This was the first-time many of the paddlers on the trip had visited the Jourdan River despite the river being almost in their backyard. (Two paddlers drove from Baton Rouge for the trip.) Paddling the Jourdan River is one of the best kept paddling secrets in the area but if the praise this group had for the trip goes into wide circulation the river won't be a secret much longer.
After the trip members of the group recharged with a delicious meal at the Dockside, 6061 Texas Flat Rd.,(228-344-3247) just off MS 43 and on the way to and from the McLeod Park. Famous for dozens and dozens of snowball flavors the eatery also serves hotdogs, burgers fried seafood sandwiches, poboys and plate lunches in a small dining room or to be enjoyed on tables outside, all at very reasonable prices. Beginning March the restaurant which serves lunch and dinner, will be open seven days a week.
McLeod Park is a large park with both developed and primitive camping. There are ball fields and pavilions too. There is a $2 charge per vehicle to enter the park and no alcohol is permitted. The park can become quite busy when the weather is warm enough for swimming. Contact the park at (228) 467-1894.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Around the turn of the 20th century, when Americans took their first steps to preserve some of the wild and spectacular public lands at their disposal, camping in those lands became all the rage. From crowded, dirty and polluted cities, throngs of greenhorns, taking advantage of the newly invented "weekend" to escape the drudgery of office or factory work, streamed into new and vast public wilderness parks to camp, canoe, hike and ride horseback breathing fresh air under bright blue skies.
This was the Golden Age of Camping, roughly the years between 1880 and 1930, a time when some say more Americans went camping than at any other time before or since. In a time years before synthetic fabrics such as polyester and waterproof coatings such as GoreTex would make clothing and tents warmer, more waterproof and comfy than ever dreamed of, early sourdoughs did quite well battling the elements using the natural fibers available to them; cotton for tents and wool, skins and fur for clothing. The practice of woodcraft--skill and experience relating to matters in the woods--often satisfied the need for food, shelter, water and warmth, when store bought gear fell short.
First-person tales of adventure found exploring the mountains and great forests of North America, and told by experts of the time--George Washington Sears aka "Nessmuk", Daniel Carter Beard, Frank H. Cheley, Warren H. Miller and Ernest Hemingway-- inflamed imaginations of the city-bound with stories of a trackless wilderness just over the horizon. Hundreds of how-to and where-to-go guide books were published. There were columns in magazines; newspapers carried advice on the latest gear, news of newly opening public lands.
Urbanites in newly electrified cities with indoor plumbing read about the right way to cook over an open fire, to strip the lower branches of a small tree to make a mattress (bough bed) and how and where to pitch a tent. No one wanted to look like a "chump" when making camp.
Upper and middle class urbanites in the Gilded Age formed the vanguard of these woods worshipers. Taking trains (there were few roads and fewer reliable vehicles) then hiring guides, gear and pack animals at their destination the urban upper crust explored the pristine mountains and valleys of recently established national parks in Montana, New York, Vermont and California. Later the working class hit the road in their Ford Model Ts, stuffed with canvas duffle bags of wool clothing, blankets and cotton tents.
But as new technologies brought about new, lighter, stronger, warmer and drier clothing and gear, the old ways faded from use.
Bringing the old ways backThe publication of David Wescott's "Camping in the Old Style" in 2000 marked the beginning of the classic camping revival in America. Wescott is a camping in the classic style evangelical, with little use for modern day fabrics and gear. At times inferring that clothing and gear made from modern materials is "wonder-junk," Wescott proclaims that while replacing wool and cotton with synthetics is convenient, the knowledge required from working with nature rather than against it is lost.
"The pioneers knew their clothing and how to dress--they survived for hundreds of years with fur, hide. and natural fibers. We wouldn't be here now if it didn't work," he scolds.
Wescott has updated his book for 2015, expanding it, including new pictures of the gear and techniques he advocates, revising some text. It is published by Gibbs/Smith. The book is mostly a cut-and paste-collection of excerpts gleaned from Wescott's library of more than 400 books written by outdoor writers of the time. When Wescott has something to say, his contribution is set in sans serif type to separate it from the quoted passages from writers of the past.
The book is richly illustrated with black and white photographs of turn-of-the-century campers in action and drawings of techniques and gear used by them. Augmenting this historical record is contemporary color photography of modern day re-encampments with participants in full period costume. It is annoying that few of the illustrations, old or new, have cut lines (descriptions).
Excerpts from seminal guide books in Wescott's library not only detail what gear was used and how, turn of the century outdoor writers were lavish in their encouragement to city dwellers to answer the siren's call and head to the outdoors to explore it. Leaving fetid cities packed with humanity behind, to live close to nature, breathing clean, fresh air, even if only for a weekend, is described as, "the best vacation an over-civilized man can have," (1917).
Some worried this might be the last chance to even see their country's spectacular natural heritage. The 1890 census confirmed that the American frontier no longer existed. There was concern to see it now before it's gone; gobbled up by rampaging industrialization.
Some "outers" (experts) expressed surprisingly modern day concerns about what and how to pack. Cutting down on "duffle" was a constant theme. One turn of the century sage admonished city slickers "not to carry something 400 miles they were only going to use once," or "...it is well to guard against taking a lot of stuff that is likely to prove more weight than worth," (Nessmuk, 1884). Weight is the issue for another sourdough who advises: "...an article must pay in convenience or comfort for the trouble of its transportation."
Modern day "weight weenies" will be horrified to read one of the first backpacking tents weighed 23 pounds. It was used in a 1864 solo attempt to summit the Matterhorn (14,692 feet) in the Pennine Alps (Europe). Not all golden age of camping gear was heavy. A tent made with Egyptian (long staple) cotton could be half that weight.
Camping in the Old Style or "Glamping?"While the urge to explore America's newly accessible wilderness areas was strong, the urge to do it comfortably and with style was apparently stronger. Excerpts from books written over a century ago, emphasize the genteel nature of camp life in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. For his part, Wescott includes many contemporary color photographs of camp scenes showing spotless tan tents furnished with polished wood bureaus, folding director chairs and tables, all sporting shiny brass corners. Heat for the drafty open tents came from iron stoves. Many campers from that era would be quite at home with a group of contemporary "glampers," those who combine the glamor and comforts of a hotel with camping. Much of the appeal of camping in the old style appears not to come from camping but from spending the time learning how to recreate the gear used a century ago and keeping it clean and polished.
Fashion was every bit a part of the camping scene, just as it is today. Bandanas, men and women wore some really big bandanas, were ironed after they were washed. Ladies tending to the cooking over an open fire wore starched white aprons over ankle-length skirts topped with billowy blouses with mutton sleeves, at least in the color photographs. Men and women both wore broad-brimmed Smokey the Bear hats or straw boaters. Some of the men are wearing ties.
Wescott is passionate about old style camping and wants you to be too. Taking a page from a 1910 guide to youth camping, Wescott challenges today's tenderfoots (of any age) to become "Master Woodsmen." There are four grades beginning with the least experienced, Apprentice Camper. Learning additional woodcraft skills will move a camper through the rankings of Journeyman Camper, Journeyman Woodsman then Master Woodsman. Those serious about it are encouraged to have a mentor. The subjects are Firecraft, Cookcraft, Toolcraft, Ropecraft, Campcraft (Shelter and Bedding is separate from Campsite Campcraft and Gear and Clothing Campcraft) and three Fieldcrafts: Health and Safety, Navigation and Travel and Nature and Conservation.
There are numerous inspirational quotes about how important a camping vacation, no matter how brief, is to restoring the soul. "Camping has two purposes," writes Frank H. Cheley in "Camping Out: A Handbook for Boys," 1933. "To make us acquainted with our own souls: and to renew our acquaintance with each other. To camp badly is to frustrate both."
Then there is the snarky comment by George Washington Sears, "Nessmuk" in 1884: "Nearly all busy, hard-worked Americans have an intuitive sense of the need that exists for at least one period of rest and relaxation during each year, and all--or nearly all--are willing to pay liberally, too liberally in fact, for anything that conduces to rest, recreation and sport."
Answering the call of the wild a century ago was not easy. There were few trails and even fewer marked trails even at popular outdoor destinations. Maps were poor and roads were often unsigned gravel or dirt tracts. Anything you did not bring with you, you went without as there were no stores for miles. This meant that even first-timers had to know what they were doing to avoid an unpleasant experience.
The book is crammed with the outdoor lore of that age, a time when, for the first time in North America, camping became a recreation and not what you had to do because there was nowhere else to stay. Today's camping dudes will be both entertained and enlightened by solutions early campers found to many camp situations faced by modern day "Nessmuks". Advice on campsite selection, building a campfire, why to chose an ax over a hatchet (the longer handle of the ax makes it more safe) and how to whittle will ad enjoyment to any outdoor camping trip.
Natural fibers, such as cotton in the construction of tent walls, floors and flys and wool used to make warm, water and wind resistant clothing, are carefully considered. There are more tent designs than you can shake a tent stake at, once again proving there is nothing new under the sun.
This is not an academic history of turn of the century camping practices in America. There is a lot of "how-to" here. But the emphasis is uneven. Cotton tents receive a great amount of attention. Coleman products, lanterns and stoves were developed during this time, but are hardly mentioned. Canoe camping, in canvas covered wooden hulls toting woven pack baskets, gets a lengthy treatment. I don't remember seeing LL Bean mentioned in the text. The focus is on style and recreating the period in intricate detail. There is little social context in the book.
There is a primer on natural fibers and fabrics and a list of slang names for beginners: tyros, cheechakos, sagebrushers, dudes, duffers, crusters or sports. Nimrods are hunters. To finance cross-country hikes, "road tramping gypsies" would carry and sell postcards of themselves to curious fans they met on the road and in towns.
The book falls short of being politically correct measured by today's standards. Most of the contemporary women pictured are either shown cooking or modeling camping costumes. Excerpts from women writers are few though a few of the historic black and white photographs show women hunting or fishing.
This book is available from the Jefferson Parish Library, though expect it to show up on the remainder rack at Barnes and Noble before too long if you are willing to wait.
Friday, December 11, 2015
|Paddlers admire a bit of fall color on the banks of Bayou Lacombe in late November 2015|
Scenes of fall color such as this, a solitary tree or two, their leaves aflame with the bright colors of fall, are not uncommon in southeast Louisiana. But sometimes it is a surprise to see them. Colorful fall displays of bright reds, oranges and yellow leaves are more commonly associated with colder climates and rolling hills than with warm and flat southeast Louisiana. Here, most deciduous trees--those trees that lose their leaves at the end of the growing season--produce leaves that just turn brown and fall.
The balmy late November day the paddlers were on Bayou Lacombe revealed a smattering of colorful exceptions. The group launched at the Main St. boat launch in "downtown" Lacombe and were about a mile and a half upstream, at the edge of the Big Branch Marsh NWR when red and yellow leaves were was first noticed floating on the surface of the dark stream.
"The red leaves were most probably from the red maples, one of the few native trees to produce the bright red you saw," refuge manager Daniel Breaux said later in a telephone interview. "Or they could have come from the Chinese Tallow tree, an invasive tree species with leaves that turn red or yellow this time of year."
The soil determines where a tree grows. The torpid bayou is flanked mostly by pine flat woods; sandy soil, well drained and elevated, a favorite soil for growing pine trees. But deciduous trees prefer a more moist soil to grow in. This is why fall color in the trees in southeast Louisiana is most likely to be found in swampy wetlands, bottomland hardwood forests and near the banks of streams and bayous such as Bayou Lacombe.
Other trees along the Gulf Coast also signal the season is changing. The star-shaped sweetgum leaf can turn red or yellow in autumn. The American elm, a tree that can grow as tall as a ten-story building. can produce bright yellow leaves in autumn.
The American Holly is often seen in northshore forests. Its bright green leaves and deep red berries are popular additions to holiday decorations and table centerpieces.
Evergreen trees have green leaves year around, hence the name "evergreen". Most evergreens here are pines, their leaves are needle shaped. But a few evergreen trees here have broad flat leaves which stay green through the fall and winter. Live oak trees and southern magnolia trees are two of the best known examples of broadleaf evergreens down South.
The opposite is also true. Baldcypress trees have needle leaves but the tree is not an evergreen; each fall their needles turn a rust color and drop leaving the baldcypress branches bare. A pine tree with brown needles is thought to be dying and it probably is. But a baldcypress, its branches covered with brown needles that are soon to be shed leaving bare branches is just going through its life cycle and will grow new bright green needles in spring.
Fountainebleau State Park Nature Trail Guide, revised by Rita McMurray, park naturalist, Fountainebleau State Park, Mandeville, LA., 12/99.
Rent a kayak from Bayou Adventure, 985-882-2908, to explore the bayou yourself. The business, which also caters to fishermen, will deliver and pick up your rented kayak from the Main St. launch for no additional charge.
While paddling the bayou, take time to come ashore at the headquarters facility for the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex. From the 110 acre site, eight refuges in southeast Louisiana are managed. There is also a visitor center in a building that was once a chapel. Inside is a wonderful museum with dioramas and interactive displays. There is a gift shop too. Paddle about a mile and a half upstream of the Main St. launch, look on river left for a mowed lawn sloping down to a narrow sand beach and dock. Beach is hidden by hardwood hammocks so poke around to find it. There is no sign. Walk up the rise and continue past the law enforcement office about a quarter of a mile on a blacktop road to the visitor center. Volunteers operate the museum and gift shop so call 985-882-2000 for hours and days of operation.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
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 plannedExcept 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.
Launching into historyBefore 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
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 cardFor 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?