Paddling off the Edge of the Big Easy

Photograph of white ibis

It's midmorning at midweek and fleets of 18-wheelers growl down Interstate 55 heading for Pass Manchac. Exhaust pipes leave plumes of black smoke above the concrete combat zone leading to New Orleans. Truckers jockey with salesmen, students, and shoppers as the wheels of commerce send a steady rumble into a crystal-clear day.

Chris Brown, Melanie Clary, and I don't notice. A wall of cypress and tupelo blocks the interstate from our view, and what noise filters through—past the curtains of Spanish moss, past their canoe, and past my dugout pirogue (a Cajun trapper's boat)—make's no impression. We're already in the grip of sensory overload: The leaves of swamp maple flutter like red flags in the cool autumn breeze; the crowns of cypress glow deep rust above flowing moss beards; a family of yellow-crowned night herons perches on a snag; willows rain golden leaves on tea-colored water. Three mallards circle overhead, wondering if the open water amid the hyacinths is a safe landing spot—despite the ten-foot-long alligator who suns on a nearby cypress log.

"It's so pleasant back here," says Brown, a local dentist enjoying a swamp outing with his wife and me. "It's so wild, so beautiful, you'd think you were a thousand miles from the city."

But we aren't.

A mere 20-minute drive from that 10-foot gator, throngs of tourists crowd into the French Quarter. They line up for lunch at Paul Prudhomme's restaurant, attack platters of boiled crayfish and stacks of raw oysters in the seafood houses, and nurse hangovers proudly earned the night before in jazz clubs from Bourbon Street to the Faubourg Marigny. Yet if these same fun-seekers actually thought about traveling more than a half hour in any one direction, they might slip out of the twentieth century and into a world that would be quite recognizable to the French and Spanish explorers who first traveled this landscape some 400 years ago.

That's what my friends Chris and Melanie choose to do with me for recreation, any time the mood strikes. For New Orleans residents like ourselves, the neighboring wetlands form an exotic and sprawling backyard. We don't have to travel very far to launch their canoe or my traditional-style pirogue into an ancient, watery world.

One of the easiest options for a nearby paddle is the one I've just described: Shell Bank Bayou near the Bayou LaBranche Wetlands. Shell Bank runs between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain and is accessible from Interstate 55, just 20 minutes from the city. To go for a day paddle is effortless and one of the best ways to experience this landscape like a local— or even like the area's first settlers.

The wondrous irony is that the Big Easy—America's unrepentant citadel of hedonism—may be closer to nature than any metropolis on the continent. You'll find more Birkenstocks and Earth Day T-shirts in one square block of Seattle or San Francisco than in the entire French Quarter, but when it comes to trading concrete, steel, and traffic jams for habitat where fur, scales, and feathers rule, you can't make a faster exchange than in the New Orleans area.

That's because the city was started on a small speck of land deep in the delta of North America's greatest river. It was surrounded by a vast wetland wilderness, the largest of its kind on the continent. The big river flowed through lands dominated by expansive cypress swamps, freshwater marshes with acres of waving cane fields, and salt marshes whose knee-high wire grass ran for distances that reminded explorers of the northern prairies.

Travel was strictly by boat—down winding bayous with water as dark as molasses, across lakes and bays, and along the many fingers of a mighty river reaching across the delta.

New Orleans' growth was naturally limited. No matter which direction the developers turned, they soon ran into water. The result: a modern city with a visible edge between civilization and wilderness.

Cities thriving in America's West swoop up and over the mountains that surround them, or gobble expanses of desert at their feet. Midwestern towns eat at the prairie. But New Orleans kept coming up against insurmountable problems: a lake, rivers, bayous, marshes, swamps. When the concrete no longer floated, city builders constructed a levee to keep the storm tides out, then turned in another direction.

Walk atop one of the levees, and you get to see this edge. On one side your eyes will fall on houses, shopping malls, or jazz clubs. On the other you'll see marsh, swamp, bayou, or lake, all arrayed in scenes that might have greeted Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle in the 1860s when he paddled his birchbark canoe on his first voyage through this area.

Out here, the roar of Mardi Gras fades into the quiet of finger lakes hidden by deep hardwood wetlands. Traces of ancient waterways once paddled by natives are now graced by sentinel oaks and magnolias. There are countless bayous and trenaises (trapper's ditches) winding through tall green marshes hedged by saw grass and bull tongue that's eight feet high. The 23,000-acre Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, located within city limits, is the winter retreat for about 50,000 ducks. It's also the permanent home for deer, mink, otters, alligators, egrets, herons, pelicans, and eagles. And only 20 minutes from Bourbon Street is a Jean Lafitte National Preserve, a national park facility where thousand-year-old cypress preside in cathedral silence over fields of wild iris. The land remains little changed from the days when pirate Jean Lafitte called it home.

None of this is the result of wise urban planning. The wetlands survived because for generations New Orleans' city fathers didn't have the technology to conquer them. By the time they got the know-how, federal laws protected what was left.

But it has suffered. A tour of the surviving wetlands shows just how hard life has been for delta habitats. In its rabid thirst for oil money, the state allowed the dredging of more than 20,000 miles of canals through priceless coastal marshes and swamps. This opened the door to ruinous saltwater invasions from the Gulf of Mexico. In order to build a city where none should stand, levees were raised that today carry a death sentence for the wetlands outside the mud walls. The result: Louisiana's coast washes away at the rate of 35 square miles a year.

It's a catastrophe of historic proportions for North America, one with abysmal consequences for fish, wildlife resources, and people.

Some scientists even think New Orleans should immediately look for a new site for itself, planning ahead for the day when the Gulf eats the last of the wetlands and pounds on the levees of the French Quarter.

Most citizens of the Big Easy wonder what all the hurry and worry is about. They plan to think about the looming catastrophe right after Mardi Gras. Or perhaps after the Jazz, or the Spring Fiesta, or the French Quarter Fest. In the meantime, the city clings to its anthem: Laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll)!

For outdoors people, a good time is as simple as a walk out the front door and across a levee. The edge allows a quick escape. Although the increase in oil and gas exploration left a land littered with abandoned wells, pipe fields, storage tanks, and barges, nature lovers can find daisies among the shrapnel.

Lafitte National Historical Park is a favorite of lifelong residents such as myself. On another voyage, on a spring day, I go paddling with a naturalist, and we stop to have lunch. The spontaneous scene belongs on a calendar photo. Our two canoes rest on a yard-wide ribbon of water dotted with white water lilies. On either Bide, miles of shoulder-high bull tongue reach to the horizon. That sea of green is shattered only by violet islands of iris. Snakes slither. Alligators sun. Cranes, herons, ibis, and ducks call from countless hidden potholes.

We could be marooned in the emerald depths of the Amazon. Yet one look at the northern horizon dispels that fantasy: The New Orleans skyline, equipped with the great white eggshell of the Superdome, looks down upon us. There's no denying it; we are only in the Barataria Unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, in Marrero, a bedroom suburb of New Orleans that's just seven miles from the city's heart.

"People who live five miles from our gate don't even know this park exists," says ranger Bruce Barnes as he peels an orange. Barnes, like the city. has two personalities. When he's not in a ranger's uniform, he's the star of Sun Pie and the Sun Spots, a top Zydeco band, rocking audiences across Europe and the States.

This park protects 11,000 acres of freshwater wetlands on the north end of the giant Barataria Bay estuary. It also preserves the remnants of a cypress wilderness that was the home of Jean Lafitte, a hero of the battle of New Orleans.

Subdivisions of Marrero push against the park borders, but beyond the levees protecting these homes, the world changes dramatically, peeling back 200 years of history.

Most park visitors just take one of the elevated walkways through the swamps, near the visitor center on State Highway 45. The walkways can offer a glimpse of a bottomland hardwood swamp, but it's like trying to see the Grand Canyon without leaving the rim.

"Seventy-five percent of the park is accessible only by water," says ranger David Muth."You've really got to get on the water to experience the landscape. You can spend a few hours or a few days on the canoe trails—and you'll never forget it."

The trail system has three components: bayous, trenaises, and canals. Until the levees were built, natural bayous such as Des Familles and Coquille distributed flow from the Mississippi River. Formerly used by Lafitte to ferry contraband from a base in Barataria Bay, they are now quiet old riverbeds, their banks crowded with ancient cypress, live oak, and magnolia. Curtains of moss hang to the water.

Trenaises meander through floating marshes called floatants. They were originally hand-dug ditches that were wide enough for a pirogue, but trenaises today can be five yards wide. Since shallow water quickly collects vegetation during a long, warm growing season, plastic poles mark trenaise routes to help guide modern-day explorers.

Canals are part of the water traffic system in Jean Lafitte. Some, like Kenta, were dug a century ago, when cypress loggers took trees from this area. Others, such as Tarpaper, were dredged in the last 50 years so oil workers could suck petroleum from under the marshes. Their dredged mud was piled beside the canals, forming levees that soon sprouted hardwoods and shrubs.

Ranger Barnes has planned a route for us that will reveal each type of habitat and watercourse. Yet the choices of where we can go aren't entirely his. "The water levels affect the route," he says. "Everything we do here is controlled by the tides."

Today the water level is below normal, so old bayous will be too shallow to navigate. Barnes' route combines canals and trenaises, and our put-in is at Twin Canals.

Clouds of green duckweed coat the water. Spoil banks host thick hardwoods. An ichthyologist, Barnes never goes anywhere without a fish-sampling net. He pauses every third or fourth stroke to see what's under the surface.

"You won't find water anywhere that has more life in it," he says. "There's so much in these wetlands, it's hard to imagine."

Soon, we are immersed. Small alligators watch our progress from moss beds; others swim several yards ahead. Turtles sun on logs, bream slap at dragonflies, and a great blue heron swoops across the canal and vanishes into a cypress-tupelo swamp behind the spoil levee.

In one mile, we come to a break in the levee that marks the trenaise system's entrance. The bull tongue covers the open marsh for miles, waving in the stiff breeze like broad-leaved wheat.

"A week ago, the bull tongue was a few inches high," Barnes says. "A month ago, it didn't exist—this marsh was just flat and wide open. One month from now, the bull tongue will be six feet tall."

A floatant is built by bull tongue, hyacinths, and other plants. Each winter the greenery dies, leaving brown husks on the water. After many years, a layer of detritus forms and compacts its own weight into a mat several inches or feet thick. The mat becomes a floating marsh as the delta underneath it slowly subsides.

Stepping onto a floatant is like walking on jelly: The surface rolls in small waves under each footfall. Barnes leads us across, carefully probing with a stick for holes—a swamper's equivalent of a crevasse.

"Make the wrong move, and you can sink up to your hips," he says.

"If you fall through, you can sink in over your head."

As the trenaise system snakes across a floatant, a paddler gets an alligator's-eye view of this world. Bull tongue, already shoulder high, crowds in on both sides. Stands of wild iris swim above the green tongues. White water lilies grace ponds. Small waterways cut tunnels through groves of wax myrtle dotted with birds' nests. Small fish scurry ahead, gators slither away, snakes watch from the sidelines.

Sometimes the path is blocked by the "living land." Chunks of floatants, moving like green icebergs, break off and drift down the waterway.

"I'm amazed at how fast things change," Barnes says, as he tries to push a piece of floatant out of the trenaise. On the horizon, the New Orleans skyline catches the glow of the evening sun. The ranger looks at the buildings, and smiles. "It's a short distance from here to downtown. But it's another world away."

© Article copyright Foghorn Press. All rights reserved. Locator Map © All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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